“Excuse me,” I heard from a voice behind, barely audible beneath the din of the bass. I was in a tightly packed bar - and was about to accommodate the seemingly polite request - when I felt hands on my waist. Swiftly, they travelled upwards, grabbing my boobs. In an instant I spun around, pushing the stranger away in the process. My sharp, “What do you think you’re doing?” was met bluntly with words that stung. “Don’t wear a top like that if you don’t want me to say something,” he told me, all the while holding eye contact with my chest rather than my face.
I wish I hadn’t, but my automatic response was to look down at the top I’d worn and pull it up, in an attempt to conceal my cleavage. It didn’t work, and while I eventually managed to get on with my night, a sense of something indescribable lingered. Embarrassment? Perhaps. Disgust? Definitely, but at what - the man in question, his comment, or myself – I wasn’t quite sure.
That experience is part of a depressing story collection I - and so many others - can reel off without a second thought. Last week, a survey by UN Women UK found that almost all young women in the UK have been sexually harassed. The World Health Organisation recently conducted another study which found similarly concerning statistics: one in three women globally have been subjected to physical or sexual violence in their lifetimes, which is a total of around 736 million women. Upon hearing these stark statistics, many women - myself included - are disappointed, but not surprised. While there’s a collective loathing of cat-calling and sexual harassment, many internalised insecurities are born out of such interactions. You see, when your body is viewed by predatory men as both an object to desire and a weapon to harm you with, the effect can be universally damaging to body confidence.
In a world permeated by men in vans shouting “nice rack,” and unfamiliar eyes lingering on my chest, I quickly began to see my boobs as a nuisance. They were the reason for unwanted harassment and, for a long time, they made me terrified of wearing V-neck tops. I felt somehow ashamed of the two protrusions from my chest, despite the fact I had no control whatsoever over this aspect of my body. And it seems I’m far from the only one. Farah Benis, founder of Catcalls of London, explains, “street harassment can have an overwhelming impact on self-confidence.” 60% of submissions to the Catcalls account (more than 10,000 over the past three years) have included a reference to body, clothing, or appearance. “Many of the women and girls report that they have chosen not to wear specific outfits again, or blame themselves for the comments received,” Benis adds.
I’ve had big boobs for most of my life and, as a teen, getting measured filled me with dread. Each time a larger bra size was relayed by the fitter, a part of me grew sadder. Not only because it meant I needed increasingly structured bras to hold my breasts in place – a far cry from the daintier undergarments I wanted to wear – but because it felt like a further guarantee that older men would persist in fixating on them and ogling at me in public, forcing my younger self to feel deeply uncomfortable.
This feeling of disgrace can be common among bigger-breasted women - especially from a young age - says Laura Bates of the Everyday Sexism Project. “Women with larger breasts often report attaching shame, embarrassment and hatred to them because of the unwanted sexual attention from men,” she tells me. In a society that repeatedly polices women’s bodies, Laura says that it “ingrains the message from a young age that it is women's bodies, not perpetrator's actions, that are responsible for sexual abuse. And this can be understandably internalised by girls who are taught to be ashamed of their body and to blame it for harassment, when in reality the only person to blame is the perpetrator."
At times, it felt like my boobs betrayed me when I was just trying to exist peacefully. It was only through working in a female-focused lingerie department that my confidence began to grow; spending time in an environment where I helped instil self-esteem in customers meant that rather than seeing my boobs as objects of shame, I began to celebrate them. Part of that included buying nice, inclusive bras - and while buying underwear wasn’t the magic key to ‘getting over’ harassment, it did lead me to re-establish the relationship I had with my body. I became eager to wear what I wanted on the outside, too. And although I knew that, as a woman, harassment was something I’d unfortunately continue to experience, I was determined not to hide myself away because of the way others behaved.
While I eventually managed to arrive at a place of assurance - deciding to embrace my body instead of hiding it in fear of being objectified by men - for some people this is a harder conclusion to reach. “I’ve spent the last year exercising almost religiously trying to lose excess weight and reduce my bust,” 24-year-old Estera tells me. A child molestation survivor, Estera has always “been hyper-aware of how sexualised we are and the looks, stares, comments from random men.” At school, she remembers loving sports but ultimately growing to hate them due to “boys always sniggering and whispering about my boobs bouncing up and down when I ran.” The male gaze continues to affect Estera as a woman, too, now manifesting in her clothing choices. “I wear baggy clothes and make a conscious effort to hide how big my 32E boobs actually are,” she says. “I dread summer because I’ll have less layers to depend on to hide them.”
Many women who feel similarly to Estera go on to seek out permanent solutions in reaction to the way they’re objectified in society. In 2019, there were almost 4.2 thousand breast reduction surgeries performed in the UK, with reasons varying from backache, to shoulder pain and psychological distress – and 22-year-old Sophie is one of them.
After undergoing breast reduction surgery at 18, Sophie explains she now feels her decision was intrinsically linked to how she was perceived externally because of her bust. “I didn’t necessarily realise it at the time, but in retrospect I realised how much my teen experiences with objectification — which obviously were strongly linked to my body image issues — were because of my boobs,” says Sophie. “As a teen, everything was so fixated on my boobs, especially in school,” she adds. Having once been sent to the principal for wearing a tank top, Sophie recalls her teacher intimating that wearing such an item was “bad for other people's focus”. The unwanted attention received because of her chest “entirely disappeared” after she had the operation, Sophie says. “It helped so much.”
Harassment still impacts me, and body acceptance is an on-going battle in the face of it. I’ve always had bigger boobs, and being sexually harassed because of them is a sad part of being a woman in today’s society. But the thing I try to remember is this: Should I be the one made to feel self-conscious of my own boobs, or will the tides eventually turn? If more people continue to call out sexual harassment when they see it happen, it’ll become increasingly socially unacceptable. And eventually, the only people left feeling self-conscious will be the sad few still doing the objectifying.
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