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Those are my boobs you're holding

Shreya Sen-Handley http://@shreyasenhan

Updated: May 23, 2013, 12:36 PM IST
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As the world fought over Angelina Jolie's breasts for the second straight week, I sat down to my morning's musings in our blossoming garden. This mellow English summer morn, I'm just relieved, believe it or not, that I'm not the beauteous Miss Jolie with her famously-missing baps. The world never fought over mine but the odd (very odd) man did. Nowadays, only the children scrap over my bits, namely which hand to hold, and that's just how I want it because misplacing the rights to your body is not a place you want to be. Stick with me and I'll tell you why.

Now, Angelina is a very strange bird with a history of incest, bizarre blood rituals, and a line of home-wrecking affairs as long as her leg. But perhaps it takes a weirdo to do something really brave like have her still-healthy breasts removed when you could argue that her face and figure are her fortune. Voted World's Sexiest Woman dozens of times by those sad lad's mags for lonely blokes, it would appear to be her paying public that Ange has most offended with her double mastectomy. Has she actually had the nerve to flick their sticky fingers off her breasts and then bin 'em without so much as a by-your-leave? All because she had this teeny weeny (just 87 per cent) chance of developing breast cancer and didn't want to risk her children losing their mother? Tsk, tsk, selfish woman! But don't you worry because she's replaced 'em with as-good-as-old fake ones and from when have you autistic fellas (sorry, I meant artistic) cared about anything but aesthetics?

Contemplating a perfectly formed chocolate biscuit, I feel in a good enough mood to admit that a good chunk of the media have hailed her pre-emptive mastectomy as a brave step. But the most compelling description of whydunnit comes from her own luscious lips, "I want to tell other women that my decision to have a mastectomy wasn't easy. But I'm very happy I made it. I can now tell my children they don't need to fear they will lose me to breast cancer. I feel empowered that I made a strong choice that in no way diminishes my femininity."

Angelina, poor thing, is a global sex symbol (ever thought you'd hear those two phrases said together?), and if she's received praise for her exploits, she's been pilloried too. From criticism that she's encouraging drastic action when regular tests are adequate breast cancer prevention to loony conspiracy theories that show her in cahoots with a pharmaceutical giant with a BRCA1 testing patent pending at the US Supreme Court, we've heard it all. But right or wrong, she's propelled boobs from the icky inside leaves of tabloids to the front pages of broadsheets everywhere. Suddenly, discussions about boobs are no longer restricted to the traditional locales of men's clubs and women's clinics. And the question uppermost in people's minds is - is a woman without breasts truly a woman? "People don't think so", says Wendy Watson who had this op 20 years before Ange, "their biggest concern was how my husband would cope, that he'd drop me because I was no longer 'all woman'."

Remember Shylock's pound of flesh? Society extracts it's own from every woman. In fact, it would have us over a barrel (no double entendre intended but fantasise away if it floats your boat), but for the fact that we've learnt (at the School of Hard Knocks) to regain control over little bits of ourselves. Piece by hard-won piece.

So, I present to you, the one-stop guide to buying back your body.

Face-off

If you've got a face that's launched a thousand products (and inevitably, other things), then it's public property already, so don't fight it, sit back and enjoy their folly over your genetic accident and with time and crow's feet, they'll return it to you...unceremoniously. If you are just another pretty face, and want it back; scrub that face clean, scrape your hair back and stick a book in front of it. They are short-sighted and easily fooled, and will move on to the nearest pretty girl unless they spot a pair of particularly bountiful bazookas in which case you can put your book down. But the price you pay for adulation (and not always male, Old Wives I find, fawn in the same way) is that you give that bit of you away. Your face - to admire, to critique and in certain cultures, to throw acid at, is theirs.

But beware any attempt to rearrange that face to suit yourself (with help from a cosmetic surgeon hopefully) because you'll only ever get sneers for your pain. Especially if you're a celebrity and it's gone horribly wrong, as Rom Com Queen Meg Ryan found to her dismay as the rags rudely labelled her "Old Trout Pout" after her botched lip job. Surgery, like marriage, should not be entered into lightly but if a woman chooses to have some work done to boost her self-esteem in a world that puts her down repeatedly, then why not?

Hair today gone tomorrow

Why do men feel threatened by short-haired or bald women? This fear is so ingrained; it's the stuff of nightmare in fairy tales. The worst thing that happened to Rapunzel was not her kidnapping or incarceration or the blinding of her lover, but the loss of her traditionally sanctioned long locks- which girl can get over that? Plenty as it turns out, but the world will mourn their long-lost tresses for them. In India, short-haired women are more likely to face censure and harassment than their long-maned counterparts. In a gallery devoted to Bollywood actresses with short-lived crops, 'The Times of India' declares, "Long hair is an asset making a girl look hot and sexier" (if I can forgive the attitude, I can't the grammar)!

On top of boobs that bounce in our faces (You should be so lucky, you're thinking, but they ALL do. Uncomfortably. Regardless of size), wombs that immobilise once a month and bums that can't be squeezed into...well, anything...tight spaces, tight pants...must we also have masses of hair obscuring our vision, tripping us up, yanked out by Baby, and the dickens to maintain?

Men can go bald with impunity and be considered no less attractive (and more virile, they keep telling us. Yawn) like Bruce Willis, or cultivate cascades and still be Sex Gods (although my fingers itch for a strong pair of shears around them) like Kurt Cobain or Jim Morrison. Women are only proper women when they have wrenchable hair.

As beautifully-bald-in-the-nineties Sinead O' Connor said recently, "I grew too old and fat and ugly to get away with being bald." Even free-spirited Sinead had to toe the line (the more body puns the merrier) in the end. If you haven't got a pretty face, you gotta cover it with a whole lotta hair; them the rules!

But pssst, get yourself a buzz cut, Girl and as they gape in horror, feel your confidence come screaming back too.

Boobs are NOT a girl's best friend

So we come full circle to breasts again. Breasts, as you know, have been put on this earth for men to gawp at, to grope, and having got their mucky paws on our mammaries, they aren't about to let go. And you thought your breasts belonged to you (been in a coma long, Babe)? The minute you hit puberty and sprout breasts, they get appropriated by Everyman. Suddenly the random man on the street has more rights to your body, particularly, your boobs, than you do. They can ogle, fondle, as well as lay down the law on their exposure, use and appearance.

Angelina's case proves that the world will not tolerate women having their breasts removed willy-nilly just to prolong their lives. It's also not keen on the practice of breast enhancement surgery, though it lurrrves the results. Thousands of women have implants every year because they are constantly bombarded with the idea that bigger is better and you are less desirable, less feminine, and even less maternal without great big appendages hanging from you. The women who have them enlarged become targets for derision, even as their men become objects of envy. And to even suggest they might be doing it for themselves? They may be attached to you, Lady, their handling may cause you pain or pleasure but that's as far as your relationship with your breasts goes.

We all know the world goes into a tizzy when breasts are exposed. Men can strip to their waist anywhere they choose but women have to be in places that actually permit such lascivious activity. Though, I've never felt the need to indulge in recreational stripping, living as I do in blustery England, the fact that a mother can't pop a breast out to feed her baby in public for fear of offending sanctimonious sleazeballs is a terrible indictment of a society's skewered values. And if your breasts haven't already been appropriated by everyone and their uncle, they will now that you'e a mother. From aged relatives, to medical professionals, to powder milk lobbyists and Earth Mother types, everyone has an opinion on what you should do with your lactating breasts, when and how.

You should feed Baby breast milk. You shouldn't allow anyone to witness this heinous act. As Baby needs feeding 'round the clock, you must remain housebound the whole time. Stepping out might lead to public breast-exposure which would be...no, not natural, maternal and the way of the world since time immemorial...but slutty, immoral and a flagrant flouting of social norms, pretty darn near a criminal act that must be kept from respectable eyes. But oh, while you're about it, gis'a quick peek of that plunging Mommy cleavage?

There is only ONE response to this and it has to be sung to the tune of Billy Joel's 'My Life':

"I don't need you to tell me how to bring Baby up right
I won't have you tell me I must feed her at home
I don't care what you say anymore, this is my life
Get your hands off my breasts and leave my baby alone"

As dirty old men and interfering biddies scatter, even as you make yourself very clear, really tunelessly, your life and body become yours once more...for all of the twelve months you feed your baby.

Battlefield Womb

But real life and death stuff happen on that ancient battleground inside every woman- the womb. The world has decided that a woman's womb, a body part, is more important than the living, breathing, thinking woman herself. Can you really rely on a creature that's all womb and little brain to make the right choices for themselves and their children? Most women will put their wombs first when there is a tiny little life growing inside but tainted, fallen, weaker sex that we are we can't be trusted. And so it's got to be a job for...no, not Superman...any man! They are all wiser and more rational. None considered more so than The Pope in the Catholic world where the power to decide what happens to a woman's body resides with him.

But Catholic Ireland is beginning to wonder if the Pope is quite as infallible as they believed (Duh) after the recent, tragic, preventable death of Indian-origin dentist Savita Halappanavar from blood poisoning in the 17th week of her pregnancy, when a timely abortion could've saved her life. Yet the fate of the "unviable" foetus was put before that of this till-then vital woman.

Ireland is now considering a change to its abortion laws but many women around the world will continue to have little say in what happens to their bodies, and their lives, once impregnated. In "liberal" America, the Pro-life/Pro-choice war rages on and it's a real battle where abortion clinics are firebombed and people die because some other people are pro-life. A baby's life is precious, any mother will agree, long before it comes into the world. I sang to my babies when they were 'little beans' in my womb. But when a woman's life is at risk, when she has been forcefully impregnated, or when she's barely a child herself, it's the worst possible idea to force her to bear a baby.

Let me tell you a story about a girl I once knew. We have grown apart but this is a cautionary tale which I think she would want me to tell you.

In the course of a holiday romance, she was swept off her feet and ended up married to a stranger in a foreign land where she didn't know a single soul. The man she married grew day by day into the kind of monster she thought only inhabited the shadowy worlds of the fantasy fiction she had back home. While she has confided the grisly minutiae of her newly married life to me, I will spare you the details, except to say that for her first Christmas with him she received a black eye and on her 28th birthday, she bruised her ribs. Clearly, she was clumsy. And she was confused. But one thing she did know, she did not want the child he was set on. She was salting money away every day as part of her escape plan. She was also taking contraceptive pills on the sly. Then, one day he found out and forced the issue. A baby with a man she had come to hate would kill her spirit, scotch her escape and stamp out her dreams of returning to the normal, happy, genteel world she had known. Scared, conflicted, but determined to turn her life around, she went to the pharmacist and got one little green and white pill. She held it a long time and thought about what might be inside her womb and it made her desperately sad but the thought of her husband gave her the strength to take the magic pill.

The life and death decision she took that day allowed her to regain control of her womb and then her body, over the months as her plan for escape achieved fruition. And the morning she delivered her divorce papers personally to the man she would happily never see again (and hasn't, I have it on good authority), she got back her life.

When a life hangs in the balance, that of a grown woman with a future, whether it's celebrated Angelina or my obscure friend, isn't there ample justification in taking drastic action?

First Published: May 23, 2013, 12:36 PM IST

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