On the significance of breasts

I was reading medieval wedding vows the other day (as one does, when one is a historical fiction writer) and was struck by the use of the word “buxom” in the woman’s vow. For example, the York Missal in the 15th century had the woman say:

I take the (N) to my wedded housbonde, to have and to holde, fro this day forwarde, for better for wors, for richer for pourer, in syckness and in hele, to be bonere and boxsom, in bedde and atte bord, tyll dethe us departe, if holy chyrche it wol ordeyne, and therto I plight the (N) my trouthe.

The man’s vow is the same, minus the “bonere and boxsom, in bedde and atte bord” bit.

This reads a bit funny to us, of course, because it looks like the woman is promising her husband breasts. But “buxom” originally meant “meek, obliging.” It comes from the Old English “bugan”, which was a variant of the word for “to bow”, the way a reed might bow. The Online Etymology Dictionary defines the original “buhsum” as meaning “capable of being bent.” So when we realize that the old vow made a woman promise to be compliant at the table and in bed, and when we remember that it took a long time for the concept of marital rape to exist in the laws of English-speaking countries, that old wedding vow seems less funny.

Words travel strange paths. There are many reasons why “buxom” started out as “capable of being bent” and progressed to mean “ample of breast” — it occurs to me that simple confusion with “bosom”, which has a different root altogether (one original meaning of “bosm” was “ship’s hold”; how cool is that?), might be responsible for part of it.

But according to the Online Etymology Dictionary, the meaning shift for “buxom” was more organic and complex than a simple confusion. It happened as a gradual thing, from a personality trait to a physical characteristic:

Meaning progressed from “compliant, obliging,” through “lively, jolly,””healthily plump, vigorous,” to (in women, and perhaps influenced by lusty) “plump, comely” (1580s). Used often of breasts, and by 1950s it had begun to be used more narrowly for “bosomy” and could be paired with slim (adj.).

The idea that a woman’s breasts said something about her personality, and that what it said was that you could probably do what you liked with her, seems to go a very long way back.

*

I developed pretty early, and what I mainly developed was the habit of slouching, of hiding my breasts as much as I could. It was and remains a futile endeavour. Since I was about 12 years old, in every conversation I’ve had, some part of my brain is convinced that when I speak, the other person hears nothing but “Boobs boobs boobs. Boobs? BOOBS.”

I was a smart, stubborn, bosomy blonde girl, and I didn’t know how to be all of those things at once.

I didn’t know any stories about smart, stubborn, bosomy blonde girls.

Perhaps things were different for the generation that had Sophia Loren and Anita Ekberg as pin-ups. But by the time I hit puberty, the Hollywood beauty standard was decidedly willowy. The big-breasted girl might be the siren — the Rosaline who eventually would be thrown over for Juliet. Or she might be the giggly comic relief — the Chrissy in Three’s Company, but never the Janet.

She’s the girl the hero throws away.

At least when it came to hair colour I had the example of Major Houlihan, who in many episodes of MASH was portrayed as independent-minded and capable, although much more so as she started to go gray.

There’s a moment, when I was about 14 years old, that I’ll never forget. I was on a double date at night at the local midway, leaning against a fence with my arms crossed. (I think I was cold.) One of the boys with us smirked and said, “I know why you stand that way, with your arms like that. You’re pushing your boobs up to make them look bigger.”

I remember that moment with painful clarity, not because I was hurt or embarrassed (although I suppose I was) but because I was so profoundly shocked. I don’t think I said a word in response. The idea that someone might think I would want my boobs to look bigger was unfathomable. It was almost like someone was mocking me for making my zits look redder. It just did not compute.

And where the hell was I supposed to cross my arms, if not right under my breasts? Was I supposed to prop them up on top somehow? How ridiculous would that look?

So I broke myself of the habit of arm-crossing. No arm-crossing for me, for many years afterward.

It was, I suppose, my first conscious introduction to the male gaze — to the practice of assuming that everyone in the world, including women, sees themselves through heterosexual male eyes. Kate Elliott wrote about this wisely in her essay “The Omniscient Breasts.” These are the stories I read, even in the stories by women — not stories about what might actually be going on inside the mind of the big-boobed blonde character, but stories that assumed things about what was in her mind because of the shape of her body.

Big boobs? She’s a ditz; she’s vain. She’s a temptress, hell-bent on making herself available. I know why you stand that way.

Or if she’s lucky, she’s a comely, simple country lass. As my wise agent Jennie Goloboy joked in the beginning of her recent essay in Apex Magazine about fantasy and realism, the barmaid in a stereotypical fantasy novel is always buxom.

But not the plucky tomboy heroine. Not the fierce elf queen.

In my head I was Galadriel, and in my body I was Rosie Cotton, and that disconnect in the stories I know how to tell about myself will probably never leave me. This is what body tropes do to us.

*

But in 1997, when I was 20 years old, along came Seven of Nine.

My male geek friends mock me for my love of Star Trek: Voyager (which is apparently not the cool Trek to love.) It always feels a bit weak to just retort “female captain!” but seriously, that was a big deal. And not just any female captain, but a female captain with a complicated moral and intellectual life. And with actual, real female friendships, most interestingly with Seven of Nine. Sure, Deanna Troi and Beverly Crusher were pals, but a lot of the time, they were gossiping about their love lives. Captain Janeway and Seven of Nine were talking about treason and identity and science. Hell yeah.

And besides, Seven of Nine was a bosomy, stubborn, blonde genius.

She might have been the first such character I encountered. I suspect that wouldn’t have been true if I’d read comics as a kid — but then I probably would have developed another breast-related complex, having to do with impossible shape and buoyancy and chain mail.

Yes, Jeri Ryan’s uniform was ridiculously tight, especially early on, and I’m sure that was for titillation’s sake. But she stood tall. She didn’t slouch. And when she spoke, if anyone heard “boobs boobs boobs” they would regret it, because it was in everyone’s interest, always, to hear what Seven of Nine had to say. If you didn’t hear what Seven of Nine had to say, you might die. She was the opposite of compliant. She redefined buxom.

The stories we tell matter. They give us our maps.

And when we, as writers, fall into the lazy habit of letting our characters’ body shape determine their personalities, we are veering away from realism, away from the actual human condition, away from Truth.

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