My very loving boyfriend once told me that if I had larger breasts I would probably be out of his league. Before you crucify him, trust me when I say that he wasn't trying to be mean (bless his heart). He was simply pointing out that whatever male attention I'd gotten over the years would likely have tripled if my boobs were two cup sizes bigger.
The truth is, I've never loved my breasts because I've never thought they were big enough or round enough or perky enough. But I've also questioned whether I genuinely dislike them or feel that way because I suspect they're unattractive to men. While males are not unanimous in their preferences, straight culture undeniably glorifies one particular size (C or D cups) and shape (round and perky) over all others.
I’ve also wondered about the role of men regarding the 70% of women who say they are dissatisfied with their chests, and the thousands who make breast augmentation the most popular type of plastic surgery in this country every year. Are big, round, perky boobs inherently attractive, or do we only think they are because they are so fetishized?
One way to answer these questions is to remove men from the equation—which is just what a group of researchers did in a new albeit very small study that set out to explore how queer women view both their own and other women’s breasts. The topic hasn't gotten much formal attention until now, but the study adds to anecdotal evidence that queer women are less likely to get boob jobs—as well as more likely to opt out of reconstructive surgery after a mastectomy.
In the study, published in the journal Psychology of Sexual Orientation and Gender Diversity, researchers from the University of Tennessee spoke with 11 sexual minority women about their breasts. (The term "sexual minority women" includes women who identify as lesbian, bisexual, transgender, and queer.) From in-depth interviews, they found that this subculture “seems to provide a more accepting, body-positive space and community that, in some ways, can protect or buffer sexual minority women from the more stringent and oppressive beauty mandates propagated by mainstream, heteronormative culture,” said Christy Henrichs-Beck, lead author and a gay woman herself.
In other words? By not subscribing to a patriarchal norm of “perfect” breasts, queer women are able to relax a little about this part of the body—their self-worth isn’t tied to the size and appearance of their breasts as much as it is for heterosexual women.
( o )( o )
While experts caution against making blanket statements about any sexual minority’s preferences, one prevailing theme from study participants' self-reported accounts is that women who date women notice breasts, they’re just not that big a deal for them. Or as a 28-year-old participant named Cara put it, “I don’t think breasts are one of the hot points in the lesbian community.”
The women in this particular study also said that a smaller, more androgynous look was preferable than the “bigger is better” mentality of straight culture. More Ellen DeGeneres, less Scarlett Johansson.
Some women in the study went as far as taping down their breasts to achieve this look, commenting that having large breasts can create a feeling of emotional discomfort. “[Breasts] symbolize a gender that I do not necessarily identify with,” said a 29-year-old participant named Casey. “I have a disconnect and a distaste and I do not care for them.”
The women also stressed that they tend to look at the whole package—that big or small, breasts don’t make the woman. “I think just being confident in yourself is really what makes anything about you attractive,” said a 23-year-old participant named Amy.
And this attitude extended beyond breasts to the whole package—the women also reported being open to varying body types. The authors note that the major theme that emerged within the culture was love and an acceptance of “whatever you’ve got,” with little emphasis on physical appearance. “I find I’m more … attracted to them as a person,” said Anna, 26, of what she looks for in a woman. “Like personality wise, how they carry themselves.”
( o )( o )
With these findings in mind, it’s perhaps not shocking that queer women are less likely to seek out breast augmentation—something people who work in the community told me repeatedly. While hard numbers aren’t available (sexual orientation isn’t noted in plastic surgery stats), anecdotal observations seem to back this up.
“I don’t know a single lesbian who has had breast implants,” said Amber Ault, a clinical sociologist and psychotherapist based in Madison, Wisconsin who specializes in LGBT issues. Meanwhile, the blog Things Lesbians Do dedicated an entire post to this subject, titled “We Hate Boob Implants.” In it, the author writes, “I don’t care if boobs are a D-cup or an A-cup or anything in between; I want them real.”
Ault also pointed out that lesbian breast cancer survivors also appear to be more likely to opt out of breast reconstruction following a mastectomy than straight women. “Lesbians have been on the forefront of saying, ‘I am still a woman even without my breasts’,” said Ault. “Within lesbian culture there is a strong body-positive aspect informed by feminism.”
Research supports these findings. Several studies have found that queer women feel pressured into getting reconstruction they don’t necessarily want. The pressure is often “based on an assumption of looking pretty on a heteronormative, gender binary kind of way,” said Liz Margolies, executive director of the National LGBT Cancer Network. Lesbians are often overlooked in terms of their own wants or desires in regards to breasts, she said.
Of course, not all queer women opt out of reconstruction. There are many reasons any woman would want her breasts back, outside of sexual objectification. “I’m sad that my breasts are gone. This is not … my triumphant identity choice to have my breasts removed,” said Sara, a breast cancer survivor who underwent reconstruction, in another study. “I was happy with my breasts. I’m very sad that I’m losing them.”
But the major takeaway from the women in the University of Tennessee study and experts I interviewed is that queer women don't appear to be as obsessed with breasts as straight, mainstream culture is—that they’re more accepting of varying body types and more interested in real than “ideal.” As Margolies told me, “there is not a pressure to look good for a man.”
As for me, I have come to appreciate my breasts for all the things they offer me rather than what they don’t. And, yes, boyfriend has made it very clear he loves my breasts just the way they are.
Taryn Hillin is Fusion's love and sex writer, with a large focus on the science of relationships. She also loves dogs, Bourbon barrel-aged beers and popcorn — not necessarily in that order.