Girl Becomes Woman - a documentary
I remember once when I was a teenager a friend confided that he was a "tits and ass man," by which he meant he was a connoisseur of breasts and buttocks. It’s no secret that men are very interested in the female mammilla. Only when I got married did I discover how big an issue breasts are for women. My (ex) wife felt too ashamed to undress with the lights on, let alone visit a nudist resort, but she didn't feel too ashamed to have sex with another man while we were still married. Some people also offer the paradox of being proud of their shame, as if the learning of shame is a kind of intellectual achievement. After my divorce and relocation to Europe I explored a nudist resort in France and realized that the problem I will call "breast shame" is not at all natural or inevitable, and being a teacher I saw the cause as mis-education in childhood. I think the verbal taboo against using the word “tits” in polite discussion is intended to express the need to treat breasts with respect. But verbal taboos aren’t enough. Respect must be actively and thoroughly taught. Rising rates of youth crime, teen pregnancy, suicide and depression suggest that this is the right time to help children deal with the problems they face growing up. Rates of depression, in particular, rise sharply in girls during puberty (the period of rapid breast growth), and correlate with depression in later life.
What is breast shame, and how does it begin? It is well known that children learn more by modeling than by instruction. Once while I was visiting friends their seven-year-old daughter walked into the living room without any shirt on, and without saying anything the mother held her own arms up to cover her own breasts and then shook her shoulders to illustrate that females are "supposed" to feel uncomfortable if their breast area is uncovered. It's reasonable to assume that the mother hadn't acted on the basis of study or reflection; as parents often do, she was merely repeating the same behavior she had witnessed as a child. Such modeling is not really learning at all, but more properly called emotional imprinting or fear conditioning. In extreme cases, some children are terrorized about nudity, and shame is expressed as panic. Like other forms of shame, breast shame is a primitive feeling that can’t be logically justified. We are taught shame without any explanations or reasons, then after years of thoughtless habit we look for excuses for our behavior to avoid admitting we have been wasting so much time and energy in behavior that is probably useless if not destructive. In a series of books on the “Myth of the Civilizing Process” Hans Peter Duerr offers a mountain of evidence that, contrary to popular belief, people were more ashamed in ancient times than today, so if anything modern civilization has partially liberated us from the unpleasant feeling of shame. In the past using the word “breast” in public conversation was considered indecent. It’s reasonable to assert that cultural progress requires study and reflection, not mindless repetition of Stone Age behavior.
Shame may have been useful and appropriate in the mysterious ancient environment, but its continued existence today calls for some serious review. Society has changed a lot over the centuries, but cultural change hasn’t kept pace with technology. We now know some interesting things about breasts that the ancients had no way of knowing. Many women feel so ashamed of their breasts that they look for excuses to bottle-feed their infants with formula, despite the known benefits of human breast milk to children's health, the reported pleasure of breastfeeding for the mother if she learns how to do it properly, and the expense and potential negative effects of breast milk substitutes. Some women won't perform a periodic self-exam for lumps, or when a lump is discovered they won't see a doctor until the tumor has grown huge and a mastectomy is necessary. The bra industry costs consumers $3 billion a year, for what some women have called the equivalent of a dog collar. (The bra was formerly part of a full corset, and special corsets were sold for girls as young as seven.) Many women fret that their breasts are too small, so they wear padded bras even in the heat of summer (that has got to be uncomfortable!) or risk serious health problems by indulging in unneeded cosmetic surgery. One woman reports that when she was a child she felt so ashamed of her small breasts she fantasized cutting them off. Those are the known consequences of breast shame. There are other possible consequences to be discussed below.
In some languages the word for “ashamed” is the same as the word for “timid,” but in the rich English language the several meanings and etymology of the word “shame” are more confused. The Oxford English Dictionary defines shame as: “The painful emotion arising from the consciousness of something dishonouring, ridiculous, or indecorous in one’s own conduct or circumstances (or in those of others whose honour or disgrace one regards as one’s own), or of being in a situation which offends one’s sense of modesty or decency.” Another OED definition specifies the kind of painful emotion shame is: “Fear of offence against propriety or decency, operating as a restraint on behaviour;” a search of the key words (modesty, decency, propriety) in those definitions leads us to notions of “fitness of form or proportion,” conformity, compliance, and self-control. The inclusion of “self-control” as an element of modesty is especially surprising, as if women often feel an impulse to flash their breasts, but thanks to modesty the most decent ladies succeed in controlling that impulse. Breast shame is a phenomenon of primitive vintage. Some pre-literate peoples who don’t wear clothes are nonetheless forbidden by their culture to look at a woman’s breasts, and to avoid any accusations men and women talk to each other back-to-back. But nobody knows why. We are in a situation where teachers cannot even clearly understand where “shame” comes from or what purpose it serves today, if any, but we are enthusiastically teaching our students to feel ashamed and be proud of it.
Children need positive models of rational behavior. Parents normally try to help children control negative emotions such as anger and fear, and some clinical evidence suggests that shame comes from the same primitive part of the brain as other negative emotions. Patients who have suffered injury to that part of the brain feel less anger, fear and shame than before. Mild fear promotes caution, which is appropriate in potentially dangerous situations. Is there not something strange about women feeling afraid to expose their breasts in their own homes in the presence of their family? Shame, fear and anger are rarely a good thing. Positive emotions such as love give us constructive goals and guide our intellect. But negative emotions interfere with clear thinking. Emotional reactions are typically quick and sloppy, what is usually called childish behavior. In technical terms, emotional distress interferes with working memory. Thanks to shame we forget more important priorities like health. Emotional distress can even interfere with perception. On a deeper level, emotional distress depresses the immune system, thereby increasing the risk of infectious diseases. Negative emotions are nothing to be proud of.
The truth is that exposed breasts are not ugly, immoral, indecent, etc. There is nothing shameful about the existence, function, or appearance of breasts. Quite the contrary, breasts are beautiful - even when they are small, especially when they are growing. Why else do women spend so much money on bras if not to make their breasts appear young? Bras prop up the breasts like when they are growing. Bra styles sometimes try to make mature breasts appear more pointed, just like when they are developing. In the tropical Trobriand Islands girls and women never cover their breasts except during certain rituals when their whole bodies are covered (but there is strict modesty in always concealing the genitals in public). My experience in naturist resorts suggests that all the trouble, discomfort and expense wasted in covering up and propping up breasts is not only unnecessary but even pathetic.
In addition to the shame felt by some individuals, there is also the anger felt by others over the “indecency” of other people, like Christian missionaries whose first goal is to cover up the heathen’s nakedness – as if God is very concerned about that. However, anger is a superficial label because feelings are often a blend of several emotions, and behind anger there is usually fear. Not surprisingly, moralists often confide they are worried because they think there is danger in nudity. What danger? Some people feel so insecure, threatened or alarmed by open discussions of breast shame, that they demand censorship of everyone. I think what such individuals really need is some sort of self-esteem counseling to strengthen their own capacity for confronting different points of view, rather than seeking legal sanctions to restrict the freedom of other people. At the very least, we should question the childish attitude that morality must always clearly distinguish the good guys from the bad guys, as if nothing is worse than the grey area of uncertainty. Communication is a sharing of our personal experience, and much of the world’s knowledge is the gift of previous generations and distant people who passed on their experience to us through books. Censorship robs us and future generations of that inheritance.
Once a mother showed me a photo of her sweater-clad daughter when she was budding. “I would never show this picture to my daughter,” mom confided. “Why not?” I asked. “She would be so embarrassed that her breasts are so small.” Am I the only one who has noticed young girls walking around with their arms held up or books pressed against their chest to hide their shame? Why should children go on suffering in silence? Children are not born with shame. It is actively instilled through long and difficult training by misguided models. A better alternative might be for children to see books like this one and talk about the silly old attitudes that are repeated unthinkingly in some families generation after generation. Children should feel happy about their growing breasts. When we speak of “the logic of love,” we are speaking metaphorically. There is no logic in emotion. There is no logic in shame. The only thing that’s logical is how much people suffer from shame, unnecessarily as far as I can see. Although it’s possible to re-educate the emotions in adulthood, an easier solution is to educate children more rationally in the first place. This book is an attempt to cultivate self-awareness by bringing the problem of breast shame out of the closet.
“And what is the use of a book,” thought Alice, “without pictures and conversations?”. – Lewis Carroll.
My strategy in creating this book is to showcase someone who isn’t ashamed of her growing breasts, even though they are small, as a positive model for others. If you believe in informed consent, understanding the consequences of choices and alternatives, then you should agree that children must be informed of alternatives to shame. My strategy is surely the most reasonable, if not the easiest, under the circumstances. It took me over ten years to find a family willing to participate in this project until the end. Most parents I spoke to wouldn't even consider it. One American mother claimed she was sufficiently modern to consent but her daughter would never agree. When I asked the child (aged 9), she shocked everyone by saying "OK, I’ll do it." But then the mother suddenly said "Wait! Wait! We have to talk about it first." In private, that is. Mom promised to call me with "their" final decision but never called again. The conversation was evidently top-secret. A grandmother in Bulgaria consented but the parents wouldn't allow it. A father in Mexico agreed but his 11-year-old daughter wouldn't. Two families in Italy began the project but withdrew once development began. In most cases nudist families refused to participate out of fear of accusations of child pornography.
Most states define pornography (or obscenity) as material portraying sexual acts, or focusing on the sexual organs, intended to appeal to prurient interests, and having no artistic or scientific value. That’s a well-thought-out definition, even if sometimes difficult to apply in practice. It’s also debatable when a person is a child or an adult. In classifying the images in this book, it’s not enough to look for similarities with pornography; we must also look for differences, especially the context. It’s easy to say (as some state statutes seem to imply) all child nudity is necessarily pornographic, even partial nudity. Error and falsehood can spin on and on with words and more words as justification as long as non-verbal evidence is excluded. Images are a form of evidence that supports words. Budding breasts are cute, but there is nothing sexual about them; if you look at them long enough they might even be considered boring. Hiding them only perpetuates the mystery. I once had a web site that included a single image of a topless, flat-chested nine-year-old on a European beach. One day the web hosting service suddenly took the whole site down, informing me that it contained “child pornography.” When I challenged the company to have my image declared illegal, and demanded an investigation of the decision to censor my whole site, there was no reply. The easiest justification, after words, is silence. Somebody apparently thought even discussion of the case would be dangerous. That was around the time of the so-called “Communications Decency Act,” which was subsequently struck down by the Supreme Court.
Some people might claim that breasts are sex organs, but I don’t think that’s a tenable position. Breasts play no part in sexual reproduction. Their primary function is to provide nourishment to the newborn after sexual reproduction is complete. If breasts are viewed as sex organs, then breastfeeding must be considered a sexual act, and hence incest! It is more likely that the custom of covering up is actually a sneaky attempt to sexualize the breasts, an attempt that is most successful with people who are most superficial. Although breasts may be a source of “sexual” pleasure for the owners as well as the infants and partners who have contact with them, so are the hands, lips, tongue, ears and other parts of the skin sources of “sexual” pleasure but they aren’t considered sex organs. All breasts have the same number of milk glands, according to what I read. The difference in breast size from one individual to the next is determined by the quantity of fat tissue surrounding the milk glands. Some women claim that smaller breasts are actually more sensitive to stimulation due to the lack of fat tissue that otherwise cushions nerve endings. Big breasts are commonly considered “sexier” than small breasts, while at the same time fat is usually considered not sexy!
As a personal note I want to mention that I don’t just photograph girls going through puberty. I also photograph landscapes, architecture, flowers, butterflies, parrots, etc., though children are my favorite subjects. In my opinion there is nothing more photogenic than a child, but my preference isn’t exclusive. My major influences in photography weren’t documentarians but “fine art” photographers. My early inspiration was the British photographer David Hamilton, and I still feel that nobody has equaled the beauty of his images. Later I was inspired by the work of Sally Mann and Jock Sturges. They are landmarks in the history of photography as far as I’m concerned, and I took courage from their examples. Although they are considered fine art photographers rather than documentarians, where does documentary end and art begin? But this book isn’t about me or what I do. It’s about a girl going through a very special period of life, and that’s why she’s in every single image in this book. She’s the only hero in this story. My small contribution is: I’ve got the pictures. I was there.