The breast etiquette project

nude painting

Courtesy of Jack Guard

Prelude at Annie’s

I’m at an Annie’s, a foreign-managed Italian restaurant chain in Beijing. It’s become a trendy place as a consequence of locals’ worries over food safety at Chinese restaurants. There’s also the popularity of foreign food, as growing numbers of Chinese come back from trips to culinary heaven in Europe and discover Western and international cuisine to be actually pretty good.

Take this branch at the west gate of Chaoyang Park for example, the original Annie’s (there are now nine of them). From when it opened in 1999 until a few years ago, it was mostly expats needing a bite to eat after picking up necessities at a neighboring supermarket for foreigners, Jenny Lou’s. Now, you often have to wait in line for a table, and almost all of the customers are Chinese. The staff have their obsequious bowing and plastic smiles down to an art form. They also serve generous portions, and it’s my third serious glass of wine that is giving me the inspiration to write the following.

Adjacent to me is a Chinese couple. Nothing unusual in that. We’re in Beijing. But they stand out. He is handsome, fit and trim in a smart suit and black turtleneck, around fifty. She is very attractive and also well dressed in a formfitting violet dress with a plunging V-neck; her incipient double chin suggests early thirties. I might not otherwise have noticed her, but her large breasts bend my gaze around like an elastic sling. We’re talking big. Oh, they’re real, all right. Boob jobs are rigid and immobile; they move with the body, not against it. Hers hang and swing freely. With each glance I steal they seem to get bigger—and more confounding. At least in the context. Chinese women as a rule don’t show off their body, a tradition as ironclad today as at any time in the past. The big-breasted in summertime can’t help but betray their assets, but it’s common in cold weather for young women to keep their winter coat buttoned up even indoors (a legacy from when indoor heating was nonexistent), and don’t you dare invite them to make themselves more comfortable. As they get older they reveal incrementally more, until in old age they’re going about braless in a T-shirt because it no longer matters. Yet there are exceptions, and hers establish why it’s this fellow rather than any other that’s with her.

There was a time when foreign dudes might have winged the likes of her. There was a time when even I might have stood a chance. No longer. These days if you want a female Rolls Royce—beautiful and busty in equal measure—you need to be a male Rolls Royce—handsome and wealthy in equal measure. And no mere parvenu will do. It helps to be somewhat advanced in years (this is what still gives me a dwindling sliver of hope), with a calligraphy of wisdom and culture etched on the face. Taste and poise. A knowledge of wine, which he’s selected, though for her tastes. White wine in February. Women here often go for white, the way they prefer Sprite to Coke, or white to black iPhones. A gender thing.

If you want a female Rolls Royce – beautiful and busty in equal measure – you need to be a male Rolls Royce – handsome and wealthy in equal measure.

They’re onto their second bottle of wine now. There she goes, running over to his side and wrapping her arms around him, a mammary expanding on his shoulder. A power couple, to be sure, but not a married couple. She’s too animated. Some kind of mistress, perhaps one in the making. Or maybe he doesn’t even need to stoop to a mistress. Women come to him for no-strings-attached entertainment. She’s clearly into him. Not the slightest acknowledgment of life outside their little bubble, not to mention any attentive males in the vicinity. She is 100 percent focused on him.

The wine is making her louder and more histrionic. I’m impressed, in the way I am with certain Chinese women of the bolder variety who drink, smoke cigarettes and make their opinion known to your face. I want to see what she’s like when they get to their third bottle of wine and I could draw things out further to this purpose, but that’s not my point here. I’m thinking about what she stands for.

Before I go into what she stands for, let me jump ahead, by way of illustration and a little digression, to what I’m really aiming at.

A new type of greeting

Let’s imagine an alternate universe at this same Annie’s in which I manage to chat up this attractive couple. There’s no reason why I couldn’t chat them up right here and now, my Chinese is good enough, but I lack the conman personality to pull it off. Plus things wouldn’t stand a chance of playing out the way I wanted them to, however friendly they happened to be.

So here’s what happens in this alternative universe. After a few minutes of chitchat we introduce ourselves. Naturally, I shake hands with the gentleman first. But instead of taking the lady’s hand, I defer to her. In one smooth practiced motion she pulls her dress off her shoulders, releases her breasts to view and gives them a little jiggle. Receiving my expected nod and smile of acknowledgment, she then tucks them back in.

To the initiate, the sight must be startling. Like a pair of guillotined heads plopping into the basket at the same time. But I’m used to it. We’re all used to it since everyone does it. It’s called etiquette. And it accomplishes something important and socially necessary. Because they don’t represent the woman herself but something extraneous to her (“Can’t you see beyond my boobs to the real me?”), yet nonetheless overwhelming and in the way, why not get the elephant out of the room at the outset and clear the air? Then, with the big bloated bag of worry and desire punctured and expelled, and the world now aright, we can get back to the business of conversation without skipping a beat, considerably more relaxed and at ease, the breasts already forgotten.

Fat chance of that ever happening goes the objection: the idea is impractical on numerous grounds. No woman, no matter how proud she is of her breasts, could stand the leering, or cheering, of every man in the room. The more suspicious among them would be lining up to meet her. Fending off male paws would be annoying in the extreme. Some might follow or stalk her. The routine would become a major, intolerable hassle. Finally, no man could accept such debasement of the woman he’s with.

Let me counter these objections first of all by pointing out that there are many unusual forms of greeting around the world. Even the weirdest varieties are culturally relative, and it is only from our narrow parochial perspective that they seem bizarre to us. New types of greeting can catch on and be adopted. For instance, I am your typical Anglo-Saxon from the American Midwest. When I was growing up, it was unheard of for people barely acquainted to bear-hug each other (much as guys would have welcomed a plush female chest mashed against them) or—God forbid—plant kisses on each other’s cheeks. It would have been as awkward and strange as the old genteel custom of bowing and kissing a lady’s hand. The bear hug is now de rigueur. Is it then so difficult to imagine a novel form of greeting that doesn’t involve any physical contact or touch at all but merely the momentary sight of the breasts?

In one smooth practiced motion she lifts up her shirt and bra and releases her breasts to view.

If we are openminded, we accept the great variety of human customs for what they are—neither superior nor inferior to our own—and hold them in due respect. The Japanese avoid eye contact in conversation, even upon first meeting. It’s not coldness but just the way it’s done; it would be rude in their mind to look at you too directly. In some Muslim countries, not only are women fully veiled, including their face and eyes, you’re unlikely ever to have the chance to meet them, with laws constraining their appearance in public; to greet a woman is itself a taboo (this, along with female genital mutilation I admit not much sympathy for).

At the other extreme, African men customarily caress a woman’s palm upon first handshake, indicating their lust. That’s nothing compared to some American Indian tribes, before their way of life was upended by the European conquest. The common practice of “sex hospitality”—the offering of the host’s wife to a male guest for the night—was a privilege extended to the first White pioneers. I think you can appreciate that next to this extraordinary custom, which really existed and is not some libertine’s utopian idea, my proposal is quite modest.

Given, you suggest, the unfeasibility of breast greetings in a public environment, which makes them viewable not just to you but to all manner of strangers who happen to be around, let’s at least move it to a private space, where only the intended person is present. Thus if the couple found you to their liking, they might invite you for a second, more intimate encounter, dinner at their home for example, where the unveiling could take place in safe and relaxed circumstances.

We seek to adopt the most efficient, pragmatic and elegant approach. As the theory of Occam’s Razor advises, why unnecessarily complicate things? Why would a couple want to invite a man over to view his wife or girlfriend’s breasts when his motive might be insincere, his only reason for taking up the offer, rather than a friendly interest in them? Why increase the suspense when the whole point is to decrease it?

No, the breast greeting must be done right at the outset. It must be performed unconditionally for all, hovering strangers included. The only challenge is to get the practice to catch on and spread. If everyone did it and understood how to do it, i.e., acquired the etiquette, it would be normalized. Women could safely expose themselves knowing surrounding men would be fully accustomed to the sight. Exposed breasts would be so common as to be almost passé. The sight of a woman’s nipples would be no more noteworthy than a man’s.

I might add that this constitutes the long-established approach to nudity in northern European countries (Scandinavia, Germany, etc.), where many families go nude at home, join friends and strangers naked in the sauna, and take bare breasts at public beaches and swimming pools for granted. It’s been observed that you can always identify the North American women at European beaches, who are the only ones keeping their bikini tops on.

It does raise an interesting paradox. If naked breasts become so ordinary as to no longer garner the slightest notice, then what’s the point? The answer is that no matter how commonplace the practice became, breasts will always retain their magical power. Even as their unveiling becomes ubiquitous, it will always carry a delightful shock. But a balance will have been struck: we will be able to take in their sight with perfect equanimity and unruffled poise. And there is a key difference as well from toplessness at the beach, where it all hangs out and the sight of so many boobs palls after a while. With the breast greeting, by contrast, they are only momentarily in view. It’s the anticipation that electrifies the encounter, while simultaneously returning things to equilibrium upon their unveiling.

A zero-sum game

Another obstacle is the unfortunate fact that many women hate their breasts—and hate men for liking their breasts. It doesn’t matter what they look like. Once a woman turns against them, there’s no recourse. A host of reasons justifies it: They’re too small. They’re too big. They’re ugly. One is bigger than the other. They sag. Men would like me if only I had big tits. Men like me only because I have big tits. I get stared at all the time. The more they like them, the more I hate them.

“Don’t you sometimes wish you were really flat?” said Sukey.

Sukey was a cute nineteen-year old with big beautiful breasts I was once involved with years ago in Chicago. Sexually and intellectually precocious for her age, she worked as a nude model at an art school and was up-to-date on the latest contemporary fiction. Still, her comment put an end to the fun we almost had that night.

She had brought me over to her friend Kate’s place. We smoked some pot, which has a tendency to make people horny. Since I was currently training as a massage therapist, Sukey suggested I give them both a massage. They took off their tops and lay face down on the bed side by side. Things got off to an exciting start. Sukey, who was bi, started making out with Kate, kissing her, folding a leg over her and trying to pull off her pants. Tragically, Kate wasn’t into it. The next thing I knew, for reasons I am still utterly unable to fathom, and before I could do their fronts, they called a halt to the massage. Kate’s breasts were as large and gorgeous as Sukey’s, but the mood was wrecked. Thereupon for my benefit, over beer and cigarettes, resigned to their powerlessness to remove the lovely hapless objects attached to them as they sat there on the bed, they poured out all their grievances about men.

They were not the only women who over the years have pointed out how stupid, infantile, asinine, puerile, idiotic and deplorable, not to mention sexist, oppressive and offensive to women my obsession with breasts is.

In what is known as a “zero-sum game,” the gains by one side can only come at the expense of an equal loss by the other side. So they’re not really fair gains. I’d like to employ a zero-sum analysis to explain our predicament and hopefully restore some balance and sanity to the discussion. For every woman who hates her breasts, there is one who loves hers. For every man who pines after a woman’s body, there is a woman who also pines after a woman’s body (as many have confided to me). For every woman who hides her boobs under bulky clothing, there is a woman who displays as much cleavage as she can get away with, or would if she felt safe to do so. For every woman who can’t stand men looking at her, there is a woman who is secretly thrilled to be the object of attention.

Cut through all the confusion and hypocrisy and freely give men your breasts for a few marvelous moments.

A woman I once dated with a magnificent bust related how one summer day when she was out on the street in a halter top, a dude passing by remarked, “Great tits!” This did piss her off, yet she admitted that her more modestly endowed friend she was with rejoined, “I wish some guy would say that to me!”

Everything balances out in perfect symmetry. This offensive and sexist obsession of men is cancelled out by the equally stupid, infantile, asinine, puerile, idiotic and deplorable stubbornness of women who refuse to be generous with their breasts; this pointless, absurd and ridiculous male idée fixe is counterposed by the pointless, absurd and ridiculous female idée fixe that worthy men outgrow their obsession with breasts, which I can tell you, they never do.

Let me try to go about this more charitably. As the object of the male gaze, women have an enhanced consciousness of the power- and gender-based privilege behind men’s actions, which men themselves can’t fully grasp because they don’t experience it. Yet there’s no reason why men couldn’t grasp it with a bit of imaginative ingenuity and empathy. Once they really understood how women are gazed at, they’d stop it. I don’t speak for the oglers, catcallers, harassers and irredeemable lowlife. Polite men don’t stare at women.

Meanwhile, can’t women wield this enhanced consciousness of theirs with equal facility in both directions? If they can in fact see men’s motives more objectively than men themselves, can’t they just as easily gaze at themselves in the way men do and hence identify with male desire? Anticipating and meeting them halfway, they could then short-circuit men’s obsession by presenting their breasts to them at once. If enough women did this, they might bring things full circle and achieve what the feminist movement has been trying to accomplish for the past half century: male boredom with the breasts. At long last, men would routinely avert their gaze. They would not notice your breasts at all. They would look at you the way gay men do.

But is this really what women want? A state of social relations so advanced and free of sexism that the female body no longer arouses? That’s like a world without art.

On the one hand, women bemoan the sorry state of men who can’t extricate themselves from their childish obsession. On the other, they rely on this very obsession to ensnare Mr. Right, and moreover carefully hoard their assets to let them accrue maximum potency behind the veil. Again, symmetry prevails. In practice if not in theory, women are just as enslaved to their breasts as men.

Breast fascination is real and isn’t going away. This applies to most men, including the intelligent and cultivated, such as Einstein, who apparently had a thing for Marilyn Monroe. The reason this fascination is so intractable is that it’s triply reinforced—not one but three reasons why men stare at the breasts. First, there is the proverbial male gaze, the sense of power men enjoy in controlling women with their eyes; this can be subtle and fleeting or lingering and obnoxious; I would say that most men honestly assume, at least, you didn’t particularly notice or mind. Second, there is sheer aesthetics: the breasts are beautiful and I want to see yours. Third, there is the honesty involved in the act of unveiling. Even if they’re not beautiful I want to see yours anyway, because I want to see all of you. I want to see your breasts for the same reason I want you to take off your sunglasses the first time we meet so I can see your eyes.

So why not be creative and adopt an experimental, playful attitude in the interest of restoring symmetry to the universe? Cut through all the confusion and hypocrisy and give men the sight of your breasts for a few marvelous moments, at the start, before you even have time to deliberate about it. Get it out of the way. You can have them right back and safely tucked away, but in the meantime you’ve righted the awful imbalance and brought things back to zero. A hot babe endowed with a significant bust is lucky enough; one who knows how to use her assets is in control of her destiny. But she is utterly reliant on the cooperation of men to appreciate her assets. She feeds off their obsession, nurtures and energizes it. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

But what about the man she’s accompanied with? Here we need to tackle our final obstacle, the last defense holding up the fort, our old friend the green-eyed monster.

The green-eyed monster

When you are brought up to think and behave in certain ways, you act accordingly because you don’t know anything else. Your parents and other adults around you repeat the same ideas thousands of times in your formative years, and you are compelled to believe them. This process never ends but goes on throughout life, as you continuously receive reinforcement of these conventions and pass the same on to others around you in turn, including your children.

The process is robust and adaptable and can thoroughly alter your behavior. You may be a committed atheist now but if you were to be thrust into a new environment of friendly believers, you would become a believer too, maybe not right away, but sooner or later, as the gentle and inexorable power of group coercion wore you down. And the same socialization process could equally turn you from a Christian into an atheist. This is the power of socialization.

The ideology of monogamy and romance is an important component in society’s socialization curriculum. In this most universal and all-inclusive of religions—the religion of marriage—romantic love, sexual fidelity, and jealousy form the Godhead. For the vast majority, relations between the sexes are unimaginable outside this Holy Trinity.

In this most universal and all-inclusive of religions, the religion of marriage, the Trinity of romantic love, sexual fidelity, and jealousy form the Godhead.

It’s not just the family and one’s immediate network that makes sure we believe it. The Truth is hammered into us in the classroom, the church, TV, movies (whose plots typically center around a happy family), advertising, song lyrics in pop music, the plots of most operas and plays, magazines and novels, and now, the Internet (dating websites, etc.). A totality of established voices in society conspire to enforce a conventional morality and code of ethics. Once we are socialized into such a belief system, it is invisible and enveloping. You cannot perceive anything else, because you are sucked into it and inhabit it and can’t see outside of it. The idea that there may be an alternative belief system never occurs to you. Your system is the only system. It doesn’t need to make sense because it’s common sense.

Jealousy is a good example of common sense. Talk to almost anyone, conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist, Chinese or American, and they’ll all tell you with great assurance that it is just one of those things, like desire, fear or anger, which is impossible to eradicate from human nature. “It’s natural to be jealous,” goes the refrain. We may be able to control jealousy, as we control anger, and too much of either is obviously not a good thing. But that everyone has an unlimited store of jealousy waiting to be tapped is only common sense.

I beg to differ. Once again I invite you to use your imagination and shift your perspective a good 180 degrees to take in a new idea. There is nothing natural about jealousy. Like anger, it is a psychological problem, a neurosis—one that is completely eradicable. In fact, jealousy is just a form of anger, a species of anger, nothing else. The really interesting thing about jealousy is that it is unique among the neuroses in being the only one that is socialized, institutionalized and naturalized, rather than being the haphazard psychological symptom of particular individuals.

If someone we know has anger issues, we don’t say that his problem is natural; we say he needs to work on and eliminate his anger. He needs to manage it. Anger management. But we don’t speak of “jealousy management.” If someone becomes jealous, we don’t say he needs to “work on” it. We deem his jealousy a natural reaction to a cause—the discovery of a rival and a potential or actual infidelity. We not only grant him his right to be jealous; we encourage it. It’s okay if his jealousy knows no bounds. We even reserve a degree of forgiveness if he resorts to murdering his rival. Thus society penalizes “crimes of passion” more leniently than premeditated murder. Jealousy has society’s full backing.

Let’s imagine the reverse: if society justified and encouraged all forms of anger except jealousy. We would be losing our temper all the time, all over the place, and the murder rate would probably skyrocket as a result. But as for jealousy, there would be very low tolerance for it. We would be quite relaxed about the sexual sharing of our intimates or spouses. Bizarre as that may seem, is our current fully conventionalized and institutionalized engine of neurosis, namely jealousy, any less so?

Back to my neighborly couple at Annie’s. As related earlier, she presents me with her breasts without incident. But let’s suppose her man blows up at me for a completely trivial and unrelated reason—say, for implicitly criticizing his taste in wine by suggesting a different wine he might want to try next time—when all I wanted was to share a wine tip. You see, he had just come back from a tour of chateaus and wineries in France and wants to be regarded differently from your average wine consumer. And let’s suppose he becomes even more dramatic and smashes his bottle of wine against the wall. You would quite rightly deduce he has anger issues and needs to work on them.

Now let’s suppose he reacts in exactly the same way after I compliment his girl’s breasts. Again—I mean no harm. I’m not reaching over to touch them or saying something nasty about them. Only a few friendly words about her divine masterwork. And it results in the bottle crashing against the wall. Or on my head. You would again grant he has anger issues and needs to work on them. I suspect you’d hedge this by apologizing for him: his behavior is somewhat understandable, you claim, since I appear to be challenging or threatening the rightful possession of his property. You could even argue he is preemptively acting to forestall any further action on my part. After all, he’s only responding in a manly fashion, the way any man could be expected to respond, if not quite with the same degree of machismo.

Again I beg to differ. Jealousy can never justify aggressive or hostile behavior. On the contrary, it’s a neurosis, pure and simple. Both of these hypothetical angry outbursts are identical and proceed from the man’s individual psychology. With him out of the way, the problem disappears. Indeed, there is no reason why a woman needs a man with her at all to employ the breast greeting. Women can practice it anywhere to anyone. That’s the beauty of an etiquette. By instituting a reasonable common code of behavior that everyone follows, it’s democratic and advances society’s level of civilization.

Courtesy of Jack Guard.

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1 reply »

  1. If one can not feel love one can not feel jealousy. If one can not feel jealousy one can not get angry. Basic biology shared by most of the animal kingdom. Wishing to change what is arguably a hard-wired human trait may just be the whimsical machinations of a wild breast-crazy dude—-sitting in the corner—whimpering whilst the rest of the baby wolves happily suckled themselves into a blissful state.

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