Prelude at Annie’s
I’m at an Annie’s, a foreign-managed Italian restaurant chain in Beijing. It’s become a trendy place recently as a consequence of locals’ worries over the food safety of Chinese restaurants. There’s also the rising popularity of Western food generally, as growing numbers of Chinese come back from trips to culinary heaven in Europe and discover Western 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, most of the customers were expats needing a bite to eat after picking up necessities at a neighboring supermarket for foreigners, Jenny Lou’s. Now, you need to wait in line for a table even on weeknights, and almost all of the customers are Chinese. The staff have their obsequious service and plastic smiles down to an art form. Even the boys standing outside waiting for their next delivery bow to you like royalty as they open up both sets of doors. They also serve generous portions, and I guess it’s my third serious glass of wine that is giving me the inspiration to write the following.
Next to my table is a Chinese couple. Nothing unusual in that. We’re in Beijing. But they stand out. He is handsome, smartly dressed, trim and fit in a dark suit and black turtleneck, around 50. She is very attractive and also smartly dressed; her incipient double chin suggests early 30s. But what bends my gaze around me like an elastic sling are the big breasts on her delicate frame. We’re talking big. Oh, they’re real, all right, hanging gracefully rather than sticking out like a boob job. A work of art. They immediately clarify why it’s this guy rather than any other guy 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. But 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 young parvenu will do. It helps to be somewhat advanced in years (this is what still gives me a dwindling sliver of hope), 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 go for Sprite instead of Coke, white instead of black iPhones. It’s 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 around to his side and wrapping her arms around him. 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 fun. She’s showing she’s clearly into him. No acknowledgment of the existence of life outside their little bubble, not to mention any attentive males in the vicinity. She is 100% 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 nervier 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 start chatting with this attractive couple. Of course, 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 too, 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 shaking hands with the lady, I defer to her. In one smooth practiced motion she lifts up her shirt and bra and releases her breasts to view. Then receiving my expected nod and smile of acknowledgment, she replaces them back under her shirt.
To the initiate, the sight must be startling. Like two heads guillotined under one blade and 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. With the big bloated bag of worry and desire punctured and expelled, and the world now aright, we get back to the business of conversation without skipping a beat, considerably relaxed and at ease.
My idea is, since breasts 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?
Fat chance of this ever happening goes the objection: the idea is totally impractical on numerous grounds. No woman, no matter how proud she is of her breasts, could stand the leering – and cheering – of every man in the room. The more obnoxious among them would be lining up to meet her. Fending off male paws desirous to touch her 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 cultural and relative, and it is only from our own narrow, parochial perspective that they seem bizarre to us. New forms of greeting can catch on and be adopted. For instance, I am your typical Anglo-Saxon from a midwestern American city. When I was growing up, it was unheard of for people barely acquainted to greet each other by throwing themselves into a big bear hug and planting kisses on each other’s cheeks (enabling guys to feel a woman’s bosom mashed up against their chest). It would have been as awkward and strange as the old genteel custom of bowing and kissing the back of a lady’s hand. But the bear hug is now de rigueur. Is it then so difficult to imagine a novel form of greeting that doesn’t involve any form of physical contact or touching 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 regard ourselves as reasonably openminded, we can 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, females in particular, are wont to avoid looking at you upon first meeting, and keep eye contact thereafter to a minimum in conversation. 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, but you’re unlikely ever to have the chance to meet them, with laws severely constraining their appearance in public; the greeting of women is itself taboo.
At the other extreme, many American Indian tribes, before their way of life was thrown out by the European invasion, used to practice what was known as “sex hospitality”: the offering of a host’s wife to a male guest for the night, a privilege extended even to the first White pioneers. I think you can appreciate that next to this extraordinary practice, which really existed (and may still exist in some indigenous cultures I am unaware of) and was not some libertine’s utopian idea, my little proposal is quite modest by comparison.
Given the impracticality of breast greetings in a public environment, which make 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, you suggest, where only the intended person or persons are 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.
However, we want 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 the lady’s breasts when his motive might be insincere, his only reason for taking up the offer, rather than a friendly interest in the couple? 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 become normalized and perfectly natural. 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 no more stand out 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 other families and strangers naked in the sauna, and take breasts and nudity at public beaches and swimming pools for granted. It’s been wryly observed that you can always identify North American women at European beaches. They 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, what’s the point of the greeting by breast? The answer is that no matter how commonplace the practice becomes, breasts will always retain their magical power. The difference is that a balance will have been struck: we will be able to delight 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 and the unveiling that electrifies the encounter.
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 her breasts, 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 I only had great tits. Men like me only because I have great tits. Men stare at them and harass me all the time. It seems impossible for a woman to be satisfied with her breasts. The more perfect they are, the more she hates them.
“Don’t you sometimes wish you were really flat?” said Sukey to Kate.
Sukey was a cute 19-year old thing with big beautiful breasts I had a fling with years ago in Chicago. Sexually and intellectually precocious for her age, she was up-to-date on the latest contemporary fiction and worked as a nude model at an art school. Still, her comment put an end to the fun we almost had that night.
She had brought me over to her girlfriend Kate’s place. We smoked some pot. Since I was currently training as a therapist at a massage school, 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 every bit as large and gorgeous as Sukey’s, but the mood was wrecked. Thereupon for my benefit, over beers 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 anger about men and breasts.
They were not the only women who over the years have pointed out how stupid, infantile, asinine, puerile, idiotic, deplorable, disgusting and appalling, 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 are not fair gains because they can only come at the expense of an equal loss by the other side. 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 her breasts. For every man who pines after a woman’s breasts, there is a woman who pines after a woman’s breasts (as many have secretly 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 proudly goes braless, 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 magnificent breasts related how one summer day when she was out on the street in a halter top, a dude passing by remarked, “Great tits!” This predictably pissed 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 the most perfect symmetry. My evident humiliation for being sexist and offensive is cancelled out by the stupid, infantile, asinine, puerile, idiotic, deplorable, disgusting and appalling stubbornness of women in refusing to be generous with their breasts.
Breast fascination is real and isn’t going away any time soon. Most men are obsessed by them — this includes intelligent and cultivated men, such as Einstein, who apparently had a thing for Marilyn Monroe. This pointless, absurd and ridiculous obsession is precisely counterposed by the pointless, absurd and ridiculous female fantasy that worthy men outgrow their obsession with breasts, which I can tell you, they never do.
On the one hand, women bemoan the sorry state of men who can’t seem to extricate themselves from their strange obsession with breasts. On the other hand, they rely on this very obsession, careful not to squander their assets by freely giving them out but letting them accrue maximum potency behind the veil, with the aim of ensnaring Mr. Right. Again, symmetry prevails. In practice if not in theory, women are just as enslaved to their breasts as men.
A woman who is beautiful and endowed with a gorgeous 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 apprehend her gorgeousness and respond to it. She feeds off their obsession, nurtures and inspires it.
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 freely give men your breasts for a few marvelous moments, right 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 between presence and absence and brought things back to zero.
But what about the man she’s 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. When your parents and other adults around you repeat the same ideas thousands of times in your formative years, you are compelled to believe them. This process never ends but continues throughout life, as you continuously receive the reinforcement of conventions and pass the same on to others around you in turn, including your children.
The process is very 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 turn you from a Christian into an atheist with equal inevitability. It’s why people used to believe the sun revolved around the earth and the earth was flat, while today we believe the earth revolves around the sun and the earth is round. This is what it means to be properly socialized.
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, the Holy Trinity of romantic love, sexual fidelity, and jealousy form the Godhead. They are deemed an inseparable unity and so real and inevitable they are accepted as given. For the vast majority, relations between the sexes is unimaginable outside of the 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 community that makes sure you believe it. The Truth is hammered into us by society at large not only in the classroom and the local church (Christian or otherwise) as we grow up, but on TV and movies (whose scenarios typically center around a happy family), advertising, love song lyrics in pop music, the plots of most operas and plays, magazines and novels, and now, the Internet (dating websites, etc.). When the totality of established voices in society conspire to enforce a morality and code of ethics, we say that it is institutionalized.
Once we are properly socialized into a belief system which is fully institutionalized, it becomes normalized or naturalized. It becomes both invisible and all-encompassing and enveloping. You cannot perceive anything else, because you are sucked into it and can’t see outside of it. The idea that there may be some kind of alternative belief system never occurs to you. Your system is the only system, the only thing that makes sense. It doesn’t need to make sense because it’s common sense.
Jealousy is a good example of a naturalized concept. Talk to almost anyone – conservative or liberal, Christian or atheist, Chinese or American – and they’ll all tell you with great assurance that jealousy is just one of those things, like desire, fear or anger, that 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 uncontroversial and expected.
I beg to differ. I invite you to use your imagination and shift your perspective around 180 degrees to take on a new idea. There is nothing natural about jealousy. Like anger, it is a psychological problem, a neurosis – one that is completely eradicable. The interesting thing about jealousy is that it is unique among 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. Otherwise known as anger management. But we don’t speak of “jealousy management.” If someone becomes jealous, we don’t say he needs to “work on” his jealousy. 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, a “towering jealousy” but somehow more acceptable than a towering rage. 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. It’s as if jealousy has society’s full backing and approval.
Let’s imagine the reverse: if society justified and encouraged all forms of anger except jealousy. We would be losing our temper all over the place and the murder rate would 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 sole current conventionalized and institutionalized neurosis, namely jealousy, any less so?
Back to the hypothetical scenario involving my neighbors at Annie’s, when the woman presents me with her breasts. 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 to do was share a tip on a wine I liked. You see, he just came back from a tour of chateaus and wineries in France and Italy and wants to be regarded differently from your average 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. It’s just a friendly compliment 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. But I suspect you would also hedge this by apologizing for him: his behavior is somewhat understandable, you claim, since I am implicitly challenging the rightful possession of his property. You could even argue he is preemptively acting to forestall any further action on my part to protect his territory from a predator. After all, he’s only responding in a manly fashion, the way any man could be expected to respond, if not necessarily with the same degree of force.
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 the man’s angry outbursts would proceed from his indivdual psychology and must therefore be considered identical. With him out of the way, the problem disappears. There is no reason why a woman needs any man with her to employ the breast greeting. Breast etiquette is ideally undertaken in the same fashion by all women everywhere. That’s the beauty of an etiquette. By enforcing a common code of behavior which everyone must follow, it is democratic and advances a society’s level of civilization.
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American Rococo: Essays on the Edge