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By Hein Kaiser

Journalist


‘Tits Up’: The book changing how we think about breasts

The narrative weaves through various perspectives and professions, looking at how different cultures and industries perceive breasts.


There’s a book that’s been making headlines around the world, and it’s about breasts. Yet not in the way you may immediately think. It’s a read that’s as much for women as it makes for essential reading for any man. Because in it, author Sarah Thornton unpacks a narrative that, in a sense, can be labelled as a profound exploration of the female form’s most sexualised yet biologically important aspect. It’s called Tits Up, and it will make you think about breasts somewhat differently.

The story of Tits Up begins with Thornton’s own experience following a double mastectomy and reconstructive surgery. She found herself grappling with complex feelings about her body. “I was confused,” she said. “I knew I had lost something significant, but I wasn’t sure what. I’d dismissed my breasts as silly ‘boobs’ when I had them. But when they were gone, I realised they were sentient and was intrigued to unpack their cultural baggage.”

Humor, identity, and the reality of breast implants

Thornton also saw the humorous side of her station at the time and named her implants Bert and Ernie, dubbed to match their inert, inanimate nature. “They didn’t even feel female. I realised what a poor substitute a silicone implant was,” she said. She also touched on the broader implications of such surgeries, considering them a form of gender re-affirmation. “Breast augmentations, breast reconstructions, and trans chest feminisations are similar surgeries. I came to think of my reconstruction as a gender re-affirmation, as I was being fitted with an emblem of womanhood with no physical function.”

The surgery sparked the journey where she learnt more than she bargained for. “I was shocked at how little I knew about breasts,” she said.  

Thornton’s quest for understanding led her into uncharted territories, from strip clubs to bra design studios, and from lactation experts to witches. Each encounter added new layers to her study of breasts and the social norms that embrace them. “Before I started Tits Up, I’d never heard of a human milk bank nor ventured into a strip club, bra design studio, or pagan retreat. I’d been in an operating room, but only as an unconscious patient. I could not have foreseen the depth of knowledge about breasts that people who work in these places have,” she noted.

Who defines breasts? Exploring the language imbalance

But breasts have come to define womanhood, and nowhere else is it as evident as it is in language. Thornton said that American men use many words to refer to women’s chests, while women generally use only a few. Jugs, boobs, cans, boobies.

“What does this imbalance tell us about who defines breasts, who owns them, and who is at liberty to have fun with them?” she questioned. “‘Tits” is the number one word for breasts on the internet. It’s a man’s word that I encourage women to use. While some women find ‘tits’ too crude to utter, ‘tits up’ is a joyful expression of sisterly camaraderie.”

Movements like Free The Nipple is addressing breast empowerment. “The censorship of women’s chests is emblematic of our inequality. The bare chests of Jesus Christ and the Buddha are emblems of their authenticity and sacredness. Whereas women’s chests are treated as sexual, shameful, and profane,” she said.

Cultural and clinical perceptions

Thornton’s narrative weaves through various perspectives and professions, looking at how different cultures and industries perceive breasts. Her conversations with modern witches and pagan communities particularly intrigued her.

“They view breasts as symbols of nourishment and power, integral to their rituals and spiritual practices,” she said. This contrasted sharply with the clinical detachment she encountered in medical settings. She said, “In the operating room, they reduce breasts to tissue and fat, something to cut, augment, or reconstruct.”

The economic power of breasts explored

The economic impact of breasts also plays a significant role in Tits Up. “Women’s breasts are billion-dollar businesses. Breast surgeries are the key driver of the plastic surgery industry worldwide. The apparel business makes bras as the most complicated garment. They drive consumer loyalty. The bigger a woman’s bust, the more she will likely spend on a bra. Breast pumps and breast milk substitutes or formula are huge global businesses.

Topless entertainment may seem quaint, but it persists. Breasts are an advertisement and appetiser for a range of sexual services,” she shared. “Men order women for sexual services based on their race and breast style, specifying natural, enhanced, large, or small. Some lactating women gift over 100 gallons to human milk banks. Breasts don’t bounce up and down; they move in a figure-eight pattern,” she said. 

“The most pervasive myth in the Anglo-American world is that it’s erotic playthings and that women have them to attract men. Anthropological evidence makes clear that breasts are not sex objects in many cultures. In Indigenous communities in tropical climates where women wear no clothing above the waist and breastfeed openly, breasts belong to babies.

From nourishment to fetish

She said that the eroticization of breasts is a relatively recent phenomenon, linked to the rise of wet nursing in Renaissance France two centuries ago. “The delegation of breastfeeding to wet nurses enabled the aristocracy to have more children because lactation can suppress ovulation and allowed a birthing mother’s breasts to retain a more youthful shape. Unclaimed by infants, breasts could become the possession, fetish, and status symbol of husbands and lovers.”

Thornton hopes her book will serve as a tool for advocacy of body positivity and autonomy. “I’d like women to feel happier about their chests and less judgmental about other women’s choices about what they do with theirs,” she said. She said, “Breasts are the elephant in the room.”. “Breasts represent womanhood in the way a crown stands in for the Queen. They are a symbol and a star asset of femininity. When a body part is emblematic, its rank affects the status of the whole.”

NOW READ: Expert: No substitute for breastfeeding

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