Talking to My Sons About Breasts

One morning last week, I sat down with my eight year old for breakfast. He put one arm behind his head and put his other hand on his chest. “Dad,” he asked, “are girls breasts made of the same things that these parts of men are made of?” I explained that they were, that they were muscle and fat and glands for making milk. “Good,” he said, “because that’s what I told Olivia.”

And there I was again, repeating what I think is a pretty good rule for boys: we don’t talk to girls about their bodies. Ever. It took me years to learn this. And when I finally did, I still had to learn that you never ask girls if they think they have enough shoes. Also, never tell your wife when she tries on her new interview suit that she looks like a flight attendant. I’m trying to give my sons what I never had: common sense about what to say to women.

I think it’s positive that the boys feel comfortable asking me these things , just as it was positive that when my eldest saw a topless woman at the Pride Parade, he referred to her breasts as “the parts that feed babies.”I was happy because seeing breasts for function over form is putting an anchor in my sons’ minds for when their ships of consciousnesses set a collision course with their hormones in a few years. I’ve seen the other side of this. When my son was about six months old  the two of us went to visit my aunt and her family. I don’t see them that much, and her early-teenage son was fascinated to have an adult first cousin. For whatever reason, this came out when he asked – in front of my aunt and uncle – if I could buy him skin magazines. I said that I could, and then asked if he knew what a lactation consultant was. I explained that once you spent time with a lactation consultant, women’s breasts lost a lot of their appeal. I was of course lying, but I got a  laugh out of my aunt.

What I didn’t tell my cousin is that if you wait long enough, someday women will talk to you about their breasts. Unfortunately, that day will be when you are at Target trying to buy nursing pads for your wife. Two women will realize you need help, and with elaborate hand gestures describe in disgusting detail how engorged and uncomfortable their breasts became upon childbirth. When that happened, I did actually think, “hey! strange women are talking to me about their breasts!” Unfortunately, my second thought was “God, I’m tired. I wonder if I can nap in the car before driving home to my wife and newborn son.”

I try to be consistent in the things I tell my sons. I think that explaining them not to talk to women about their breasts is of a piece with my general advice to my kids: we don’t talk about what people look like. Except if those people have those giant stupid ring spreaders in their earlobes. Then we can talk loudly and laugh, because those people put in serious effort to look like they do, and they look ridiculous.

Power Girl

We don’t talk about what people look like because it could be construed as rude, insensitive, or worse. We used to say that we don’t talk about breasts because it objectifies and demeans women. It does, and this is the argument a lot of people still make. It’s highly effective, and probably the reason there are so few busty women on TV , and so little porn on the internet. Good job, traditional scolding argument. It may be true, but it’s a lousy argument. The implication is that women are weak, or that they’re victims. The aggressive, the dominant, the strong don’t have concerns about being objectified, and in 2014 I’m not raising my sons to believe women aren’t any of these things. I want to believe the media has caught up – in recent super hero cartoons, there are far more tough women characters. Unfortunately, they tend to look like Power Girl (pictured above).

Here’s a better reason to tell my sons not to talk to women about their breasts: no women you’ll want to interact with – romantically, professionally, amicably- will want anything to do with you. That’s pretty bad, but the flip side is worse: women that are ok with you talking about or obsessing about their breasts or bodies in general are THE WORST. Someday, you will want to talk to them about something other than their diets, their workout plan, or their skincare regimen and you’ll realize they can’t. You might find some girl who fills out her cardigan nicely, and you’ll go out with her and her friends on New Year’s Eve. She’ll say a nasty thing to some other sweater-filler while you’re trying to get out of the cold on Clark Street, and that other girl will get angry. Her boyfriend will want to fight you. You will find yourself saying something like “punch me if you want, the night’s not going to get worse.” In that moment, you will look so pitiful and weak that he won’t fight you, and then you have to figure out how much money you have to give the cabbie to take your date wherever she wants to go while you walk home alone. And that is how you will start 1999.

Assuming my sons are straight, being fascinated by breasts is pretty much inevitable – as inevitable as the fact they will soon not want to talk about these things with their dad. I just want them to be able to politely moderate that fascination so that they can have good relationships with women.  We know there are men out there who wear their fascination on their sleeves, or  – via anatomically impossible silhouettes — on the mudflaps of their pick-up trucks. I saw a guy on the playground – the playground! – last year wearing a shirt with the word “Vagina” styled like the Coca-Cola logo. Has anyone ever done a study on the kind of relationships those men have with women? Do they even have relationships with women?

Maybe they would do well to spend some time with a lactation consultant.


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