There are certain practical realities of existence that most of us accept. If you want to catch a bear, you don't load the trap with a copy of Catch-22—not unless you rub it with a considerable quantity of raw hamburger. If you want to snag a fish, you can't just slap the water with your hand and yell, "Jump on my hook, already!" Yet, if you're a woman who wants to land a man, there's this notion that you should be able to go around looking like Ernest Borgnine: If you're "beautiful on the inside," that's all that should count. Right. And I should have a flying car and a mansion in Bel Air with servants and a moat.
Welcome to Uglytopia—the world reimagined as a place where it's the content of a woman's character, not her pushup bra, that puts her on the cover of Maxim. It just doesn't seem fair to us that some people come into life with certain advantages—whether it's a movie star chin or a multimillion-dollar shipbuilding inheritance. Maybe we need affirmative action for ugly people; make George Clooney rotate in some homely women between all his gorgeous girlfriends. While we wish things were different, we'd best accept the ugly reality: No man will turn his head to ogle a woman because she looks like the type to buy a turkey sandwich for a homeless man or read to the blind.
There is a vast body of evidence indicating that men and women are biologically and psychologically different, and that what heterosexual men and women want in partners directly corresponds to these differences. The features men evolved to go for in women—youth, clear skin, a symmetrical face and body, feminine facial features, an hourglass figure—are those indicating that a woman would be a healthy, fertile candidate to pass on a man's genes.
These preferences span borders, cultures, and generations, meaning yes, there really are universal standards of beauty. And while Western women do struggle to be slim, the truth is, women in all cultures eat (or don't) to appeal to "the male gaze." The body size that's idealized in a particular culture appears to correspond to the availability of food. In cultures like ours, where you can't go five miles without passing a 7-Eleven and food is sold by the pallet-load at warehouse grocery stores, thin women are in. In cultures where food is scarce (like in Sahara-adjacent hoods), blubber is beautiful, and women appeal to men by stuffing themselves until they're slim like Jabba the Hut.
Men's looks matter to heterosexual women only somewhat. Most women prefer men who are taller than they are, with symmetrical features (a sign that a potential partner is healthy and parasite-free). But, women across cultures are intent on finding male partners with high status, power, and access to resources—which means a really short guy can add maybe a foot to his height with a private jet. And, just like women who aren't very attractive, men who make very little money or are chronically out of work tend to have a really hard time finding partners. There is some male grumbling about this. Yet, while feminist journalists deforest North America publishing articles urging women to bow out of the beauty arms race and "Learn to love that woman in the mirror!", nobody gets into the ridiculous position of advising men to "Learn to love that unemployed guy sprawled on the couch!"
Now, before you brand me a traitor to my gender, let me say that I'm all for women having the vote, and I think a woman with a mustache should make the same money as a man with a mustache. But you don't help that woman by advising her, "No need to wax that lip fringe or work off that beer belly!" (Because the road to female empowerment is...looking just like a hairy old man?)
But take The Beauty Myth author Naomi Wolf: She contends that standards of beauty are a plot to keep women politically, economically, and sexually subjugated to men—apparently by keeping them too busy curling their eyelashes to have time for political action and too weak from dieting to stand up for what they want in bed. Wolf and her feminist sob sisters bleat about the horror of women being pushed to conform to "Western standards of beauty"—as if eyebrow plucking and getting highlights are the real hardships compared to the walk in the park of footbinding and clitoridectomy. Most insultingly, Wolf paints women who look after their looks as the dim, passive dupes of Madison Ave nue and magazine editors. Apparently, women need only open a page of Vogue and they're under its spell—they sleepwalk to Sephora to load up on anti-wrinkle potions, then go on harsh diets, eating only carrots fertilized with butterfly poo.
It turns out that the real beauty myth is the damaging one Wolf and other feminists are perpetuating—the absurd notion that it serves women to thumb their noses at standards of beauty. Of course, looks aren't all that matter (as I'm lectured by female readers of my newspaper column when I point out that male lust seems to have a weight limit). But looks matter a great deal. The more attractive the woman is, the wider her pool of romantic partners and range of opportunities in her work and day-to-day life. We all know this, and numerous studies confirm it—it's just heresy to say so.
We consider it admirable when people strive to better themselves intellectually; we don't say, "Hey, you weren't born a genius, so why ever bother reading a book?" Why should we treat physical appearance any differently? For example, research shows that men prefer women with full lips, smaller chins, and large eyes—indicators of higher levels of estrogen. Some lucky women have big eyes; others just seem to, thanks to the clever application of eyeshadow. As the classic commercial says, "Maybe she's born with it. Maybe it's Maybelline." (If it increases her options, who cares which it is?)
Unfortunately, because Americans are so conflicted and dishonest about the power of beauty, we approach it like novices. At one end of the spectrum are the "Love me as I am!" types, like the woman who asked me why she was having such a terrible time meeting men...while dressed in a way that advertised not "I want a boyfriend" but "I'm just the girl to clean out your sewer line!" At the other extreme are women who go around resembling porn-ready painted dolls. Note to the menopausal painted doll: Troweled on makeup doesn't make you look younger; it makes you look like an aging drag queen.
Likewise, being 50 and trying to look 25 through plastic surgery usually succeeds in making a woman look 45 and fembot-scary—an object of pity instead of an object of desire. Plastic surgery you can easily spot is usually a sign—either of really bad work or of somebody who's gone way over the top with it, probably because she's trying to fill some void in her life with silicone, Juvederm, and implanted butt cutlets. There are women who just want to fix that one nagging imperfection. For others, plastic surgery is like potato chips, as in, "Betcha can't eat just one." A woman comes in for a lunchtime lip job—an injection of Restylane or another plumping filler—and ends up getting both sets of lips done. Yes, I'm talking about labioplasty. (Are your vagina lips pouty?)
Once women start seeing wrinkles and crow's feet, the desperation to look like they were born yesterday often makes them act like it, too. Women want to believe there's such a thing as "hope in a jar"—and there is: hope from the CEO selling the jars that you and millions of others will buy him a new yacht and a chateau in the south of France. There actually is hope to be found in a plastic bottle—of sunblock, the kind that protects against both UVA and UVB rays (the skin-aging ones). But the Beauty Brains, a group of blogging cosmetic scientists, write, "The sad truth is that creams that claim to be anti-aging are not much more effective than standard moisturizing lotions."
French women, too, buy into the idea that there's some fountain of youth at the Clarins counter. But, perhaps because feminism never seeped into mainstream culture in France like it did here, they generally have a healthier and more realistic relationship with beauty, accepting it as the conduit to love, sex, relationships, and increased opportunities. They take pleasure in cultivating their appearance, and in accentuating their physical differences from men. They don't give up on looking after their looks as they age, nor do they tart themselves up like sexy schoolgirls at 50. They simply take pride in their appearance and try to look like sensual, older women.
To understand what it takes to be beautiful, we need to be very clear about what being beautiful means—being sexually appealing to men. And then, instead of snarling that male sexuality is evil, we need to accept that it's just different—far more visually-driven than female sexuality. To focus our efforts, we can turn to an increasing number of studies by evolutionary psychologists on what most men seem to want. For example, the University of Texas' Devendra Singh discovered that men, across cultures, are drawn to a woman with an hourglass figure. Men like to see a wom an's waist—even on the larger ladies—so burn those muumuus, which only reveal your girlish figure in a Category 5 hurricane, and if you don't have much of a waist, do your best to give yourself one with the cut of your clothes or a belt.
Too many women try to get away with a bait-and-switch approach to appearance upkeep. If you spend three hours a day in the gym while you're dating a guy, don't think that you can walk down the aisle and say "I do...and, guess what...now I don't anymore!" A woman needs to come up with a workable routine for maintaining her looks throughout her lifetime and avoid rationalizing slacking off— while she's seeking a man and after she has one. Yeah, you might have to put five or ten extra minutes into prettying up just to hang around the house. And, sure, you might be more "comfortable" in big sloppy sweats, but how "comfortable" will you be if he leaves you for a woman who cares enough to look hot for him?
Like French women, we, too, need to understand that a healthy approach to beauty is neither pretending it's unnecessary or unimportant nor making it important beyond all else. By being honest about it, we help women make informed decisions about how much effort to put into their appearance—or accept the opportunity costs of going ungroomed. The truth is, like knowledge, beauty is power. So, ladies, read lots of books, develop your mind and your character, exercise the rights the heroes of the women's movement fought for us to have, and strive to become somebody who makes a difference in the world. And, pssst...while you're doing all of that, don't forget to wear lipgloss.
A new blog, smallbustbigheart.com, has become a venue for these women, according to its author, to “gush about the lingerie and clothes that scream, ‘Can you handle me?’ not ‘Am I enough?’ ”
That is not to say handwringing over a Lilliputian bust no longer exists. Some women still find a soulmate in , whose 1972 essay in Esquire, “A Few Words About Breasts,” perfectly articulated the lament of women who realized they were never going to fill out. Bust magazine, with its feminist streak, has a support group for those laid low by their tiny breasts, and its recent entries are poignant. One woman wrote: “I hate getting outbreasted by teenagers.”
Still, the persistent strain of A-cup pride running through our culture is unmistakable. Facebook groups like Flat Chested and Proud of It! and Flat Chested Girls United exist, and their members trade bon mots as profound as “im flat as a tack :)” — which garner male support like “you are blessed.” For all their entourage to see, more than 2,300 people joined another Facebook group to declare “flat chested girls are prettier!!”
In recent years, as people’s weight has ballooned, breasts (mostly made up of fat) have only gotten larger, and commensurately bra cup sizes, too. K-cups now exist. Brandishing a tiny bosom may be a reaction to that trend.
Unlike many women who struggled as teenagers to make peace with their minimal assets, Sabrina Lightbourn, 37, a photographer in , the , never second-guessed her A-cups, even in a land of bikinis. “In my mind, they are fabulous,” she said. Sometimes, she favors down-to-the-sternum cuts that make it “really obvious that you don’t have much.”
Small-breasted women have also begun to express their anger on the Internet when they suspect one of their brethren has decided to artificially augment what nature has given her. This year, pictures of a bikini-clad — along with a symbol of modest-breasted seductiveness to the A-cup population — surfaced showing what looked like modest implants. Afterward, Jen Udan, who works in Internet marketing in , Tex., felt as if she had been slapped in the face. “I don’t need to look up to you, Kate Hudson,” Ms. Udan, 25, wrote in a blog post entitled “Diary of a Mad, Small-Breasted Woman.”
With its motto “Small is Beautiful,” Lula Lu is just one of several retailers and bra makers serving the band of women who make no excuses for their inconspicuous bosoms. Some brands, like the Itty Bitty Bra sold online and in Fred Segal Silk in , Calif., require women to have a sense of humor about being “bust-challenged,” as the Web site jokes. “Some people are taken aback by it, especially the name,” said Jane A. Hodgdon, the designer and owner of the brand, which is sized 32 AA to 38B and retails for $45 to $60. Mrs. Hodgdon, 42 and an AA cup, was tired of bras that “were so heavily padded it just wasn’t me. It looked ridiculous. I’m proud of what I have. I wanted coverage and lift.”
Lailides.com, pronounced LAY-leed, offers come-hither wireless lingerie for $46 to $72 and a healthy dollop of self-love. “Having small breasts and wearing A-cup bras (or AA cup or B cup) is a cause to rejoice,” the site declares. “Women who wear A-cup bras do not experience pain from running or dancing, they can sleep on their stomachs, and best of all, sagging is minimal compared to larger women.” (Their $68 Firebird bra, semi-sheer and scalloped, may make women reconsider underwire altogether.)
This kind of cheerleading is not about girl power. This message of empowerment is resolutely intended for adults who wish their lingerie to reflect their age and station. No woman in her 40s wants to disrobe to reveal a polka-dotted training bra, and unfortunately for too long, grown women have had ill-fitting options or unsexy mood killers in the bra department.
“We are supplying sexy, chic lingerie for grown-up women, not teenagers, who are proud of what they have and not worried about trying to look bigger,” said Fiona Goad, 44, the managing director at LittleWomen.com, an English site with a vast selection whose sales of AAA-cup bras have overtaken AA-cups recently.
Women with flat to small chests disagree about what they want from a bra. One camp consists of traditionalists who take little issue with push-up bras; their complaint is never being able to find one with a small enough band and with cups close enough together to create yelp-worthy cleavage. The Little Bra company, which has 28 to 36 in the A to B range, delivers this kind of instant gratification.
Emily Lau, the chief executive and the designer, said most padded bras look and feel as subtle as “two pillows over a flat board.” Often a push-up bra stands away from the body in an unflatteringly way that makes even the most assured woman wish she had more to “fill” the cup. By contrast, Ms. Lau created her line with contoured-to-the-body padding so that minuscule breasts can be enhanced with no gaps at the bustline.
At the other extreme are the au-naturels who would just as soon go braless if it wasn’t for this little thing called the office and the awkwardness of erect nipples in cold conference rooms. Exquisitely designed soft bras with no underwire appeal to this camp for gorgeous details and “nipple discretion,” as it’s called in the industry, said Susannah Hornsby, an expert bra-fitter at Journelle, a boutique in New York.
In fact, soft bras have come such a long way from their training-bra lineage that Claire Chambers, the chief executive of Journelle, says her saleswomen, most of whom are 32D, regret that they cannot fit into all the crush-worthy fashion pieces from brands like The Lake & Stars. Really.
The middle camp also wants a certain degree of authenticity and their real silhouette to shine under a T-shirt. In their minds, no bra should so transform your breasts that they are unrecognizable. This is tricky, said Ms. Hornsby, who also manages Web operations for Journelle.com, since such a bra has to have a “shallow and stretchy” cup, the between-the-cups spacer as tiny as possible, and a small band. One that fits the bill is Timpa’s $33 Duet Lace Underwire Demi bra, she said.
For too long, bra shopping has demoralized women with just a bit on top. Some department-store saleswomen tell adults to head to the children’s department for training bras. Others are just dismissive. As a size 28A, Heidi Brockmyre, an acupuncturist in , says she has been turned away from bra-fitting boutiques. “They were like, ‘No, we can’t help you,’ ” she said. “I felt like I’m a freak of nature.”
She has since bought five Little Bra Company bras, and now dabbles in the joys of cleavage — on occasion. “I’m O.K. with not having cleavage,” said Ms. Brockmyre, 33. These bras just make it “more fun to wear tank tops.”Continue reading the main story