There are those bodies that we congratulate ourselves for liking, and then there is what we like.
When Mark Radcliffe’s essay “In Praise of Small-Breasted Women” was published, I didn’t “like” it, because I was worried what my girlfriend would think. That was the first clue that I had failed Mark as his editor.
I was warmly empathetic to his subject matter. Once, I loved a woman who had tiny breasts. It wasn’t why I fell for her, but it became one of the qualities of her that I found sexy. She was pale and pear-shaped, wore trendy glasses. She had the only book by the Marquis de Sade I’ve ever actually picked up and read from. On one of our first dates, I laced up her corset, and birthed fetishes for waists, and breath control, and small breasts.
In the progressive, sex-positive circles in which I run, we praise ourselves and one another for liking bodies that are alternative-trendy. Health and beauty come in many forms, but at any given time, in any particular culture or subculture, there are those bodies for which we harbor desire, and there are those bodies that we congratulate ourselves for liking. Those “real women have curves” images that we pass around on Facebook make the curvy ones feel good about themselves in a Crossfit and pro-ana marketplace. My old girlfriend’s version of small-breasted allure was neither of these models, either. She was not skinny-ripped, did not have a powerful core, did not have an eating disorder. She was librarian-sexy, with a generous rump, and she was hot as hell.
After Mark’s article, there were a proliferation of breasty titles. Josh Bowman cracked me up, even while I was sure he was objectifying worse than Mark’s detractors said he had. Then there was In Praise and Appreciation of Women, which did the same thing, but in a Benetton of flavors. Are we better people if we like all the flavors, or at least a wider array than someone else does? Would we be better people, the gay and the straight among us, if we widened our palates to include the other gender? It’s racist to only want to date your own race, so should we all specify in our OKCupid profiles that we’re looking for “everything except [my own race]”? What about age: do you only date those close to you in age, or should you branch out? Are you ageist if you haven’t yet found the beauty in an old body and celebrated it?
Is there any way to talk about what we like, that isn’t objectifying? I talked to my current girlfriend about it. One of the first things she ever sent me to read was the Femme-Shark Manifesto, laying out her identity as a working class, sex positive, fat positive, POC positive queer feminine woman. As we used to say when I was in high school, I have been told. I started to tell her about Mark Radcliffe’s essay.
“When I tell you the name of it, I know you’re going to say, ‘Oh, Justin,’” I confided. Then I told her the name of it.
She rolled her head dramatically. “Oh, Justin,” she said, exactly the way I knew she would.
She’s accustomed to the culture that tells her that large breasts mean stupidity and low class. She’s well aware of the archetypes that have constructed both Mark’s appreciation and that of the construction workers who whistle. They whistle at my girlfriend. When I say her breasts are perfect, I am not exaggerating, and this needs no more explanation. Perfect is perfect.
When one of her femme friends gives smut readings on the kind of old school butch she wishes would drag her home by the hair, is she objectifying? Or is that okay as long as her tastes are charmingly old-fashioned, or as long as she only ascribes sexual qualities to the physical and social traits she admires? As long as she doesn’t assume butch women are handy with a toolbox, or don’t cry, is this innocent? What if her butch rolls over—will she still admire that firm jawed woman when she’s crying out to be fucked, now, hard?
We like what we like. We can’t change that. While there exists pressure to expand who we might consider, to go beyond what’s in our porn, our advertising, or our particular unicorn fantasies, they are met by the countering forces of the reality that you’re not actually into everybody. Of all the people you have known, only some of them have made you want to kiss them.
The mistake is in trying to intellectualize and make politically palatable our sexual tastes. We can’t generalize any attributes to people based on their physical traits. It does not make you a good person because your sexual tastes run from top to bottom, fair to dark, old to young, fat to thin, and a bad person if, time and again, the same archetype brings you to your knees.
And just as your desires do not determine your worth, neither do your physical traits. It is no more true that small breasted women are immature than that they’re well-read. Fat people are no more lazy or nurturing than skinny people. One sort or another might make you look longer, want to get closer, talk, touch. As much as we want to justify how we feel in a realm that seems defensible, what turns us on isn’t defensible, and we don’t have to try.