In my previous blog posts, I sought to demonstrate the way in which the critical thinking skills I have developed from the Humanities aid me in understanding the world in which I live. From my students’ teaching evaluations to the trash I see on the street, our daily experiences are open to interpretation through critical reflection. My final post offers a similar reflection on a personal experience that demanded critical consideration.
While at the birthday party of a good friend some months back, I was introduced to the new love-interest of a high school classmate. He was a young, charming, gay man, and a pleasure to talk to. Yet, we shared one exchange that serves as the focus of this post.
A couple hours and a few drinks into the party, this man comes closer to me, and in an almost-whisper asks, “can I touch them?”
Yes, THEM. The girls. The twins. Jugs. Boobs. Breasts. Whatever you call them, this stranger had asked if he could take a hold of mine.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, I was taken aback. But, because this man was gay, I suspected his question was one of curiosity and not sexual desire, and, because of this (and maybe the drinks), I said ok. After a light fondle (the type you might get from an airport security guard—yes, that happens), this man says to me, “you are not wearing the right bra.”
“Excuse me?” I replied, honestly stunned. Due to their size and my personality, my boobs have always been a source of conversation among family and friends. Additionally, my many years as a Lane Bryant employee eradicated any sense of taboo that might have once surrounded the conversation of mine or anyone else’s busts. I am comfortable with conversations ranging from good-natured teasing, commiseration, awe, and the useful sharing of information. But no one (and specifically no man) had EVER, unsolicited, criticized how I was wearing my breasts.
“You are clearly not in the right bra,” he continued.
“Ok,” I said, growing agitated. Not wanting to cause tension at a friend’s birthday party, I resisted the urge to smack his hand away and yell, “Who do you think you are!?” Instead, I took a different approach. I began to calmly explain to this man that I had actually been a bra fitter for a number of years at Lane Bryant. “Well, have you ever been professionally measured?” Yes, I responded, and I have measured others repeatedly (and occasionally still do with the bra fitting tape I might have from my former job).
“Well, I help my mom with her bras all the time, and can definitely tell you need a different one. They should be up here” he said, adjusting my straps to elevate my chest. I attempted to explain to him that because of my bra size, it is difficult to find affordable options and often I am left with a less successful bra for budgetary reasons. When I told him my bust size (again, something I often share without shame to friends and family) he replied, “You can’t be that size! My mom is only a [insert size], and you look the same!” To this man, regardless of what I had to say, I knew little about my own breasts or how to wear them.
I did a little lift and tuck of the girls which appeased him, and we were able to move on to a different topic. But for the rest of the night, I could not shake the feeling that this conversation was, as many academics are wont to say, “problematic.”
As I mention above, my chest is not a topic I often shy from, but it is an intimate one that is usually only undertaken with family and friends—not the recently-met boyfriends of family and friends. While this individual apparently wanted to be helpful, his delivery repeatedly undermined my own assertions about my body and its presentation, suggesting that his experience with his mother was more valid than my years of both professional and personal experience buying and selling bras.
My source of agitation, I believe, is best articulated through the term “mansplain.” To clarify for those unfamiliar, mansplaining is when a man “explain(s) something to someone, typically a woman, in a manner regarded condescending or patronizing.” This portmanteau gained popular usage after Rebecca Solnit wrote an essay for the Los Angeles Times outlining instances where “Men Who Explain Things” went to great lengths to incorrectly explain information to her upon which she had written well-received books. According to Solnit, some men seem to assume they hold more knowledge than women because of (likely unconscious) gender biases. Mansplaining underscores for women that their knowledge of the world is suspect for no other reason than because they are women.
Perhaps complicating my personal experience was the fact that my mansplainer was gay. Actress Rose McGowan recently caused a stir when she asserted during a podcast interview that “gay men are as misogynistic as straight men, if not more so.” While I would never argue that gay men hold the same cultural privileges as straight men (they definitely don’t), my exchange with this particular individual demonstrated to me that gay men can indeed be guilty of wielding male privilege to the disadvantage of their female counterparts. Tim Murphy’s thoughtful piece for New York Magazine in response to McGowan’s comments considers the complicated relationship that gay men often have with women, whether through their drag performances or friendships. And, while rightly critiquing McGowan’s assertion for its homogenizing effect and lack of recognition for the supportive relationships often shared between gay men and straight women, he also observed that “Gay men are men…And as men, we carry male privilege. If we’re white and well-educated, we carry a lot of privilege.” Because the subject of my story was a man, he assumed my knowledge to be less than his own. And because this man was gay, he assumed an understanding of and access to my body that had not been established. Being gay and being male does not a boob expert make. Until you’ve worked for years navigating the absolutely bizarre brazier world both personally and professionally, get your hands off my breasts.
Melissa Welshans is a PhD Candidate in English at Syracuse University and is currently working on her dissertation The Many Types of Marriage: Gender, Marriage and Biblical Typology in Early Modern England. Melissa’s research is concerned with issues of gender and sexuality in early modern England, especially as it pertains to the institution of marriage. In her free time Melissa practices her nail art skills and snuggles with her husband and their two cats.