Why are we *still* obsessed with the idea of having ‘perky’ breasts?

In a year as body positive as 2023, why are we still demonising “saggy” breasts? 

Madonna’s conical corset. Jennifer Aniston braless on the set of Friends. Katy Perry’s California Gurls canons. Lil’ Kim’s sparkly purple nipple cover on the VMAs red carpet. Pop culture’s iconic pert busts are images etched into our collective consciousness. And while they share attachments to women who are considered among the most beautiful in the world, they also share a certain aesthetic profile. Neither too big nor too small. Rounded, but not droopy. Smooth, shapely, perky. But as occupied as we are by celebrity bosoms, the way we feel about our own boobs is often negative.

In 2020, a survey by Anglia Ruskin University found that only a third of women in the UK liked their breasts. In the same year, breast augmentation became the most popular cosmetic surgery among women in the UK with over 4,600 procedures, with breast reduction coming in second place. 

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And it’s no wonder. Even in a year as body positive as 2023, sagginess, aka simply the loss of skin elasticity, is still demonised. Between the hyper-sexualisation of women’s bodies in porn, airbrushed lingerie adverts and tabloid culture’s circle of shame, we’re bombarded with ideas about how our chests should look, and what we can do (wear a supportive bra, steer clear of bouncing, complete chest exercises) to ensure their pertness.

Not only does the messaging perpetuate exactly the kind of limited and homogenous idea of “attractiveness” we’ve been dispelling for decades, it’s making women feel bad about the very parts of themselves they should celebrate.

“We’re under constant pressure to have sculpted and toned bodies, from the hair on our heads to the tip of our toenails, so of course our boobs should be sculpted and toned to match,” says Lucy, 44. She says the label ‘perky’ has made her feel worse about her own boobs, but admits that she still finds herself conforming to the pressure. “I wish I did have those perfect, perky boobs which look good braless in any kind of clothing and I’ve considered getting implants on more than one occasion,” she explains. “However, I’ve come to accept that this is how I am and that’s that.”

Madonna and Lil’ Kim’s “perky” boobs are etched into our collective memories

Chelsea, 32, agrees that ‘perky’ feels far from inclusive. “I’ve felt bad about my breasts because they aren’t perky and therefore not up to beauty standards,” she admits. “But larger and heavier breasts cannot defy gravity, and so are seen as less desirable.”

In an ideal world, we would all love, or at the very least ambivalently accept, our bodies for what they are, but the sad reality is that we remain being shamed – and shaming ourselves – for a natural part of our body’s development. Breast ptosis, the medical term for the descent of the nipple relative to the breast fold, occurs regardless of who you are or what you wear, as time and gravity cause your skin to become weaker and less elastic. While changes in weight, breastfeeding and menopause can impact the extent and speed, it’s unavoidable without surgical intervention. So why are we still holding ourselves up to an unrealistic standard and punishing our bodies when they inevitably change?

The perky ideal has faced some opposition, though. In 2017, writer Chidera Eggerue, known as The Slumflower, created the Saggy Boobs Matter movement, encouraging women of all ages, sizes, shapes and races to proudly post pictures of their breasts that didn’t necessarily match the media image of the light-nippled, scar-free, symmetrical, perky breast.

“I created the hashtag #SAGGYBOOBSMATTER because women are shamed when their bodies don’t appease the male gaze,” Eggerue wrote on Instagram. “Saggy boobs are under-represented. Being under-represented makes you feel alien to society. This fosters insecurities in people who don’t have the mental strength to see value in themselves beyond other people’s standards. Responding to #SAGGYBOOBSMATTER with ‘all boobs matter’ is absurd, as this erases and silences the issue at hand here. If all boobs mattered, all boobs would be equally represented.”

Kendall, 36, agrees that labels like ‘perky’ are tiresome and yet another unrealistic beauty standard to hold women to. “The reason there is so much pressure on women to have perfect boobs is because in our patriarchal society all we seem to care about is how people look,” she tells Stylist. “I’m happy with how my boobs look and what they have done for me: they’ve nourished two children. Yes, they are more saggy than they were when I was 16 but everything on my body is. Skin gets saggy as it ages.”

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Even though the images that surround us in the media today have become more diverse in their idea of beauty, many of us will still remain scarred by decades of push-up bras, cavernous cleavage and “maximising your assets”. But whether they’re AAs or DDs, a fistful or a couple of hands’ worth, sitting or sagging, it’s high time we started celebrating our boobs and our bodies, whatever they look like.

Images: Getty

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