April 26, 2021

In a world where personal memoirs have been written on every imaginable topic, the literary canon contains one surprising omission: there is no such thing as a penis memoir.

I googled this so you don’t have to (and so suffer the consequences, in the form of bizarre targeted advertisements). It turns out that men don’t write much about their bodies at all, and when they do, they keep it above the neck. Their memoirs focus on matters of the mind: mental illness, drug addiction, alcoholism, even a lobotomy. (Okay, Mark Wahlberg did dedicate his book to his penis, but that doesn’t count.)

It makes a sort of sense. Despite their anxieties about pattern baldness and matters of size — as in, does size matter? — society has always valued men for their minds at least as much as their bodies. If a man’s head is filled with great ideas, his ability to fill out a tight t-shirt hardly matters.

It’s different for women, and the body memoir is a genre in which they dominate. Beauty standards have always been a pressure point in women’s lives, but the waning days of second-wave feminism plus the dawn of the internet — and the confessional style of writing that proliferated there — led to a glut of literary oversharing as women turned their body issues into book deals. At their best, these books were brilliant: Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face, Judith Moore’s Fat Girl, Roxane Gay’s Hunger. The female reproductive system was a rich vein of inspiration unto itself, as shelves filled up with pregnancy, infertility, or menopause memoirs. Stagings of The Vagina Monologues became a regular event.

These books are like written dispatches from an endless, unwinnable war, a running tally of fleshy mortification. A woman’s body is both battleground to be defended and enemy territory, friend and foe. We try to torture it into submission, to make it an acceptable shape and size — a paradoxical fight we win by losing, whether it’s weight or our inhibitions about it. Women reclaimed their bodies by writing about them, asserting their right to take up physical space. And not just a sliver: a lot of space. Size XXL, double D, skin-for-miles space.

Leslie Lehr’s new memoir, A Boob’s Life, feels like a time-travelling artifact from this golden age of women’s writing. Frank and feminist, it’s one woman’s account of living her best (breast) life. By 2021 standards, it’s already a huge success: an announcement came in February that Salma Hayek would be developing the book into an HBO series in which a woman’s life “gets turned upside down when her boobs start talking to her”. But the book itself features no talking teats. It’s not really about boobs; they’re just the framework, the structure, the foundation garment that shapes the narrative. Lehr goes from wanting breasts, to getting them, to getting implants, to getting cancer. She gets angry. She gets perspective.

Many parts of A Boob’s Life read like a throwback to the early aughts — when the rise of plastic surgery reality shows, digital airbrushing, and newly ubiquitous internet porn had unleashed a new and particularly punishing standard to which women were supposed to aspire: a state of hairless, poreless, plastic perfection. In this era of the obligatory Brazilian wax, a woman could write in gritty confessional detail about her body and be considered brave for doing so. And had it been released just ten years earlier, A Boob’s Life would have been seen as radical and empowering — a much-needed rejoinder in a culture that celebrated boobs but hated women.

The days of raunch culture and lad mags are just far enough behind us that we’ve all developed a collective amnesia about how out-there some of it actually was, especially in a world where everything before 2016 is often dismissed as equally problematic. We forget that before Jimmy Kimmel claimed the mantle of moral authority in late-night comedian’s clothing, he was the co-host of The Man Show, in which one of the regular segments featured slow-motion footage of big-breasted women (lovingly nicknamed “the Juggies”) jumping on trampolines. When a mainstream, primetime TV programme thought that the spectacle of a woman getting slapped in the face by her own boobs was the height of comedy, we could in fact have done with a reminder that the boobs had a woman attached to them.

This is the era of American culture at which A Boob’s Life takes aim (hence the subtitle: How America’s Obsession Shaped Me―and You), but it’s just a little too late — like thinking of the perfect cutting rejoinder to an insult when the person who insulted you has not only left the room but also been dead for years. We’ve moved on, not just from turn-of-the-century raunch, but also from the blowback to it. The time for the body memoir is over; the confessional has been replaced by the political.

The conversation about women’s bodies has become strange and stilted. Talking frankly about things like boobs or vaginas used to be a riposte to the prudery of American social conservatism; now women are being shushed from both sides of the aisle, and occasionally from inside their own metaphorical house. Twitter tampon advertisements devolve into a mess of 240-character feminist infighting about the acceptability of referring to users as “menstruators”. Planned Parenthood has issued a series of mindblowing apologies — including for focusing “too narrowly on ‘women’s health’.” The organisation’s entire reason for being — its unapologetic commitment to women and their bodies and their ability to care for them — was transformed overnight into an embarrassment, hopelessly out of touch with what really matters.

“We must take up less space, and lend more support. And we must put our time, energy, and resources into fights that advance an agenda other than our own,” wrote Planned Parenthood president and chief executive Alexis McGill Johnson.

Once, women bravely fought for the right to live bigger, to be bigger, to take up as much space as we deserved; now, apparently, the feminist position is to be as unobtrusive as possible. In 2008, Tina Fey and Amy Poehler declared that “Bitches get stuff done!” and were met with a wave of roaring approval. In 2021, an assertive woman is just another manager-calling Karen, centring herself at the expense of everyone else. Leaning in is out. Empowerment has been replaced by abnegation. The head of one of the country’s most historic feminist institutions now instructs women to take up less space, and lend more support. Like a bra. Or a folding step stool.

One gets the sense that A Boob’s Life knows it is arriving into a hostile landscape. It’s trying to negotiate the contemporary, complex and evolving attitude toward women and their bodies by leaning into a very particular brand of pink-pussy-hat-wearing feminist outrage (even as those hats, and the vaginal double entendre they represent, have themselves come to be seen as the totem of the embarrassing basic white woman).

Perhaps anticipating the calls to sit down, shut up, and stop taking up space, the book periodically tries to dress itself up as something more, something bigger and more political than just a memoir about one woman’s life (and breasts). Lehr offers historical sidebars and bulleted lists to contextualise America’s purported breast obsession: a list of actresses who have bared their breasts onscreen, a timeline of lingerie-based trivia, a loose history of cheerleading as a microcosm for women’s oppression. The 2016 election looms especially large, as Lehr attempts to connect her father’s vote for Donald Trump to his various failings as a parent and husband, all of which is connected (somehow) to her complicated relationship with her own womanhood. One remarkable passage takes an earlier anecdote about a happy childhood moment in which Dad taught her to dive for her lifeguard training certification, and recasts it as something sinister and symbolic.

“He taught me I could do whatever I set my mind to, as long as I worked hard,” Lehr writes. “Now I understood that when he hung me by the ankles and dropped me off the high dive all those years ago, it was a baptism into the deep pool of patriarchy.”

But despite Lehr’s best efforts and colorful phrasing (a baptism! In the deep pool of patriarchy!), the historical sidebars and rhetorical flourishes about privilege, white men and patriarchy only weaken the narrative, vainly attempting to politicise the personal. The strength of a memoir is in the specificity of it, in the intimacy. To position A Boob’s Life as a feminist polemic is a defensive crouch that unwittingly undermines its appeal — but the fact that the author felt it necessary is also revealing.

The great awokening in American culture is supposed to represent the apex of progressive enlightenment, and yet the rules that dictate how a woman should speak, write, be, are stricter than ever. What are we to make of an era where a woman can’t write frankly about her body without endless apologies, caveats, privilege acknowledgments, and permission-seeking?

In this way, it seems that feminist progress has taken us for a long walk around the same well-trodden circle. But until we come around again to being unembarrassed about asserting our right to take up space, authors like Lehr will find ways to adapt, shaping their work to the demands of the culture just as they shape their bodies according to the current vogue. The truth, as always, is that you can punish your body, politicise it, write about it, make it into a temple or a battlefield or both at once. The biggest question, eternally unanswered — and yet, we try—  is how to live graciously inside of it.