Are Our Breast Issues Mostly Cultural?

16 Sep, 2012

My posts the past couple of weeks have included discussions about taking photos of women, mostly for a project to help Breast Cancer Survivors share their stories, but also working with some women on some important body image issues as well as removing shame.

While I personally have gained from many conversations from these stories, not many have contributed to the discussion online.

Today I am posting a series of pictures that shares a story. I won’t provide any of my own commentary until others have had a chance to share theirs. I hope you participate!


Some possible questions for you to consider and then answer in the comments:

  • What story do you see in these photos?
  • What emotions did you experience as you saw the images?
  • Were you faced with moral, right or wrong, concerns in this story or photos? If so, where did those concerns come from – your background, religion, belief system?
  • If you are a woman, and were the visitor in this village, do you think you have the freedom to interact the way the blonde in these photos did? If you did, what do you think your emotions would be if they were shared online, like these have been?
  • If you are a man, and you are visiting this village at the same time, what would you have thought if the blonde woman was your wife or girlfriend? What would you have said when you got back to your hut? What would you have felt if they were shared online, like these have been?
  • For everyone, if you were one of the villagers, would we even be asking these questions?

Source for village images:
Source for high priestess photo – cropped image of artist Marc Lagrange

Next: My Thoughts on Cultural Nudity

Pinging is currently not allowed50 Responses

  1. Jenn says:

    I have had a similar experience. Granted it was women who have "natural" breasts and I was the one who has rebuild breasts. I have had women view them, touch them etc. It is a learning process when you see something so different. That said for women who see mine it is about educating them on what can happen etc.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Jenn, your freedom, and your leadership as a breast cancer Survivor is amazing and I really respect you. Thank you for what you contribute not only to that discussion but for women overall. You have been an inspiration for me.

    • Rufus says:

      I too had a similar experience, I was around a girl who eventually took her shirt off and we ended up in a scene not entirely unlike that last picture. I am a man.

  2. Sa Say says:

    There are so many different cultural things going on here, I hardly know where to start, Chad. I really caught the joy in the exchange–how strange we look to each other, how unnatural our lifted and perky breasts (part of our culture, the other side of our modesty issues) seemed to the women from the village, and yet how free from judgment (something we are never free from in our culture).

    I think the compelling question (and one I can't answer yet) is whether I would feel free in the village to remove my shirt in this way, and then how I would feel if photos of the exchange were shared. My personal judgement of my own body comes immediately into play–I have nice breasts, but I'm overweight. It's the first thought in my mind–I wouldn't want how "fat" I am caught on film. These are very cultural issues–the fact that I'm currently overweight would outweigh my comfort with other aspects of my body, such as my breasts. (sorry, unintentional pun there)

    I love that this lady did feel the freedom both to unblouse herself with the women from the village and then allow the images to be shared. It definitely raises some interesting questions.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Thanks for adding to this discussion! Um… I just saw you a couple of weeks ago. Who are you calling fat? Where are you getting that definition? I certainly didn't see you that way… why do you? (that is feedback meant in love!)

      • Sa Say says:

        I know Chad–I've recently lost 20 pounds, and that's why I put it in quotes! We are most judgmental toward ourselves–and women toward each other. And I am still at an unhealthy weight, but getting closer to the goal my doctor set for me. For me, it's the recording that's been in my head for a long time. I look back pictures of me in college and think–wow, I was skinny. Why did I waste so much time thinking I wasn't?

  3. Dena Lynn Brehm says:


    I would so do that … I could feel it, as I viewed the images … yes, an erotic feeling arose, of course. Yes, a curiosity arose … yes, a feeling of warmth, of tenderness, of connectivity.

    Love it!!!

  4. Tracey says:

    So…my first reaction was laughter and crying all at the same time! You know the "one " where you laugh through the sobbing!! This of course is the reaction to the sense of freedom that I do not "yet" possess, but am on a journey to, and the other a very distinct reaction to the my religious background and moral reasoning that is taking place in my head. Not my voice only, but those who would object and try to put some reasoning and argument as to why it would still be wrong to undress in front of these women, " we are trying to help them learn a different role as Christian ambassadors", blah, blah, blah. YUK! And of course, I also have body issues that come in to play as Sa Say brings up!!

    I love the freedom that this women seems to be experiencing. I want that for myself. Can't wait for further discussion!

  5. Jeri says:

    Wow – I love the story in the photos, and yet….
    in my family, it wasn't safe being a little girl. When puberty arrived, it was more "shame" than celebration. I tell jokes about the first Playtex or Cross-Your-Heart television commercials being shown – in my family's living room. The room went silent – it was a combination of mortification and embarrassment on my part.
    Could I/would I disrobe in that village, with the "normalness" of the women there? Yes. Could I allow photos? NO! SaSay's comments above reflect my judgment of my older, overweight body.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Jeri, thank you for sharing. I'm so sorry that at the outset of your femininity you experienced shame. It shouldn't be that way. When my daughter had her first period she called me, so excited to share her journey. When her little brother could tell that something was going on he asked Jamie about it. After Jamie explained it to him he went up to his sister and congratulated her. It was so beautiful!
      May your judgments fade in the light of truth, Jeri. Much love, Chad

  6. Katrina says:

    I don't know how I can put in words how much I love this series of photos! The story that I see through the photos is a story of learning to not be ashamed. I see these two women helping the blonde to not be ashamed of showing it all, helping her be comfortable as a women.

    I think in our society turns breast into a sexual item, thus why women feel ashamed and/or uncomfortable. But the fact of the matter is they are tools, they bring life to a new generation, they are nothing to be ashamed of. Which I think that is how they would be viewed in this village.

  7. Ken says:

    Chad, thanks for having the guts to post this. Most other cultures in the world consider the human body just that, the human body. There is no stigma attached to the breast like there is in the American Culture. I think this is a great illustration of two cultures exploring each other's similarities.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Ken, I've seen the same thing in some of my travels. I wonder where America took this in a different direction? My guess is that it was religious in nature.

      • Sa Say says:

        Actually, Chad, I think it's a combination of our Puritan roots with the over-sexualization of the woman's body in our media that has caused so much crazy body-trauma for women. Culturally, we still have a pretty sick view of the value of a woman, epitomized in her body, or localized at the place of her body . Young women are bombarded with images and attitudes that make them feel like little more than glorified prostitutes. I'm sorry to be so blunt, but I am just appalled at the things that come out of the mouths of teenage and 20-something girls about their own value, quantified through nothing more than their sexual value to some guy. Confuse that with the continued judgements we women place on each other regarding modesty and the religious judgements that still pervade some aspects of our culture, and being female can be a mine-field to navigate.

      • birgitph says:

        Interesting. I can actually think of few cultures where women do not cover up their breasts for normal, everyday life — and those are generally smaller, tribal cultures. Can you actually think of a single country where the majority of women runs around uncovered most of the time? How many countries can you think of where you would NOT see women run around uncovered on a regular basis even when it is swelteringly hot? What does that tell you about basic cultural appropriateness of bare breasts?

        In Germany, you can see breasts out for breast feeding or for occasional sun bathing, but running around bare breasted would be considered completely inappropriate at any other time (and I actually think most cultures are like that – and that tells you that the basic cultural norm in most countries is 'breasts are not for general public viewing).) America might have a few more hang ups than some countries, but a whole lot less than others (how about the cultural norms on breast viewing in some of the largest countries out there, such as China or India? How about the 20% of the world's women who live in Muslim countries?)

  8. Julia says:

    I love cultural exchanges, and the freedom & joy in these photos. Stunningly beautiful moments captured.
    Birthday suits are the best! If I were there, I would have done the same thing. But I do not participate in the nudity at the clothing-optional hot-springs (in that cultural context it seems to be purely sexual which I save for my huz). Breasts are ornamental (adorning a woman's torso), and secondary sex organs, yes. Breasts are also functional feeders of wee humans. So, why is there shame associated more with using them functionally (breast-feeding) and not when they are used provocatively?

  9. wordhaver says:

    Funny. I just had to look up NSFW, and here I am viewing this blog on my work laptop. Nice. I think during last week's chemo round as we were visiting and talking about this very subject and your recent posts, I mentioned the line that first sprang to my mind from Terry Thomas in It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World (a title still incredibly relevant): "What is this American preoccupation with bosoms?" Viewing the story unfolding in the images, I was struck by another quote from Little Women (the film — quoting from memory, two male characters – Eric Stolz and Christian Bale, I think – speaking of this family of sisters): "Over the affairs of women there is a veil drawn which it is wise to leave undisturbed." Very glad the veil was drawn back on this one. What a beautiful intercultural HUMAN exchange. Perhaps the better question here is what ISN'T cultural when it comes to dress and modesty mores. There is much in every human culture both to admire and to critique. It seems that as westerners we can be very hard on our native culture, lambasting it, exposing it, challenging it – which is the essence of prophetic insight, and very healthy indeed. Still, it's not a question of ours sucks and theirs is so beautiful – it's appreciating the difference between cultures and allowing that to inform us as to our own cultural maps, which we live by subconsciously for the most part, so that we can be more fully human and be shaped on a deeper level than merely by the culture at hand. That's the gift of this visual exchange, and this post. As a side note, I do find it curious that in the Genesis 2-3 story, when shame does enter the garden, man and woman made "breeches" for themselves; woman evidently wore a one piece and initially did not have the urge to cover her breasts in shame. Have we learned better, or just differently? And where does our learning take us as human beings in our culture and beyond? One more side note. Personally I was challenged not to see these western breasts as sexualized. But thankfully, and truly, that was transcended by the mutual joy, dignity and humanity experienced by these women. And that's a gift. Thank you Chad. :)

  10. Christine says:

    Looks like an absolute blast! I wonder if they would have the same hangups with a woman in a top as we do with a woman out of her top. The other women's curiosity made me giggle. I'm a little jealous of the closeness and freedom; I really like my personal space, and usually avoid even a quick hug.
    …And, I want those jeans.
    Now, as for sharing photos like these on line…I don't know. I wouldn't mind, my husband wouldn't mind, but other family members would. Out of love for those other family members, I don't think I would let them be posted. I'm comfortable, my husband is comfortable. The others will get there in their own time.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Christine, I laughed at these too! What fun exploration and joy! I have laughed at myself a lot when I run into cultural issues outside of my own. I also loved your comment about the jeans!

      Your freedom is infectious- may it just keep on growing!

  11. Chad Estes says:

    I appreciated this response to this post on a different board:

    "I probably bring a different view, because the "issue" with breasts have revealed itself to me after I've been breastfeeding and become a great supporter of women being able to feed their babies. I think these photos are great and I can't imagine a culture where I would be able to feed my baby around others without feeling embarrassed or worried about others. While breasts are obviously used as something erotic during sex and foreplay, which is private, so are our mouths, hands, and whole bodies. I think it's because of our society that breasts have become akin to genetalia. That said, I think it would be a religious issue to be "flaunting" our breasts around only because of our society. It is obviously not a moral issue or sinful to view these photos or partake in that society norm. I wish so much that the sex appeal labeled with breasts was gone. It creates so much more lust than if our society viewed them as another working body part." – Sarah K

    • Orion says:

      I appreciate this viewpoint when I can ignore the fact that it's not solely "because of our society that breasts have become akin to genitalia." Breasts (well, nipples/areolas) have erogenous nerve endings… not of the nature of body parts we label as erogenous zones, like mouth or hands, but actual nerves that stimulate sexual desire, as found in genitalia. But it would be ignorant and sad of me to simply ignore this fact.

      I won't argue that publicly exposing breasts is wrong in any situation, but trying to desexualize breasts is sad and disturbing to me. I am reminded of a lengthy discussion at my Christian college about nudity in art, and some people had to argue that a piece was an example of nonerotic nudity in an attempt to get acceptance from religious peers and authorities, but this neutered the message and impact of the art which was clearly meant to have erotisism as part of its essence.

      The Rodin statue "The Kiss" is a great piece of art and it belongs in an art textbook, at a Christian college or no. But to do so by arguing that it is tasteful nudity as OPPOSED to erotic nudity is, in my mind, a worst oppression than the the staunch Christian college that would outright ban the textbook for having breasts in it.

      In the same way, I would prefer a discussion that explores the non-erotic roles of breasts without trying to argue that the erotic role of breasts is a false construct of society.

  12. jhopping says:

    What story do I see?

    I see three ladies bonding and sharing life together. It is a cultural exchange between two different people groups.

    Breasts are breasts and are there for practical as well as sexual purposes. Unfortunately the USA breasts get a bad rep and are usually only seen for sexual purposes (which is why mothers tend to forgo breast feeding – i.e. it messes up their perky breasts and causes embarrassing leakage). We in the USA need to move past nakedness and realize that the amount of skin shown or not shown does not matter. Shoot if striping down naked allowed me to talk about Jesus to folks, then watch out! =P

    As far as the question about what I would have thought if this lady was my wife – well, I wouldn’t have thought much about it at all. If she wanted to bond with the village ladies in that way, that is her call. I don’t have a problem with it.

  13. Heidi says:

    Again Chad you pushed my emotional buttons. Like some of your other readers I found myself laughing through tears. I see freedom in these photos. Freedom to be the beautiful women they all were created to be. Freedom to laugh at and explore our cultural differences, Freedom to celebrate being a female without the fear of being viewed as only a sexual object! so good, so so good. Ah, I needed some joy today as I am continuing on my journey out of female shame.

  14. MK Anderson says:

    I loved these pictures! I think I could be the blonde at this point in my life, but not when I was her age. Our views on breasts are definitely cultural, and there are different cultures in the USA even, with the Midwest and the older gens putting a lot more sexual meaning to bare breasts or touched breasts than those on the coasts or those who are younger. Like one of your commenters here, I examined all of this as I breasted the 4 sons I gave birth to; and my current comfort with my own breasts is largely a product of having over 4 years of breastfeeding situations enlarge my world. :)

  15. Damian says:

    Chad, it took me a few minutes to formulate how to express this in a way that was not inflamatory, any more than this already is, nevertheless when I was in a church-planting class the instructor said, "Anything short of sinning to share the gospel." However, when I see Africans here in America they adapt to the culture without dishonoring the culture they come from-like wearing African inspired cloth or something. So at first I saw an anglo attempting to bond with the locals.

    Then I noticed the background changed a couple times like the photographer was walking around looking for the best angle, and I no longer saw the purity of the encounter and began to wonder if this was a staged event. However staged or not, I do wonder to what lengths are we willing to go to honestly share the gospel. Years ago you recounted a story regarding indigenous breats and a wet t-shirt contest to illustrate how we have certain frameworks by which we interprete the world around us.

    To me this could have just as easily been a photo shoot for jeans for all I know.

    As far as would I go to such extreme lengths for a noble cause….. I hope I would. Would I want it on the internet for all to interprete…… not at all.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Damian, I don't know that this photo shoot has anything to do with an evangelical mission. I have no background for the story or the photo shoot. To me it doesn't look staged, it looks pretty darn genuine. As a photographer, I would move around to capture the faces as well.

  16. My first reaction to seeing these photos was that i wanted to look like the the newly shirtless woman–thin and with gorgeous sexy breasts. And then that I wanted to be that woman not just for the breasts but for the opportunity to experience a freedom from body issue hangups (at least insofar as bare breasts go).

  17. Dave A says:

    I could have been fired for viewing this at work…

  18. bok says:

    i guess she may have a different reaction if there were men from the village around.. truth is nakedness was distorted the moment sin came to picture.

    • Chad Estes says:

      Bok, I saw lots of topless women in the PI, especially in the villages. It didn't seem to be as much of a cultural issue – especially around breast feeding and bathing. What do you think? Is it as big of a deal there than in the US?

  19. birgitph says:

    Just some quick thoughts – modesty s always a cultural issue. in our own culture; what the average woman wears now would have been considered wildly immodest and inappropriate 100 years ago. That doesn't mean our cultural norms are wrong or others are better or right or somehow imply more freedom (a culture that doesn't think twice about bare breasts might also think female circumcision or filing down teeth is a completely appropriate thing to do to a baby girl)

    I smiled at the interaction between the women. I don't for a moment think the native women need to put on shirts — for their culture, they are dressed modestly. But no, I probably would have not taken off mine, and I absolutely guarantee I would not if someone was taking pictures and there was even the remotest chance of them ending up anywhere public (because let's face it, most people who are not regular readers who find this by search words and look at the pictures are not be interested in discussing cultural norms but are looking for other, much less noble reasons – and I wouldn't want anyone looking at me that way.)

  20. Rhonda Sayers says:

    Thanks for sharing this Chad, I hope it is a catalyst for change. Being in a culture where breasts are seen only in sexual ways makes even breastfeeding babies in public difficult for most people.
    I got over my own issues enough to go topless at a beach with my husband a couple of years ago…very liberating for me. We were on the beach way off to ourselves, I still didn't feel comfortable enough to be in the middle of everyone else, but it was a step in the right direction on the journey towards being my authentic self.
    I wish I was as free as the girl in the photo…truth be told I might be if my boobs were 30 years younger 😉

  21. leah says:

    I laughed with genuine joy when I saw these pics. I love the interaction between these women. Learning and growing in understanding of each other. That is one of my goals in life: to learn without judging, to choose to find people fascinating, curious, quirky, whimsical and inspiring instead of annoying, stupid or wrong. To ask questions instead of making statements either internally or externally. Easier typed out then acted out. It is a challenge every day. These photos remind me again of an experience in a elementary school bathroom where I finally got up the nerve to ask a black girl in my class if I could touch her hair she agreed and wanted to feel my hair as well. I was amazed that her hair would just stay where she put it. Mine was all floppy and flat and hangy while hers would defy gravity. Thanks Chad for leading the charge!

  22. Anonymous-inID says:

    As a once prideful stripper/nude model with feminist views turned born-again Christian and mother of two, I've thought plenty about breasts and modesty and how my actions affect others. Do I think this series of photos can be helpful– yes! What a nice depiction of beauty being only skin deep and YET I still wish I had boobs like that white sister!!! (By God's grace I'm daily better able to accept and appreciate the flatter chest than I used to have.) In these photos, I see instant friendship and genuine interest in trying to understand other cultures.
    However, I do think these pics could be a stumbling to some— like men. : ) I, myself, would probably not be open to taking off my shirt with the locals– it just wouldn't be a point I need to make that way and, being someone who already did plenty of damage by posing nude (even very artfully) I just think it could be done differently.
    I greatly respect your efforts to promote thinking and came across your site by a friend who often challenges me that way.

  23. Anonymous today says:

    Why are you calling the white or Anglo woman Blonde? Why is hair color her identifier when it is culture you are trying to point out. I think Anglo is much more descriptive. What if she happened to be a dark haired Anglo-Saxon? Are we afraid to use race as an identifier?

    • Chad Estes says:

      I don't know why I used that identifier, other than it was the first thing that came out when I was writing. I am not custom to using the word "Anglo" to identify people, but I don't have any issue or problem doing so. Yes, it is possible I would have used 'brunette"if she had darker hair. Maybe I have a thing for hair color…

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