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positions: east asia cultures critique 11.2 (2003) 271-300
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Mammary Mania in Japan
Browsing through a Japanese women's magazine, I found an advertisement for a product called “Angel Wings.” The copy announced, “I stopped being an A cup the day I got a present from an angel.” The item being sold was a set of battery-powered pink bust pads modeled on the body of a nude Japanese woman. Reportedly, any woman is able to increase her breast size in only a month if she uses Angel Wings for less than an hour each day.
There are three notable things about this advertisement. First, displaying breasts without a few modest stars or some text covering the nipples is not something one would normally have found in female print media a decade ago. Second, advertisements for such bust products were only occasionally found at all before 1990. During the mid-1980s, goods and services for breast augmentation were rarely seen in the pages of young women's magazines.1 Third, when such advertisements did appear, the eroticization of the breast was safely displaced onto a foreign woman's nude body.2 Yet since at least [End Page 271] 1992, we find an astonishing proliferation of bogus gadgets like Angel Wings huckstered in almost all magazines geared toward women, including those aimed at high school–aged girls.
There is a contemporary model of female beauty that now incorporates an Americanesque view that a “full balcony,” to borrow from the Italian, is an essential attribute of womanhood. In addition to extreme thinness and smooth hairlessness, the size and shape of the breasts have recently become an important index of female attractiveness.3 Although American hypermammary fixation has continued from earlier decades into the new millennium, enthusiasm for large breasts is of more recent vintage in Japan. Particularly in women's magazines and the beauty industry, we see aggressive competition for customers who want to transform their figures into a top-heavy shape. I would like to look at some of the changes in breast fashions and symbolism that have occurred in Japan, and at how a new focus on the breast as an aspect of female beauty is reflected in a lucrative industry for bust products and services.
When we speak of a sociology or anthropology of fashion, most often it is external clothing that comes to mind. Scholars have profitably looked at outward costume as an index of gender, class status, locality, ethnicity, and subcultural identity. Yet in addition to this obvious system of social labeling, following Judith Butler and her notion of “styles of flesh,” the body itself may be considered a part of the fashion system.4 One outcome of a capitalist economy is that everything, including beauty, health, and happiness, is viewed as purchasable. In Japan, as Sabine Frühstück has shown, the body, too, is treated as a commodity, open to the remodeling of its owner.5 The chic breast is a body region that may be fashioned with the help of numerous new technologies, products, and services. Capitalist industries fuel the desire to install these new breasts, but at the same time, bust enhancement practices ironically allow for an assertive type of individual self-expression that is counter to social norms about proper female self-presentation.
This last point is a contentious one in feminist research.6 For more than a half-century, scholars have been disputing the nature of idealized norms of appearance, particularly when there are noticeable changes. Rephrasing the debate in the context raised here, one side claims that representations of new breast styles are only meant to boost consumerism, while the other side notes [End Page 272] that the beauty work involved in the pursuit of these styles enables a degree of individual agency and empowerment.7 This is not an issue I hope to settle, but I will address both ideas as having legitimate worthiness. Whether or not breast trends are fabricated by corporations in order to foster consumption, they reflect much more than “just fashion.”
My focus on...