“As a trans woman, this book gripped me like no other I can remember”

BY SOPHIE ROBBINS

What do you call your breasts? At one point, US novelist and screenwriter Leslie Lehr’s magisterial “boob biog” lists 146 nicknames for the human mammary gland. You smirk or blink at terms like kahunas and sweater meat, but closer inspection reveals contradictory views of breasts in American culture as objects of fun or fear: fun bags and yum yums on the one hand; bazookas and WMDs on the other. 

In interviews, Lehr candidly acknowledges she could never have titled her book “A Breast’s Life” without it being dismissed as worthy, turgid or medical, or all three. If she’d been British, she might have called it Travels With My Tits, and indeed the book is being adapted for TV by Salma Hayek as a comedy centring on a 40-something woman with talking boobs. 

But this is a memoir and, like the best stories, works on many levels. Covering Girlhood, Adulthood and Womanhood, Lehr sketches vignettes comic and tragic from her earliest memories as the child of Ivy League academics in 60s Ohio to California, motherhood, divorce, breast cancer, and rise from the ashes amid Trump and Covid. 

At every stage, boobs stand for her own journey and “America’s cultural adolescence”. She recalls piling up encyclopaedias, aged seven, to reach her father’s leather-bound volumes of Playboy; gaping at Jane Fonda, before hitting paydirt with the raunchy comic strip Little Annie Fannie. 

In the same chapter, she finds a hidden Polaroid of her buxom professor mother topless. It was the beginning of an awareness that her breasts marked her out as different from boys; sometimes to her advantage, but frequently not. 

Images from A Boob’s Life by Leslie Lehr

From the neighbourhood mom devastated by the loss of her son in Vietnam, the young girl learned that as the possessor of boobs, she would never have to go to war. Yet her patrician father’s oblivious cruelty in remarking on her unfilled bikini top at 14 proved a warning shot from the patriarchy: for a woman in America, hard work and talent will only get you so far. Because, tits. 

Yet the book is also furiously polemic. To be taken seriously in work, a woman must deny, cover, flatten her breasts and dress head to toe like a man. Breasts drain nursing women’s bodies of energy by converting blood to milk for “little cannibals”. But to their husbands and boyfriends, all other purposes are secondary: boobs, and nipples especially are for their use and pleasure. Because, tits. 

You learn a lot too: in US film classification, “lesbian boobs” get the most restrictive NC-17 rating, while straight ones get away with an R. The Walking Dead can show a breast being hacked to a bloody pulp in high def, but the nipple must be blurred. 

As a trans woman, this book gripped me like no other I can remember. Like Lehr, I’m grappling with the decision whether or not to have implants. And like her, I’ve learned there’s no easy answer. 

Buy this book. Read it. Discuss it. It matters. Because, women. 

Sophie Robbins is on Facebook.

A Boob’s Life – How America’s Obsession Shaped Me… And You by Leslie Lehr is published in the UK on 13 May by Pegasus Books, hardcover, £20 

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