Blog of the Society for Menstrual Cycle Research

Big Breasts, Menopause, and Helena Bonham Carter

January 31st, 2013 by Heather Dillaway


Another sign of menopause to add to the list: big breasts. Or so Helena Bonham Carter suggests in a recent interview. She suggests that she did not have big breasts until menopause and that it is “the one benefit of menopause.” But before this comment, she said that she wished they “didn’t stick out as much.” Apparently menopause and big breasts are a mixed blessing.

I’m fascinated by celebrities mentioning menopause these days. Actresses from the UK recently seem to be much more outgoing about their menopausal statuses than actresses from the US (see my previous post about Sinead O’Connor), at least from my followings of celebrity gossip (which, admittedly, is not very thorough). The idea that they are talking about it in passing, in simple conversation, is illustrative of the fact that menopause is not as hidden as it once was.

On the other hand, in this particular case, reading between the lines, Helena Bonham Carter says very directly that larger breasts are “the one benefit” of menopause, inferring that there are many more negatives. Further, the idea that the only benefit is appearance-based is not only interesting but also problematic in its reaffirmation of gendered norms about the necessity for women to look good for others. Finally, it is also clear from her comment that having big breasts – something that is often sought after in our highly sexualized, male-dominated culture – is maybe uncomfortable for women in public and that women’s bodies are indeed on display and women know it. Sure, she could have said that she wished her breasts didn’t stick out as much because they got in the way of her physical movement through space, but I doubt it. I think she made this comment more because of her discomfort with others’ gazes upon her body.

So, what does this all say about menopause? Or about big breasts? I think Helena Bonham Carter’s comments confirm the following: First, menopausal women are definitely still thinking (for better or worse) about their appearances. Second, women are intimately aware of the size of their breasts and understand that they are for public viewing (whether they like it or not). Third, big breasts are seemingly better than small ones, at least according to our various and intersecting gender norms. Fourth, Helena Bonham Carter doesn’t think there are any other benefits to menopause (a dismal thought), and we know she’s not the only one. (But aren’t there plenty of benefits? Come on….Sinead O’Connor thinks so…) Fifth, and despite some of the above conclusions, women aren’t necessarily hiding their menopausal status anymore.

I know, I’ve taken two sentences out of Helena Bonham Carter’s mouth and inferred lots of things, but am I that off base? I don’t think so, but feel free to comment!

  

10 Responses to “Big Breasts, Menopause, and Helena Bonham Carter”

  1. Laura Wershler says:

    Love the title of this post. I clicked to read to read it immediately.

    I’m following your lead to infer a few things. First, it appears in the video that the interviewer does something (looks or comments) that prompts Helena to talk about her breasts. She seems self-conscious about them, though she must have picked out that dress. She does talk about being self-conscious about her acting, not wanting to watch herself. Maybe she made the comment about menopause making her small breasts bigger because she doesn’t want people to think she had a breast augmentation.

    What I find intriguing is that Bonham Carter is likely in perimenopause, when estrogen dominance can stimulate breast tissue. To put works in her mouth, she might well be saying in conversations with friends, “My periods are all over the place, and when they come I flood, and my breasts hurt all the time, and I’m sleeping like shit.” If this were her experience, it would be more understandable that she might say in public that her large breasts are “the one benefit of (peri)menopause.”

    I”m interested in what others have to say about this one.

    • HeatherD says:

      Hi, Laura, sorry to be late to respond (my paid job is getting in the way of this blog!). I think you’re right that probably she’s weighing “big breasts” as a benefit in comparison to other perimenopausal symptoms, not in comparison to the broad transition itself. That’s an important point. And you’re right that the interviewer prompts her maybe to talk about her dress or her breasts, I wish I could hear what the interviewer actually says! Or maybe I really don’t want to know what they asked….

  2. Tomi-Ann says:

    I don’t think you’re way off at all, Heather. These musings on breasts reminded me of something somewhat related that happened yesterday with my 21 year old, shopping. She had a coupon for Victoria’s Secret. She went to the “Pink” section and found that they were featuring “bralettes”. These are lacy little over-the-head numbers (VERY unlike every other breast-coverer in VS – no underwire, no padding, no pushing-up and scrunching together accomplished by these little things). And my daughter was delighted with them. She commented, “okay! now it’s OUR turn!” – meaning, finally small- breasted women can have a cute bra that doesn’t turn an A-cup into a D-cup, implying that you obviously are deformed and want the biggest boobs possible, finally a bra that seems to say that small breasts are fine the way they are. And I said, “just watch, a lot of big-breasted women are going to be really jealous that they can’t wear one of these” (not enough support).

    And then that got me thinking that there’s no winning. Like, how is it that we live in a culture where breast size is a STYLE? A body part is in or out of FASHION? Why can’t bra stores have bras for all sizes, tastes, and functions? If you’re small-breasted like me, and you do not want padding, but you do need some kind of support, it’s been pretty tough-going these past 10 years. But if these bralettes really come into “fashion” then bigger-breasted women are going to be the ones feeling ashamed. And round and round we go.

    And then I thought, even further, that of COURSE the “bralettes” are in the “Pink” section of VS, not in the “adult” section. That is, these are also just another way of marketing the sexualization of girls/girlhood. If “small boobs are in!” it’s because they seem youthful (opposite of what Helena Bonham Carter implies about her big ones and menopause). American Apparel has long-advertized these support-free over-the-head stretchy bras with “barely legal” model shoots.

    SO here I am. PISSED. Breast size varies tremendously and across the age spectrum. There are small, medium, and large, among girls and women from 12 to 92. But no matter what size we are, our breasts don’t belong to us. They belong to the Gaze. They belong to marketers.

    Rant over.

    • Laura Wershler says:

      Good rant. And you could say the same thing about pretty much every part of a woman’s body, including our menstrual cycles – they don’t belong to us.

    • HeatherD says:

      Hi, Tomi-Ann, I think you’re right on. Also, it’s interesting how much we are just taught to think about this body part, because it’s sexualized and because it’s really for other people (not ourselves). Breasts are for everyone but us. And because of others’ gazes upon and uses for them, breasts are constantly needing work as it is always being noticed and defined by others. Small breasts, big breasts, sagging breasts, leaking breasts, etc., are all bad at times. Bonham Carter’s comment means to me that she has not liked having smaller breasts and that she is willing to concede that bigger breasts are better even if she doesn’t feel comfortable with them (again, reading in to her comments).
      Paula, I totally agree that any symptom that is uncategorized is then categorized as menopausal eventually. Similar to how every doctor assumes younger women are pregnant until they’re given a pregnancy test, all symptoms that come to women in midlife (probably high 30′s and above) are assumed to be perimenopausal until proven otherwise. Anne Fausto-Sterling talks about this – I remember her listing out 100 or symptoms of “menopause” in one of her books. Just last week I also saw a news headline about the “45 symptoms of menopause” and I had the same reaction – everything in a woman’s midlife MUST be because of menopause because what else do they have going on? Once again, for all of a woman’s life course, she is defined by her reproductive capacity and nothing else…..

  3. Paula Derry says:

    I agree with Laura that big breasts (or, at least, a feeling of having big breasts) would more likely be associated with perimenopause, not menopause–assuming they are associated with either rather than some change in Helena’s breasts or her perception of them that happened to co-occur at the same time.
    I remember, years ago, reading articles in the professional literature that listed the symptoms and side-effects of menopause, where sagging breasts were on the list. Menopause seems to be a junk category for categorizing changes.

  4. Paula Derry says:

    Heather–
    Re a blog on menopause as a “junk category.” Good idea. Maybe either or both of us, since what we would say would be sure to be different.

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