Kate Middleton's Boobs: Why Are We So Obsessed With the Royal Chest?
It is one of the undersung truisms of history – where there's an empire, there's often a pair of breasts orbiting the land like planetary moons. Helen of Troy's face may have launched a thousand ships, but it was really her breasts that buoyed the army. Legend has it that sight of them caused Menelaus to drop his sword. The French medieval king Henry II reportedly modelled his wine goblet on the "apple-like" left breast of his mistress Diane de Poitiers. And persistent, though apparently untrue, rumours contend that the perfect orbs of Marie Antoinette inspired both champagne coupes and porcelain bowls from Sèvres.
It should come as no surprise, then, that there was such a fuss about the Duchess of Cambridge's breasts. It is also perhaps apropos that the Great Unveiling took place on French soil. Even as the French revolutionaries lopped off the head of Marie Antoinette, they took great pains to preserve said milk bowls.
It has been remarked, of course, that Harry's parallel dishabille in Las Vegas didn't generate quite the same uproar. Guess what? People treat men's and women's body parts differently, and that is where the conversation really starts. Which was the greater misfortune, that we hardly noticed Harry's pale, bare bottom for its own sake or that we were so overwrought about the sight of the duchess's mammary glands?
Our reaction revealed two truths: that we are deeply uncomfortable about the flesh-and-blood realness of a future queen, and that we are deeply uncomfortable about breasts. We all exhort the duke and duchess to produce an heir, but we certainly don't want to watch it happen. And as to breasts, well, western civilisation is very strange about them.
By now we've all seen the former Kate Middleton in all manner of bikinis, and we've admired her small but shapely cleavage. Why, then, are we so mortified by the public viewing of the rest of the package? Even the palace issued a statement calling the breach of privacy "grotesque", an unusual choice of words since its technical meaning is distorted and misshapen. And while we were all shocked, well, perhaps not, by this showing of media ill manners, that didn't stop many of us from looking.
We giggle and swoon and peek and rage because we have not yet as a culture resolved our conflicts over breasts. Compared with other cultures, in other times and in other places, we sexualise them to an absurd and unprecedented degree. Because we see them for one thing, we are incapable of seeing them for what they really are. This makes us uneasy. To whom do they really belong? To men or to babies? To Kate or to the internet?
It is fitting, as well as quite funny, that the royal couple fled the tata tornado only to land back in time, in the Solomon Islands, where theyencountered bare-breasted women at every turn. It was as if they were being reminded in a way the rest of us can't be, that these things were, once upon a time, just breasts. In some vanishing parts of the world not yet stampeded by underwire and Hollywood, breasts are merely pedestrian. As one tweeter put it, "France just discovered that Kate Middleton has breasts! One day they will discover soap."
It is only in societies where we cover breasts up and inflate with cartoon-shaped padded bras (lift and separate!), and where we discourage use of their biological function – breastfeeding – that these glands take on an out-sized proportion in our sexual imaginations. That is why we can't bear to see them bared on the future queen.
Let's hope the duchess takes back her breasts and shows the world a thing or two about why they really evolved and how they are supposed to be used for the sake of empire. By a baby.
Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Slate, Mother Jones, High Country News, O-Oprah, W., Bicycling and numerous other publications. She is author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (W.W. Norton, 2012)