Why haven't we elected a female President yet? Hint: it's a five-letter word.
When I was a little girl, I dreamed of having breasts. I also dreamed of being President. But it never crossed my mind that I could do both. No Commander-in-chief, leader of the free world, had ever worn a brassiere. As I watch the debates all these years later, I can't help but wonder... why?
Millennial women — including my daughters — may see the current battle cry of female empowerment as an advance. But I've heard it before. Social media amplifies our voices, but even TIME Magazine calls the Internet a "culture of hate."
Now, we face the biggest backlash against women's rights in modern history. After Donald Trump, married thrice to younger and more boobilicious babes, told Howard Stern that a flat-chested woman "is very hard to be a 10," it wasn't a big leap for him, as a presidential candidate, to brush off his lewd comments to Billy Bush as "locker room" talk.
In broad daylight, he declared that women who use birth control should be "punished." And lest you dismiss this as a macho strut, beware. The candidates behind the lines are even more eager to abolish our rights. Worse, they claim allegiance to women on the battlefront, using Republican breasts as political shields.
In August, Trump's new campaign director tried to "soften" him. But that put him in the category of women, the weaker sex. After two days, he was done. "I don't think it's a softening," he told Anderson Cooper. "I've had people say it's a hardening."
We all know what body part he prizes. And he's not alone in defining power that way. It harkens back to the "Me-Tarzan" era when physical strength determined dominance. The very sexual act defines it: women get f*cked. How can we be in charge of anything, let alone be Commander-in-chief?
The truth is, American men have every right to be afraid. Women outnumber them. So our bodies are the easiest course of attack. When a smart woman breaks through in politics — maybe especially then — our collective attitude toward breasts helps push her back down.
Why else would the Washington Post devote 746 words on the inch of flesh exposed beneath Senator Hillary Clinton's blazer on CSPAN2? Cleavage-gate was in 2007, but little has changed.
In 2015, when she was Secretary of State, a Maryland deli advertised the "Hillary Special," a meal that featured "Two Small Breasts." Female body slams are so normalized that there was little reaction when a similar "KFC Special" appeared on buttons at GOP rallies. Hilary's high necklines in the Presidential debates make it clear that her breasts are off the menu.
Sixty-three countries have been led by women in the last fifty years. I can't even name 63 countries. But I know why we lag so far behind. You can trace the path from America's Puritan roots to a discomfort with the female form so extreme that even in our twenty-first century, the Justice Department covered a semi-nude sculpture of Lady Justice with a drape. Justice? Please. Women face discrimination in American politics because our country is obsessed with breasts.
Sound crazy? What do you think of when you hear the B-word?
A. Playboy Magazine
B. Victoria's Secret
D. Breast Cancer
E. Seventh Grade
F. The President of the United States
See what I mean? One of these things is not like the other, just like the Sesame Street song. And that's how early imprinting begins. We look to Daddy for power, Mommy for comfort. It's no secret this defines our political parties as Republicans versus Democrats.
Politics is the most obvious symptom of a deep cultural divide in which the personal is not only political, but goes deep into our collected psyche of emotions, intellect...right to our bodies. Our enslavery is insidious.
I admit, I'm as obsessed, too. It started so early, I wasn't even aware of it. Not long after Mr. Frederick invented the inflatable bra, I snuck into the den where my father kept his leather-bound collection of Playboys. Each album was gilded with the year on the spine, just like the World Book Encyclopedias and the Harvard Classics beneath them.
The bosoms were overwhelming, but the cartoons of buxom Little Annie Fanny were fun. When my father caught me, I didn't get punished. He said it was healthy to have an interest in the human body. My mother had an hourglass figure, too. That was clearly the requirement to be beautiful.
And being beautiful is important. Any scientist will tell you that sexual attraction is vital to the survival of any species. Breasts are the most prominent external attribute that distinguishes the sexes. Last year, nearly 300,000 American women had breast augmentations. Victoria Secret earned $12.5 billion in sales.
We want to feel beautiful. That makes it all too easy to be objectified. Hence, breasts become "boobs," and a Google search offers 531,000,000 entries starting with www.bigtits.com. A few months ago, mainstream magazines and news outlets were fooled by the nonexistent Journal of Female Health Sciences that reported American women have the biggest boobs in the world. The New York Post praised it as "Red, White and Boobs." It's no wonder that American women are judged for our bodies first and foremost.
The scary part is, we take it for granted. Jesus may have turned water into wine, but breasts turn blood into milk. Talk about a miracle! But hey, they're just boobs. We chuckle when a Pinterest search for "breasts" offers chicken recipes, and we shrug when a search for "boobs" presents porn.
We take for granted that Sons of Anarchy can display a bloody, severed breast, but must censor the slightest glimpse of nipple. We applaud Forbes Magazine for reporting on toxic breast milk, and we praise NFL football players wearing pink for breast cancer.
But it's not cool to complain about boob jokes. They are a mainstay of American comedy. Last year, David Letterman, the most intellectual of Late Night hosts, ended his 33-year run with a boob joke. Sadly, the joke is on us.
We are consciously ambivalent. I'll never forget watching Miss America on TV with my mother and sister when I was little. It was 1968, and there was a skirmish at the end of the show. Reporters said that over 400 women's libbers were protesting outside, supposedly burning their bras. I understood their fight for equality.
Both of my parents were college professors with PhDs, but they were not remotely equal. But first things first: we were rooting for shapely Miss Ohio to win. I imagined myself on that stage with the sash. The battle between smart versus pretty made my stomach hurt, but I needed to wear a bra before I could burn it.
Equality seemed so obvious that I felt sure it would happen. Of course, that was long before the owner of Miss USA — a man known for his private ratings of each contestant — became a presidential candidate.
In the eighties, women had to choose sides. We could succeed by dressing like men in the office, or we could flaunt our female assets at Hooters. I chose smart and wore suits with shoulder pads so wide that I could have played football.
But concealing my curves didn't help. After rising from receptionist to production manager, I was denied a small raise. I gave two weeks notice, but my boss was furious. It took him four months and 40,000 dollars more in salary to replace me — with a man. The women stuffing tips in their hooters may have been the smart ones after all.
Ten years later, I was in pregnancy heaven. You know, those blissful few weeks when your boobs grow? Finally, I could wear bikini tops with pride. But only until my belly caught up. Months later, my baby's own godfather was red-faced when I nursed her under a shawl in a booth at the Cheesecake Factory.
Bountiful breasts are attractive, but not if you actually use them. Motherhood — the result of the sex act itself — was not sexy. Sadly, after nursing two kids, my breasts deflated so much that I was reduced to wearing camisoles. Like a little girl. My mother, whose generation used Formula, called me deformed. But my boobs had fulfilled their destiny. So I declared victory. Being flat-chested became my badge of maternal honor.
Then the Wonderbra came to town. The advertisements promised plunging cleavage like a call to arms. So, like thousands of other American women, I celebrated the 74th anniversary of my right to vote by waiting for hours in line at Macy's. Unfortunately, all 54 parts conspired only to make it difficult to breathe. I surrendered once more. My husband gently chided me. Then we went to dinner, where he spent the evening distracted by the cleavage of the woman at the next table.
After we divorced — for unrelated reasons, I swear — my mother offered to pay for implants, to make me feel pretty again. How could I refuse? But for weeks afterward, I called my surgeon to complain. "Too big," I cried. "I don't want to look like a bimbo!"
I had begun an MFA program as a flat-chested intellectual; now, my swollen breasts could rob me of respect. Since my surgeon had sized the implants simply to fill the empty sacks on my chest, there was no retreat.
So I bought the lacy bras I'd always longed for. When I finally started dating, I showed décolletage. The FDA approved breast augmentation for improving a woman's "quality of life," and it was true. The cleavage made me feel confident. (Plus, I got better service everywhere I went.)
Still, I was wary. When I found a man worth taking my shirt off for, I nearly broke up with him to avoid accusations of false advertising. Fortunately, he didn't care. He said, "Breasts are like pizza, and there's no such thing as bad pizza." I married him.
Then I got breast cancer. In a New York Times Modern Love column, I admitted my insecurities about looking ugly to my new husband. Most readers were supportive, but some called me "shallow." A year later, after the intense trifecta of treatment, there was no shame in replacing my implants. But why was wanting nice breasts more acceptable post-cancer? Where on the scale of survival, did vanity begin?
When I ask other women about their breasts, most everyone has a confession: too big, too small, or too lopsided. One said she was a granola kind of gal who didn't care about her breasts. But isn't denial the flip side of obsession?
We jeer when Kim Kardashian's selfies get millions of views, but haven't you taken a peek? Our shopping pays for Victoria's Secret's show-stopping diamond brassiere, which is essentially a crown for breasts. And when even Oscar-winning actresses get Breast Lift coupons in their Academy Award swag bags, how can anyone feel she measures up?
I believe every woman should do what feels comfortable. But with a Presidential candidate who autographed a women's breast, is it any wonder that impressionable young women think political action means posing in bikinis as @BabesforTrump?
Now that I'm aware how much I'm influenced by our culture, I'd like to say I'm over it. But last week, a yoga instructor led my class in a low-cut sports bra. When the men moved their mats to the front row, the women exchanged knowing glances. Her flesh was so distracting that I was tempted to complain. Then I felt ashamed. I'm a feminist, but I'm still at war with boobs.
Which brings us back to American politics. The personal has always been political, but nowhere is it more evident than inside the cups of our brassieres. We can't change our culture, but we can stop hunching over and pretending the problem doesn't exist.
Will anything change when we finally have a President with breasts? Only one thing is certain: When an American company makes a bra with the Presidential seal, I'll be first in line.
Leslie Lehr is the prize-winning author of novels including, What A Mother Knows. Her New York Times Modern Love piece about breast cancer was chosen by Katie Couric for an NPR podcast and her other essays are featured in anthologies such as Mommy Wars. She is the Novel Consultant for Truby Writers Studio.