DO BREASTS MAKETH THE WOMAN?
What does your figure say about you? Emma Forrest takes a closer look
Not long after we broke up, my ex-boyfriend marched me into Alexander McQueen, calling cheerfully to the shop clerk: “Have you got anything that can cope with her tits?” His voice ricocheted off the walls. He was buying me a dress to celebrate a script we’d sold, him as director, me as screenwriter. The clerk pulled a skin-tight red minidress with strategic slashes at the cleavage. “We also do it in black,” she offered. “Yes, I’d… ” “No!” said my ex. “Red is more you.” By now I had accepted it: if you get involved with a director, you’re going to be directed. As I stepped out of the dressing room, he clapped. “Oh yes, that’s brilliant.”
It’s fascinating, or depressing, to be appreciated physically by someone who no longer desires you. My ex was madly in love with his new girlfriend.
“We should buy a dress for her,” he declared. “Otherwise I can’t tell her I bought you one.”
Across the street, the Chloé store was like angels singing. An airy space stocked with peach, pale blue and chiffon. Two boutiques on opposite sides of the street, underscoring the difference between sacred and profane love.
“Is your girlfriend the same shape?” the girl asked my ex, pointing towards me. “Slimmer,” he said. “More delicate.”
I’d known my place in the scheme of things ever since I’d first started obsessively watching movies as a young girl. Marilyn Monroe and Liz Taylor are the bad girls, Audrey Hepburn and Grace Kelly the good; Raquel Welch bad, Mia Farrow good; J.Lo bad, Gwyneth good. In 2010’s Last Night, Eva Mendes is the temptress to Keira Knightley’s good girl. Though Truman Capote had wanted Monroe for Breakfast at Tiffany’s, Hepburn was cast, specifically to help cover the fact the story is about a call girl. (If they had cast Marilyn, people would know.) This stark distinction applies to male actors to a lesser extent; Joseph Gordon-Levitt and Ryan Gosling are considered intellectual, based on their skinniness, as was James Dean before them. Seth Rogen and Jonah Hill were lovable fat guys. (Now both have slimmed down, they’re more, well, sexually viable.) From Sly Stallone to Chris Hemsworth, there have always been beefcake actors. But these archetypes aren’t traps the way they are for women; men are as malleable as their bodies.
At 17, on holiday in Barbados (wearing a white one-piece I’d copied from Liz Taylor in Suddenly, Last Summer), my friend was appalled when I screamed after seeing a jellyfish. “Would Lauren Bacall scream at the sight of a jellyfish?” she demanded. No, of course not; in her films Bacall was in control, slim and brave. Flat-chested, slender women aren’t emotional onscreen; they’re cool, stylish and treated with deference. Even losing their minds in Rosemary’s Baby and Repulsion, Mia Farrow and Catherine Deneuve remained chic. Losing her mind in Don’t Bother to Knock, Monroe just kept losing her clothes.
I felt I had no choice but to define myself by my body. I looked different from the other girls at school, for whom Kate Moss was not just an ideal but an echo. I was a walking anachronism with a tiny waist, expansive bosom and child-bearing hips. As an uncontrollable teen, unapproached by boys and with everything spilling — especially my fears — my body seemed to be a cheerleader for my anxiety.
During my adolescence, there had been a stretch of hunched shoulders and oversized T-shirts. That was before I’d seen Philippe Halsman’s photo of teen Liz Taylor wearing a tight gown the green of dollar bills. I studied her journey from child star to ingénue. She had no awkward period — when Liz got breasts, the studio couldn’t get her into low-cut dresses fast enough. Her behaviour in love struck me, too, so much so that I carried it with me when, aged 20, I moved to New York.
One of the things I did there was buy an all-new wardrobe at Patricia Field — a body-con explosion of spandex, bondage black and cheetah print. My walls were plastered with Sophia Loren, Jane Russell, Béatrice Dalle in Betty Blue. Far from family and alone, decked in my sinful clothes, my shape dictated my behaviour with men. Yet deep down I knew: no romance ever ended well for the bad girl.
It’s not that I was promiscuous, more that my body provided a reason not to be kind to myself. I dated an actor who fell in love with me, I think partly because he was starving himself for a role (I had bite marks all over my body). I dated a comedian who told me, “I’d rather be seen with Kate Moss, but I’d rather go to bed with you”.
I took the shabby treatment as my due; my curves were a road map. Did I really march up to a man and tell him I was his girlfriend, despite his protestations that he already had one? Yes. Well, what do you expect from Jessica Rabbit? Decorum?
After enough relationships where I came away deflated, I went to a psychiatrist who loosened my attachment to my outline and who forced me to look inward. Eventually, with my doctor’s insistence that “there is nothing and nobody, no weight gain or loss, that can change who you authentically are,” I began to see myself reflected not in the undulations of Liz, but as someone whose body didn’t have to be the sum of me.
But then, a funny thing happened — my shape changed completely. I went from an F cup to a C. My limbs seemed to lengthen and slim. Weight fell off my bum and hips. Alarmed, I went to see my doctor, who explained that this wasn’t an unknown hormonal event in female 30-somethings.
Suddenly, I had to recalibrate my sense of self. Pounded by a jetlag of the ego, my identity still lingering in another time zone, I’d wait for men to compliment me on things that were no longer noticeable. But I was attracting fewer troubled (and troublesome) paramours: men who gravitate towards one ‘type’ tend not to be good news. Yes, I’d helped to create the ‘character’, fulfilling its cinematic promises along the way. But now, I was no specific type. I was me.
On the day the news broke of Alexander McQueen’s suicide, I took out the dress my ex had bought me. As good as it still looked, it made my stomach lurch. I’d spent so much time both tormented by and embracing the idea of being the designated whore. What I’d really feared all along was what becomes of the whore — how she ends up sad and alone with her thoughts at 3am. But, of course, that has little to do with being a bad or good girl, having hips or being flat-chested. It’s nothing but the shape of our thoughts.
The last time I sold a script, I skipped McQueen and Chloé and went to Marni. The clothes suggest not sex, but the platonic absence of it. The shape leaves much to the imagination and in them, I cannot be categorised. I’m something else: Ingrid Bergman, Greta Garbo, Katharine Hepburn — those rare women who transcend industry pigeonholing and who are about their faces, their voices.
There was a kind of romantic end-times glory in what Liz Taylor represented to herself and others, or so it seems from afar. Ultimately, I didn’t have it in me to live that large, amassing collateral damage along the way. I’m more comfortable in my Marni, though I must confess: my most pressing order of business when I bought my first dress there was to have it made tighter.