The first time I ever heard the word, I was 15 and a boy was saying something about mine. I couldn’t tell if he was complimenting them or sneering — both, maybe — but the word itself sounded much more like a sneer.
It wasn’t a common word back then, at least not among girls and women. Men said it behind our backs, and if they said it to our faces it was considered crude. It was belittling. I remember reading in a biography of the fine actress Vivien Leigh that when a new director was brought in partway through the filming of “Gone with the Wind” he watched the rushes and said to the costume director, “For Christ’s sake, let’s get a good look at the girl’s boobs!” The word reduced a woman to her body parts and made the body parts sound silly. The primary meaning of the word “boob” is an oaf, a fool, a loser. When cultural critic and satirist H. L. Mencken wanted to insult the entire American middle class, which he considered ignorant and gullible, he labeled them “The Booboisie.”
Today, though, the word is used everywhere as a breezy euphemism for “breasts.” A popular online lingerie store features “Bras for big boobs.” Magazines and tabloids zoom in on celebrities’ red-carpet outfits, pointing out “side boob” and “underboob” exposure, sometimes deeming it sexy and on-trend and at other times attributing it to an ill-fitting dress. If your sports bra compresses you too much (or if your breast-augmentation surgery goes wrong) you might end up with the dreaded “uniboob” or “monoboob.” The bra-fitting advice on Oprah Winfrey’s website begins with the questions, “Do your boobs hang low? Do they wobble to and fro?” harking back to the old song we used to sing at camp about our ears and whether we could tie them in a knot or a bow. The tone of all of this is jaunty and jokey and a little bit tough: women taking back and wielding a word that was once used to demean us.
But this is an opinion column, and in my opinion “boobs” is still a demeaning word.
Reclaiming an old term that was originally a misogynistic slur can be a denial of the word’s history. It’s preemptively insulting, as if we think the best way to own ourselves is to belittle ourselves before someone else can belittle us.
When you’re a teenage girl, breasts make you feel self-conscious and vulnerable. You feel like yours are too big, or too small, or too early, or too late. They ache. They change the way you move within your body. They’re sensitive in painful and also confusingly pleasurable ways. You don’t want anyone remarking on them at all, let alone trivializing them or turning them into a joke.
At a time when we’re looking closely at language, and at how derogatory words have been used — carelessly or purposely — to demean other people, it feels odd to me that the word “boobs” should escape any kind of examination. Yes, it’s being used now in a kind of jocular purportedly self-affectionate way, but it can feel as if women who don’t know the history of the term are trying to appropriate locker-room talk, as if we’re saying we can be just as gross and armored as the guys. Maybe what we really need to do is just walk out of that particular locker room.
When I asked an older friend how she felt about the word “boobs,” she said she found it offensive. A younger friend, though, didn’t understand the question. She thought the word “boobs” was fine, didn’t get how it could sound insulting, and said she thought she used the words “boobs” and “breasts” interchangeably.
But then I asked her what term she used with her daughter. She answered instantly, “Oh, breasts. I would never say the word ‘boobs’ to her.” And when I asked why, she said, “Because I want her to grow up respecting her own body.”
Joan Wickersham is the author of “The Suicide Index” and “The News from Spain.” Her column appears regularly in the Globe.