Sex Roles: A Journal of Research

social interaction and the strategizing of early breast development

Little girls in women’s bodies: social interaction and the strategizing of early breast development

Erika Summers-Effler

“Do you think it’s any fun to be the biggest kid in the class?”

“I don’t know,” I said. “I never thought about it.”

“Well, try thinking about it. Think about how you’d feel if you had to

wear a bra in fourth grade and how everybody laughed and how you

always had to cross your arms in front of you. And about how the boys

called you dirty names just because of how you looked.”

From Are You There God?

It’s Me, Margaret (Blume, 1970)

Girls who develop breasts early do not passively endure this developmental event. Rather, early breast developers actively negotiate their environment. The meaning of symbols, including women’s breasts, is far from given; it is actively created in interaction with others (Mead, 1934). The meaning girls ascribe to the experience of early breast development very much depends on both the specifics of their social context and their strategies for negotiating interactions about their breasts. In this article, I explore the stories of women who developed breasts before their peers did, women who developed a woman’s body when they were still little girls. I report on the analysis of narratives of early breast development from a sociological perspective, with a focus on interactional ritual. I provide a theoretical model for considering the experiences of early developers based in the theoretical tradition that addresses the role of ritual and its resulting emotion in shaping the power and meaning of symbols (Collins, 1990; Durkheim, 1995; Goffman, 1967). In the case of the early breast developer, an interaction ritual approach entails consideration of the role of social interaction and the emotion it produces in shaping the meaning the early developer’s breasts have for her. The purpose of this study was to consider how repeated social positioning within specific social contexts generates the strategies early developers use to deal with the social implications of their early breast development. In turn, these strategies help to determine the meaning of their breasts for early breast developers.

Early Developers

There have been many studies of early physical maturation from a psychological perspective. These studies have conceptualized the impact of early development in primarily two ways: (1) that the experience of early development creates difficulties in adaptation; and (2) that early developers are at particular social and psychological risk because they are forced into adolescence too early and do not have enough time to adjust to their new status (Silbereisen & Kracke, 1997; Wiesner & Ittel, 2002). There is little consistent support for either theory (Alsaker, 1995), as well as few consistent findings across studies (Alsaker, 1995; Simmons & Blyth, 1987; Wiesner & Ittel, 2002). However, research does consistently support these generalizations: early developers engage in sexual activity earlier than on-time and later maturers (Brooks-Gunn, 1988; Flannery, Daniel, Rowe, & Gulley, 1993; Magnusson, Stattin, & Allan, 1985); early developers have particularly negative body images (Alsaker, 1995; Brooks-Gunn, 1988; Petersen & Crockett, 1985; Williams & Currie, 2000); and early developers have higher rates of depressive symptoms than on-time or late developers (Alsaker, 1992; Nottelman et al., 1987).

Some have suggested that one reason researchers have not established a wider range of reliable trends in their assessment of the impact of early development is that they use various standards to measure maturation (Brooks-Gunn, 1988). That is, inconsistencies in findings may be the result of collapsing significantly different social experiences into the single category of “early developer.” Menarche is the most widely used measure of pubertal status for girls (Brooks-Gunn, 1988). However, that measure does not capture the social consequences of more visible physical maturation, particularly breast development. Girls who go through puberty early but never develop large breasts are likely to have very different experiences than girls who develop large breasts quickly or early but experience menarche at an average time. The general category “early development” does not adequately capture girls’ range of interactions and feelings about their changing bodies.

Researchers further exacerbate inconsistency in findings by basing studies on objective measures of development without taking into account the importance of individual social context. The body itself does not constitute the problem of early development; rather the social context in which the body changes determines the extent to which the body matters. Pubertal timing effects are likely to be the product of the girls’ reactions to the interaction between the timing of puberty relative to that of peers and the responses of people in her environment to that development (Petersen, 1988). We need to look at the process of meaning-making that takes place at the level of the interaction between the girl and her social environment to make sense of the various or different outcomes associated with early maturation. Because the development of breasts has a distinctively social impact, it is important to separate the experience of early breast development from the more general category of early development. An interaction ritual perspective can explain the significance of early breast development in particular by allowing us to consider how the interaction opportunities of the early breast developer may differ from those who develop breasts at an average or slower rate.

Interaction Ritual Theory

Interaction ritual theory developed from the sociological tradition that addresses the role of ritual and its resulting emotion in shaping the power and meaning of symbols (Collins, 1990; Durkheim, 1912; Goffman, 1967). In the language of interaction ritual theory, all focused social interaction is ritual. Emotion is central to the theory, and interaction ritual theory states that emotional energy is gained or lost in focused interaction, whether or not this focus takes place in a formal ritual, such a religious service, or an informal ritual, such as an exchange of pleasantries (Collins, 1990; Goffman, 1967). There are transitory emotions (e.g., joy, shock, anger) but emotional energy is a longer term durable emotional tone that fluctuates as a level across interactions. People are motivated to maximize emotional energy, which they experience as confidence, enthusiasm, and willingness to initiate interactions. People are therefore also motivated to avoid the loss of emotional energy, which feels like depression and low self-esteem (Collins, 1990).

If an interaction builds solidarity, all involved will achieve status and feel included–everyone will experience a boost of emotional energy. If the group excludes one or some, those excluded will feel a loss of status and emotional energy. The feeling associated with loss of status is shame–the physical sensation of cringing withdrawal from others and the cringing within that accompanies the felt need to hide and conceal the self (Bartky, 1990). Shame sensations and responses are typical physical responses to threat. In the case of shame, the threat is exclusion from one’s social network (Scheff, 1990).

Collins (1990) argued that there are also power interaction rituals, where, during a focused interaction, one or some gain power at the expense of one or some who lose it. Those who have more power are in order-giver positions, and those who have less are in order-taker positions (Collins, 1990). Order-takers submit to the will of the order-givers, which results in a gain of emotional energy for those in power and loss for those who are subordinately positioned. Those who gain power will feel a boost in confidence, whereas those who lose it will feel the drain of emotional energy–depression and loss of self-esteem.

We connect the emotions generated in social interaction to symbols associated with the interaction, and this creates the meaning of the symbols for the person who experiences the emotional impact of the interaction. We use these emotionally loaded symbols to strategize about future interactions. If a symbol is associated with an increase in emotional energy, we will seek it out; if it is associated with a loss of emotional energy we will try to avoid the type of interaction associated with that symbol (Collins, 1990). Thus differing emotional responses within an interaction could create different meanings associated with the same symbol–order-givers and order-takers are likely to develop different meanings associated with the symbols involved in a power interaction. Over time the meaning of symbols changes as we move from interaction to interaction, which means that a symbol might represent a gain in emotional energy at one point and a loss at another. The meaning of symbols represents strategies for interaction that change in response to an individual’s changing environment. When we have options and can move toward positive interactions, we maintain proactive interaction strategies–we move forward and seek increases in emotional energy. However, when there are limited interactions available to us, and they all potentially generate a loss of emotional energy, we develop defensive strategies to avoid further loss of emotional energy.

We update proactive strategies in response to emotional indicators; a loss of emotional energy generates new meaning for the symbols involved in the interaction, and suggests that we use new and different strategies for participating in interaction. Defensive strategies, on the other hand, anticipate some loss of emotional energy, so we do not necessarily update them when the strategy produces a loss. As a result, defensive strategies can become fixed and resilient once formed. This means that proactive strategies remain much more flexible and responsive to the environment than do defensive strategies. Defensive strategies are born of limited social options; they represent a short-term solution to emotional energy loss, but potentially a long-term drain as they allow for some emotional energy loss and are not easily updated.

For the purposes of this study, I defined social position as the status (inclusion vs. exclusion) and power (order-taker vs. order-giver) outcomes of social interaction. I defined social context as the available social interactions in one’s environment. The limits of social context are both physical, that is literally the people and types of interactions available (an important constraint for children), and socially constructed through chains of interactions over time, that is through the creation of the meaning for symbols, past experiences set expectations for what interactions are possible and what interactions are likely to be positive or negative. Through the lens of interaction ritual theory, the social impact of early breast maturation is a product of the options for social interaction that are available to the early breast developer (social context), the emotional consequences of the interactions in term of power (order-giver vs. order-taker) and status (inclusion vs. exclusion), and the strategies (proactive vs. defensive) that early breast developers create within the context of their options for social interaction. It is conceivable that early breast development could lead to inclusion or exclusion, power or subordination; we need to look at the circumstances of individuals and their responses to these circumstances to understand the impact of their strategies for coping with early breast development, as well as the meaning of their breasts for these women.

Social Context

Developmental Issues

Findings about late childhood provide important clues to aspects of social context that are central to the experience of the early breast developer. Puberty begins with hormonal changes that are generally accompanied by an increase in body fat and the development of breast buds; menarche occurs on average 2 years later (Alsaker, 1995). Although variability is the rule rather than exception for all pubertal processes (Brooks-Gunn, 1988), general trends of rates and order of physical development of boys and girls in puberty mean that the early breast maturing girl is generally not only different from her girlfriends, but way ahead of her male classmates as well (1988).

The transition from child to adolescent has been identified as a period of heightened psychological risk for girls (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). Brown and Gilligan argued that as girls transition from childhood to adolescence, they lose their voice and their ability to deal with conflict openly. For many girls, it is a time of disconnection, dissociation, and repression. Social comparison is also particularly important at this developmental stage (Alsaker, 1995; Silbereisen & Kracke, 1997), which suggests that visible physical differences may play a particularly important role in social interactions. There is evidence to suggest that girls choose to socialize with those who are at a similar developmental stage; early-maturing girls may have more limited social networks (Brooks-Gunn, & Samelson, 1986), which has implications for loss of status (exclusion) and emotional energy.

The Feminine Body in Patriarchal Culture

The larger culture offers up particularly powerful symbols that have gained prominence through experience of interactions overtime (Collins, 2001). Once central, these symbols become widely diffused and operate as shortcuts, or prepackaged strategies, for interactions (Summers-Effler, in press). For contemporary American girls, the development of an adult feminine body, breasts in particular, takes place within a culture where the shape and form of breasts, and women’s bodies more generally, are loaded with meaning. Breasts are the most obvious sign of the sexualized adult feminine body. They are fetishized in contemporary Western cultures, and they constitute the defining feature of sexual attractiveness (Latteier, 1998; Yalom, 1997). The rate of plastic surgery on breasts highlights the social importance of breasts (Davis, 1991; Morgan, 1991). As or because breasts play such an important role in social life, breasts cannot but render girls more self-conscious, whether they feel pleasure from a sense of sexual power over men or a sense of inadequacy because of men’s scrutiny (Frost, 2001). However, any power that girls may feel because of their breasts’ development is potentially discrediting as well. Latteier (1998) found that women with large breasts are typed as incompetent, immoral, immodest, and not very smart.

The advent of breasts is important because of their public nature and cultural link to sexuality (Brooks-Gunn, 1984). All of the early breast developers to whom I spoke discussed the sexualized nature of the attention they received for their breasts when they did not, at least initially, behave in ways that invited it. Such reactions to early breast developing girls suggest that the experience of being an early breast developer is based not only in the actual physical changes of her body, but also in the interactions that construct the meaning of her changing body in the context of women’s subordinate status in society. As these girls develop women’s bodies, they begin to be seen as sex objects. At the same time, they are confronted with the prevalent view that only “bad girls” have sex (Tolman, 1994). As a result, early breast developers must negotiate a potentially “bad girl” identity, regardless of their behavior.

Bartky (1990) pointed out that contemporary American girls are also developing within a cultural context of the current “tyranny of slenderness,” where women are forbidden to become large or massive. The shape a woman’s body takes on as she matures–the full breasts and rounded hips–have become distasteful. Girls have been found to have lower opinions of their appearance and weight than boys do both in childhood and adolescence (Mendelson, White, & Mendelson, 1996). Blyth, Simmons, and Zakin (1985) found that the cultural ideal of thinness for women is strong and pervasive among girls in late childhood, and this is particularly detrimental for early-maturers, because the onset of puberty means that they are alone and thus more prominent because of the increase and redistribution of body fat.

The Process of Sexual Objectification

The early breast developer engages in interaction rituals within developmental and cultural limits. Latteier (1998) suggested that, for a growing girl, the advent of body consciousness often comes with the first appearance of breasts. Bartky (1990) described how self-consciousness arises from sexually objectifying interactions. Sexual objectification happens in interactions where a woman’s or girl’s sexual parts or sexual functions are separated from the rest of her self and either reduced to the status of mere instruments or regarded as if they were capable of representing her. One way to become sexually objectified is to be the object of a perception, unwelcome and inappropriate, that takes the part for the whole (Bartky, 1990). Bartky (1990) stated that the process of the identification of a person with her sexuality becomes oppressive when such identification becomes habitually extended into every area of her experience. Much of the time, sexual objectification occurs whether women want to be sexually objectified or not. Empirical findings (e.g., McKinley, 1998) support the notion that dominant the cultural constructions of the female body encourage women to watch their own bodies as objects and to feel shame when they do not achieve cultural standards; McKinley found that women have higher levels of surveillance, body shame, and discrepancy between their actual and ideal weights than do men. Sometimes this internalization of cultural standards is achieved through day-to-day interactions that do not appear to be threatening on the surface; other times the process is more aggressive, as in cases of sexual abuse, assault, and harassment.

For girls, growing up means becoming massively identified with the body. Therefore the changes during adolescence have inherent difficulties associated with alienation from and objectification of parts of the self and body (Frost, 2001). Attention to breasts is particularly central to the experience of sexual objectification in which the girl learns to become her own internal critic (Frost, 2001). In one study, Koff (1983) asked girls to draw pictures of themselves. The drawings of postmenarchal girls differed from those of premenarchal girls in that they depicted girls who were suggestively posed, seemingly coy, almost flirting with the viewer, with arms arranged to highlight the body; the drawings suggested that identification as a woman is associated with some internalized objectification of the female form. Teasing about breast development is related to poor body image, heightened self-awareness, and self-consciousness (Brooks-Gunn, 1984). In line with this argument about the processes of sexual objectification that reduce women to particular body parts, Koff, Rierdan, and Stubbs (1990) found that adolescent girls have less positive and more differentiated attitudes toward various dimensions of their bodies than boys do.

Within the perspective of interaction ritual theory, we can identify sexually objectifying interactions as power interactions where the observer reduces the observed to a body or body parts in a way that is discrediting to the rest of the person. It is unlikely that early breast developers, or any woman with breasts for that matter, can avoid being sexually objectified at times. However, just because someone assumes an order-giver position does not mean that the receiving individual will follow the orders. Whether one assumes a subordinate position and submits to sexual objectification or not, follows orders or not, depends entirely on one’s social options. The options available to early breast developers determine whether the dynamics of sexual objectification in social interactions are taken in as part of the interior dialogue of the self. Not every girl who is objectified will submit to this treatment, develop defensive strategies, or even share in the objectified meaning of themselves. Their responses depend on the availability of alternative interactions.



Brooks-Gunn and Petersen (1984) have noted that one of the major problems in conducting research on early development is that researchers more commonly use physiologically oriented markers than socially oriented markers. I avoided this problem by asking self-identified early developers to tell the story of their experience of early development. I located women to interview by making announcements in two undergraduate Introduction to Sociology classes in a large selective university in an east coast city, asking resident assistants in dormitories in this same university to ask their neighbors, and asking my personal acquaintances. In all cases I simply stated that I wanted “to hear the stories of women who self-identified as early developers, girls who felt that they began puberty significantly before their peers.” I provided contact information for myself. Thirteen women contacted me, and I listened to and tape-recorded the stories of all 13. (2) Each woman took somewhere between 1 and 2 1/2 hours to tell her story. I asked each of them for their age, where they grew up, their ethnicity, when they developed their breasts, and at what age they experienced menarche.


I asked the self-identified early developers to tell the story of their breast development. This procedure is in line with methods for episodic narrative interviews, where informants are asked to tell stories about particular topics (Murry, 2003). Such narratives provide access to the richness of situations, perceptions, and feelings that guide the person in interaction (Stuhlmiller, 2001). Researchers (Polkinghorne, 1988; Sarbin, 1986) have argued that personal stories reveal the way people view their problems and act in response to them, which makes this method particularly well suited for the purposes of exploring social context and interaction strategies.

Although retrospective narratives are necessarily limited because of the narrator’s distance from the actual events, that distance has the benefit of allowing a reflexive stance that would not have been possible while the events were in progress (Stuhlmiller, 2001). Also, Dubas, Grabber, and Petersen (1991) have found that there is consistency in self-reported pubertal timing across adolescence and into adulthood. In their study, direct comparison of perceived timing with an objective timing measure indicated that perceptions became more accurate as the participants got older, which suggests that the women I interviewed likely had more accurate perceptions of timing than they would have had during puberty. Despite the assurance of accuracy of perception of timing, Dubas et al. (1991) found that feelings about pubertal timing and psychosocial processes were related to perceived timing but not to the objective measure of pubertal timing. Thus, in considering the social and emotional implications of breast development, it ultimately makes sense to organize a study around perceived timing rather than any sort of objective measure. Although there is research to suggest that these women’s recollection of objective timing is accurate, their perception of the timing is more important to the social experiences that are the focus of this project.

During these sessions, I let the women I interviewed speak for themselves, interrupting only to ask questions for clarification. I transcribed all of the sessions and analyzed them according to the methods of grounded theory (Henwood & Pidgeon, 2003; Murry, 2003; Strauss & Corbin, 1990). In the analysis, I examined the narratives as wholes, and looked within them for patterns of interaction and strategies. I then organized each account to provide a theory of that specific woman’s stratiegies for maximizing emotional energy. I based my analysis of each woman’s narrative in the ideal types that emerged from the grounded theory analysis and a focus on their strategies for negotiating interactions pertaining to her breasts (Hollway, 1989; Weber, as cited in Gerth & Mills, 1946). (3)

I used all of the narratives to develop three ideal types of strategies for maximizing emotional energy within the context of early breast development: hiding the breasts, using the breasts for popularity with boys, and proactively resisting the subordinate positioning and exclusion associated with the development of breasts. I have selected three accounts of early breast development that allow me to convey a range of experiences and strategies associated with breast development, while staying close to the stories that the women told. As much as I could, I have presented the quotes as part of the integrated stories I heard. Although this lets their voices come through in the analysis, it requires teasing apart themes that are presented as interconnected. I present my data in this way to get at the personal, subjective, meaning-making aspects of early breast development.


Social Positioning and Social Context of Early Breast Development


Tabitha was 34 years old at the time she told me about her early development. She grew up White in upper middle-class, predominantly White suburbs and in a large eastern Canadian city. She started to develop breasts when she was 8 years old, and she started to menstruate when she was 10 years old. She was well over 5′ tall in third grade, and she said that she felt like a physical misfit because of her height even before she started to develop. Tabitha’s story runs counter to the generalization that early developers engage in sexual activity earlier than average and late-developing girls. She is one of three women with whom I spoke who described themselves as an early physical developer but a late sexual developer. (4) We can see how the strategies that Tabitha used to negotiate the environment in which she developed breasts contributed to alienation from her body, anger toward men, and discomfort with her own sexuality.

Whereas some women talked of gaining social power because of their larger breasts, Tabitha said she only felt excluded and ashamed because of her different body.

I started to wear heavy sweaters to cover myself so that no one

would see me. I was in total denial–I just didn’t want it to be

true. You should see my 6th grade class picture. I was 5’11 and 110

lbs. I had this long stringy hair that I was hiding behind. All of

the other girls in the picture are wearing little spaghetti strap

dresses in bright colors and smiling, and I was seated in this

little chair with my knees practically up to my ears because I was

way too tall for it, a big thick sweater to try to hide my breasts,

jeans that were too short for me, and a miserable expression on my

face. That picture pretty much captures my experience in elementary

school. I felt big, awkward, and not cute and pretty; I stuck out,

and I felt miserable.

Although Tabitha did not tell stories of being teased by her peers, she felt a loss of status (exclusion) because of her changing body. She attempted to control how different she appeared by hiding her body to prevent loss of status. Her description of her sixth grade picture is a depiction of what it felt like to experience the shame of being different; she felt unattractive and miserable as she fought a losing battle to attempt to hide her difference.

Peers figured prominently in the accounts of some of the early breast developers, but Tabitha primarily told stories of being subordinately positioned and losing power at the hands of adult men because of her larger breasts. She told a story about how sexual harassment by a teacher contributed to her sense of shame and helplessness associated with her body.

When I was in seventh grade, I had a male science teacher. One day

he called me out into the hall. I was confused and anxious because

I was always a good kid. We went out into the hall, and I stood

against the lockers, backed up against them with him standing in

front of me with his arm stretched out and his hand on the lockers

right by my head. He said, “Tabitha, I’ve heard that you’ve been

telling kids that you think that I think that you have a great

body.” Well I just could have died right there. All I could think

of was that he thought that I had done this awful thing, and that I

just had to make him believe that I had never said that. I said

over and over, “I didn’t say that! I swear! I would never never say

anything like that!” And then he leaned in on his arm so that his

face was close to mine and he said, “Well it’s true, I do think

that you have a great body.” I was so shocked. I don’t think that I

responded at all. I could have melted into the floor. I turned

around and went back into the classroom, and he never said anything

about it again, and I never told anyone.

Her teacher used his power to humiliate and objectify her. He was insensitive to her distress and her efforts to preserve her character in what she felt was an attack against it. As she told the story, she was concerned with appealing to his authority, repeatedly claiming her innocence, whereas he carried out an inappropriate interaction over which she had almost no control. Despite her past efforts to be a good student, and her efforts in the interaction to present herself as good and worthy, he reduced her to her body. This interaction left her feeling alone in her shame.

Not only did her teacher sexually objectify and harass her, men routinely grabbed her in public. She talked of getting used to adult men harassing her and of her failed attempts to hide her body.

Men were constantly looking at me, making comments, and touching me.

Many many times men on the bus and in public would grab my ass or

touch my breasts. I didn’t get angry, or even scared, I just

accepted that this was what men were like, and this is how I was

going to be treated now that I had breasts. It never occurred to me

to tell my parents or ask for help, because I thought that there was

something about me that was making the men act this way. I tried to

control it by wearing bigger and thicker clothes, but it didn’t seem

to work.

Again and again her breasts were associated with the discrediting and threatening attention she received. Tabitha’s story illustrates how when girls have little control over their environment, sexually objectifying interactions will result in the incorporation of the powerful meaning of the significant symbols of the interaction, their breasts, as irresistible, available, and discrediting, into their own understanding of their bodies. Within limited options for avoiding objectifying interactions, the only thing left to control in her environment was herself. Using defensive strategies to attempt to hide and cover her body only further added to her sense of personal responsibility for the treatment she received.

Tabitha split her time between the homes of her mother and father. Her mother talked openly with her about everything, however her father not only neglected to give her emotional support that might have helped her to deal with the difficulties she encountered because of her changing body, he too began to treat her differently once her body began to change. She revealed how her father’s treatment of her contributed to her sense of shame and worthlessness.

When I was in fifth grade I remember waking up with a nightmare. My

Dad slept in this king-sized bed alone so I started to climb into

bed with him. He woke up and freaked out. “What are you doing?! You

can’t do that! This is totally inappropriate!” It was around then

that he started in on telling me how worthless and unlovable I was.

It really started at about the same time that I started to develop

breasts. He used to embarrass me in front of men on purpose. I guess

my father just didn’t know what to do with me when I started to grow


She keenly felt the diminished power associated with her body as her father used his authority and power to position her subordinately. In ninth grade, she had another experience of inappropriate advances by a teacher, and this time she went to her father. Her father questioned her repeatedly about whether she was certain; he stressed the fact that a man’s career was on the line until she backed off and said that she may have misinterpreted what happened. Her treatment at the hands of her father helped to create a sense of a being on her own and of a lack of control over her environment, both of which encouraged turning toward defensive strategies–taking responsibility for her social interactions and attempting to downplay and hide her body.

Tabitha connected her experience of early breast development to both her feeling of anger toward men who found her attractive and her alienation from her body and sexuality.

Now I don’t feel intimacy connected to my body or sex. I attach

meaning to kissing and handholding, because that’s the kind of stuff

that men didn’t want from me when they would grab at me on the

busses. I just don’t think of myself as a sexually desirable person.

I know that all of these men would grab me and look at me, but that

was just my body. If I put any effort in [to what I look like] and I

get attention for it, I get really upset. Like I’m not a knockout

unless I dress in this way for men. Compliments like that just

remind me of how superficial and basic men are. I’m reminded of my

father, the teacher, and the strangers in public, and it just leaves

a horrible taste in my mouth. I don’t feel sexy, and I can’t imagine

why anyone would think that I was. I just can’t think of myself in

that way.

Tabitha associated her breasts with not fitting in with peers and with sexual harassment from adults in power, both situations over which she had little control. In her experience, men’s sexuality is abusive and objectifying, and, as a result, her own sexuality suggests the danger of being objectified and subjected to the harassment of men. She accepted harassment both as her responsibility and as the inevitable nature of men. In response, she downplayed her body and dissociated herself from her body and sexuality. These strategies created for her the meanings of her larger breasts, of men’s sexuality, and of her own sexuality. Even though Tabitha said that she likes her breasts and that she looks “fantastic naked,” she believes that her breasts are to be hidden and that men are not to be trusted.


Kerry was 20 years old at the time of the interview. She is White, and grew up in an upper middleclass, predominately White section of a medium-sized midwestern city. Like Tabitha, Kerry started to develop breasts when she was 8 years old, and she experienced menarche when she was 10 years old. Kerry’s story of breast development brought her to an entirely different place socially and sexually from Tabitha’s. She was one of three women with whom I talked who said that her breasts led to early sexual activity. Her social environment offered different constraints and opportunities, and we can see how her strategizing for positive social positions within these led to early sexual activity and lowered self-esteem.

Kerry’s parents were supportive during her development. Her father, a pediatrician who specialized in adolescent medicine, made her feel particularly comfortable. Kerry did not think or believe that her mother was quite as comfortable with her changing body as her father was, but her mother communicated her support. Kerry thought or said that both of her parents felt sorry for her because of her early development.

Although she talked about being teased, Kerry made it clear that even peers who pointed out her physical difference with no intention of teasing made Kerry feel excluded and different. As status is a sense of belonging, her developing breasts represented a loss of status and emotional energy. Although it might appear to an adult observer, or to the adolescents who made the comments, that her peers were just pointing out the obvious or were just curious, their comments contributed to a loss of emotional energy because they marked her as different, an outsider. Kerry described the emotional effect of this loss of status in the same way as Tabitha did–it made her “miserable.”

Kerry talked about feeling alone and vulnerable, and she curtailed her activity and wore big clothes to control how much of her body other people saw.

Nobody else was developed. I got made fun of all of the time. I

hated it. I wouldn’t swim. I was miserable. I quit gymnastics

because of it. I wouldn’t get in a leotard because I had breasts. I

quit gymnastics and that was awful because I was really good at

gymnastics. I was embarrassed; like I wouldn’t wear anything, I was

always wearing big clothes. I hated the whole thing; it made me


Unable to control the impact her changing breasts had on her social circumstances, Kerry went to great lengths to hide them. She not only wore clothes to hide her breasts, she also curtailed physical activities she enjoyed so that people would not see them.

Kerry told of boys who touched her against her will and snapped her bra straps.

I remember wearing a bra in fourth grade and having people make fun

of me. Boys were just really cruel about it. I remember one boy

yelling about my breasts across the playground. They saw it, and

boys would snap it. It was supposed to be funny but it hurt. Other

people laughed, but I didn’t.

Snapping bra straps is not just about marking difference; by touching her body against her will and by hurting her, the boys made the loss of power associated with her changing body real, literal. Early development for Kerry meant the loss of both status and power among peers.

Kerry’s story changed when she entered the fifth grade. The boys and girls around her started demonstrating romantic interest in the other sex, and she suddenly found herself in a position of power, as she had breasts that the boys found desirable. She described how her body resulted in her popularity, but this attention ultimately undermined her self worth.

In the end of fourth and fifth grade, it wasn’t a problem anymore

because my boobs made me very popular. Once I got to fifth grade,

I had a lot of boyfriends. It was obvious why, because I was the

only girl with boobs. I’m sure the reason why they wanted to date

me was because I was so developed and that was the only reason. I

was very popular with the boys, and the girls were jealous. They

were like, “Oh my God, you are like the hottest girl.” And I was

like, “no, it’s just because of my boobs.” I knew it was just

because of that, but it was still flattering.

Until boys started showing interest in her, her breasts were nothing but a “problem.” They were a social problem because they represented a loss of status with friends and a loss of power at the hand of boys who would snap her bra straps and embarrass her. The boys were interested in her sexually, and the girls were jealous of the boys’ attention. This changing social dynamic presented a new opportunity for her to use her breasts to gain social power and emotional energy. It is important to note, however, that although she said that her body was no longer a problem, through the objectifying interactions she came to see her body as nothing more than a desired commodity from which she dissociated herself. This fracturing of her self assured that she would gain only limited self-esteem from the positive attention; she was certain that it had little to do with “her.” Even with this new power over the boys, her relationships with girls were still limited as girls continued to treat her differently. The girls were either jealous or scornful; either way she still did not enjoy full status or inclusion.

She clearly articulated the process and impact of objectification. Note that despite all of the supposedly positive attention she received for it, she does not even feel positive about her body.

Developing early made me do stuff early with boys. Sex and sexual

things have always been on my mind. I didn’t really like it all

the time when I was doing this with guys, but I felt flattered

that they were noticing me. But then, I kind of realized it wasn’t

because of who I am. I don’t know why I did it, maybe because it’s

easier to get guys to accept you if you’re having sex with them.

Whereas girls are very tough. Being physical with boys gave me

confidence, but it didn’t make me feel good to know a boy liked me

just for my body. In the end I guess I don’t even feel that good

about my body.

Using her breasts socially was ultimately a losing proposition for Kerry. She had power because boys wanted her, but she had little power in the actual interaction to voice, and get, what she wanted. She told of gaining short-term power (i.e., the order-giving position of deciding who would receive her sexual attention) and status (attention/inclusion) with the boys, but, over the long-term, these sexual interactions drained her emotional energy and self-esteem because the sexual power was simultaneously discrediting and self-alienating. Using this power also made her feel out of control. Her strategy of using her breasts to improve her social position, one of the only strategies available to her for gaining emotional energy in interaction with her peers, led to a downward spiral of emotional energy that had relative peaks but ultimately lowered her level of emotional energy and her self-esteem.


Laura is White, and she grew up in a middle-class, mostly White suburb of an east coast city. At the time that we talked, she was 22. Like Tabitha and Kerry, she started to menstruate when she was 10 years old, but she did not develop noticeable breasts until she was 9 years old. Laura’s story illustrates the happy ending to the story of early breast development in many respects, not because she did not experience social difficulty, but because she was able to use proactive strategies for maximizing emotional energy rather than defensive strategies for minimizing the loss of emotional energy than defensive strategies for negotiating social interaction about her breasts. Her use of proactive strategies rather than defensive allowed her to avoid feeling responsible for her diminished social position, while encouraging interactions that helped to create even more opportunities for developing proactive strategies. She was the only woman with whom I talked who described her early development of breasts as positive, as something that she would chose to experience again, despite the social awkwardness and teasing.

Like Tabitha and Kerry, Laura talked about how developing breasts early made her feel that she stood out from her friends.

I was really self-conscious because in my elementary school I was

the only girl who had breasts. I guess when you stand out in a crowd

it’s just kind of … it’s like wearing jeans to a formal. I would

think to myself, “they look like little girls, and I just grew out

of another shirt.” Everything about me, I was just totally gigantic

[compared] to the other girls.

Again, the feeling of difference is the feeling of a loss of status, which results in self-consciousness and embarrassment.

She told of how she tried to hide her breasts, and how, with her mother’s support, she was able to negotiate interactions pertaining to her social difference so that she was able to diminish her shame.

I tried to hide my breasts in the fourth and fifth grade. I refused

to wear a bra in fifth grade. My Mom was really cool about it

though. She was just like, “don’t worry.” She would bring things

home all of the time for me to try on and she would call them

undershirts, but later on I realized they were like sports bras.

When I got dressed around my friends, I felt like we just all had

undershirts on, so my Mom really made it easier for me.

Her unwillingness to wear a bra did not represent rebellion against authority or convention; it was rather a way of denying that she was indeed significantly different from her peers. Her mother’s response to her denial demonstrated that she understood the reason for her daughter’s refusal, and she worked to create a situation where her daughter could still fit in with the other girls. Laura’s mother’s efforts buffered Laura in a limited way from the loss of status that her larger breasts represented.

Despite her mother’s efforts, Laura still received unwanted attention. She talked about catcalls she received from men.

I never wore anything tight, but you know, you can see the outline

of a person’s shape through their clothes. I would sometimes get

comments walking downtown from older men. I was like, “I’m not even

13 years old yet!” It was like, “you are so yucky!”

Responses from strangers no doubt had implications for the sexual objectification of her body, but, unlike Tabitha’s self-blame for strangers’ reactions, Laura saw the strangers, rather than herself as “yucky.” This difference in responses did not necessarily change the immediate impact of the experience of sexual objectification and subordinate positioning that the two girls shared, but it did have implications for what this interaction meant to them. Although it may appear to be a subtle difference, wearing big clothes to hide a body that elicits sexual responses from men who “cannot help themselves,” who are responding directly to the signal of breasts (Tabitha), represents much more self-blame and loss of critical analysis of one’s social position than wearing big clothes to hide a body from the yucky men (Laura), who themselves, rather than the breasts, are clearly the source of the problem.

Laura understood that she suffered not directly from her breasts, but because of other people’s responses to them. This placed the source of her discomfort in the social interaction, not within her self, and gave her a more powerful position to negotiate interactions pertaining to her difference. Laura described how she entered into conflict with boys to continue playing sports with them.

I was like, “yes, I have breasts, but they’re not going to stop me

from doing things I like.” I was very much a tomboy and then this

happened [breast development], and it was really hard to stay

athletic. When you’re a girl, and they notice they’re like, “why

don’t you just watch us play.” I would say, “no!” I think because I

was very stubborn, and I refused to accept that I was going to be

left out of stuff because of something that I couldn’t control,

people began to see that I was still the same old person. My dad

was the soccer coach. He also tried to make me feel very

comfortable. It let me know that he understood.

Throughout her story, Laura discussed how she got the message repeatedly that her breasts should not be seen to move. She was told she should restrict her activity so that her breasts would be seen in the light in which they were expected to be seen–unmoving, docile, and sexual. Rather than resisting within her self by acquiescing and refusing to run so that the attention and negative feedback would temporarily disappear, she was able to resist on the level of social interaction. She told the boys “no!” and insisted on continuing to play sports. She maintained a proactive strategy for maximizing emotional energy by keeping the situation to be negotiated in the social world rather than within her body.

Her father’s understanding of her social position and his support helped to prevent her from internalizing and developing defensive strategies. His connection with her and his acknowledgement of her situation offered status and created space in the environment where she had some control, some option besides turning inward. It is also likely that positive experiences associated with participation in athletics were a source of both power and status that undermined other sexually objectifying interactions. Kerry talked of quitting gymnastics, but it is important to note that gymnastics is about body display as well as performance. A sport that does not emphasize the visual (such as soccer) may undermine the sexual objectification of the body by providing an outlet where the body can remain integrated with the girl’s larger identity.

As with the other girls, the time came when breasts equaled sexual attention, which meant an opportunity for social power. For Laura, this potential for social power happened as five elementary schools came together for middle school, so that the one or two girls who developed early in each school were together. She said that they all became fast friends. She talked about how reactions from boys continued to play a central role in her experience of her breasts.

Lots of guys would come up to me and asked me to go places with them

and stuff like that. I guess it made me more popular with the guys,

or at least more noticed. The boys were just starting to take

interest, but they were interested for the wrong reasons. I wanted

nothing to do with it. Back then it was like, “Boobs! Oh my gosh! I

got to have them!” The boys had this huge image of boobs being


Unlike Kerry, Laura was critical at that time of the popularity that the boys offered. She was able to resist using her breasts for social power at the cost of sexual objectification. Laura regained some status when she was able to develop connections to other early developers. It may be that their support enabled her to resist the sexual advances boys were making toward her.

Laura gave her analysis of why the other early developing girls responded the way that they did to their early breast development.

Some of the girls were trying to hide their breasts as much as they

could; these were the girls who were super shy and couldn’t deal

with the development and any attention they got for it. Other girls

were wearing really short skirts and tight shirts and trying to show

off their new bodies; these were the girls who used development like

a stage. I think on one hand the hiding was about becoming

comfortable with their body while the showing off was about

accepting a role that they thought they had because they were


Although she presented the strategies for dealing with early development (hiding or flaunting) as either/or alternatives, she herself was able to find comfort with her body and refused the role of sex object. She stated this clearly in the quote below where she said that she would develop breasts early again if she could.

If I had to do it over again, I would pick to be an early developer.

It [developing breasts early] was negative in that it made me feel

self-conscious, but when everybody else was going through puberty

much later they were very self-conscious and I had already gotten

over it when I was younger. I think I had more time to learn to

accept my body before we all started dating and that sort of thing,

so I was never very negative about it [my body]. I had so much more

time to find out who I was, and to be comfortable with who I was,

instead of using boys to make me feel better about myself.

At the beginning of her story Laura did hide her body, but then she moved on to describe how she refused to hide herself when she wanted to run and play. She also refused to take advantage of the double-edged power offered to her by the boys who were all too willing to grant her social power at the price of sexual objectification. At the same time, she did not become alienated from her body and sexuality in the same way that Tabitha did. She described herself as starting to date around the same time as most of her peers–no earlier and no later. Early development was a developmental event that she negotiated proactively. Her assessment of her experience was much more global; she compared the social experiences of herself and her peers. This social critique is both product of and continued foundation for proactive emotional energy-maximizing strategies that allowed her to resist her environment rather than to constrain herself.


Interaction Ritual Approach to Understanding Early Breast Development

The results of this study established the fundamental theoretical point that the meaning early breast development has for girls is based in social interaction. As I stated earlier, in interaction ritual theory, the meaning of a symbol is ultimately a strategy for action, a way of negotiating one’s social position in a particular environment. We relate to symbols through their relevance for our emotions. We use them as guides to emotional energy. People are motivated to act proactively to maximize emotional energy, but, when there are limited options, this process is subverted, and individuals develop defensive strategies. The individual’s social contexts determine what sorts of strategies they are likely to use. Although these early breast developers have limited choices, they are not passive. They strategize within the available framework; the early breast-developing women in this study told stories of trying to improve their situation within the limits of their bodies and their environments. We can see how the relationships between social contexts, social interactions, and the different strategies they generated had various impacts on the women who used them. We can also see how the power stratification associated with gender is produced and reproduced in face-to-face interaction.

Although the experience of having noticeable breasts is one that cuts across timing of development, these women talked about diminished status among their peers (exclusion) and targeted peer harassment (power-draining interactions). In their stories they suggested that they experienced diminished social positions because they went through breast development early and alone. Both age of onset and the age of onset relative to peers were important in their stories. Age of onset had implications for the sort of reception the early breast developers received for being off time. All of these women stated that in early elementary school they were teased and subjected to friends’ curiosity; only in late elementary school did they gain the opportunity to trade on the sexual power of their breasts. It may be that breasts in third and fourth grade were frightening for both boys and girls. There was power in their breasts, but it was latent because they caused so much discomfort among peers. Being first and alone was also important in its own right. Regardless of whether peers and adults teased, sexually harassed, or admired their breasts, being the only one with breasts had implications for loss of status. This noticeable physical difference marked the early breast developers as a type of outsider among their peers in a time when fitting in is particularly important for social life (Alsaker, 1995; Silbereisen & Kracke, 1997). The experience of having breasts is not unique to early breast developers, but the combination of teasing, exclusion, and sexual power may very well be unique.

Breasts were super-saturated with conflicting meaning for these early breast-developing girls (Latteier, 1998; Schmitt, 1986). It is no wonder that large samples and multiple regression models cannot easily represent multiple and conflicting experiences of girls who develop breasts early. Breasts, because they changed these girls’ social positions, became objects of negotiation. Although their stories reveal that the meaning of breasts was not uniform across the different local cultures in which these women interacted, breasts uniformly signified adult femininity, which was both empowering and discrediting. The above stories illustrate three ideal types for these women’s negotiation of early breast development that I developed based on the analysis of these accounts of early breast development as well as the assumptions of interaction ritual theory. Most of the women told of using defensive strategies that could be categorized as hiding the body and using the body for popularity. As girls they used a combination of these approaches as their social circumstances changed. Laura was the only one who told a story of relying almost entirely on proactive strategies. I include her as an ideal type because her story represents how social circumstances, an athletic history, and accommodating parents can radically alter the interaction strategies, experience, and perception of early breast development.

Defensive Strategies

When individuals cannot control their environment, and it is full of subordinating interaction rituals, they will turn to defensive strategies and attempt to control their own behavior to avoid the worst of subordinate positioning and further loss of emotional energy. When women are subject to the inevitable and uninvited evaluating gaze of male observers, they learn to evaluate and constrain themselves to avoid interactions that lead to further loss of emotional energy. These early breast-developing women used defensive strategies that were based on controlling that which stigmatized them, their body. Latteier (1998) stated that when girls develop breasts, the

body is no longer the me of childhood–that bundle of amorphous

pleasures and pains, the me that loves to run and jump and eat ice

cream. The body becomes my equipment, my display, and something I

own, something for which I’m responsible. My body is a quantity to

be judged by others who draw conclusions about me based on what

they see (p. 15).

The women with whom I spoke built defensive strategies by either downplaying the body or playing up the body so that they could maintain a sense of control over the responses they received. As is characteristic of interaction strategies that are derived from limited social options, both strategies (i.e., hiding and showing off) offered some social advantage at the price of being discrediting in other ways. As Young (1980) pointed out, developing a sense of our bodies and ourselves as beautiful means that we stifle the sensation of our capable, active bodies as strong, and move forward to struggle with the resistance offered up by the physical world. On the other hand, when we insist that our bodies are strong and capable, or at least not available to the male gaze, we risk being considered unattractive, not beautiful.

Denying Strategies

Despite findings that early developers engage in sexual activity before on time and late developers (Brooks-Gunn, 1988; Flannery et al., 1993; Magnusson et al., 1985), Tabitha’s story of early breast development suggests how social circumstances can conspire to produce a radically different outcome: sexual repression and alienation. When a girl turns to a defensive strategy of hiding her body or resigning herself to sexual harassment from men, she can develop and sustain meanings associated with her breasts that are based in shame and anger. Tabitha understood that men and sex are harmful, which undermined notions that her body and sexual activity could be sources of pleasure. Sexual harassment is more likely to lead to a sense of disembodiment than of embodiment and active pleasure (Frost, 2001). As I stated earlier, defensive strategies are likely to be much more resilient than proactive strategies, that is, shame, anger, and disassociative interaction strategies may outlast the sexually harassing interactions, and such was the case for Tabitha, Latteier (1998) found that when women have suffered a good deal of teasing or other negative attention for their breasts in late childhood and early adolescence, they tended not to enjoy breast stimulation. Of course, this outcome may also be true for early breast developers who choose to be sexually active. As Kerry stated, just because she was willing to be sexual with boys did not mean that she enjoyed it.

Using It Strategies

Smolak, Levine, and Gralen (1993) found that girls who went through puberty early and started dating early were at particular risk for body dissatisfaction and eating disorders. Kerry, as well as the two other women who told stories of having used the sexual power of breasts, had lasting negative feelings about her body. Bartky (1990) pointed out that to succeed in the provision of a beautiful or sexy body gains a woman attention and some admiration, but little real respect and rarely any social power. Using the body for popularity in sexual interactions may produce short-term emotional energy gains, but ultimately the experience can be discrediting and objectifying, which leads to low emotional energy associated with the symbol of the interaction–the body. Meeting feminine attractiveness standards may enhance the power a woman has over her social environment, yet the very fact that she physically matches the cultural stereotype of a feminine woman may also cause her to be taken less seriously by others (Franzoi, 2001). Franzoi (2001) pointed out that the exchange of a woman’s direct social power for her perceived beauty and accompanying indirect power is one of the defining features of benevolent sexism, which rewards conforming behavior but ultimately undermines women’s power.

Are women who trade on this discrediting power blindly following the dictates of culture against their own best interests? I suggest not. In cases when one does not have direct social power, and one is offered indirect power, why would one not take it? We must consider the social context that limits the options of those who are strategizing to make the best of their situations. In cases of diminished social position, this effort can lead to indirect defensive strategies that ultimately lead to even lower emotional energy and reaffirmed diminished status. Such is the case in the account that Kerry gave of early dating and sexual activity that contributed to both her immediate popularity and her long-term negative feelings about her body.

Maintaining Proactive Strategies

Sometimes, despite hostile social circumstances, there are interactions available that enable one to maintain proactive maximizing strategies. It is important to note that almost all of the women told stories of initially using proactive strategies to manage their social difficulties, such as getting angry about initial comments, teasing, or exclusion. However, only some of the girls experienced any success as a result or were supported in their efforts. Brown and Gilligan (1992) pointed out that resistance to social expectations is related to a faith that the current social organization will offer some protection against potential harsh social consequences, which suggests that losing faith in the system’s capacity or protection would undermine the ability to resist. Brown and Gilligan found that girls who had close, open, and often overtly conflictual relationships with their parents, their mothers in particular, were able to maintain the ability to resist–to be a social critic and to give voice to their own experience. As in the case of Laura, a supportive parent can help to maintain proactive strategies. However, Kerry’s story illustrates that sometimes this support from parents still is not enough to prevent the development of defensive strategies. As a teenage girl in a study by Piran (2001, p. 173) stated, “‘you need to have power to accept yourself,” and the feeling of power is connected to both family and peer relationships.

Proactive interaction strategies are the most desirable because they are the most flexible. When we are able to experience some success using proactive strategies, we maintain a sense of control that enables us to negotiate rocky social terrain. Proactive strategies also frame emotional energy-draining social circumstances as social problems rather than as the problem of those who are experiencing lower status and lower power. This means that proactive strategies in the face of oppressive circumstances offer the greatest potential for social change. Change may only be realized on the face-to-face interaction level, such as Laura’s success in being able to play with the boys despite her breasts, but there is a possibility that such strategies could lead to wider social change. Regardless of what level of social life resistance may affect, engaging in resistance is important because it prevents self-blame for problems born of diminished social position.

Interaction, Sexual Objectification of Breasts, and the Oppression of Women

We construct the meaning of our breasts and other aspects of our bodies through interaction in lived day-to-day experience (Schmitt, 1986). The social dynamics of interaction are the basis for the sexual objectification of women’s bodies, as well as our feelings about our selves and the internalized objectification of our bodies. Research by Mendelson et al. (1996) supports the importance of interaction and emotion; they found that women’s self-esteem was not related to relative weight, but was associated with feelings about their appearance. Similarly, Franzoi and Chang (2000) found that the aspects of the body that women felt most positive about were those that they could alter cosmetically to be more attractive, however they were also aspects of their appearance that lowered others’ perceptions of their competence and dominance. Also, men were more likely to experience their bodies as process, whereas women were likely to view them as objects to be controlled (Franzoi & Chang, 2000). Such findings offer an illustration of interaction ritual theory that suggests that power is not abstract but based in the real ability to generate social interactions that are positive and controllable. When our social context limits our ability to find dependable positive interactions, we try to control ourselves to prevent the further loss of power and status.

For adolescent girls, saying what they think and feel often represents social risks, such as the risk of losing relationships (status) and finding themselves powerless and alone (Brown & Gilligan, 1992). Brown and Gilligan (1992) suggested that as this happens, resistance to their social situation turns inward and manifests as dissociation and not knowing, and undermines their potential for engaging in open conflict. Brown and Gilligan defined resisting as girls using their voices to speak up to oppressive authority. This is similar to what I have identified as proactive emotional energy-maximizing strategies. They noted the confidence and psychological health associated with a connection to one’s voice and the ability to resist actively, and they suggested that girls lose these abilities as they transition into adolescence. Proactive maximization strategies then are not only difficult for early breast developers to maintain, but for all girls as they transition into adolescence. Thus it is likely that most girls will resort to some sort of defensive strategy, thereby producing inner personal and interpersonal disturbances that reflect their struggles to control themselves to limit subordinate positioning.

Spadola (1998, p. 33) suggested that almost every adolescent girl “feels that her breasts are not right,” that they are too fast or too slow, too big or too small. Women with different timings can feel “off” about their breasts. We can assume that for every early developer that boys or men proposition because of her relatively large breasts, there are late developers whom boys and men ignore because of their lack of noticeable breasts. Why do we always want the breasts we do not have? Why are stories of discomfort so universal? Because through face-to-face day-to-day interaction we learn that breasts are loaded with conflicting meaning; they indicate power and availability, motherhood and sexuality. They mean many things in many different contexts, and any woman is likely to find herself in a social situation where she wishes she had different breasts. For example, the same woman might wish for smaller breasts at work and larger ones at home (Spadola, 1998). Personality attributes are associated with breast size, and the increasing availability of cosmetic surgery to change our breasts, to bring them into alignment with the breasts that we think that we “should” have, only reaffirms our responsibility for having “bad” breasts or the “wrong” breasts. The conflicting ideals for breasts are illustrative of the conflicting demands on women and girls. As Yalom (1997) suggested, how a woman regards her breasts is a good indicator of her personal self-esteem, as well as of the collective status of women in general.

Paying attention to interaction allows us to see the power/status conflicts that are basic to repeated subordinate positioning and how this repeated social positioning in relation to women’s bodies creates the larger patterns of power associated with gender (Collins, 2001). When we look at the culture and interactions surrounding women’s bodies, we see how women can actively appropriate and recycle oppressive symbols back into the larger culture. These social circumstances reproduce the prevalence of negative body feelings that undermine women’s political organizing (McKinley, 1998). However, we are motivated to experience positive social positioning; we are motivated to work against the power of symbols that degrade us when ever possible. This means that oppression is unstable and that there is always room for breaks and resistance. We need to look to the structure of everyday interaction and see not only how the dynamics of face-to-face interactions create and reproduce patterns of oppression, but also how those who are subordinately positioned strategize within their social context are sometimes able to develop strategies that undermine and even destroy oppressive patterns of interaction.



Name Age Ethnicity breasts Menarche

Lilly 25 Asian American 8 years old 10 years old

Jen 18 White American 8 years old 9 years old

Sue 23 White American 8 years old 10 years old

Tabitha 34 White American 8 years old 10 years old

Eileen 21 White American 9 years old 9 years old

Rebecca 22 White American 10 years old 11 years old

Sara 22 White American 8 years old 10 years old

Trish 26 White American 7 years old 9 years old

Kerry 20 White American 8 years old 10 years old

Laura 22 White American 9 years old 10 years old

Jenny 19 Japanese 9 years old 10 years old

Jack 31 Dutch 8 years old 10 years old

Grace 20 Korean American 8 years old 10 years old

(3) “Ideal type” refers to Max Weber’s method of constructing certain elements of reality into a logically precise conception (Gerth & Mills, 1946). Weber approximated the range of specific situations through the comparison of cases that represented types or trends. Most of the specifics of lived experience fall in between the extreme cases, but the types are for developing concepts about how society works.

(4) Lilly and Sara said this as well.


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Erika Summers-Effler (1)

(1) To whom correspondence should be addressed at Department of Sociology, University of Pennsylvania, 3718 Locust Walk, McNeil Building, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 19104; e-mail:

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