New York Times Video and Mimetic Theory Part 2: Busty Women and True Beauty

Big boobs.

No, I haven’t reverted to my sophomore year in high school. The New York Times brought up the topic, so I feel like now I have to talk about them.

According to the New York Times, big boobs are all the rage in Venezuela. Of course, we can’t just accuse Venezuela for cleavage run amok. Women throughout the world are paying big bucks to augment their breasts. The question is why?

In my first post in this series, we used a New York Times video to explore how mimetic theory, and the recent discovery of mirror neurons, explain why yawning is imitative. Well, in this post we are going to use another New York Times video to explore how mimetic theory explains the imitative phenomenon of the desire for big boobs.

Hey, someone had to bring mimetic theory and big boobs together…Right?

In his book, Virtually Christian: How Christ Changes Human Meaning and Makes Creation Anew, Anthony Bartlett describes how we are mimetic by nature, and how mirror neurons open us up to be radically influenced by others. “[H]umans and the higher primates are characterized by the activity of ‘mirror neurons.’ These neurons have the effect of making someone else’s intention an immediate ‘personal’ experience of my own. ‘I am the other…I want (exactly) what you want’…this can escalate with unbelievable speed…”

All of this shows that when it comes to desire, humans are not autonomous. Because we are mimetic, we imitate the desires of others. Just as we imitate another’s yawn without realizing it, we soon imitate another’s desire for big breasts without realizing it. The desire is contagious and indeed “escalates with unbelievable speed.”

René Girard and anthropologist Mark Anspach discuss the same mimetic phenomenon of contagious desire, but relate it to anorexia as opposed to breasts. In their book Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, they argue that mimesis explains the contagion for extreme thinness and base that desire in imitation of cultural models. As Girard states, “Imitating the same cultural model that other women imitate—imitating those who imitate that model—and taking the imitation as far as possible is what leads these women [and, Girard acknowledges, increasingly men] to sacrifice themselves on the altar of thinness.” The New York Times article could have said the same thing: that some have sacrificed themselves on the altar of big boobs and butts.

The New York Times video begins with the head of the Miss Venezuela Pageant, Osmel Sousa, stating, “I say that inner beauty does not exist. That’s something that unpretty women invented to justify themselves.” I was offended when I first heard that despicable statement. “What a jerk!” I thought. But then I realized that deep down I know that much of Western culture believes that lie. Sousa explicitly tells us what we are implicitly told every freakin day on television, billboards, and magazines. Because we are mimetic we absorb these cultural standards of beauty and they become our own. Images of monstrous women with overblown chests, gigantic lips, big butts and incomparably small waists are the ideal of beauty.

What’s wrong with that? I love beauty just as much as anyone else, but when we use beauty to define others as ugly we have turned beauty into an ugly excuse to scapegoat another. We tell a certain group of people that they are not worthy of being loved. What’s worse, perhaps, is that no one can keep up with our cultural standards of beauty. It’s a cultural machine that invites women in just to regurgitate them out in a matter of moments. As René put it in Anorexia and Mimetic Desire, “The imperative for which these women allow themselves to die of hunger comes from the whole society. It is a unanimous imperative.”

Of course, another problem with this idolization of beauty is that it’s narcissistic. As we imitate one another’s desire to be beautiful, we emphasize ourselves over and against one another. The imitative escalation leads us into a destructive rivalry with our neighbors for prestige and beauty.

Okay. I’m sufficiently depressed.

But there is good news. Although this idolatrous view of beauty is a dominant model within Western culture, there are other models, too. What matters is undergoing a healthy pattern of desire that leads us away from a sense of beauty that depends on defining ourselves against someone who is ugly. Beauty is found in our relationships with one another. For Anthony Bartlett, the ultimate model of relational beauty and love is found in Jesus, the beloved Son of God. When Jesus invites us to “follow him” he’s asking us to imitate him in “a new way of being human. It becomes the arrival of compassion in the immediacy of the lived world. Human beings are invited to pour themselves out in imitation of the Beloved. Self-giving compassion begins to govern concrete existence, and so bring about the new creation our Eternal Beloved has always intended.”

This new creation that Jesus inaugurates transforms our whole selves, including our mimetic desire for beauty that leads us to scapegoat the “ugly.” The truly beautiful is not found in outward appearances, nor is it found on the inside. True beauty is found in participating in relationships of self-giving love with our fellow human beings.

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3 replies
  1. Molly
    Molly says:

    Adam, why do you think some women imitate the thinness model but have no interest in the big boobs/butt model? Granted, perhaps the latter ideal of beauty prevails more in the U.S. among those of South American or African American descent, but plenty of white playboy models wear (or don’t wear) DDD cups or whatever the largest size boob is. And plenty of men of all backgrounds express a preference for big boobs. Just about every woman I know wants to be thin(ner), no matter how thin they already are, but I know very few who want bigger boobs, no matter how small their boobs are.

    Reply
    • Adam Ericksen
      Adam Ericksen says:

      It’s a great question, Molly, and I’d like to hear your thoughts. I think from a mimetic theory pov, Girard makes a lot of sense in his essay/book Anorexia and Mimetic Desire. He says that most of us want to be thinner. You can see the mimetic aspect when he writes that “We all have the same goal, to lose weight, and, to some of us, this goal is so important that the means to reach it no longer matter.” There is a movement in male models to become thinner, producing the term “manorexia.” It’s very dangerous. As far as women wanting to become thinner despite men generally preferring big boobs, I don’t think women are becoming thinner and thinner to impress men. I think they are in a competition among themselves. (Girard says that somewhere in the anorexia book, but I can’t find it to quote. I think it’s right.)

      Reply
      • Molly
        Molly says:

        Thanks, Adam. I have that little (dare I say, small and thin?) book and will check it out. Maybe he will also explain why we want to be so thin now when once (when food was scarcer) curves and heftiness were the thing.

        Reply

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