Personal Appearance and Breast Size

By Rachel (Ray) Squires
May 26, 1995 (age 21)

Submitted for Dr. D.G. Leathers, Nonverbal Communication course 424 at UGA

The following is an analysis of personal appearance, focusing on how breast size affects the development and established evaluations of body image for females.


Personal appearance is the mot intimate form of nonverbal communication, communicating to those with whom we interact both who we are and who we are apt to become (Leathers, 1992). Leathers (1992) teaches us that personal appearance serves two main functions of communication, the self-concept function and the impression management function. Thus, personal appearance communicates what we think of ourselves and what we want others to contrive of ourselves.

Impression management is a more controllable factor than self-concept since by definition it is an attempt to consciously manipulate communicative behavior and cues for the purpose of making an intended impression (Leathers, 1992). Whereas self-concept is the concept we form of ourselves, for the most part unconsciously, from the many factors that combine to also form our personality. Our self-concept is externally displayed; however, unlike our impression management style, the ability to control its outward effects is more difficult and for some unskilled communicators almost impossible.

In order to better understand the function of self-concept we need to take into consideration the concepts of body image and body cathexis and their functions. Body image is a multidimensional mental picture that individuals form of their body (Leathers, 1992). LaBat & DeLong (1990) define body cathexis as a term used to refer to one’s positive and negative evaluation of one’s own body. They find that its function is in the evaluative dimension of body image and is formed through interactions with others. In other words an individual forms their body cathexis from they perceive that other individuals perceive of their body image. It is in this case a form of meta-cognition which is interpreted through nonverbal meta-communication. Because of this characteristic it is this researcher’s option that body cathexis plays a greater role in communication than the average communicator may be aware of and consequently deserves more attention in the educational system from which most individuals form the original evaluation of their body image. More specifically I am concerned with how breast size affects female’s self-concept and how females may or may not choose to alter their breast size in attempts to manipulate impression management as a result. Perhaps if females can form more positive evaluations of their body image or at least understand their negative evaluations, breast reduction or augmentation surgery and the risks involved may become less popular as a solution to problems associated with poor self-concept and impression management skills.


I must admit this is an interesting topic for me since I have been interested in breast size, specifically my own, even before my breasts had begun to develop. Before puberty I was convinced that I wanted large breasts. I’m not exactly sure why I was so preoccupied with the idea. It might have been just to get attention for wanting something that most 10-year-olds shouldn’t really be concerned with yet, or so my mother said. Maybe the reason had something to do with the fact that when I first perceived a light development my mother refused to acknowledge the small change. Whether there was development or not, the reaction from my mother may have unintentionally planted feelings of sensitivity toward this particular part of my body. Ussher (1989) supports this hypothesis.

Either way I got what I wanted, or at least what I thought I wanted as a flat-chested little girl. My breasts grew to a size D-cup by the time I reached the eleventh grade. The attention I have received for their size was not what I had originally anticipated. Granted people don’t gawk at me, but I rarely participate in activities which require a bathing suit. I shy away from sports activities in general because they often involve bodily contact, and I’m not crazy about the way it looks or feels to run. However, layering on sports bras allows me to feel a little more comfortable at the gym. Still, the other day in my acting for non-majors class I completely avoided participation in one of the exercises because we had to jump chest first into three pairs of arms. I just didn’t want to deal with it.

Some days if I’m not paying attention I will put on a shirt that seems fine, but by the time I find myself sitting in a two-hour lecture I become increasingly aware of the fact that my breasts are too noticeable and my shirt seems to become tighter and tighter. Of course I am aware that much of this anxiety is in my head. But it’s not as though I have formed an uncomfortable rather negative body image, as some women do, without the help of others. I usually conceal my chest by my clothing but sometimes, like at my brother’s wedding for example, if I wear something that on some girls would not raise much attention, I hear a lot of “Wow Ray, where did you get those?” or “I never knew you had such a large chest.” These comments may be meant as compliments or just as comments but either way they make me extremely uncomfortable. Freedman (1989) justifies my responses as she explains that hypersensitivity and self-consciousness can come from praise as well as criticism because both can give excessive meaning to certain features.

I have contemplated the idea of breast reduction several times. However, I’ve abandoned the idea not only because of the medical risks involved but because the majority of the opinions from the people I have asked is that my “big boobs” make up a great deal of my personality, no pun intended. I also happen to have a high self-esteem otherwise. I don’t think my breasts affect my particular impression management and/or self-concept enough to require surgery, but for many women breast size does call for such measures.

Ayalah and Weinstock (1979) present the plights of 38 women as they tell of their experiences with their breasts. Although the source is somewhat dated it offers insight as to the real life impact breast size has on some women. One woman tells how she had breast reduction surgery at the age of 15 and still suffers from psychological repercussions. Another tells how her humiliating experiences of teasing about her breasts when she was younger from her father, brother, and boyfriend led her to an occupation of topless dancing which she refers to as a “real power trip.”

Breast size can have a serious effect on the self-concept of females, whether they are seen as too small, too large, or too saggy (Ayalah and Weinstock, 1979) by the female and those with whom she interacts. A poor self-concept can inhibit an individual’s ability to communicate nonverbally by affecting the channel of personal appearance. If an individual can make more effective use of their personal appearance then they can communicate more effectively as well.


Unskilled communicators often do not realize the potential of their personal appearance. Whether a person is considered physically attractive or unattractive the potential for manipulation of impression management exists. It is through the function of impression management that the true power of nonverbal communication exits. My mother always said that 99 percent of beauty is portrayed in the way you carry yourself. It took me a few junior high school dances to figure out jut what she meant but, actually, the concept is one that scholars spend years studying and women may spend years perfecting.

If you can control how you communicate likeability, interpersonal attractiveness, credibility and dominance (Leathers, 1992) you can manipulate the impression management functions of your communicative interactions much more effectively by appearing more confident in your communication.

However, some women find that in order to convey confidence they must first obtain it. This becomes evident through the popular practice of mammaplasty. Birtchnell, Whitfield, and Lacey (1990) found significant data to suggest the main reason for women engaging in breast reduction or augmentation is to boost their level of self-confidence.

Confidence is often what enables a person to engage in communication, and the more nonverbal expressiveness one displays, according to Sabatelli and Rubin (1986) the more interpersonally attractive they appear. Interpersonal attraction is a key element of impression management. Thus, it becomes apparent that confidence or at least perceived confidence is essential in forming positive impressions and making the most of one’s personal appearance.

Communicators can manipulate their personal appearance in several ways. They can alter their body shape, like those women participating in mammaplasty. They can strategically choose their clothing, hair style, and even the scent they exude. Communicators can attempt to control their mannerisms, gestures, and posture in attempts to convey a desired image. Communicators can also attempt to enhance their self-concept and impression management functions in order to communicate more effectively. 



The first step is to concentrate on the elf-concept function. This is where the heart of the problem lies because if a person has a good self-concept or high self-esteem then they can more naturally display positive affects. Positive affect displays are positively related to attractive ratings according to a study conducted at Harvard University by Raines, Hechtman, & Roenthal (1990). Xah and Butter (1987) conducted a study which suggests that by improving affective body image and weakening maladaptive body image, self-esteem will improve. O’Grady (1989) similarly suggests the idea that relatively more attractive females have a higher social self-esteem than relatively less attractive females. Then you might say, what if our subject is in fact unattractive, explaining thus far reasons for a negative body image in the first place? In this case Freedman (1989) assures us that poor body image has very little to do with you actually look and that there’s little connection between a woman’s actual physical attractiveness and her satisfaction with body image. Thus, the idea of a good elf-concept and a positive body image is cyclical in nature and by injecting confidence rather than silicone, the cycle stands to continue in a more positive course.

My purpose for stressing the female’s body image rather than considering both males and females is because first, physical attractiveness in females appears to be a function of the face and the body combined, whereas for males it appears to be a function of the face alone (Raines, Hechtman, & Rosenthal 1990).

Secondly female consistently hold more negative body image attitude than males (Cash & Brown 1989). One might ay that woman are their own worst enemies, to quote another of my mother’s favorite sayings. Horvath (1981) finds that breast size is more critically assessed by women than men. Leathers (1992) offer that more emphasis is placed on the female body than on the male body. A study by Cash & Brown (1989) helps to explain why women hold more negative evaluations of their body images through the finding that stereotypes of women’s body images are substantially more distorted than the body-image stereotypes that exist for men. Many may argue that the media is largely responsible for this distortion of reality. Whatever the source, I suggest finding ways to break through these inconceivable visions of beauty starting with the notion of breast size.

Why are breasts a key player in the development of body image? Slap et al (1994) suggest that body image is positively related to the rate of breast development and that self-image declines during the early stages of adolescence. Ussher further supports these yet unproven suggestions of this observation:

“many mothers encourage their daughters to acquire this particular yoke of womanhood when they have scarcely begun to develop breasts. Conversely, other mothers will refuse to acknowledge that any change is taking place. Either attitude on the part of mother may have serious effects on the development of her daughter’s self image, whilst conflicts between the desires of the young woman and her other over this issue may further isolate the adolescent girl at this difficult stage of her life, (1989, pp.24).”   

Education could make mothers more aware of their impact on their daughters’ body image development and inform them how to enhance the image and avoid the development of unnecessary negative evaluations.

LaBat & DeLong (1990) introduce another side to the story of negative body images that women hold. Their research indicates that several women feel that their body is too large or disproportional because of their inability to fit into conventional sizes. The fact is that conventional sizes are not really conventional, rather they are more idealistic. Although many women yearn for an hourglass figure, very few are fortunate enough to actually have one. Another solution for improving women’s body images might be for clothing manufacturers to sell more realistic and proportional sizes. Women would then not have to feel alienated from the nature of their own sex.

Kaslow and Becker (1992) found that women who are depressed prior to breast augmentation are more likely to remain dissatisfied with the results of surgery, suggesting that the problem with their body image does not derive from the original size of their breast. They suggest psychological evaluations of such patients and, if necessary, treatment prior to surgery as a means of changing their negative body image.

Improving a female’s body image will enhance her self-concept. Three ways to do this are to; 1) stress the importance of guiding a positive developmental process for body image in adolescent females, 2) encourage manufacturers to make and sell more realistic clothing sizes and to increase the range of sizes available for women, and 3) concentrate on enhancing the individual’s self-concept in general. These solutions may influence women not to invest in the risks of reduction or augmentation breast surgery as a sole solution to negative body images. The communicative function of personal appearance for women thus stands to improve. 

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Ayalah, D., & Weinstock I.J. (1979) Breasts: Women Speak About Their Breasts and Their Lives.
New York: Summit Books.

Birthcnell, S., Whitfield, P., & Lacey, H. (1990). Motivation factors in women requesting augmentation and reduction mammaplasty. Journal of Psychosomatic Research, 34, 309-514.

Cash, T.F., & Brown, T.A. (1989). Gender and body images: Stereotypes and realities. Sex Roles, 21, 361-371.

Cash, T.F., & Brown, T.A. (1987). Cognitive-behavioral treatment of women’s body image dissatisfaction. Journal of Consulting Psychology and Clinical Psychology, 53, 889-897.

Freedman, R.J. (1989). Bodylove: Learning to Like Our Look and Ourselves. New York: Harper & Row.

Horvath, T. (1981). Physical Attractiveness: The influence of elected torso parameters. Archives of Sexual Behavior, 10, 21-24.

Kaslow, F., & Becker, H. (1992). Breast augmentation: Psychological and plastic surgery considerations. Psychology, 29, 467-473.

LaBat, K.L., & DeLong, M.R. (1990). Body cathexis and satisfaction with fit of apparel. Clothing and Textiles Research, 8, 43-47.

Leathers, D.G. (1992). Bodily Communication, Personal Appearance, & Impression Management. In a D. Chodoff & P. Shiner (Eds), Successful Nonverbal Communication (2nd ed.) (pp 69-91, 138-163, 203-235). New York: Macmillan.

O’Grady, K.E. (1989). Physical attractiveness, need for approval, social self-esteem, and maladjustment. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 8, 62-69.

Raines, S.R., Hechtman, S. B., & Rosenthal, R. (1990). Nonverbal behavior and gender as determinants of physical attractiveness. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 14, 253-267.

Sabatelli, R.M., & Rubin, M. (1986). Nonverbal expressiveness and physical attractiveness as mediators of interpersonal perceptions. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 10, 120-133.

Slap, G.B., Khalid, N., Plainkoff, R.L., Brooks-Gunn, J., & Warren, M.P. (1994). Evolving self-image, pubertal manifestations, and pubertal hormones. Preliminary findings in young adolescent girls. Journal of Adolescent Health, 15, 327-334.

Ussher, J.M. (1989). The Psychology of the Female Body. New York: Routledge.

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