Exploring the Sexual and Reproductive Freedom of the Female Body
Trigger Warning: body image, skin bleaching, surgery, trauma, sexual abuse.
The woman's body has an extended history of facing political debate, confinement, sexualisation and abuse, and therefore its liberation has long been fought for. Best Selling Japanese author, Mieko Kawakami, explores the sexual and reproductive freedom of the female body in her intimate and honest book Breasts and Eggs. Set in contemporary Japanese patriarchal society, with dominant themes of class inequality, birth and death, motherhood, gender and politics, reproductive rights, and unrealistic beauty standards for women, Kawakami traverses issues faced by women and highlights the subjugation of their bodies. The book is split into two parts, part l is a reissue of a short novel from 2008 (Kawakami intended for the book to be a novella at first), and part ll returns to the story eight years later.
In part l, we meet thirty-year-old Natsuko, greeting her older sister Makiko and Makiko’s twelve-year-old daughter Midoriko. The book's first part is fast-moving and powerful, revealing that all three women face queries with their bodies and livelihoods while also demonstrating their strength and resilience. Kawakami flashes between Natsuko's childhood memories, unveiling the deprived childhood she and Makiko had, and the present day where she and Makiko are still poor despite the long hours they work. Makiko explains her struggles of feeling that her body is worn out and unattractive and thus goes to Tokyo for breast implants. She works as a hostess at a bar targeted for men and, therefore, is under pressure to look conventionally attractive for her job; a tiring job, which she has no choice but to continue doing, as she has no other means of earning money. Kawakami portrays Makiko as a victim of Western beauty standards. Through the practice of skin bleaching - Makiko describes the painful bleaching chemical she uses to make her naturally brown nipples appear pink - Kawakami successfully highlights a prevalent issue within Asian and African communities where the Eurocentric and Western media portray white women as the beauty ideal, which means lighter skin and pinker nipples. It is through Makiko's negative body image, desire for cosmetic surgery on her breasts, and concern over youth that Kawakami touches on unrealistic beauty standards placed upon ageing women.
Interestingly, breast implants are the third most popular cosmetic procedure in Japan, whereas over a decade ago this procedure was not common at all (1). This increase in popularity for breast augmentation possibly inspired Kawakami’s choice to address the complexities of this procedure. Studies have shown that media portrayals of unrealistic beauty standards contribute to negative body images among young and older women alike (2). Nevertheless, such depictions and academic literature often neglect middle-aged and older women (3). A 2004 study that included in-depth interviews with 29 Japanese women showed that the participants' conceptions of attractiveness matched Western-media definitions of feminine beauty such as "mini skirts, permed hair and Caucasian facial features" (4). A recent study analyses the paradox involving the pressure for women to undergo cosmetic surgeries and the subsequent shaming of those who choose to do so. The research argues that unrealistic beauty standards encourage women to feel the need for cosmetic procedures, whilst also fostering negative attitudes towards these procedures through the current popularity of ‘natural beauty’ (5). But the irony remains that the media will continue to advertise natural beauty with edited and photoshopped models.
At the same time that her mother is obsessed with acquiring breast implants, Midoriko is navigating the fear towards her own body changing during puberty as she learns about breasts, wombs and eggs. Midoriko describes learning about human reproduction in school and how girls are born with all of their eggs only to see them decreasing in number as a girl gets older. Midoriko experiences immense anxiety when her period comes, and she feels disgusted at the thought of sperm and eggs. She says, “I wish I could rip out all of those parts of me, the parts already rushing to give birth” (6). Kawakami presents Midoriko as resenting her body’s reproductive system, which has been forced upon her, and how her body is beginning to prepare for childbearing, even though Midoriko has “already decided. I’m never having kids. No way” (7). Here, Kawakami accurately captures the second-wave feminist argument that not all women want children and, even more importantly, that not all women want to be pregnant. More so, the author is reminding us of the importance of proper sex education in schools, in which the teachings go beyond scientific reproduction to include consent, pleasure, choices surrounding fertility, and the emotional impact of bodies changing. Midoriko feels that financially her mother should not have chosen to have her because she did not come from an economically privileged family and is now having to exhaust herself through work in order to provide for herself and her daughter. Consequently, Midoriko blames herself for her mother's exhaustion, body image struggles, and financial problems when Makiko expresses that her body deteriorated after giving birth.
On the theme of women being child bearers, in part II Natsuko is a writer living in Tokyo desperate for a child of her own and is unwilling to let her age, asexuality and singleness get in the way. Kawakami problematises the traditional notion of motherhood, showing Natsuko choosing to use her body for childbearing without the influence of a man. This isn’t a question about whether a woman needs a man; it's a statement. Natsuko knows she doesn't need a man. Natsuko does consider that the child will grow up not knowing their biological father, but she concludes that she would “rather fail than let it go” (8) and will do all she can to ensure the child has a happy life.
During Natsuko’s research into artificial insemination (AI), as a single woman, she is greeted by a movement of people who oppose these treatments, as individuals speaking out about the burdens they carry when they learn they are a child of AI with a sperm donor. Kawakami explores the issues of deceit, as these children are lied to by their families and cannot track down their biological fathers. Still, she also brings in the question of why their parents underwent the procedure in the first place. The character Yuriko, introduced as a child of AI, expresses her views on becoming a parent when she questions Natsuko’s motivations for having a child. Yuriko had a troubled childhood where she was brutally violated and sexually abused, so she believes that bringing a child into the world without this child being able to give permission to be born is a selfish act, being done purely for the parents desires.
Throughout the book, Kawakami raises the critical question: why do we exist? This philosophical notion of why we are born and why we lead the life we live underpins Kawakami’s work giving the reader something to think about beyond the book's story. A review of Breasts and Eggs by Zakia Uddin also explores the philosophy behind why we are born. Uddin references the work of philosopher Alison Stone who writes, "we can explain, at least to a point, why the particular body that I happen to be born with was conceived (my parents met, a particular sperm fertilised a particular egg on a given occasion – and the rest). But that does not explain why this body is the one whose life I happen to be leading and experiencing directly, from the inside. This is just a fact, and because it is inexplicable, a dimension of mystery pervades my existence."
Kawakami does a brilliant job of considering both the ethical and philosophical stances of birth, death, and parenthood. The writing blends philosophy, politics, and vivid descriptive writing to portray the complex thoughts of Natsuko and the ramifications of birthing a child. However, it would have been interesting to see even more points of view covered in the novel. For example, Kawakami does not explore women who do not want children simply because they do not want them. In the book, the women who do not wish to have children feel that way because of a trauma or work and life rhythm clash. In Midoriko’s case, she is a pre-pubescent girl experiencing anxiety and disgust at her body changing. Still, there were no women who simply reflected on the prospect of having children and decided they did not want them.
In addition, Kawakami only explored cis-gendered women’s perspectives on beauty standards, puberty, childbearing and motherhood, whereas the views of transgender and non-binary persons would have been extremely eye-opening. There is a reference to a transgender woman when Natsuko and Makiko go to a public bathhouse, and someone, who is described as a transgender woman, gets into the bath that they are in. The scene is problematic and uncomfortable to read; it shows Natsuko getting overwhelmed and confused by this woman's body. This could have been Kawakami’s attempt to portray or make a critique of Japanese societal views of transgender people. Or, this could have been an accidental exposure of Kawakami’s own ignorance and prejudice towards transgender people. Either way, including transgender and non-binary experiences of puberty, beauty standards, parenthood, and reproduction would have allowed a more accurate understanding of these topics.
1 | Miller, L. (2021). Deracialisation or body fashion? Cosmetic surgery and body modification in Japan. Asian Studies Review, 45(2): 217-237. 2 | Ando, K.; Giorgianni, F.E.; Danthinne, E.S; Rodgers, R.F. (2021). Beauty ideals, social media, and body positivity: A qualitative investigation of influences on body image among young women in Japan. Body Image, 38: 358-369. 3 | Cameron, E.; Ward, P.; Mandville-Anstey, S.A; Coombs, A. (2019). The female aging body: A systematic review of female perspectives on aging, health, and body image. Journal of women & aging, 31(1):3-17. 4 | Darling-Wolf, F. (2004). Sites of attractiveness: Japanese women and Westernized representations of feminine beauty. Critical Studies in Media Communication, 21(4): 325-345. p. 329
5 | Bonell, S.; Barlow, F.K.; Griffiths, S. (2021). The cosmetic surgery paradox: Toward a contemporary understanding of cosmetic surgery popularisation and attitudes. Body Image, 38: 230-240.
6 | Kawakami, M. (2020). Breast and Eggs. London: Picador, p.110.
7 | Ibid., p.76. 8 | Ibid., p.417
Lucy is passionate about feminist topics and recently graduated with a master’s degree in Sociology. She currently works in a school and wants to pursue a career in education.
Title: Breasts and Eggs
Author: Mieko Kawakami
Publisher: Picador, London
Language: Translated to English
Genre: Literary Fiction, Feminist Literature