It was the best of times, it was the worst of times: it was the time of breasts.

By now, you will surely have seen the video of actress Sydney Sweeney at the end of her Saturday Night Live hosting debut last month. She’s enthusiastically waving goodbye, her breasts barely contained by a dress that looks like it was designed to reveal as much of their surface area as possible, while also preventing them from floating away into space — which seems, in this case, a genuine risk. There was no reason why this moment should have been so remarkable, this being neither the first plunging neckline nor first set of boobs to grace the SNL stage, and yet, a consensus swiftly emerged that Sweeney’s physique was more than the sum of its perfectly spherical parts. Conservative writer Richard Hanania summed it up when he tweeted the video with a three-word caption: “Wokeness is dead.”

And here we are, weeks later, still deep in the double-D discourse. “Are Sydney Sweeney’s breasts double-D harbingers of the death of woke?” asked Canada’s National Post last month. “Why Is the Discourse Around Sydney Sweeney’s Breasts So Unhinged?” wondered Vogue a few weeks later; And, finally catching on, this weekend the Daily Mail published a deep dive into “Sydney Sweeney and her double-D breasts”, including the revelation that her father ran from the room to avoid seeing one of her many nude scenes in HBO’s Euphoria.

Virtually all commentary on the topic has come to the same conclusion: that for better or worse, Sweeney’s breasts are a locus for the power struggle between patriarchy and the feminists who want to smash it. Vogue‘s Kate Lloyd laments the history whereby “large breasts have been used as shorthand for sexual availability”, while the Post‘s Amy Hamm cheerfully suggests that noticing Sweeney’s rack is akin to an act of civil disobedience in a culture ruled by “diversity, equity, and inclusion fanatics” who would brainwash us into believing that every body (or boob) is equally beautiful. But the true driver of this breast obsession is, to me, at once deeper and more universal: if you want to understand the shape of a society, generally, the shape of the women most visible in it is a good place to start.

“We project our hopes and fears, our fantasies and anxieties onto women’s bodies.”

Women’s bodies have always existed in conversation with the zeitgeist — a living canvas onto which we project our hopes and fears, our fantasies and anxieties. Sometimes, the connection is straightforwardly reactionary; in the late 1890s, as society grew increasingly nervous about women’s liberation and greater freedom of movement, idealised femininity was embodied by the Gibson girl, a heavily corseted creature with a slender waist and vaguely sleepy expression. She existed in sharp contrast with the boogeyman of the suffragette, whose muscles had been thickened by wanton bicycling and who bore a permanent scowl. Sarah Baartman, a South African woman whose remarkably shapely rear earned her the moniker “the Hottentot Venus” and a starring role in a 19th-century London freak show, was an avatar for the culture’s growing fascination with far-flung places and peoples — and its assumption that the latter were a bunch of hypersexual savages.

More recently, a famous female body has been a harbinger of broader social change: 2014, the year the archetypal social justice warrior first found a tentative foothold in the cultural mainstream, was also the year the very white, very thin ideal of the previous decade was finally hip-checked out of the picture. The fully nude Kim Kardashian in Paper Magazine ushered in a golden age of butts that would endure for the next 10 years. To say that the rise of BLM was inexorably tied to the popularity of the BBL would be to misunderstand their relationship — these things are not causally linked; but the same culture gave us both, and their parallel trajectories are surely not a coincidence.

Which brings us to Sydney Sweeney and her breasts, and whether they represent wokeness in decline in the same way that Kardashian’s bared buttocks were the figurative bad moon rising. Some have argued that the cultural response to Sweeney signals the resurgence of a sort of wholesome raunchiness that we haven’t seen since the Nineties — the era of the Baywatch babe, the Victoria’s Secret runway show, and a Comedy Central series that began and ended with slow-motion footage of Playboy model types jumping on trampolines.

“If you went to any mall in the American Midwest in 1999,” writes Bridget Phetasy, “you would have seen dozens of Sydneys wandering around, traveling in packs, twirling their hair and doing that same hot girl thing with their hands when they got excited.” She may well be onto something. Hanania, who continues to insist on the anti-woke significance of Sweeney, has suggested that the actress is also representative of the phenomenon of the “mid” (that is, unexceptional-looking) woman due to her “natural breasts, low class physiognomy, and nasally bored girl voice”. But this is to undersell and fundamentally misunderstand what makes Sweeney so appealing. Her prettiness isn’t unexceptional, but it does feel distinctly analogue — rooted in the physical rather than the digital world. If Sweeney doesn’t look like the actual girl next door in 2024, she certainly resembles the actresses who played this type in the pre-Y2K era teen movies. What strikes me when I watch one of these movies now is not the dated sexual mores or politically incorrect jokes, but the sheer physicality of people’s faces and bodies, the texture of their skin. In a world of poreless, AI-generated hot girls — one in which we digitally airbrush everything from our dating profile pics to our Zoom meetings at work — there’s something exciting and startling about this type of unfiltered, organic beauty.

I suspect it’s this, rather than Sweeney’s “low class physiognomy”, that makes her such an object of fascination (and triggers the shrieks of “mid!” from the world’s most terminally online men). I also suspect that this is why the breast discourse isn’t going anywhere anytime soon. Beyond the obvious — men still like boobs, news at 11 — the fascination with Sweeney seems to speak to a broader pattern, one that encompasses everything from tradwife influencers to the anti-birth control backlash to the “big naturals” category on PornHub to the panic over seed oils.

While some of these movements are sillier than others, all of them can be understood as a response to the disembodied state of contemporary existence. Our personal and professional lives increasingly take place in virtual space; even when we’re together, we are more and more alone. Our identities are increasingly untethered from our real-world behaviour or relationships. We tap at screens instead of touching anything else, including each other; the Zoomers are disavowing not just sex but heterosexuality en masse. The fertility rate has fallen off a cliff, and our public officials appear to visibly short-circuit when asked to define the word “woman”. Even if you don’t believe that this is cause for urgent concern, it’s still disorienting, and it’s no surprise that some of us are yearning for an anchor. We want to feel connected. And what better way to do that than by returning to the bosom — literally, if possible?

It’s also no surprise that the discourse resulting from that yearning is as unhinged as the situation that inspired it. We are fractured, adrift, siloed, with little shared understanding of what is true. And in the uncanny valley of the current culture, yes, Sydney Sweeney’s breasts are spectacular. But they are also, more importantly, real.

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