One of my earliest memories from childhood is of my favourite dress. As a tween growing up with my grandparents who considered hand-me-downs the norm, being gifted a brand-new vibrant, patterned, and poofy sundress left me absolutely ecstatic and smiling with glee. I had never felt so beautiful. So I promptly wore that dress through months and months of India’s blistering summer heat until its colour finally began to fade.
That sense of confidence in my beauty that I felt as a young child slowly ebbed as I entered my teens, and has only become further convoluted in adulthood. I never could express the confusion and frustration I experienced through puberty as my body morphed and became subject to the criticisms and affirmations of those around me. My body transformed before I could find the words to describe myself, so I began to mirror what I heard.
Before reading Meiko Kawakami’s 2008 novel, Breasts and Eggs, I believed these experiences would remain confined to the limits of my memory, one of the many burdens of womanhood we all must shoulder. But by delving into the uniquely personal struggles of seemingly common women at different stages in life, Kawakami’s novel gracefully critiques the current state of women’s bodily autonomy — ranging from sexuality and physical appearance to childbirth — in a way I connected to immensely.
A valuable commodity
Transformation and change are a natural part of life, yet from birth to adulthood the endless changes we experience can leave us unrecognizable from who we used to be. For women, this transformation can be a lot more drastic, and no matter the outcome, it often results in disappointment regarding some aspect of our identity.
While pondering her sister’s decision to get breast implants, Natsuko, the protagonist of Kawakami’s novel, had this to say about it: “I never became the women I imagined. And what was I expecting? The kind of body that you see in girly magazines. A body that fit the mold of what people describe as ‘sexy.’ A body that provokes sexual fantasy. A source of desire. I guess I could say that I expected my body would have some sort of value.”
This value about which Natsuko speaks is the same value that drives women to use skin bleaching products, undergo risky cosmetic surgery like the Brazilian butt lift, and spend hundreds of dollars on anti-aging products. Our obsession with achieving physical perfection that stretches beyond the limits of makeup, skincare, AI filters, and even cosmetic surgery has become an indispensable source of profit for businesses that thrive on amplifying women’s insecurities while promising an illusive solution to all woes.
Growing up in India, the value of my physicality lay in my skin colour. That was clear from the Fair and Lovely brightening cream that lay on my grandmother’s dresser, and the nagging from my relatives to stay indoors and avoid tanning in the sun. While Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs may be based on the struggles of women living in contemporary Japanese society, the theme of women’s bodies being a marketable commodity remains a far-reaching issue.
Whether it’s the size of our breasts or the length of our hair, women’s bodies are constantly expected to remain youthful and beautiful despite aging or childbirth, which are processes that undeniably change the physiology of the body.
Natsuko’s niece Midoriko encapsulates the anxiety of being a young child terrified by the realities around womanhood. The loss of control that young girls experience when they first menstruate and the shame surrounding everyday conversations about women’s sexuality often fractures their sense of security, as the novel demonstrates.
The question of sex
Midoriko’s fear surrounding her changing body and her refusal to embrace womanhood is a rather familiar experience. In fact, I find myself remaining anxious about the prospect of unwanted pregnancy despite taking recommended precautions.
I often find myself faced with skeptical looks and questions from relatives when I mention not wanting to have children at the prime of my adult life. The general attitude that I will eventually “come around” to the idea of having children because my biological clock is ticking disregards my very real concerns involving a lifelong commitment.
Much like Midoriko, I’m unable to communicate my apprehension without being invalidated and often need to resort to the pages of my diary. The assumption of others that I will eventually fulfill the responsibilities associated with my body makes me question if I have the autonomy to decide when and how I build my family. Is my body simply a means of reproduction, an object that is meant to fulfill expectations?
Kawakami pointedly explores this question through her characters’ personal reflections and interactions. The second part of the novel introduces Natsuko as a published writer, who, despite being older and living alone, is contemplating having a child. More specifically, she struggles with using artificial insemination as a means to achieve pregnancy in a country where such reproductive services are rarely extended even to heterosexual, two-parent households.
In her attempts to research the resources available to her, Natsuko grapples with the dilemma of wanting a child while not having complete agency over the choices she makes regarding her own body. In many countries, including Japan, women’s reproductive rights are narrow and generally only exist for women within traditional relationships that have money and resources to support surrogacy or donor conception.
Kawakami explores the confusion and stress Natsuko experiences as a woman who does not want to engage in sexual activity. While Natsuko never explicitly identifies as asexual, she struggles to find a romantic partner to share her life with and feels burdened by societal standards that expect women to use their bodies to reproduce traditionally.
Breasts and Eggs provides insight into the current nature of sexual agency and autonomy for low-income or middle-class, working women that are unable to find reproductive support in their countries, an issue that remains even more prominent with the recent overturning of Roe v Wade, which rolled back federal abortion rights for women across the United States.
Kawakami’s Breasts and Eggs is a novel that tells the stories of our sisters, mothers, and daughters. Primarily, it tells our own stories, ones we have lived but shouldered in silence. Kawakami’s novel reveals the aspects of women’s physicality that are often buried under societal expectations associated with pregnancy, beauty, and sexuality.
Breasts and Eggs is an expression of existential angst and feminist anger. It questions the patriarchal structures that dictate the boundaries of sexual agency and gender identity for women within society. And more importantly, demands answers for the injustices against women’s bodies that have continued over generations.