Big naturals are more than just a body part. They’re an energy, a culture, a lens through which we consume and create the world around us. And while big-breastedness may be both spiritual and bodily, there is a material world and timeline of events that document how this culture came to be. As MEL’s resident boob culture writer and a woman of breast-experience, I’ll be analyzing these objects and happenings, telling the stories of their origins and their impact on society. This is Big Moments in Big Naturals.
Joan Rivers was never afraid to make fun of herself. In fact, self-deprecation was the crux of her shtick — she was known for her crass and crude jokes about her own image, picking apart her attempts to navigate femininity as a young comedian and all of the facets of womanhood that came with it.
In an era when such negative self-talk dominates the internet, this might not seem all that radical. But Rivers, considered by many to be the godmother of women in comedy, was among the first females to do it. One of her favorite topics was her own body — throughout her career, her physicality became a sort of moving target for her to aim her humor upon. Everything from motherhood to menopause was fair game for Rivers, but she always returned to her breasts.
Notably, Rivers’ breasts were a mystery. She often joked that she was flat-chested — or that her boobs were fake — but as a posthumous biography suggests, this was one of the many white lies the comedian proliferated in cultivating her image. Maybe she was naturally well-endowed, but hid her tatas beneath tight bras or clothing. Maybe she was already boob-y, but decided to get fake breasts, anyway.
Either way, it doesn’t matter — her actual breasts are besides the point. It’s the mystery around them that’s interesting, and beginning in the late 1960s, Rivers made this a long-standing part of her act. “I was so flat I used to put Xs on my chest and write: ‘You are here,’’” she famously said. “I wore angora sweaters just so the guys would have something to pet.”
But like any good comedian, this wasn’t a sort of woe-is-me topic — it was something to laugh at with her. At the same time, her self-deprecation commanded respect — though she was reading herself with razor sharpness, her jokes still contained a vulnerability that made you pay attention. “When a comedian is really ugly and talks about it, it embarrasses the audience,” she told Interview in1984. “But, you know, the women love it that I’m flat chested. It never bothered me, and it was never a trauma in my life.”
Similarly, in 1986, she quipped on TV with Johnny Carson that “you don’t need big boobs to be feminine — just look at Liberace.” Sure, it’s a funny little dig at the notoriously flamboyant and extravagant piano-man, but it’s also a statement of self-assurance. Rivers could embody classic femininity in many ways by wearing makeup and having perfectly coiffed hair, but defy them in others in her choice to make fun of her body without emphasizing it aesthetically. Her clothing choices presented this dichotomy, too. Often, she wore outfits that conveyed femininity, like an all-pink chiffon number or accessorizing with a bright feather boa, but ultimately, they were relatively conservative. Part of why there’s such a mystery about what her breasts were like is because she often concealed them with her clothing.
Of course, as she became increasingly famous for, Rivers was also brazen about her plastic surgery decisions, which often entered rather extreme territory. It was almost as though she was striving to achieve a specifically augmented look, rather than maintain a conventional standard of beauty.
Despite all this, Rivers exuded a sort of big naturals energy — a womanly boldness, confidence and sensuality — without ever truly revealing what was big or natural about her. What’s important is not the physical nature of her boobs, but her boldness in talking about them, something there were few other female comedians doing. Part of that is because during Rivers’ rise in the 1960s and 1970s, there simply weren’t that many women in comedy who were afforded national fame. Phyllis Diller was similarly known for her self-deprecating humor, but aligned herself with a more eccentric style. Elayne Boosler utilized a familiar frank voice, but shirked the self-deprecating tone for observational comedy about life as a single woman, mixing both sexy and masculine fashion in the process.
What further separated Rivers from other female comedians of the time is that she was able to project herself to a level of mainstream notoriety in a way that many others couldn’t. Rivers was a favorite of Carson, while Boosler was reportedly hated by him. Somehow, Rivers managed to play into the delicate balance of pushing boundaries while still getting airtime, and her popularity was a testament to the fact that women can talk about natural bodily functions without being written off in comedy. While her most outrageous jokes may have centered around her vagina — she once claimed to have such a dry vagina that she absorbed all the water in the bath — her breasts always remained a central part of her routine.
In addition to making jokes about her breasts being flat or fake, she often joked about them being saggy from aging. In that same Carson interview, she quipped that when she went swimming in a bikini, the top got wet before the bottoms because her breasts hit the water first. She continued this sort of joke for another 30 years. “If you want to see my breasts, look down,” she told a paparazzo in an undated clip of her approximately in her late 70s, lifting up the bottoms of her pants to suggest that’s where her boobs would be hanging. And while she might have been aging herself, jokes like that never quite die.
Till the end, Rivers made her boobs a subject for us to laugh at, discussing them in an almost abject way. Yet, one could still never quite ascertain what her breasts were truly like. In that sense, Rivers’ relationship with her boobs was almost purely philosophical — just as big naturals are meant to be.