The Help Desk: A trip down mammary lane

Every Friday, Cienna Madrid offers solutions to life’s most vexing literary problems. Do you need a book recommendation to send your worst cousin on her birthday? Is it okay to read erotica on public transit? Cienna can help. Send your questions to

Dear Cienna,

Help me to not be a boob! I'm a dude and a writer and every time I go to describe a woman I write something about her rack. I know this drives women readers crazy, and for good reason.

But! I'm queer. Boobs to me have about as much sex appeal as cow udders. This isn't about male gaze (I don't think?), and sometimes a woman's breasts tell a story — like an old Russian lady with really big ones who is very modest and keeps that shit locked down tight. There's obviously some kind of management there that helps define who she is, right?

Or my sister talking about how big her “tits” (her words) got when she was pregnant — that's not a character trait per se, but it is something honest worth mentioning, right?

I'm a guy, but I don't want to be THAT guy. Is there a rule of thumb to help me here?

Bottle fed, Burien

Dear Bottle fed,

Being gay doesn't inoculate you against sexism, just as being a cultural latina (olé!) doesn't make me incapable of racism. As you noted, there are times when writing about breasts helps inform the reader about a character or the narrator. There are also many times when writing about boobs is lazy shorthand for a woman's sexual appeal, which in turn is lazy shorthand for her worth in the world.

So here are a few questions to consider the next time you begin fixating on a character's breasts:

  1. Are these boobs central to the scene taking place right now?
  2. What am I trying to convey by focusing on these boobs?
  3. Is this the best way to impart that message to readers?
  4. Are these boobs that I'm describing the boobs of a female character?
  5. If so, why the fuck don't I ever write about male boobs? Men have chests, too, and many men even have boobs and sensitive areolas.

Here's another exercise you might try: Take a few descriptions of your characters, swap their pronouns (or remove pronouns altogether) and re-read the descriptions aloud. It will help you identify the crutches you rely on and gender biases you may have.