The chest, the house of the heart, is an important center of a person’s being. I may locate my consciousness in my head, but my self, my existence as a solid person in the world, starts from my chest, form which I feel myself rise and radiate. At least in Euro-American culture, it is to my chest, not my face, that I point when I signify myself. In Hindu philosophy of the body the chest is not only the center, but it has the integrative power among them.
Structurally, a person’s chest can be more or less open, more tight or relaxed, and this often expresses a person as being withdrawn from or open to the world and other people. People who sit and stand straight, chest out, shoulders back, feel ready to meet the work in actions, and others judge them as upright, active, open. A person stoop-shouldered, bent, closed around this center appears to be withdrawn, depressed, oppressed, or tired.
If the chest is a center of a person’s sense of being in the world and identity, men and women have quite different experiences of being in the world. When a woman places her hand over her heart, it lies on and between her breasts. If her chest is the house of her being, from which radiates her energy to meet the world, her breasts are also entwined with her sense of herself. How could her breasts fail to be an aspect of her identity, since they emerge for her at that time in her life when her sense of her own independent identity is finally formed. For many women, if not all, breasts are an important component of body self-image; a woman may love them or dislike them, but she is rarely neutral.
In this patriarchal culture, focused to the extreme on breasts, a woman, especially in those adolescent years but also through the rest of her life, often feels herself judged and evaluated according to the size and contours of her breasts, and indeed she often is. For her and for others, her breasts are the daily visible and tangible signifier of her womanliness, and her experience is as variable as the size and shape of breasts themselves. A woman’s chest, much more than a man’s, is in question in this society, up for judgment, and whatever the verdict, she has not escaped the condition of being problematic.