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On The Stereotype Of The Well-Endowed Older Woman

A painting of a woman washing clothes, by Gabriël Metsu, circa early 1600s.

Something I’ve noticed when reading, particularly historical fiction and classics, are the constant references to middle-aged and older women’s bosoms. Sometimes this constant referencing is literal – the author will often describe the same character in a particular way – other times the constancy is more an overall usage, a lot of authors over a lot of books talking a lot about middle-aged bosoms.

To put it clearly, so that you know exactly what I’m talking about and don’t fear that my reading choices have changed, what I’m referring to are the times when an author employs the trope of an older motherly woman as a secondary character to watch over the main character. These women are at least middle-aged, have “heaving bosoms”, are often described or suggested to be fat, and whilst sometimes strict are necessarily caring.

It is like the usual stereotype of the jolly overweight person; only it’s not quite as simple as that. And as it is so prevalent and used without question, I found myself questioning it. Because whilst I don’t believe it is ever used in a derogatory way there are factors in it, and differences in uses between time periods and genres, that beggar examination.

As said, these characters are mainly found in historical and classic fiction. This makes sense – there is a similarity, a relationship between these types of books as classics are generally older works and historical fiction is set in the past. There is thus a possibility that authors of historical fiction use the descriptions to better fit the time period they are writing about – if medieval poets talk of these women, for example, it’s understandable an author of historical fiction would want to likewise. It is often more noticeable in historical fiction, too, perhaps because where such books are concerned we do not feel the need so much to view the work in any context other than the context of the work of someone who loves history. And, I would argue, that it is perhaps more widely used, anyway.

To think of classics in this examination requires further study into what it was that made writers talk in that manner. I would put across the fact that the physicality and sexuality has always been important and thus this plays a part in descriptions. Think, for example, of the usage of the word “lusty” to further describe the characters we are dealing with. To call someone lusty, to focus on their bosom (which is big), their body weight (which is ample) implies that they are attractive, or were attractive (if their age is remarked on) and that they thus had a husband and many children. Putting it bluntly, before contraception women had lots of children and this would have impacted their bodies to quite an extent. The fact of motherhood and the emphasis society placed on it, thus likely being accepted by women, may have made for a caring and protective nature. Therefore these characters are ripe as motherly figures for main characters.

It’s an interesting element of characterisation to think about, especially today where identity and femininity is so different, where women have more time and more opportunity to regain their figures after childbirth and where breastfeeding is no longer the major method of feeding a baby. Indeed it brings into question the similarity of today’s woman with those historical women who are not described as large caring mothers – the rich.

It is highly unlikely you’ll find a rich woman described quite in the same manner as you will a poorer one. The rich woman of history, with the ability to leave her children with a nanny or maid, to hand over a hungry child to a wet nurse, and the distance that came about when the mother was not the carer, does not come to mind as a likely candidate to fill the role of protector for a main character. Indeed the neglectful, unknown parent, is often someone who is hated by the character, and maybe also the author when they do not agree with the idea of a woman who does not stay at home.

And so the woman who has had children, has nursed the children of others (and of course some characters are the old nurses of the main characters), and has provided the love, is the woman employed in novels. It is a stereotype, used too often, but it makes complete sense. It sounds derogatory, prejudiced even, but even when jokes are made it is hard not to think, after examination, that the basis of the whole idea is that this is the sort of woman who is caring, and loving, and, where history and its myriad of middle and working class writers are concerned, therefore the best sort of woman there is.

Have you noticed this stereotype in books? What are your views on it?

Judith has made a very good point about the picture I’ve used – it’s not a good representation. The clothing fits somewhat but I couldn’t find a good picture on Wiki Commons to fit the article and didn’t want to wade through porn on the search engine, so if anyone knows where I can find a better public domain picture please let me know.



January 21, 2013, 1:17 pm

I do recognise the general description but I can’t think of any examples in books where the middle-aged woman is as you describe – btw that picture – she doesn’t look middle-ages neither has she got a bosom to speak of! :-)

But in institutions you come across Matron, who is ALWAYS like that – either as a tyrant or as a mother figure.

I think you’re right about the poor/rich distinction. A rich woman is hardly ever bosomy and motherly. Funny, that.

Sheila (Book Journey)

January 21, 2013, 3:56 pm

Judith put it pretty well ;) I agree, it is mentioned frequently in HF. I hadnt really thought about it until now.


January 22, 2013, 2:12 pm

Interesting post, Charlie. I think the idea of beauty has evolved across the centuries and what was thought beautiful once upon a time is probably not the same as what is thought beautiful now. I find that in Renaissance paintings women are not slim but are depicted in the way you have described. Even mythological beauties like the Goddess Venus are depicted that way. I guess 19th century writers who wrote the classics were mentally closer to that era than ours.


January 22, 2013, 4:18 pm

Oh Charlie, I commented in this post yesterday, but my comment is not here!! You couldn’t believe how much time I spend writing comments in English (I’m crying!!).

I will summarize what I tried to say to you.

First of all, I had to look for “bosoms” in the dictionary!! :D And well, everything was understood after it.

I agree with the kind of character that helps the children and is physically as you describe; it appears in a lot of books. I think they also appears as a bad tempered character in other stories, like an evil nanny, for example.
But I have seen the character as a good one most of the times.

And yes, it is like you can be a fashionable woman if you take care of your own childre, how can it be possible!!


January 22, 2013, 4:20 pm

It is as if you can’t be….

(hope you understand)


January 23, 2013, 10:39 am

Judith: Yes, ironically as soon as I sat down to write the post I couldn’t come up with specific books, but I know it was included in recent reads, Elizabeth Chadwick sort. Thank you again for the comment. I had a look for Rubens’s work on Wiki Commons but there wasn’t much there (besides his wife, which didn’t seem appropriate) so I’m going to look further afield, see if there are more paintings out there that I missed.

You’re rigt, matrons are always that way though yes, they can be tyrants, too. I suppose it’s the nature of the plot in that case. Nowadays I think it will change because we don’t have wet nurses etcetra, but it’s quite a “thing” in older books.

Shelia: Yes, it was one of those tropes that just happened to cross my mind one day. I suppose it was the way the referencing can be a bit explicit that made me remember it for a post.

Vishy: Thanks! That’s very true, the concept of beauty has changed, and this affects this stereotype, too. Yes, very few women were truly slim (and those corsets and dresses don’t fool anyone!) It’s interesting how there’s this sort of pattern of acceptance and non-acceptance of beautiful being unconfined to slimness throughout history.

Isi: I’ve looked through my spam folder but I couldn’t find your comment. My only thought is that there must have been some sort of glitch when you posted :( Hehe, yes, the word “bosoms” does suggest everything. It’s more confined to history so it even has a historic element to it. Yes, it’s a good point about evil nannys. It definitely depends on the sort of book and also, I’d say, the era in question, but there is the idea of bigger, evil. That said where witches are concerned they are often far too slim, I think it’s very much down to the author.

There’s still that idea of fashionable now, I’d say, though with the world changing as it has, and does, that’s literally being confined to history.


January 24, 2013, 12:53 am

Oh man, I’ve never even thought about this before. You are so right. This recurs time after time in fiction, and I’ve never thought about it a single time ever. Damn.



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