My first knowledge of the cornucopia of goodness that was American sex was playboy magazine. My father got it every month, because of the writing, obviously. I never read a word. I looked at it for the astonishing breasts. These otherworldly women, standing astride Harley-Davidsons or getting out of baths, playing with drum kits and skis, and lying on many, many, many beds. Oh, the pneumatic glossiness of them. The heavy, shiny pages of the magazine weren't big enough to hold them. They needed their own, larger sheets to contain their smooth, glowing, undulating pulchritudinousness. They were perfect, ripe. It was like seeing some dreamy fruit at the point of optimum, plumptious juiciness. playboy was the harvest festival of sex: offerings of plenty. As a marketing invention, the Centerfold was sublime brilliance. It didn't feel prurient or dirty or seedy to look at these naked women: They weren't remotely like anyone we knew. playboy was the National Geographic of urbanity. My mother would snort and say, "They're not real, you know, those girls," and they weren't. That was their joy. In 1960s England our girls weren't even from the same species. We had jolly ladies in Health and Efficiency magazine, supposedly produced for nudists but really for 13-year-olds with their vests tucked into their Y-fronts. Or Reveille, a newsprint magazine for the armed forces, where the girls were swaybacked, tummy-sucked, with lantern jaws, squinty eyes, a straw hat and probably a judicious beach ball. They were obviously rude, and no better than they should be. But the playboy girls. That was like looking at the next rung of evolution. There was no sense that I, or any of my friends who came to snigger, would ever graduate to having a woman like this, any more than we'd be spacemen or cowboys. It wasn't just that we couldn't imagine what to do with them—we could imagine—but they plainly wouldn't have any idea what to do with us. What we saw at school were girls who played netball, with drippy noses and National Health spectacles. These women were like tableaux from High Renaissance mannerist paintings. Cloud-borne goddesses, evocations of justice and victory and charity. They were parables of America in their brilliant pink bodies that had been bred from the promise of fecundity and the harvest of fresh air and space and sun and lawn sprinklers. The dryads of everything, of plenty: plenty of freedom, plenty of orange juice, plenty of recreational fucking.
Every month in playboy there was an advertisement with a headline that went: "What sort of man reads playboy?" It was selling subscriptions. But I always imagined it was advertising the men. What sort of man did read playboy? What sort of man got to mount the foldout women? I was particularly fascinated with them. The picture was always taken in what would probably be called a romper room, or the den, on two levels with cushions and leather armchairs. There was a sense of insouciance, opulence and technocratic ease. Three or four men, all best friends, would be arranged around, say, a piano. One of them would be playing silent jazz, the others holding crystal glasses, laughing. There would be a black one, one with a polo-neck cashmere sweater, one with a trimmed beard, one would smoke a pipe. And draped over them and around them like cashmere duvets would be girls. Great-breasted, wide-mouthed, sleek-limbed girls. The recreation of champions, resting their arms on the men's shoulders, looking deep into their eyes. My dad was a man who read playboy, but he wasn't like this. I was a boy who sneaked looks at playboy. Was there perhaps space for me under the piano, or behind the leather sofa?
I've just bought a book, The Complete Playboy Centerfolds. It's taken me some time to get through them, they're a thick read. Or perhaps a thick dribble. They've shrunk. They're now unfolded, staples removed, but it's an extraordinary journey through the postwar social history of American sex, and may well be the most wordlessly eloquent book on American sexuality and taste ever published. As I turned the pages, I would recognize girls. They'd come back to me like old school photos after 35 years, some Miss March or November would drag me back. Actually, not like old school photos. They begin in the 1950s and the 1960s as very odd-mannered tableaux, seminaked in everyday mundane settings, like the second act of a bedroom farce. The watcher can make up little scenarios for them: "I was just cleaning out this cupboard in the nude, except for these toweling pants and a bowler hat," and we just walked in, and they turned to the camera with a look of mild surprise. Not like, "Oh my God, what are you doing in my bedroom?" Not like you were the window cleaner or leery Uncle Wilf, but like, "Oh my, you're early, hon. You caught me just like this on tiptoes, with nothing on but an artist's palette and a nylon polar bear." We, the invisible men in this little drama, we'd come in with our fishing rod or briefcase, or golf clubs, and she'd be surprised, a nice surprise, she was pleased to see us. "Oh, you should have told me you were going to be early, I'd have cleared away my old lacrosse kit and the balloons. Do you want to come on my magnificent breasts now, or shall I tell you about my day?" As they get into the 1970s, the pretense, the tiny pretense, of a scenario, of role-play, that the viewer can use to slip in, vanishes. They just pout. She gives you a name so that you can grunt something that isn't "bitch." She's a girl on brown satin sheets, whose look says, "What took you so long? I'm hotter than a George Foreman grill set to sear. Get in here and knock one out on these frankly unbelievable breasts." The 1990s are the autumn of the playboy Centerfold. Not only have the girls reached a level of stratospheric match-readiness, but the airbrushing makes them look as fine and shiny as customized Chevys. These ladies are pimped, and the century ends with a naked troika—wham!—the Dahm triplets.
The playboy Centerfold was never arty or cool. It was never chic or cutting-edge. They were rarely ever more than mildly raunchy. All through the decades they appeared behind the curve, and their curves are not negligible. playboy Centerfolds are an American trophy. The nation's hood ornament, from the limo of state. Every boy has passed under the shadow of those perfect breasts on the way to adulthood. They looked up and knew that this was the statuesque of liberty. Tom Sawyer messed about in rivers; postwar American boys messed about in garages with Centerfolds.
The Centerfolds of 1957, from January to December, are June, Sally, Sandra, Gloria, Dawn, Carrie, Jean, Dolores, Jacquelyn, Colleen, Marlene and Linda. In 2007 they were Jayde, Heather Rene, Tyran, Giuliana, Shannon, Brittany, Tiffany, Tamara, Patrice, Spencer, Lindsay and Sasckya. Bunny girls went from being the girl next door to the pole dancer upstairs, and they confirm a particular American sexual trope. This is breast country. Bosoms are American. The rest of the body is really a delivery system for the great forward momentum of Mount Rushmore breasts.
In the great tradition of childish naming of taboo things, there are surprisingly few commonly used American vulgarisms for vaginas. It's a pussy, the anthropomorphic euphemism. Bottoms are tushies, botties, fanny—which over here is a front-bottom. In Europe there are hundreds and hundreds of words for vaginas: funny, fond, disgusting and fearsome. The most commonly used—cunt—is the "nigger" of body parts in America: unsayable in company, even young, liberal, cool company. You can't say "cunt" at the dinner table. At least "cunt" still retains a full battery of juice to shock. It is a votive obscenity. But the embonpoint has been doused with dozens of commonly used slang terms: babbaloos, badoinkies, balloobas, bazukas, bazoomas, bejongas, boobs, boonies, boobsters, boulders. And that, if you hadn't noticed, is just the Bs. Not even all the Bs. My personal favorite this week is chesticles: deeply misguided and wrong on every level, from the aesthetic to the biological. But what you can't fail to notice about these names is how toddlerish they are, how utterly infantile. Sound repetitions and visual onomatopoeia.
Breasts are a secondary sexual characteristic. They originally won their shot at stardom when we became bipedal, thereby robbing the bottom of its eye-level uxorious attraction. The breasts were pressed in to imitate the lost bum. The cleavage resembles buttocks, red lipstick mimics an excited vulva (if you've never seen an excited vulva). American fashion, art and popular culture venerate the cleavage, elevate those teetering, heavy breasts. Nowhere else in the world could have invented a chain of restaurants called Hooters. And in the playboyCenterfolds you can see how the shape and the style, the semaphore of breasts has changed. In the 1950s they have a spectacular, gravity-defying, cantilevered pointiness. In the 1970s they fall into braless teardrops. In the 1990s they're globular and solid, and every so often there are girls with small—well, smaller—breasts. Sort of normal-sized but still perkier than meerkats on coke. But it's merely a nod to sophistication, to the European girls who have petite booballala-boobettes. They are only a pair of placebos from a disappointing month. "Where's the meat?" said Mr. America.
Tom Ford has a theory that American design follows the shape of idealized American breasts. The 1950s are pointy, echoing the motorcar fins and the sci-fi look of things: missiles, UFOs, the brutalist, mechanical, cantilevered and aggressively questing breasts of optimism. In the 1960s and 1970s they elegantly slope in the rhythm of swirly, floaty, swinging, free, hippie-dippie design. The unstructured parabola breast. The racks of the 1990s were buffed and pumped. And now they're puffed up, symmetrical, and design is all puffed up, engorged. And there it is, America's gift to international eroticism: breast implants.
It's salutary to go from looking at 40 years of Centerfolds to the before-and-after shots for plastic surgeons on the hundreds and hundreds of websites for cosmetic empowerment. The photographs that the surgeons advertise themselves with are as shocking and as ghoulishly enticing as zombie movies. Cartoonishly globular, caricature breasts, made out of the tired and worn-out dugs of motherhood, breasts that have done their best, have been up in the middle of the night, have seen in exhausted dawns, done their thing creating. Breasts that you would have imagined would have earned a rest are due some manners. But here they are, made like the drawings from lavatory walls, the scars livid and jagged, puce and purple wounds. "After a year, the scars should be much decreased. Discomfort is generally negligible after two months." The manufactured breast is such a familiar, common thing that they no longer have to look natural. They are "good jobs"—the job itself is a matter of aesthetic pride.
Breast enlargement changes and dictates fashion. A woman who's suffered the surgical pain, the scars like open-heart surgery, is always going to boast a cleavage: those banging, bim-bam bazookas are going to be out and proud. The mannequins in the kids' clothes shops in South Beach, Miami are all made with impossibly augmented breasts. You look in the windows and you're staring at plastic models of women who themselves have plastic tits, and the girls are going, "That halter neck would look great on me."
Whatever the morality, the aesthetics, the politics of erotic imagery, what is also amazing is that American thing: the commitment. When all's said and done, a secondary sexual characteristic is not the arena, it's not the VIP area. Breasts are the advertisement, the flyer. And it's the willingness to believe that you need to go to any lengths: "Yo, girl, you get those 34FFs, you deserve them. You've earned them." There is an odd egalitarianism about cosmetic surgery. Don't be cheated of the dream by genetics, or diets, or age. You can have the bam-bam-bing-boings of an 18-year-old playboy Centerfold, because that's America. If you work for it, if you really, really wish for it with all your might and your eyes tight shut, then you'll get it.
But it won't do what it promised on the box. A nation that is as breast-conscious as America does something else to its women. This obsession means that men are always, always, always staring at your cleavage, your nipples. And it means that women who meet men face-to-face are always made aware with the handshake and the name exchange that they are, if not sexually available, sexually accountable. They are being assessed. Men can't help it. Heaven knows they try not to stare; they maintain fierce eye contact, but they grow up programmed to follow a ball with Centerfolds and these boom-bam-bubbubs. It's in the culture, what can I say? "Nice top bollocks."
Women can do one of three things. They can ignore it, which is easier some days than others, or they can confront it: "Hey, soldier, eyes up and front." But that's not always practical or helpful. Or you can dress for breast, like going out on a mission, like wrapping up for the cold. A woman says, "There's going to be men out there," and she can either go offense or defense. In America you see women wrapped up with their shoulders hunched forward and bowed backs, in bras that are too small for them, and you know these are the mammary martyrs: self-conscious, exposed, resentful. Or you go proactive, DEFCON ballistic, and get them out for the boys. Make it their problem: "Deal with it, guys. You are never, repeat never, going to get a soapy tit wank from these bad babies."
If you visit the vacationing, flirty, balmy bits of America, you'll see men and women being pulled around by breasts, like magnets, both defined by this strange and original cultural obsession. And just while we're here, whatever happened to the areola? Most girls under 30 didn't even know they'd got a couple, or that they had a name (not to be confused with the aureola, the golden corona that surrounds a saint's head). Areola is that pink or tan ring around the nipple. In the 1950s they were huge: They stood out like the ends of ice cream cones, but now they're shrinking. They grow paler, nipples get smaller and longer, they go digital, changed from being the big switches and dials of old stand-alone radiograms and appliances. Now they're touch-sensitive on and off buttons. Like touch-screen technology, you just scroll them up and down.
And the last thing you notice about the playboy girls is their pubic hair. The sexual alopecia. I feel nostalgic for bushes; it's where I came in. But they've shrunk down to nothing. Past the American wax, the French wax, the landing strip, the Hitler moustache, the arrow, then the Brazilian or the Hollywood. Sometimes, I'm told, called the Sphinx, after a bald cat discovered in Canada (pussy, geddit? Of all the places to be a bald cat, Canada must be the worst). So it isn't named for the female-chested, lion-eagle-snake creature who met men on mountain passes, asked them three questions, then tossed them off.
You have to consider the immense commitment to aesthetic satisfaction, to arrange the mise-en-scène just so, to arrange the decoration, the walk-through ambience, to be that minimal. To put up with the pain, the regular, awful pain and intimate humiliation of having your legs hoicked in the air and having hot wax applied to your arsehole and then ripped off by an uncaring immigrant woman who has to do this to maintain a toehold job that perpetuates the legend of America. "What did you do when you got here, Mommy?" "I ripped the stubble off strangers' cunts." Bring me the huddled masses yearning to be hair free.
I can't choose a favorite playboy Centerfold: They are all of them marvelous. As we used to say as lads, you wouldn't say no to any of them for eating crisps in bed. They are the caryatids of freedom and good, hygienic fun. But there is one that sticks in my mind: January 2007, Jayde Nicole. Jayde has apparently just come for a visit. She stands in my doorway with this "Hiya, it's only me, fancy nailing me to the sofa?" face. Outside it's snowing—one of those lovely, crisp, northern days, fir trees heavy. Jayde is wearing boots, white socks and a woolly scarf with Canadian maple leaves. Silly girl. So gagging for it she's arrived without pants or anything else. She's not even got goose bumps, but she stands in the doorway, one knee cocked, her big winter breasts keeping her warm. With a snowy grin and one hand on the door handle, she's completely Sphinxed. Her vagina looks tight, like a little, neat, hairless, minimal Wendy-house noo noo. And there, just above where her pubic hair would have once grown, is a tattoo. They haven't airbrushed it out or put concealer on it because it's telling, it's cute. It's part of who Jayde is. She's standing there naked, shaved, available in a Centerfold in the noughties, smiling at strangers, and above her prepubescent pudenda is one indelible word. Respect. Who says this is a nation without irony?
From To America With Love by A.A. Gill. Copyright © 2011 by A.A. Gill. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster, Inc.