Friday Film: Breast Men, The Fate of an Industry Foreshadowed

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In 1997, Breast Men aired on HBO. Written by John Stockwell and directed by Lawrence O’Neil, the semi-biographical dark comedy film depicts the lives of the two men who invented breast implants.

By the title alone, viewers may have expected visuals that would not be broadcasted on regular cable. A film that focuses on plastic surgery and the human body toddles along a fine line. It’s clear that the filmmakers had no problem exploring both sides of that line — incorporating the heavy legal onslaught that silicone implants eventually faced along with “breastimonials” in which bare-chested women were filmed from the waist to the shoulders only, while they described their reasoning for getting implants.

Though perhaps these clips were an attempt at conveying the female perspective in a film that was largely created by men, they seemed a bit flat in representing the lives of the women. Meanwhile, the hedonistic aftermath of success for the two male stars in the film was quite fleshed out. (No pun intended.)

So, who are the two male leads?

David Schwimmer and Chris Cooper star as Dr. Kevin Saunders and Dr. William Larson. As the two modern pioneers of aesthetic procedures gain financial success, they go on to lead different lives. Dr. Saunders, played by Schwimmer, quickly falls into the rising fixation with bigger implants — willing to adhere to the high demand for large breasts that was often requested by exotic dancers and women in the sex industry. Alternatively, Dr. Larson pursues a more functional approach to implants — helping cancer survivors with reconstructive surgery after mastectomies.

The film is meant to be absurd and comedic, but it does raise a serious question about the ethics of breast implants. The unnaturally large implants that Schwimmer’s character willingly placed in those who wanted them represent a corrosion of a procedure that was initially meant to be a confidence-booster and even a form of emotional healing for those whose breasts had been affected by cancer treatment. The humanistic intentions turned to a wild pursuit among women for bigger and better breasts. To this day, the issue remains complex as a result of this dichotomy in function.

As far as the test of time goes, it’s hard to take this film seriously when David Schwimmer’s character comes across as a darker version of Ross from F.R.I.E.N.D.S.. The way his character sexualizes breasts in the film is cringe-worthy, outdated, and frankly offensive in the way it makes light of women coping with serious insecurities as well as breast implant illness. Making light of something that has caused serious complications for patients isn’t Oscar-award-winning. Despite the dark humor, both the acting and long-winded narrative are lackluster and tiresome.

Where breast implants were meant to enhance someone’s body, the film objectifies breasts by continuously bombarding the viewer with sexualized images and full frontal shots.

It’s relevant to note that the narrative is largely dramatized and the two characters in the film are entirely fictional. Indeed, Texas plastic surgeons Thomas Cronin and Frank Gerow are credited with inventing the first prosthetic breast implant in 1961, but their descent into the world of implants wasn’t the kitschy, sexual fever dream story that Hollywood depicted.

Breast implants have since been revised following the first implant in 1961, including the incorporation of silicone which has been associated with complications and illness. Still, the obsession with the cosmetic procedure remains. More than 400,000 women and teenagers undergo breast implant augmentation surgeries every year, with 75% for augmentation of healthy breasts and 25% for reconstruction after mastectomy, according to the National Center for Health Research. The popularity of breast implants has risen dramatically in the last 20 years and has more than tripled since 1997.

By 2018, there were more than 50,000 women reporting a range of symptoms they refer to as “breast implant illness.”

Only time will tell the true implications of the global frenzy that the real breast men incited. The Breast Men film, however, is a sensationalized reduction at best.

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S. Nicole Lane

S. Nicole Lane is a freelance journalist based in the Southside of Chicago where she covers women’s health, the LGBTQ voice, arts, and entertainment. Her byline can be found in Playboy, Rewire News, i-D, Broadly and various other corners of the internet. She is also a visual artist who works with small-scale sculptures.

Originally published at on August 23, 2019.

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