Have you heard of the pencil test? It goes like this: Put a pencil under one of your breasts. If the pencil falls, then good news for you, friend: You are the owner of a pair of perky bosoms. If the writing implement remains aloft, however—prevented by flesh from falling to the floor—then this is evidence of, if you’ll pardon the language, sag. The un-fallen pencil indicates that gravity has won out, yet again, with its victim being not just your chest, but also—this is the real point of the test—your sexual relevance.
It should go without saying that the pencil test is, its vaguely sciency application of gravitational forces notwithstanding, exceedingly stupid. But so desperate are we—“we,” as a cultural collective, and “we,” as women in particular—for signs of our status within the great hierarchy of human hotness that the test has been deployed by women who are otherwise thoughtful, otherwise rational, and otherwise not prone to using office supplies as scientific instruments.
Autumn Whitefield-Madrano is one of those women: She took the test on a lark, having arrived at her 30s, to measure her own bosomic perk. As she writes in her new book Face Value: The Hidden Ways Beauty Shapes Women’s Lives, amused in retrospect at her folly, “It probably doesn’t take a degree in women’s studies to see the ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ trap at play here. Standing there in my kitchen, I laughed out loud when I realized I’d done the same test 20 years prior”—that time around to determine whether her breasts were developed enough to, yep, hold a pencil in place. “I mean, what’s the sweet spot?” she asks. “To indicate that its subject is properly breasted, should the pencil stay but shake loose after six seconds? Dangle by the eraser? Levitate?”