Boobs glorious Boobs
Men stare at them, women like to show them off, and babies find them useful... Suzanne Harrington on our never-ending obsession with breasts
Breasts. Boobs. Bosoms. Baps. Bazookas. Bristols. Bust. And that's just the Bs. No other body part is quite so fought over, or focused upon, as those globular bits on the front of human females -- and males, too, if they're fat, although we're not quite as keen on man boobs.
It's hard to know what to call them. Personally, I find the word 'breast' a bit creepy because of its cannibalistic overtones -- succulent breast of chicken, fresh breast of turkey. Eww.
So, what to call them?
Tits is a bit crude. Boobs sounds like a mistake, a gaffe. Bust is too impersonal. It's complicated.
Breasts are our favourite part of the human body. We all love them -- women, children and men are all equally keen.
They are, says Florence Williams, author of new book 'Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History', "bikinied, bared, flaunted, measured, inflated, sexted, YouTubed, suckled, pierced, tattooed, tassled and in every way fetishised".
But are they understood?
Why do we have them? Where did they come from? And what are they really for? After all, we share 98pc of our genes with chimps, but it is the other 2pc that gives us breasts. We are the only creatures that have them.
How has our perception and their function changed over the years?
"It's remarkable how little we know about their basic biology," writes Williams, who goes to some lengths to explore the role of breasts in our culture, what they are for and how they work, even sending a sample of her own breast milk off to Germany for analysis -- the results of which debunk the idea that breasts and breast milk are purer than pure.
They're not. "Our breasts soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges," she writes, on discovering that her milk was full of environmental chemicals such as flame retardants.
But more of that later. First, let's have a look at why we have them in the first place as permanent fixtures, rather than post-partum pop-up events found in the rest of the mammal kingdom.
Once upon a time, old-school anthropologist Desmond Morris suggested in his 1967 book 'The Naked Ape' that breasts evolved to keep cavemen returning to their cave; that their purpose was primarily sexual.
Which, of course, proved to be nonsense -- it was hunter- gatherer cavewomen who provided most of the daily food, and who fed the babies.
But the idea that breasts existed to signal female fertility to men persisted, even though it made little sense.
"If big, firm breasts tell a man that a woman is fertile and ready for sex, then why would her breasts be at their biggest and firmest when she is pregnant and lactating?" asks Williams.
While there may be some truth in American humorist Dave Barry's suggestion that "the primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid", their real function is more likely to be connected with our evolution.
As humans, we walk on our hind legs and, unlike, say, reptiles, do not have to live near our food supply. Why? Our incredibly clever breasts, which transformed early humans into mobile catering units.
"With their rich stores of milk, they allowed newborns to be born smaller and our brains to grow bigger," explains Williams.
"Having smaller babies meant our hips could be smaller, assisting our ascent into bipedalism [moving on two rear limbs]. Breastfeeding may well have enabled the development of gesture, intimacy, communication and socialisation."
Oh, and they probably invented kissing, too -- think about it.
So, despite the fact that evolutionary neuroscientist Steven Platek found that pictures of breasts shown to men who were hooked up to an MRI scanner triggered the reward centres of their brains -- the 'Urban Dictionary' calls this state 'booblivious' -- it is clear, says Williams, "that breasts evolved because she needed them".
They evolved not through sexual selection, but through natural selection, as "by-products of fat deposition".
Now that we have that cleared up, let's look at breasts themselves, which are made up of fat, connective tissue called stroma and glandular tissue called parenchyma.
Astley Cooper, surgeon general to Queen Victoria, was an early expert, writing 'On The Anatomy Of The Breast' in 1840. He called the study of the breast 'senology' from the Italian and Spanish seno, meaning bosom -- not to be confused with sinology, the study of China.
Cooper identified man boobs as made of fat, rather than glands, but there is some glandular tissue behind the male nipple which can, on occasion, produce milk.
This is called galactorrhea, which, although doesn't sound very nice, means that "it would be theoretically possible to have fathers become full partners in lactation. They could take a milking pill," writes Williams, adding, "but good luck with that one."
(The reason men have nipples in the first place is, of course, because all human life starts off female -- only when the foetus inherits XY genes does it develop male traits.)
Newborn babies can sometimes produce milk, too -- called 'witches milk' -- which is caused by maternal hormones swooshing through the newborn's system.
Imagine reactions to that in the Middle Ages.
"The natural function of breasts has been upended by culture for a long time," continues Williams. "While some mothers ducked out of breastfeeding, others were transformed into virtual dairy cows."
Historically, many situations prevented women from breastfeeding: death in childbirth, transference of maternal syphilis through breast milk, the flattening of nipples from too-tight corsets, the Industrial Revolution taking working-class women out of the home, or middle-class women just not being that keen.
Hence the popularity of wet nurses -- women who would breastfeed your baby in exchange for cash.
The practice goes back to ancient times. Pliny and Plutarch were opposed to hiring wet nurses, but Plato approved. In the 11th century, the Persian polymath Avicenna advised that a wet nurse "should be cheerful and not deranged, and have a strong neck and moderately sized breasts".
Babylonia's code of conduct from 1750 BC was specific in its treatment of wet nurses whose charges died: cut off her source of income. Literally.
In Dickensian times, foundling hospitals were established for abandoned babies, with wet nurses offering daily feeds to a large number of infants -- they would breastfeed up to 34 times a day. The infant mortality rate was 90pc.
Even non-abandoned babies didn't fare too well. It was the custom to 'farm out' your baby (this is where the expression comes from) to a country-based wet nurse from infancy, which still resulted in a mortality rate of around 50pc.
Jane Austen was typical of her time. Three months after her birth in 1775, she was sent off to the nurse's house, just as her siblings had been. According to her biographer Claire Tomalin: "When they approached the age of reason and became socially acceptable, they were moved again, back to their original home."
Wet nurses sometimes capitalised their bodies further by moonlighting as prostitutes, although this is not something Jane Austen wrote about.
Cheaper than renting someone else's breasts was dry-feeding, although this was not great for babies either, given that the infant recipes often contained opium, wine, spirits, cod-liver oil and sugar, as well as milk and grain.
When Henri Nestle invented his dried-milk baby formula in 1867, he was trying to save dry-fed babies from scurvy, rickets and death. By the 1870s, the product had gone global.
Science took over, so that 80pc of American babies were born in hospital by 1950, compared with 20pc in 1920, and breastfeeding had been largely denigrated as unscientific and a bit inferior; a bit peasant-ish.
It wasn't until 1956 that a backlash occurred, in Illinois. "It didn't seem fair that mothers who bottle-fed were given all sorts of help," said Marian Tompson, co-founder of breastfeeding support group La Leche League. Leche is Spanish for milk.
"You didn't mention 'breast' in public unless you were talking about Jean Harlow," she told the 'New York Times'.
The 'lactivists' succeeded in reversing the for-profit idea that somehow breastfeeding was less good than formula -- the World Health Organisation now recommends breastfeeding your baby for two years.
In Brazil, 95pc of women try breastfeeding, and for those who can't manage it there are 200 human milk banks around the country, with 100,000 donors. The milk is collected by firemen.
However, these days we tend to perceive breasts more as decorative than functional.
"In other primates, breasts exist only when lactating," writes Williams. "For us, lactating is beside the point. Many of us would think nothing of jeopardising lactation at that other altar of evolution: beauty."
She refers, of course, to the boob job. This is America's favourite cosmetic surgery, ahead of nose jobs, eyelid lifts and liposuction.
"The history of how we got from A to B or DD is a sordid and fascinating tale of marketing, mass hysteria and environmental disease," she writes.
In 1895, the first boob job was recorded when a Heidelberg surgeon transplanted a benign fatty growth from a singer's buttock to her bosom. It didn't work, though, because the fat liquefied.
In the early 20th century, "implant materials included glass balls, ivory, wood chips, peanut oil, honey, goat's milk and ox cartilage".
Sorry, I need a minute here -- ox cartilage?
None of these materials worked particularly well, so paraffin injections were tried, although by 1920 it was proving not terribly successful -- it melted in the sun and created lumps called paraffinomas, which had to be surgically excised.
"The disadvantage of paraffin ranged from aesthetic failure to death." Yikes.
By the 1950s, it was all about structurally engineered bras stuffed with tissues, socks, wire, sheet metal, papier mache, rubber, cork, elk hair (ELK HAIR?) or cotton. Falsies became a multi-million-dollar industry.
Hollywood starlet Jane Russell, who already measured an ample 38D, rejected a specially designed bra that film mogul Howard Hughes wanted her to wear during filming of 'The Outlaw' in the 1940s. In her 1988 autobiography she said she wore her own bra with the cups padded with tissue and the straps pulled up to elevate her breasts. Her favorite co-star Bob Hope once introduced her as "the two and only Jane Russell".
When plastics came along, Teflon, nylon and Plexiglas ended up being sewn inside breasts. And then silicon, which was originally injected into the breasts of Japanese prostitutes during the Second World War to meet the tastes of American occupying soldiers.
This was the same silicone used for insulating airplane engines and, unsurprisingly, didn't work too well inside the human body.
Then, in 1959, Houston surgeon Thomas Cronin had a eureka moment while holding a silicone bag of warm blood when he realised how similar this bag felt to a human breast.
In 1962, care worker Timmie Jean Lindsey was the first woman to have a prototype modern boob job, and a vast industry of voluntary mutilation was born. She only went in to get her ears pinned back, but was persuaded by Cronin's colleague to be an implant guinea pig as well. She's still alive today, and still working aged 79, with pinned-back ears and ruptured implants.
A clamour for implants resulted, and a new medical condition for women was quickly invented -- 'micromastia', or small boobs.
In 1982, the American Society of Plastic Surgeons told the US Food and Drug Administration: "There is a substantial body of medical information and opinion ... that these deformities [small breasts] are really a disease which, in most patients, result in feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-confidence ... and a total lack of well-being.
"The enlargement of the female breast is often very necessary to insure an improved quality of life for the patient."
So you were not a woman with small boobs, but a patient with a disease.
One Houston surgeon who used to perform up to 17 breast enlargements a day had a breast-shaped swimming pool, with a Jacuzzi for the nipple.
By the early 1990s, millions of women had implants. Initially, it was women from the entertainment and sex industries who opted for man-made enlargement -- Carol Doda was the first topless go-go dancer in 1964, having undergone 44 silicone injections.
She is anatomically immortalised in Tom Wolfe's 'The Pump House Gang'.
When silicone injections were shown to cause infection, gangrene, necrosis and amputation, they were replaced by the implant, although the silicone was still far from perfect. It shrivelled and hardened.
One Houston neurologist told Williams how he had once treated a showgirl who had been shot; the bullet bounced off her rock-hard breast, saving her life.
But this was decades ago. We have, of course, moved on -- haven't we?
Not when you consider the ongoing popularity of breast implants -- which Professor Sheila Jeffreys calls "a severe form of mutilation" in her book 'Beauty and Misogyny' -- and the PIP scandal, in which French company Poly Implant Prothese continues to be sued for selling women implants made from the same industrial-grade polyurethane foam used for carpet pads and carburetors.
It makes you wonder just what motivates us, if we are not using our breasts as part of our job -- the majority of women are not showgirls or sex workers.
Even if your implants don't leak, slip, burst or explode, "we jeopardise the central natural function of breasts -- lactation and dynamite neural sensation -- so that they can be even more sexy, to the point where the improvement actually eliminates the sexual feeling in this allegedly sexy organ".
In other words, having your boobs slashed and stuffed with a foreign object routinely kills off sensation in the nipple. Yowch.
But breast enlargement is a choice. Breast cancer, the biggest global cancer killer of women, is not. Yet it's not a modern condition.
"Breast cancer," Williams tells us, "has probably been around for as long as there have been breasts." One ancient Egyptian papyrus suggests treatment made from cow's brain and wasp dung, to be applied to tumours for four days.
In the Middle Ages, the application of more insect poo was advised. Anne of Austria, the mother of Louis XIV, died from breast cancer in 1666 after medical treatment involving arsenic paste and anaesthetic-free surgery. Double yowch.
When author Florence Williams sent her breast milk to be analysed, her sample was average for an American woman in that it contained between 10 and 100 times more environmental toxins than the breast milk of the average European.
This does not make breast cancer American -- it counts for one in four of all malignancies around the world.
Breasts are like mini-ecosystems, soaking up endocrine disruptors -- that is, environmental chemicals which mimic hormonal activity -- and reacting with HRT, which again was formulated by drug companies to combat a newfound pathology called the menopause.
"I think of the menopause as a deficiency disease, like diabetes," one surgeon told the 'New York Times' in 1975.
"I prescribe oestrogens for virtually all menopausal women for an infinite period."
Williams notes how many mid-20th-century medics "thought women's moods, sexuality and general perkiness should be engineered artificially".
When a 15-year $100m Women's Health Initiative study discovered that women taking HRT -- and not a placebo -- had a 26pc increase in breast-cancer incidence (as well as 41pc more strokes and 29pc more heart attacks), this part of the study was abruptly halted in 2002.
Another UK study in 2003 showed a 100pc increase in oestrogen/progesterone HRT, although oestrogen alone was less risky.
Meanwhile, anthropologist Sarah Blaffer, in her book 'Mothers and Others', conducted research which suggested that "far from being a medical malady, menopause is a highly adaptive mechanism to free up older females to help feed and care for their grandchildren".
Which certainly makes more sense than getting knocked up in your 60s -- which is exactly what would happen were it not for the menopause.
But back to bosoms. "Breasts desperately need a rosier future," concludes Williams. "They need a safer world more attuned to their vulnerabilities and they need good listeners, not just good oglers."
While we are surviving breast cancer better than before -- in 1944, only 25pc of us lasted 10 years with the disease, but by 2004, this had increased to 77pc -- Williams believes that the best approach to reducing breast cancer would go beyond the personal (reduced alcohol, lots of exercise, alternative menopause treatments, scrutinising labels) and instead be societal.
Safer products, healthier foods, and a common sense and rigorous approach to testing chemicals. More breastfeeding, less obesity.
We are getting there. Drug companies are working on oestrogen replacement that reaches skin and bone but blocks being picked up by breast cells. We are becoming more aware of diet and environment.
Meanwhile, look after them. Use them wisely, and give them the love they deserve.
'Breasts: A Natural and
Unnatural History', by Florence
Williams, is published by W W Norton & Company