For all their popularity, what do we really know about them?
By Liz Langley / Alternet
So Neely O’Hara famously said in Valley of the Dolls while eyeballing strip joints.
If she could see how much more tit-smitten pop culture has become in the last half-century she’d probably need to do another shot, though frankly, if the Venus de Willendorf is any indication, humans have been boob-centric for as long as 25,000 years.
And why not? Breasts enhance the lives of owners and visitors, and you can’t say that any other body part produces food. Still, for all the times you’ve ogled them, snuggled them or ensconced them in a bra that cost more than your Internet bill, what do you really know about breasts?
1. A singular duo. Among humans, some breasts stand out more than others but among animals, humans stand alone. Carole Jahme, the “Evolutionary Agony Aunt,” columnist for the Guardian says that the breasts of the human female are unique among primates in that they grow before we start menstruating, stay full whether we are lactating or not, and stay big after menopause, whereas most primates’ only enlarge when lactating.
There’s an evolutionary reason for our hourglass shape. Jahme writes: “…it has been widely theorised that the plump buttock and bosom of modern women are sexual ornaments, selected for by ancestral males. Seen from a distance the adult female form, either from behind or from the front, can be recognised as distinct from the male of the species. An hourglass figure, plus youthfulness, would have attracted male hominids looking for mating opportunity.”
So maybe that’s the evolutionary reason some women want to have breasts that signal “female” from clear across the Grand Canyon.
2. What are breasts made of?Food and sex, food and sex…maybe we’re so enamored of breasts because that’s what they’re all about. Discovery Health tells us that the female breast contains 15-25 milk glands connected to milk ducts inside the nipple all held together with fatty and connective tissue (and yes, you can still breastfeed if you have implants). As for the pleasure part, there are thin muscle fibers in the nipples that make them become erect, signaling arousal, and also lots of nerve endings which make them sensitive. New Scientist’s Linda Geddes writes that a 2011 study using MRIs found a direct link between women’s nipples and genitals: when the study subject’s nipples were stimulated, the brain’s sensory cortex area corresponding to the genitals lit up (in addition to the chest area).
It’s a link women knew about long before 2011, but it’s nice to have it on paper.
3. Nip nip hooray!Since breasts are so fun and fabulous, why stop at two? Some people don’t. Polymastia and polythelia are, respectively, extra breasts and nipples. Diane Mapes of NBC’s The Body Odd writes they’re more common than you might think: about 6% of people have accessory breast tissue and a number of celebs have piped up about their third nipple (which they should really just call a tripple), including Mark Wahlberg, Lily Allen and and Tilda Swinton.
Extra breasts can lactate and respond to regular hormonal fluctuations, i.e., become more sensitive during menstruation which is often the first time women notice it (women are more prone than men, although men also get it).
It’s not all fun, though. Polythelia, according to Medscape, is associated with some health issues, primarily of the urinary tract. Plus it sounds like it could get a little awkward…extra breast tissue usually runs along the “milk line” (armpit to groin) but sometimes shows up in other places. Mapes writes that in 1980, Journal of American Academic Dermatology reported on a 74-year-old man with a female breast on the back of his thigh, and in 1827 it was reported that Therese Ventre of Marseilles had “an extra breast on the outside of her thigh.”
If any man ever grows one in the palm of his hand, a new zillion-dollar-a-year field of plastic surgery will be born. Watch.
4. The first implants.Women probably wouldn’t want extra breasts, but many want a little extra from the ones they have. Simon Rogers and Sophia Vanco of the Guardian report there were 307,180 cosmetic breast augmentation surgeries in the U.S. in 2011, up from 212,500 10 years prior. The recipients have one woman to thank for it all…well, kind of.
Timmie Jean Lindsey had the first silicone breast implants, developed by Dr. Frank Gerow in 1962 in Houston. Nancy Dillon of the New York Daily News reports that Lindsey had gone in to get some rose tattoos removed from her chest and Gerow suggested her as a candidate for the surgery. Lindsey’s granddaughter recently had a double mastectomy and full reconstruction. From NDN: “It just looks so natural. They can build them up just like the real thing,” she told the News. “I’m so proud that it’s available to so many women. It’s not vanity getting reconstruction. I think it’s necessary. It puts them back whole again. I’m so happy if Dr. Gerow’s silicone implants are what started it all.”
Lindsey, now 80, went from a B cup to a C cup, and “never leaked or ruptured but have calcified a bit,” so she feels soreness sometimes. That doesn’t seem too bad when you consider what happened to Lauren Yardely of Coventry, UK. The NDN’s Tracy Miller reported on March 19 that when Lauren went from an A cup to a DD her body rejected the saline implants and they fell out.
Still, Lindsey says if she had it to do again she’d just “go for a breast lift. That’s all I really needed.”
5. Gynecomastia.If you’re a woman you might think bigger is better when it comes to your breasts. If you’re a man you probably don’t.
Gynecomastia or enlargement of breast tissue due to an imbalance of hormones — too many estrogens and too few androgens — can cause discomfort for the guy going through it. According to Melissa Conrad Stoppler of MedicineNet.com, gynecomastia is sometimes confused with the enlarged male breasts that come with obesity but that’s lipomastia — gynecomastia is actual breast tissue. It can be caused by hormonal fluctuations during puberty “resulting in a temporary state in which estrogen concentrations are relatively high.”
Sometimes it goes away on its own, sometimes it persists. Other medical conditions that can cause gynecomastia are cirrhosis of the liver, recovery from malnutrition, disorders of the testes, chronic renal failure and hyperthyroidism. Some medications (listed on MedicineNet.com) are associated with gynecomastia as are “drugs of abuse,” including alcohol. There isn’t usually any severe pain but it’s a good idea to consult a doctor to find out the cause of the condition. There are several medications available to treat gynecomastia, though surgery is also an option.
6. Two for the books.Male or female, it’s almost impossible to talk about breasts without talking about size, and if you thought those DD’s were big wait til you see 102ZZZs. No kidding.
She was teased a lot as a kid, but says her late husband of 13 years, Alan, “made me love myself,” and turned her whole life around. It was Alan’s idea for her to send her picture to an adult magazine. Being featured in adult media (hence the name Norma Stitz — gotta admit, that’s pretty good) “made her embrace her size,” Lee writes.
Now she’s on good terms with her body, but not everyone else is as accepting.
“Every day someone teases me that doesn’t know me. They make fun of me and there’s no reason. I’m human like everybody else. I’m just blessed in different ways than other people.”
7. Getting your goat.The size of a woman’s breasts doesn’t make any difference in her ability to produce milk. In the olden days, though, if a woman couldn’t or didn’t want to breastfeed she could get a substitute. Sometimes a wet nurse. Sometimes a goat.
Nicholas Day of Slate cites the tome The Goat as The Best and Most Agreeable Wet Nurse, published in 1816, by Conrad A. Zwierlein (as cited in Milk: A Local and Global History by Deborah Valenze) saying that infants fed by goats were slid under the beasties on trays. “They were said to do well,” Day writes “and given that many infants not being fed breast milk died from poor sanitation, it was probably safer to go straight to the source, without any germ-infested buckets and pots getting in the way.” Valenze writes that in the 16th century French women turned to goats rather than humans thanks to “the new plague of syphilis.”
Day lists many instances where “the milk flow went in the other direction” as well. Humans from various places around the world nursed animals, including piglets (New Guinea), baby deer, opossums, monkeys (South America), bear cubs (Japan), and puppies.
8. The return of the wet nurse.Alright, you goats…it’s a tough economy out there, so shove over and make room for some humans in the workforce. According to AOL’s Claire Gordon, wet nursing is making a career comeback.
That’s not too surprising considering that the “breast is best” meme has latched on. According to the LA Times, the CDC reported in February 2013 that breastfeeding increased between 2000 and 2008 (the American Academy of Pediatrics recommneds breastfeeding exclusively for the first six months). If a new mom can’t breastfeed, she’s still got several options to get human breast milk for her baby.
“Mother-to-mother milk-sharing networks, like Eats on Feets, MilkShare and Human Milk 4 Human Babies, have exploded in the last 18 months,” Gordon wrote in January 2012, but the job is quite different than in the bad old days. Gordon reports that wet nurses were, “usually working class,” and “morally ruined” by a baby out of wedlock. With few other options, these women would sell their nursing services to a wealthy family, and abandon their own children at an institution or worse. “They were essentially condemning their baby to death,” says Golden. “It was trading the life of a poor infant for a wealthy one.”
Modern wet nurses live with the mother and child for at least a year, since an infant’s feeding schedule is every few hours: all that lost sleep, though, sounds like it would be worth the $1k a week Gordon writes is the average wet nurse income.
9. Milk: it does a body good.So the breast has made a comeback. And it was culture, not quality, that caused it to go away. Claude Fischer of UC Berkley writes in Made in America: A Social History of American Culture and Character that while breastfeeding enjoyed a heyday in Victorian times with the “sentimentalization of motherhood” it went out of fashion in the early 20th century for the modern convenience of the bottle and formula. Breastfeeding was for the “primitive and unenlightened women,” and by the middle of the century, 80% of women bottle-fed their babies, a number which has almost reversed today to 75% of women who begin with breastfeeding.
Nicholas Day of Slate writes that formula certainly isn’t the worst thing in the world, but breast milk is more complicated than we once thought. It is a medication in that some of the simple sugar carbohydrates- – oligosaccharides — are nourishment for an infant’s gut bacteria. Day quotes Katie Hinde, assistant professor of human evolutionary biology at Harvard and UC-Davis chemist Bruce German as having written that “mothers are not just eating for two, they are actually eating for 2 × 1011 (their own intestinal microbiome as well as their infant’s)!”
Milk is a tough thing to study because it’s so changeable, varying from mother to mother and from moment to moment, sometimes being affected by signals from the infant. Day quotes Hinde: “If the infant is showing signs of infection, somehow that’s being signaled back to the mother and she up-regulates the immune factors that are in her milk. Now, is that her body’s responding to a need of the baby? Maybe. Is it that she also has a low-grade infection that she’s just not symptomatic for and so her body’s doing that? Maybe. Is it partially both? Maybe. We don’t know. It’s brand-new stuff.”
Who’d have ever thought milk could suddenly pose so much excitement and intrigue without chocolate syrup in it?
10. The Scar Project.“Breast cancer is not a pink ribbon,” is the tagline of The Scar Project, a reminder that we see the symbol of breast cancer awareness everywhere, but seldom see the effects of breast cancer in the flesh.
Photographer David Jay changed that dramatically by showing both the reality of breast cancer and the courage and grace of the women who survive it. His nude and semi-nude photographs show both the scary reality and the inspiring resilience of these survivors.
Jay, a fashion photographer, was inspired to begin taking these pictures when a close friend in Australia was diagnosed with breast cancer: she had a double mastectomy just two weeks after being diagnosed. Eventually the Scar Project would become an art exhibit, a book, a documentary and a blog. It’s a graphic reminder to pay attention to your own breast health, and also a way to show survivors their own bravery and beauty. As Jay said to me in an interview for SeXis magazine, “It doesn’t have to be scary. There are so many ways to live courageously, beautifully and without fear.”
As Neely O’Hara said, some people do great without ‘em.