I know more about women’s breasts today than when I researched my first book in 2006.
Much of what I wrote down as “fact” turned out to be fiction. I repeated statistics about bra wear and the average cup size that weren’t backed by rigorous study. The breast cancer prevention advice I believed turned out to be wrong. Even the simplest and most basic notion of “breastmilk is best” didn’t hold up when I looked closer at the support for breastfeeding mothers. But a decade later, I still see these same tired statements repeated as truth.
Why don’t we know more about breasts? They represent motherhood, the feminine form, and are a huge part of a woman’s sexuality. But that’s about all we know. Anthropologists can’t agree on why women sprout boobs long before they’re needed to feed our young. Scientists and baby formula companies study breast milk but aren’t able to duplicate or replicate nature’s ideal food. Breast cancer researchers have only discovered a few of the gene mutations that cause breast cancer—and don’t know why some tumors turn deadly. Bra manufacturers retool and redesign the most basic garment we wear because it’s that difficult to fit one–nevermind two–female breasts.
It’s easier to find breast exploitation. The image of a youthful, perky pair is typical in commercial advertisements for beer or in non-profit breast cancer charity appeals. Slapping on a pink ribbon makes it okay to objectify these female body parts. Unregulated cosmetic companies align themselves with making strides in women’s health; while activists condemn them for not removing cancer-causing chemicals from their products. Breast cancer non-profits like Komen grow larger while devoting a smaller percentage of funds raised to finding “a cure.” Nipples are airbrushed away and only revealed for profit: on fashion catwalks, in men’s magazines, or porn.
Conflicting studies make it tough for women to know when or whether to have a mammogram. Legislators enact breast density laws that compel medical providers to give you notice if your breasts are dense—yet women and doctors have no idea what to do next. Meanwhile, bra brands hype the need to do breast self-exams that experts say aren’t necessary or useful.
There are plenty of laws in the US that protect the rights of mothers to breastfeed in public but do nothing to support that choice. Few women get paid maternity leave, or must take unpaid breaks to pump, and doctors lack medical training to solve breastfeeding problems and concerns.
We can’t even agree on whether naked boobs require support. Headlines repeat reports of a French “study” linking breast sag to wearing bras while lingerie ads claim they’ll prevent yours from going south. No one knows because there’s no science to back either side.
Here’s what I do know: talk is cheap. We repeat the mantra that “breast is best,” but we give women few resources to breastfeed beyond a few weeks. We say we care about those with breast cancer by buying up pink products, but those efforts don’t do much for those diagnosed with the deadliest form of the disease. We are overly “aware” of breast cancer, but awareness doesn’t translate into real action: coordinated research efforts, better methods of detection, or even accessibility to treatment for those at highest risk. And we’ve made the simplest things—like dressing our chests—complicated and confusing, all the while berating women for wearing the “wrong” size bra.
We look at breasts as a commodity. Women are stereotyped based on their breast size; humiliated for wardrobe malfunctions (which oddly include the choice to go braless), and verbally harassed or slut-shamed for breastfeeding in public. Meanwhile, the objectification of women’s breasts continues in advertising, videos, and computer gaming. Social media platforms delete photos of tattooed nipples on post-mastectomy patients but allow sexualized lingerie cleavage shots, as long as nipples are obscured. Even the most successful breast-dressing brand in the world—Victoria’s Secret—built its reputation on the notion that lingerie is worn to please another.
Will women’s breasts ever get the respect they deserve? I wish I had more answers. Maybe it’s easier to trivialize them because they hold enormous power. They have the ability to sustain life and produce a magical liquid that contains untold medicinal properties. Bodies with breasts are the universal symbol of Mother Earth, across all cultures. Still, there’s no field of science dedicated to their study. Instead, we tell women to keep them healthy, covered, and in control. For whom? Something’s wrong with this picture.
What do you think?
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