Breasts and the Female Body: Form or Function?

Is there a specimen more probed, suckled, ogled, and scrutinized as much as the female body?  Just this morning I saw news clippings of what Barbie would look like if she had the body of the “average” woman.  The full-figured Barbie was plastically engineered to usurp the body image exemplified by the skinny Barbie. So, how does a woman choose which Barbie to idolize? With all the anatomical prototypes and societal suggestions, how is it possible for a woman to establish security in her own body image? What about the women whose figure is slightly heavier than the new Barbie or women who are thinner? What if I told you that there was a doll that represented what the average black person looks like instead of a doll for the average female body? I’m sure you’ve thought of your response, “There is so such thing as what the ‘average’ black person looks like.”  With the amount of “real women look like X” media campaigns, it’s not surprising that women view their bodies from the perspective of form and not function.

Prior to developing a liberal appreciation for the aesthetics of the female physique, I had a particular interest in the derriere.  Like most men, I was expected to be attracted to only two features of the female body: The breast or butt.  As I’ve grown to admire the entire repertoire of female sexuality, these features seem to be discriminatory of the mind, or the other staples of female beauty: empathy and compassion. When I first started dating a woman with a large bust in college, she tersely asked, “Are you a breast man or an ass man?”  Due to the large bra size the woman possessed, I felt inclined to say “breast”. Not that my answer was wrong, I do admit propriety is always the gentlemanly route when it comes to answering questions regarding the female frame. The problem with the question is that there was no trick behind it.  I was expected to choose between the two options without regard to her hair or shoulders. This isn’t surprising, however; all it takes is a quick look on the television and you can see why women are reduced to having two measures with which to evaluate their attractiveness.

On one occasion it was clear I was trying to muster some form of attraction outside of robust anatomy for a woman who was flaunting her chest at a bar.  When other people around me caught on, I was met with shock and awe as if I withstood some form of torture. “You know, it’s ok if you look.” One woman assured me.  “You can’t help but look. You’re attracted to boobs because you want to make sure your children are well fed.”

Obviously, we know breast are used to nurse babies, however, we seem to view that as the lesser purpose to beauty. Not to say there should be feminist coup against the aesthetic purpose of the female breast, but to say their primary function goes beyond the carnal. Even with the rewiring my brain is going through, I still bear the lowly habits of a male primate.  I can’t help but notice those who hit the genetic lottery and are endowed a chest with the magic ratio of ligaments to fat glands. 

So, how does a male arm himself in the war testosterone is raging against our prefrontal cortex? How can beauty and purpose be found in function and not form?  If the beauty of the female body exist in a world outside of Barbie, television and sexuality, then the average size of the woman matters less than the health of the average woman. If I were truly interested in the well being of my children, I wouldn’t be looking for breast size as any indicator.  I would really be interested in what is inside the woman.

Scientists have been well aware that inserting foreign objects and chemicals into the human body is a risky affair, so I was curious as to why people would vote not to label foods that contained GMOs.  Unfortunately, the business of labeling food, shampoo and household products has become so political and lucrative that we have become partisan in terms of being made aware of what pathogens we are putting in our body.  Once I thought about the way alcohol alters chemicals in my brain or the way adderall release chemicals to increase focus, it wasn’t too difficult to make the analogy to what BPA or pesticides could do to my body or a woman’s body if inhaled or swallowed.

Due to the affects of estrogen on menstruation, breasts are rich in estrogen receptors.   Because of this, breasts are perceptive to the environment around them and can be fooled by chemicals that mimic estrogen. For example, BPA has a chemical structure that bears close resemblance to estrogen, which allows BPA to activate estrogen receptors.  The problem is that estrogen is a key ingredient for puberty and early exposures to chemicals that mimic estrogen, such as BPA, was observed to cause early puberty, lower sperm counts and increased rates of breast and prostate cancers among other things to rats exposed to BPA while in the womb.  The implications this has on breastfeeding cannot be understated.  Fortunately, breast milk contains many of the vitamins, proteins and enzymes a baby needs, but also contains lead, DDT and arsenic.  The amounts of these items are small, but it does cause one to pause to think about what they are putting into their bodies. (Feel free to stop reading now and inspect the lining of canned food, CDs, cellphones, bike helmets, paper receipts and water bottles). [1]

It would seem that women are responsible for bearing the brunt of this mammary gland battle, but when I read stories about males with breast cancer, I realized we all have a responsibility in the war chemicals are raging on our bodies because we all have breast tissue.  Looking at my own A cup (if I even have an A), I can’t help but feel nonchalant to my breast size because my breast don’t have high value sexually.  If I had to be concerned with my breast as sexual objects first, I’d be more inclined to do things to my body that may impede my ability to breastfeed.  Even though I will not directly transfer the contents of my body to my child, my house, the environment and the food made in my home will be.

Marines at Camp Lejeune that were exposed to contained water for over thirty years were not immune to the altering effects chemicals have on the human body. Michael Partain suffered from an inability to produce testosterone and underwent a partial mastectomy and another marine, Peter Devereaux, who had been an infant attending day care at Camp Lejeune underwent a double mastectomy at eighteen.   After reading stories about males who have battled breast cancer, it was clear that a health and science approach first, body image second mentality is the bridge between empathy for women and social expectations for women.  Devereaux describes his experience when attending treatment facilities:

“You go into all these pink buildings and places for your mammograms and appointments.  You’re this dude and all these women are looking at you.  I meet these women, and they’re so much more open and honest and easy to talk to about emotions.  Guys, all we talk about are football, eating, farting and girls.  So [these women] really helped.  I felt a burden lifted.  I wanted to move forward. My goal now is to raise awareness.”[2]

Marine Bill Smith found his solidarity with women who were fighting the disease and said:

“I appreciate women now, and they’re so much stronger than men. I went to support groups, I listened to them.  I’ve had the privilege of entering a woman’s world.”[3]

It was leaving the male world that helped me see breasts for more than what they appear to be.  Trust me, I haven’t risen to some “I am holier than thou” precipice, but I do understand the role of the breast outside the sexual context.  One quote by Michael Partain from the book Breast: A Natural and Unnatural History is a powerful reminder of this:

“It’s every woman’s worst nightmare, that something they can do when they’re pregnant can affect their unborn child.    I’ve seen it when I talk to the mothers and they learn their child was poisoned and affected.  I saw it in my mother’s eyes, the most heartbreaking look, despair, that I’ve ever experienced in my life.  To look in my own mother’s eyes and see the realization that while she was pregnant, she drank something that harmed her child.  I was forty years old when I saw that look.  Part of me wants to go on base and show my family, my youngest daughter.  She keeps asking me, ‘Is what’s happening to you going to happen to me, Daddy?’”[4]

What will you tell your daughter about her body or your son about the female body? Will beauty and body image come from a compulsory need of titillation to be a sexual being or will beauty come from the function of human beings? If we continue to make Barbie and sexuality the focal point of body image, not only will we harm our children psychologically but in health and aesthetics too.

[1] Williams, Florence. “Sour Milk.” Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 257-58. Print.

[2] Williams, Florence. “The Few. The Proud. The Afflected: Can Marines Solve the Puzzle of Breast Cancer.” Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 307-31. Print.

[3] Williams, Florence. “The Few. The Proud. The Afflected: Can Marines Solve the Puzzle of Breast Cancer.” Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 307-31. Print.

[4] Williams, Florence. “The Few. The Proud. The Afflected: Can Marines Solve the Puzzle of Breast Cancer.” Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. New York: W.W. Norton &, 2012. 307-31. Print.


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