Breast cancer

Updated 08 November 2017

Alluring breasts

For as long as we can remember, breasts have been objects of admiration. Cybershrink takes a closer look.

For as long as we can remember, breasts have been objects of admiration. Cybershrink takes a closer look.

Though it may seem that male obsession with large female breasts is somehow normal and as if it has always been with us, this is not so. The fixation is culture-specific and has not been eternal.

In earlier periods, smaller breasts were most popular. In the age of Rubens, enormously obese women, with bulges in places where most of us don't even have places, were considered very attractive.

Beauty a culture-bound concept
Different cultures focus on different parts of the female body as representing extremes of beauty. In Japan the nape of the neck has long been popular. The Chinese, for an appalling period, chose very tiny feet, subjecting women to agonising and hugely deforming procedures of foot binding, to squeeze their feet into ridiculously tiny shapes, for which special shoes were made. They were no longer functional for walking, but the deformities were considered highly erotic.

When we look at any other culture, with erotic preoccupations we don't share, the basically arbitrary and ridiculous aspect of the process becomes obvious. But within our own culture, it is far harder to challenge or resist the predominant preoccupations.

Initially in art and poetry, breasts were primarily symbolic of sacred and maternal values. From the 15th through the 17th century in Europe, its erotic potential gradually became dominant.

The role of breasts in mythology
Myths about biting breasts arise in Greek, Indian and Native American stories. Hercules was said to have gained his strength by biting the breast of Hera when he was an infant. Multiple breasts also turn up in legends - the Greek goddess Artemis of Ephesus had nearly 20 breasts, which must have made for a rather crowded chest. Christian legends, stories and songs in medieval times surprisingly often involved the breasts and milk of the Virgin Mary, a miraculous substance.

In Minoan society (in Crete) women were powerful in society and breasts were specially featured by their clothing. The first corsets were developed, laced so as to expose and lift the breasts. Priestesses of the snake goddess were known for particularly large breasts. The classic Greeks, on the other hand, valued masculinity, and most women had few rights and were expected to stay at home. The apodemos was developed as probably the first bra, but intended to flatten rather than feature the breasts. The rise of Christianity then further discouraged the exposure or featuring of flesh in general and breasts in particular.

Breasts and the French revolution
For a time, the stomach, especially a rounded belly, was considered far more sexy, anyway, favouring rounded bellies. Only by the 14th century did this start to fade, as clothing again became more revealing of cleavage. Louis XIV of France insisted that the women of his court wear low necklines, as a sign of respect to him and to God. After the French evolution, naturalism and breasts became the fashion, and an equivalent of see-through blouses were popular.

Jean Wearly patented a machine for making corsets in 1839, and, hitherto a luxury item, these became plentiful, complex and very widely worn. In 1893 Marie Tucek patented the first modern bra, very similar to the form we're used to, though only in the 1920s did it become more popular than the corset.

The breast becomes a political issue
In the 1960s, another era of rebellion and of desire to express greater personal freedom, some women politically stopped wearing bras, or burned them, or went topless. But by the 80s, larger breasts became fashionable, despite the health and exercise emphasis of fashion.

Breasts, for lactating and feeding babies, have at times become political issues. In the Dutch Republic of the 17th century, the lactating mother was a symbol of civic responsibility, contributing to the health of her family and the community. 199 years later, when it was fashionable for smart ladies to protect their figures by sending their children to poor women ("wet nurses" for breastfeeding), there were campaigns which have reappeared irregularly, to persuade mothers to nurse their own babies; an early echo of the later campaigns against artificial infant formulas and milk powders.

In between periods of prudery when women's clothes hid the shape of the torso, there have been periods when the display of all or much of the breast was considered smart. Classical arts depicted such abstractions as Liberty and Equality, especially in France, as women with bare breasts. In the 1920s, the fashionable woman was flat-chested, but the most popular size grew steadily over the decades, especially rapidly in the 1950s and 1960s. The bust measurements of Miss America contestants in the 1920s averaged 32 inches. By the 1940s the average was 35 inches, and through the 50s and 60s, 36 inches was considered an ideal.

The history of breast surgery
The art of surgery (and probably more importantly, of anaesthesia) took a long time before it became capable of contemplating the business of enlarging or "enhancing" breasts. There was obviously a great demand for such procedures, even though a horrific amount of damage must have been done in all the early attempts. Each was introduced with a fanfare and great claims, only to soon reveal dangers and failures aplenty. From 1890 onwards, attempts were made to inject liquid paraffin, and to use such materials as goat's milk, glass balls, ground-up rubber, sponges, ox cartilage, ivory, soybean and peanut oil, and sacs of rubber, and later Teflon and silicone.

A doctor in Vienna in the 1890s tried injections of paraffin, producing infections, and hard, unattractive breasts. After a range of awful early experiments, surgeons wisely ignored the problem till after World War II. In the 1920s they tried "autologous fat transplants", using fat from one's own belly and buttocks transferred to the breasts. But the body generally absorbed the fat, leaving lumpy, unattractive and non-matching breasts.

In the 1940s there were further attempts to inject paraffin and petroleum jelly, without success. It appears that silicone injections were first used in Japan, where prostitutes, finding earlier experiments with goat's milk and other substances to fail, had themselves injected with industrial liquid silicone, apparently to render themselves more attractive to the American servicemen among their clients.

Silicone injections also began to be used in America, especially with actresses and "topless dancers", and between twelve and forty thousand women were treated before the procedure was banned in 1976, after serious problems emerged. These included pain, ulcers, discoloration, infections, and disfigurement, as well as the suspicion of deaths linked to the process.

Early prostheses/implants were of sponge rubber, then polyvinyl, as surgeons moved from ignoring any problems of breast size, to recognising a legitimate concern in women with congenital absence of breasts, or naturally abnormally large and uncomfortable breasts, to accepting psychological rather than physical reasons for surgery. Simply wanting larger breasts became a sufficient indication for most surgeons.

Psychologists join in
Shrinks began to pay attention in the 1950s, recognising the distress some women felt at not matching widely popular images of feminine perfection. Silicone implants, a silicone pouch filled with silicone gel, became the most popular surgical implant.

Oh, and Breasts may be a business asset. In 1994, an American "exotic dancer", Cynthia Hess, applied successfully to the American tax authorities to have her size 56FF breast implants accepted as a tax-deductible business expense, saying: "It was obvious that the size of your chest was in direct proportion to the size of your salary". I haven't been able to locate any SA tax decisions on this matter.

A current fashion, possible only with the aid of surgery, is for very skinny, almost anorexic women, with very large breasts, behind which you can count their prominent ribs. This doesn't occur in nature. Breasts are largely fatty tissue, and in proportion to general body fat, so when you lose body weight, you usually lose breast size, too. Skinny and large breasted is not a natural combination.

(Health24's Cybershrink, Prof M.A Simpson, updated by Susan Erasmus, May 2012)


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Breast cancer expert

Dr Gudgeon qualified in Birmingham, England, in 1968. She has more than 40 years experience in oncology, and in 1994 she founded her practice, Cape Breast Care, where she treats benign and malignant breast cancers. Dr Boeddinghaus obtained her qualification at UCT Medical School in 1994 and her MRCP in London in 1998. She has worked extensively in the field of oncology and has a special interest in the hormonal management of breast cancer. She now works with Dr Gudgeon at Cape Breast Care. Read more.

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