In Case You Have or Are Interested in Breasts

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Over the weekend I read A History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom, which should be required reading for anyone with breasts or an interest in them, which I realize doesn't cover everyone but covers a lot of people. The book was fascinating, and full of memorable illustrations and photos, including a set depicting a "Bosom Ballet." It told me many things I'd never considered which were obvious once they were pointed out to me, like the significance of the name for the kind of animal we are: mammalia, coined by 18th-century Swedish physician Carolus Linnaeus, comes from the Latin term mammae (milk-secreting organs) and literally means "of the breast." So as a group, warm-blooded animals with a four-chambered heart are named for an attribute only half of them share: the ability to produce milk for suckling their young.

It also answered a question I'd been wondering about lately: Why is that galaxy up in the sky most of us can't see any more because our night skies are so marred by light pollution, called "the Milky Way"? Why is it considered milky? Why not "the Sparkly Belt"? Why not a lot of things?

Well. Turns out we have Greek mythology to thank for the name. Yalom states,

It was believed that mortals could become immortal if they were suckled at the breast of the queen of goddesses. So, when Zeus wanted his son Hercules--whose mother was the mortal Alcmena--to have immortality, he had him placed quietly at Hera's breast while she was sleeping. But Hercules sucks so vigorously that she was awakened and realized he was not her own child. Indignant, she drew the breast away with such force that the milk spurted into the heavens and created the Milky Way.

I also learned that large breasts have not always been considered the "crown jewels of femininity," as Yalom puts it; turns out that in the renaissance, breasts were best if they were "small, white, round like apples, hard, firm, and wide apart." Thought you'd want to know.

And I learned quite a few things that fairly upset me, one being the origin of the phrase "tits on a tray." I had always heard the phrase used to describe very upright, obvious breasts, intentionally supported and showcased to be, well, in your face. (It wasn't necessarily the most female-friendly way of talking about female bodies, but I could live with it.) But it turns out that Saint Agatha, an early Christian martyr whose death included having her breasts mutilated and removed by Roman soldiers, is often depicted in religious iconography as carrying her tits on a tray. There are two paintings of her included in the book; one shows her with her arms tied over her head to a tree limb; she's smiling and nubile as this soldier fits a giant set of clippers around her breast. The depiction of extreme and brutal violence on a woman who sports a "come hither" smile makes the painting pornographic, if you ask me, in ways the "Bosom Ballet" could never be. The other painting shows Agatha, well, carrying her tits on a tray. She's fully clothed and appears healthy, and the tits on the tray are free of blood or gore--they look like tidy little currant-adorned puddings or something, which she's preparing to serve the viewer. Anyway, needless to say, if someone uses that phrase in my hearing in the future, I'll ask them please not to do it again, because whatever it might mean now, its origins are too violent and misogynist.

Yalom discusses the fact that for most of history, discussions of the breast has been conducted by and for men, just as depictions of breasts have been generally been created by and for men. This is one reason she approves of the Bosom Ballet, which I have to say I also found hilarious; it's created by a lesbian, Annie Sprinkle, and if I understand Yalom's analysis correctly, the point is not to titillate, but to "[debunk] the traditional ‘ivory-orb' vision of breasts" by showing real breasts and the way they sag, bounce, respond to pressure, etc.

Yalom's feminist and women-centric agenda is announced in the table of contents, which includes the following chapters:

1. The Sacred Breast: Goddesses, Priestesses, Biblical Women, Saints, and Madonnas

2. The Erotic Breast: "Orbs of Heavenly Frame"

3. The Domestic Breast: A Dutch Interlude

4. The Political Breast: Bosoms for the Nation

5. The Psychological Breast: Minding the Body

6. The Commercialized Breast: From Corsets to Cyber-Sex

7. The Medical Breast: Life-Giver and Life-Destroyer

8. The Liberated Breast: Politics, Poetry, and Pictures

9. The Breast in Crisis

Yalom manages to set forth a coherent, logical chain of meaning and history that includes attention to everything from shifting attitudes towards breast feeding, depictions and exploitation of breasts during wartime (including the differences among the French icon of Liberte, also known as Marianne, the English icon Britannia, and the American symbol Columbia, as well as the practice of painting bare-breasted women on airplanes), and the evolution of breast cancer treatment, to innovations in garments designed to cover or support breasts. I was very interested and quite impressed. I'd even called it a page-turner.

4 Comments

Great review! This book is going straight into my wishlist.

The ABBA breast: Mammalia Mia!
Much better than the Queen musical

Hi I came across to your blog from Rachel's blog Carnival post. Very good and informative book review.

Sounds interesting . . . I'll have to add it to my wishlist!

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This page contains a single entry by Holly published on July 2, 2007 10:15 AM.

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