Stanford Today Edition:May/June, 1997 Section: Features: A History of the Breast WWW: A History of the Breast

A History of the Breast

By Sally Lehrman

When Marilyn Yalom sat down to sign books after a reading in San Francisco, one, then another, then a third set of bare breasts dangled and bounced at eye level as their owners asked for her signature.

In her book tour across the United States this winter Yalom, a senior scholar at the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford, encountered the breast in all its vibrancy as a symbol of female identity today. A History of the Breast, published by Knopf, traces the breast as a sacred, erotic, political and practical object in Western culture from prehistoric times. The book, extensively reviewed in the national media, rose rapidly to the best-seller list with women embracing it as empowering and important.

Women took their shirts off at a couple of readings, and men proclaimed their obsession for an ample bosom. Talk radio callers discussed breastfeeding, cancer, implants and reduction and told jokes about both female and male anatomy.

"Women seem to love the book. Women feel like I've done something valuable for them," says Yalom. "Men are embarrassed, titillated by it, they don't quite know what it's about. Men feel that women's power is somehow incarnated in the breast," she says. "They love and fear the breast."

The women who bared their breasts at readings are performance artists who want to claim their equal right with men to take their shirts off and feel the sun on their upper bodies. Yalom says their approach may be a bit radical, but she agrees with their aims.

Yalom says women have a history incorporated in their breasts, a history that has been appropriated by men. Only since the 1960s, when the first women's liberation protesters threw their bras away and mothers dared to breastfeed in public once again, have women begun to reclaim their bodies for themselves. It was just a month ago that California legislators finally voted to have California join the 12 states that allow breastfeeding in public.

In her book, Yalom stakes women's claim to the breast, even as she describes the breast mostly through men's eyes. "The public history of women's breasts is a history of male interpretation," she says. "I think we're still at the beginning of a very new way of looking at the world, at the history we've inherited."

In prehistoric times, the breast was a symbol of sacred power. The spiritual nurturance provided by the breast carried over into Christian imagery during the 14th century in Italian paintings of the nursing Madonna. By the 16th century, the breast was celebrated as an erotic centerpiece, the object of paintings, poetry and masculine possession. Breasts became powerful, political objects during the French Revolution, when women were called upon to nurture good citizenship and political regeneration through breastfeeding.

Today, breasts are undergoing another transformation, in part shaped by the looming threat of breast cancer. Even as large, grapefruit-like breasts seem increasingly to be the focal point for fashion and popular imagery, emphasis is shifting to a "healthy" breast firmed through exercise, protected as much as possible from disease. The activism of women with breast cancer has brought one-breasted bodies into the open. One Stanford plastic surgeon is assembling a database of normal variation in breast sizes and shapes. Women in powerful positions in politics and corporations have stopped covering up evidence of their bosoms.

"Attention to the breast is going to go on," Yalom says. At the same time the Barbie doll image is starting to fade. Perhaps, she speculates, a new image of the breast could be in the making associated with health, vitality and power. ST