Tuesday, June 03, 2008

The history of the breast

The book can be bought from Amazon UK.

I picked up an interesting book in the second hand bookshop, The History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom, first published in 1997. This article describes the reaction when it was first published

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... ... 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 book is a history of the female breast which has always been seen through the male gaze.
We start with the sacred breast, and the fetishistic fertility figurines of pre-history, then cover the Mother-Goddesses of the Fertile Crescent, the clothed warrior Artemis and the unclad Aphrodite, the Amazon warriors - who cut off their nurturing breast to wage bloody war - and the sacred breast of El Shaddai - the life-giving, literally suckling God of the early Isarelites. Then we go into breasts in the Talmud and Bible where women are only complete when they suckle a son, and we touch on the extraordinary love poem of the Song of Songs, which has female voices speaking over half the lines - an exceptionally large proportion for a Biblical text.

By Medieval Christian times, breasts were no longer sacred, but associated with a corrupt and earthly nature. Angels and saints are chastely clothed, unfortunate martyrs like St. Agatha have their breasts torn off and present them like dumplings on a plate; meanwhile devils and sinners display pendulous breasts as they tumble into the fires of Hell.

As wet-nursing, low-cut gowns and courtly-love grew in popularity amongst the European aristocracy, the Virgin Mary sucking her child became popular as a devotional figure. By the early Renaissance there were hundreds of Madonna-del-latte representations in fourteenth century Italy, which was at that time suffering famine and plague. Previously the Madonna had been a remote Heavenly Queen. Now here she was engaged in the most earthly of activities. Vials of Mary's milk were venerated in churches and the nursing Madonna remained popular in art for hundreds of years.

Soon the breast was to become more overtly sexualised, even in ostensibly pious representations. Jean Fouquet's Virgin of Melun shows the mistress of Charles VII of France, a nubile young woman half his age, who was famed for her low-cut dresses ( even rumoured to have appeared at court bared to the waist in one shocking incident), and who set a new trend for daring décolletage. Cleavage and modesty, courtesans and good-wives, wet-nursing and mothering were to become hot political issues for hundreds of years thereafter.

By the time of the French revolution, women appeared in the flimsiest of unsupported garments and the breast had become political. Freedom was the unfettered breast.
Liberty was portrayed as a woman in a flowing gown, displaying her breasts to the nation - although bared breasts were also the sign of slavery and humiliation and 'savagery', when their owner was Black.

As psychologists followed Freud in pondering the effect of the maternal breast on the psyche, the commercialised breast and the deployment of the hourglass female form became widely prevalent. Women encased themselves in corsets and foundation-wear, and images of feminine beauty were used in advertising to sell every product under the sun.

In the Jazz age, women bound their chests and shortened their skirts and cropped their hair, as a boyish, liberated androgyny became the ideal. Black dancer Josephine Baker's fame and glamour helped to reclaim the dark-skinned female breast from its association with captivity and degradation and turned it into a symbol of sensual freedom.

Then the pendulum swung and on came the sweater girl and screen goddess with her gravity-defying, prominent chest, symbol of corn-fed capitalist good-times after the war.

The sixties and seventies saw women cast off their corsets and girdles, bras and petticoats, yet the breast became more commercial and sexualised than ever. Topless go-go dancing and sunbathing, top-shelf pornography and nudity in cinema became widespread. Breast augmentation became more common in the eighties and nineties as women sought to purchase the perfect body to maximise their chances of professional and social success, some taking it to horrifying extremes.

Now with the advent of the internet, super- sexualised nudity is just a click away, and mainstream men's magazines with a nipple count in the hundreds are available in supermarkets and cornershops where children buy sweets and soft drinks. Nudity on pre-watershed television barely raises an eyebrow. Yet breast-feeding in public still raises censure, and women who dress provocatively and act 'wantonly' in public after drinking are seen as having invited rape in jury trials.

Perhaps, the book suggests, we will one day move to a society where breasts - and their owners - are truly liberated. Magazines will no longer tell us one season that 'boobs are back', then the next that the 'boyish ideal is in'. It will be possible for women to look at their own breasts - whatever size or shape they are - as simply their own, with positive self-regard.

A breast will be just a breast. And its owner beloved for herself.

How do you feel about the breasts in your life today?



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

I absolutely love my breasts - whether they are fashionable or not. But it concerns me that the fake kind are becoming the norm. I don't mean that everyone is having them, more that the aesthetic has become dominant, and personally, I think they look ridiculous, as I wrote here.


June 03, 2008 10:53 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

I missed that great post first time around. Thanks for sharing it. I love how you have managed to mix Marx, Pamela Anderson and pasties all in one post.

I am of an accord with you as far as loving my breasts goes. Especially as I didn't have any to speak of until I was in my 20's.

June 03, 2008 1:42 pm  
Blogger DAVE BONES said...

There could be more of them in my life at the moment. I am optimistic there are some on the horizon!

June 03, 2008 6:12 pm  
Blogger Cookiemouse said...

Neither I nor my girlfriend have any to speak of really, so not much to feel about, but I am madly in love with her eyes and her legs.

June 03, 2008 7:02 pm  
Blogger seth said...

hi rachel,

it depends on whom they're attached to !!!! :)

did you hear about the "party" that took place on the tube? i must agree with mayor johnson on this one. in nyc,there have been anti-drinking laws on the subways and buses for decades.

summer is finally here and i will be installing my bedroom air-conditioner this weekend.

seth :)

June 03, 2008 7:25 pm  
Blogger Rachel said...

Breasts on the horizon!

Sounds like a B (cup) movie! Ah, cookiemouse, nice to hear you're in love.

Seth - summer is not here yet, it keeps raining. The tube party - I got 3 invites but I can't think of anything worse than being drunk on a tube - tube carriages are not my favourite places - I think the law is a nightmare for LU staff as they can't enforce it, but being drunk on a tube train is antisocial. Thing is, I have never met anyone who has ever complained that they had problems with drinking on the tube: most people who are drunk on board are smashed before they get through the door.

June 04, 2008 8:45 am  
Blogger Clare Sudbery said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 04, 2008 11:04 am  
Blogger Clare Sudbery said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 04, 2008 11:10 am  
Blogger Rachel said...

What brilliant comments Clare!

You should check out Glamourpuss's breasts blog as well - I'd missed it the first time around but it is well worth reading ( nice pics too)


Very annoyed on your behalf about that man in your office. Tsk.

June 04, 2008 2:48 pm  
Blogger Sage said...

I like them, some of the time they are in the way.. especially at night in bed... it can be like having two naughty pets at times.. other times I am proud to be their owner :-)


June 04, 2008 4:53 pm  
Blogger Clare Sudbery said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

June 04, 2008 9:38 pm  
Anonymous Helen G said...

I have breast implants - "fakes", as some people call them, and I have to say that I'm uncomfortable with what I perceive as a judgemental subtext to that label.

I had augmentation mammoplasty for a damned good reason. I love my "fakes" just as much as I would love my own home-grown breasts. If I'd been fortunate enough to *have* my own, that is. And I don't consider myself any less of a woman because I have implants.

That aside, the book looks a fascinating read; thank you for the review.

June 08, 2008 11:02 am  

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