Female Breasts or Boobs and Mainstream Society
Breasts – Most people have them, not everyone loves them but American culture clearly attaches a lot of importance to them.
There exists an infatuation with female breasts in particular. This is evidenced in part by the many slang names we have for them – boobs, tata’s, jugs, knockers, honkers, hooters, fun bags and the list goes on.
For men, on the other hand, slang terms are almost nonexistent. There’s the abbreviated term, “moobs,” which is a combination of the words man and boobs (the term moobs is normally used to insult men with larger breasts) and “pecks.”
Breasts are not sexual organs or genitalia. But, on women’s bodies, they have long been considered sexual, shameful and taboo (at least in American culture). This sexualization of women’s breasts has created many issues in gender equality and women’s rights.
Social issues aside, breasts can and do serve an important role in early human development as they provide vital nourishment to newborn babies. For many people, of all genders, breasts are also a source of sexual pleasure and expression. Breasts have become a symbol of femininity (as well as fertility and sexuality) and they can be an important part of one’s gender identity or expression, too.
This article will cover basic information about male and female breasts while addressing common misconceptions. It will also discuss cultural attitudes and social issues surrounding the taboo female anatomy.
What are Breasts?
Breasts are organs made up of adipose (fat) tissue and connective tissue. Within these tissues is a network of blood vessels, nerves and lymph nodes / vessels. Ligaments connect the breasts to the body. Underneath the breasts are the pectoral muscles, which sit on top of the rib cage. (But breasts themselves don’t contain muscle.)
The distinct, circular area of skin surrounding the nipple is called the areola.
Beneath the areola are milk ducts which deliver milk to the nipple. The milk ducts are connected to 15 – 20 lobes and mammary glands (also known as lobules), which produce breast milk (mostly) in nursing women.
Below is an image that depicts the anatomy of female breasts:
What are Mammary Glands?
Mammary glands are modified sweat glands that are present in both men and women. Mammaries typically only function in women who are lactating (producing milk to nourish a baby) but technically, men have that ability as well.
What are the differences between male and female breasts?
Male breasts are almost identical to female breasts. It is a little known fact that men, just like women, possess mammary glands. While it rarely happens, there are men who have the ability to lactate and breastfeed.
Despite the anatomical similarity, male and female breasts are viewed quite differently in America. This is largely due to an overriding societal and cultural association between female breasts and sexuality.
As previously stated, female breasts are not sex organs, but they are frequently viewed as sexual objects. Breasts are hypersexualized. They are used to sell all kinds of different products and to serve heterosexual male pleasure. But at the same time, women are shamed into covering them up. In fact, women are shamed even when they are trying to breastfeed, which is the main biological function of breasts.
Both men and women (and people of any gender) can derive sexual pleasure from their breasts and nipples. A man’s bare torso can also just as easily inspire lust in the opposite sex (or the same sex). This fact is usually ignored because society tends to ignore female sexual desires and tends to condemn sexual women by slut-shaming them. Most of the mainstream media in the USA is focused on the sexual desires of straight men. (This is unsurprising when you consider that most movies, TV shows and other media is directed and created by men and for men.)
Apart from chest hair, male and female breasts are not that different in appearance. Some men have larger breasts than certain women, which is often pointed out by advocates of topfree equality for women.
The biggest difference between a male and female breast is that one is sexualized and fetishized while the other isn’t. Breasts are not sexual in and of themselves. It is our society and culture that sexualizes them.
Human Breasts in America:
What are considered “normal” breasts?
If we went by what we see in the media, we’d think “normal” female breasts are perfectly round, symmetrical, perky, with smooth skin, small pink nipples and large in size (or at least big enough to form a noticeable cleavage). Male breasts in the media are always muscular, well-defined, chiseled and almost flat.
But this is not reality! There is no “normal” standard for men or women. Breasts, nipples and areolae come in all shapes, sizes and colors.
They can be very small with the nipple being the most defining feature, others may be very large and protrude a few inches from the body (and all sizes in between). Breasts can be round, cylindrical, sit high on the chest or droop down lower and they are all normal.
Breast size also does not necessarily correspond with body type or size. Bigger women may have small breasts and thinner women can have large breasts. (Losing or gaining weight can impact breast size, but it depends on a person’s fat tissue and genetic make-up. In any case, they will only change up to a point and it’s usually not a drastic increase or decrease in cup size.)
Areolae and nipples differ in color and size. They come in all different shades of pink and brown. The size of the areola or nipple does not depend on breast size. Large breasts can have small areolae or nipples and vice versa. Nipples may also be “inverted,” which means they retract inward. This is normal and can be seen on both men and women.
It’s really common for women to have asymmetrical breasts, where one is bigger than the other (even one cup size bigger).
“Sagging” is also very common and completely normal. The skin that holds the breast will, over time, naturally assume a lower hanging position due to gravity and skin elasticity.
When it comes to breasts, the vast majority of variations are perfectly normal and should not be any reason for concern.
Why do breasts vary so much from person to person?
The different types of tissue in breasts, our muscle / fat composition and hormones can all vary and they all determine what our breasts will look like. Or the simpler answer is: genetics.
For women, breasts also change throughout their lives and go through smaller changes during fertility / menstrual cycles. (* However, experts warn that any sudden change in breast texture, size, shape or appearance should be reported to a doctor immediately, as these might be signs of breast cancer or other potentially serious health problems.)
The photo below is from Laura Dodsworth‘s book, Bare Reality. She photographed 100 women from all walks of life and asked them to share their stories about their breasts and bodies. The book explores many subjects in relation to women’s breasts, such as body image, sexuality, equality, breast cancer, femininity, what it means to be a woman, and more.
It’s an amazing piece of work that illustrates the diversity of women’s bodies and women’s perspective on them.
What is the Average Breast Size?
In 1983, the average female bra size in the U.S. was a 34B. Later research said the average was a 36C. In 2013, lingerie retailer Intimacy compiled data from customer sales and surveys to find that the average cup size was a 34DD.
What’s to account for these increases? It’s not what you might think. A spokesperson at Intimacy said it’s mainly due to the fact that a lot more women today are wearing the correct bra size. Women have become more educated and informed about bra fitting. The range of available sizes also used to be much more limited, and large-breasted women had to squeeze themselves into smaller bras. Now more companies are offering quality bras in larger cup sizes.
There is currently no scientifically-derived standard size for male breasts, although the overall average “chest” of the male is estimated at 40 inches and is measured in the same way as the female bust.
Breasts and Body Image
Many women are not happy with their breasts. For many girls, their breasts may be a real source of anxiety. A lot of young girls worry about their breast development.
Body image related questions like – “Are my breasts normal?” and “Am I sexy enough with my current breast size and shape?” seem to plague American mainstream society.
Many of these insecurities with regards to women’s body image and breast size can be linked back to media images and pornography. The prevalence of hypersexualized images in the media combined with the lack of sex education (and a lack of plain and natural non-sexualized nudity in American culture) make people believe that the ideal / normal breasts are big, gravity-defying globes with small pink nipples and areolae.
Many young people growing up never see what “normal” or average human bodies and breasts look like. Due to the fact that female breasts are sexualized, criminalized and taboo, women especially don’t get to see boobs in all their real diversity.
Of course there are plenty of companies out there trying to capitalize on women’s body image insecurities with their products or services. Examples are breast implants, special push-up bras, creams and pills that are supposed to enlarge your breasts (these do not work and can be harmful!) and there are even creams that claim to make your nipples turn pink (these also do not work).
It would do us all a world of good if we could accept everyone’s bodies as different and beautiful in their own unique way. No one should be made to feel bad or ashamed of what their breasts (or bodies) look like.
This includes women who have had breast enlargement surgery (or any sort of surgery). There tends to be a lot of hate, derision and judgment towards women with breast implants. Judging women based on whether they have “fake” or “real” boobs is counterproductive and does not help anyone feel better about their body. It’s fine to talk about cosmetic surgery trends and why people do it. But we can have these conversations while still respecting people’s decisions to do what they please with their own bodies.
There needs to be major improvements made in sex education, removal of laws that criminalize female breasts and breastfeeding, an end to censorship and more body-positive media to help counteract the body image issues and body shame surrounding breasts in our society.
Female Breast Development:
The male breast generally stops developing in childhood, leaving only nipples and telltale protuberant tissue as an evolutionary mark.
Meanwhile, female breasts begin full development at puberty. According to some experts, this development may even continue through the final trimester of a woman’s first pregnancy.
One of the first signs (if not the very first) that a girl is entering puberty is breast development. A lump (about the size of a nickle) will form under one or both nipples, and these are officially called “breast buds.” While every girl is different and development will occur at different ages, the first breast buds will typically occur around age 9 or 10.
Breasts During the Menstrual Cycle
Each month, women experience fluctuations in hormones that make up the normal menstrual cycle. Estrogen, which is produced by the ovaries in the first half of the menstrual cycle, stimulates the growth of milk ducts in the breasts.
The increasing level of estrogen leads to ovulation halfway through the cycle; then the hormone progesterone takes over during the second half of the cycle, stimulating the formation of the milk glands. These hormones are believed to be responsible for the cyclical changes such as the swelling, pain, and tenderness that many women experience in their breasts just before menstruation.
During menstruation, many women also experience changes in breast texture, with breasts feeling particularly lumpy. These lumps are actually the glands in the breast enlarging to prepare for a possible pregnancy. If pregnancy does not occur, the breasts return to normal size. Once menstruation begins, the cycle begins again.
What Happens to the Breasts During Pregnancy and Lactation?
Many doctors believe the breasts are not fully mature until a woman has given birth and produced milk. Changes in the breasts are one of the earliest signs of pregnancy — a result of the hormone progesterone. In addition, the areolae (the skin that surround the nipples of the breasts) begin to swell followed by the rapid swelling of the breasts themselves. Most pregnant women experience tenderness down the sides of the breasts and tingling or soreness of the nipples because of the growth of the milk duct system and the formation of many more lobules.
By the fifth or sixth month of pregnancy, the breasts are fully capable of producing milk. As in puberty, estrogen controls the growth of the ducts, and progesterone controls the growth of the glandular buds. Many other hormones, such as follicle stimulating hormone (FSH), luteinizing hormone (LH), prolactin, oxytocin and human placental lactogen (HPL) also play vital roles in milk production.
Other physical changes, such as the prominence of the blood vessels in the breast and the enlargement and darkening of the areola occur. All of these changes are in preparation for breastfeeding the baby after birth.
What Happens to the Breasts at Menopause?
By the time a woman reaches her late 40’s or early 50’s, menopause is beginning or is well underway. At this time, the levels of estrogen and progesterone begin to fluctuate, with levels of estrogen dramatically decreasing.
This leads to many of the symptoms commonly associated with menopause. With the reduction of estrogen in all tissues of the body, including the breast tissue, there is a reduction in the glandular tissue of the breasts. Without estrogen, the connective tissue of the breast becomes dehydrated, inelastic and the breast tissue which was prepared to make milk, shrinks and loses shape. This leads to the “sagging” of the breasts often associated with women of this age bracket.
Women who are taking hormone therapy may experience some of the premenstrual breast symptoms that they experienced while they were still menstruating, which can include tenderness and swelling. However, if there was sagging of the breasts before menopause, this is not reversed with hormone therapy.
The bra as we know it today is a relatively modern garment in America, created in the early 20th century. Bras changed quite a bit over the years based on fashion trends. These days, there is an even greater variety of bras available to suit people’s different sizes, needs, wants and preferences.
To wear a bra or not is an individual and personal choice. Some women don’t wear bras at all. Others consider bras an essential part of their wardrobe. Bras may be worn for physical support, because women like how their breasts look in them, for modesty reasons, to cover their nipples or for many other different reasons.
MYTHS about bras
Myth #1: Bras cause breast cancer? There is currently no scientific evidence that bras cause or increase the risk of breast cancer.
This myth is perpetuated by a book called Dressed to Kill: The Link Between Breast Cancer and Bras. The research in this book is very flawed and does not prove or provide a valid concrete scientific connection between breast cancer and bras.
Myth #2: Bras prevent sagging? In France, a 15-year study on bras found that they do not prevent sagging and may actually cause sagging. It also concluded that bras don’t offer any physical benefits to those who wear them. On the other hand, women who went braless for a long period of time had better muscle development for breast support and less sagging. But researchers did not recommend women toss their bras based on their small population sample, and long-term bra wearers may not see any benefits from doing so.
Myth #3: All women need to wear sports bras for breast health or physical comfort? No type of bra is a necessity for breast health and wearing a sports bra is an individual’s choice. Some women may experience pain while running or engaged in a lot of movement without a bra, while others may not. This pain can be a result of someone always having worn a bra and this pain could dissipate as the body adjusts. Other women wear a sports bra because they want to restrict their breasts’ movement during physical activity.
Perhaps naturist settings offer the best proof that sports bras are not an absolute necessity for women. While some naturists do wear them, there are also plenty of women, of all breast sizes, who participate in sports or other physical activity while braless and with no discomfort at all.
Breasts and the Law:
In the U.S., female breasts and nipples are treated as though they’re immoral and too dangerous to be shown in public. While women in European countries enjoy topless sunbathing without any social or moral breakdowns, here in America we feel the need to criminalize women’s bodies. It all goes back to our sexualization of the female breast and it’s also part of our patriarchal society’s efforts to control women’s bodies and sexuality.
Topless laws in America are complicated and vary based on city and state. Most states do not have laws against women being topfree in public. However, many cities and towns have their own laws or local ordinances against it.
Further complicating the situation is the fact that how a law is written doesn’t always determine how it’s enforced. Topfree women can, and do, get arrested. Some women may face charges even in places where topfreedom is legal.
New York, Maine, Ohio, Texas and Hawaii all definitively give women the legal right to go topfree in public wherever men can. In New York State it was legalized by a Court of Appeals ruling in 1992. Other states have no laws against it, some have ambiguous laws and a few criminalize it outright (such as Utah and Indiana).
In 1936, men won the right to be topless in public in the United States. Now, 80 years later, women are still trying to claim this same right within the broader movement for gender equality.
Recently, films like Free The Nipple and celebrity activists like Miley Cyrus and Scout Willis have thrust the topfree equality issue into the spotlight. Topfreedom for all genders is quickly becoming a staple in the new fight for women’s rights, even though some people can’t seem to understand why it matters.
But as more women and activists promote topfreedom, we have also seen a rise in new legislation that would criminalize it. This has happened most recently in the state of New Hampshire, which almost passed a new bill against topfreedom. Thanks to the work of activists and public dissent, it did not go through.
For most U.S. public anti-nudity ordinances today, it has become a standard practice to outlaw female nipples along with genitals. This may slowly but surely start to change with the push for equal topfree rights and as public female toplessness becomes normalized.
Breast cancer and men:
First and foremost, breast cancer can affect men. While it is about 100 times less common than among women, in 2015, the American Cancer Society estimates that about 2,350 new cases of invasive male breast cancer will be diagnosed and about 440 men will die from breast cancer.
For men, the lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is about 1 in 1,000. The number of breast cancer cases in men relative to the population has been fairly stable over the last 30 years.
Breast cancer in women:
Except for skin cancers, breast cancer among American women is the most common type of cancer.
Based on research published in 2015, about 1 in 8 (12.5%) women in the US will develop invasive breast cancer during their lifetime.
The American Cancer Society’s estimates for breast cancer in the USA for 2016 are:
- About 246,660 new cases of invasive breast cancer will be diagnosed in women.
- About 61,000 new cases of carcinoma in situ (CIS) will be diagnosed (CIS is non-invasive and is the earliest form of breast cancer).
- About 40,450 women will die from breast cancer.
Female breast cancer rates started to decrease in 2000 (after steadily increasing for more than 2 decades straight). Then, from 2002 to 2003 breast cancer rates dropped by about 7%.
This sudden decrease was thought to be a result of less women using hormone replacement therapy after menopause. This was after the results of the Women’s Health Initiative were published in 2002 which found that hormone replacement therapy was linked to an increased risk of breast cancer and heart diseases.
Incidences and mortality rates for breast cancer vary by race and ethnicity. For African-American women, breast cancer is the most common form of cancer. For women under 45, there are higher incidences of breast cancer in African American women than White women. African American women with breast cancer also have a higher mortality rate than White women.
Breast cancer is overall the second leading cause of cancer death in women, exceeded only by lung cancer. The chance that breast cancer will be responsible for a woman’s death is about 1 in 36 (about 3%).
Death rates from breast cancer have been declining since about 1989, with larger decreases in women younger than 50. These decreases are believed to be the result of earlier detection through screening and increased awareness, as well as improved treatment.
Websites to learn about breast cancer prevention: livegreen.breastcancer.org and www.breastcanceruk.org.uk/ and visit www.nationalbreastcancer.org to learn about early detection with breast self-exams, mammograms and more.
Breasts, Breastfeeding and American Culture
Breastfeeding is the primary biological function of female breasts. It’s something that humans have been doing for thousands of years. However, there has always been a need for alternative ways to feed an infant. With the high-quality formula available today, bottle-feeding is just as much of a valid, healthy option.
Though the benefits are often overstated nowadays, breastfeeding does come with certain health benefits for both mother and child. A mother’s milk contains nutrients and antibodies that protect an infant from illness and infection. This meta-analysis of studies found that children “who are breastfed for longer periods have lower infectious morbidity and mortality, fewer dental malocclusions, and higher intelligence than do those who are breastfed for shorter periods, or not breastfed.” These children may also have a reduced risk of diabetes and may have less problems with weight gain later in life.
Mothers who breastfeed have a reduced risk of developing breast cancer. Breastfeeding may also lower a mother’s risk of ovarian cancer and diabetes.
The World Health Organization (WHO) and American Academy of Pediatrics recommend exclusive breastfeeding for the first 6 months of a baby’s life. WHO also recommends breastfeeding along with the introduction of solid foods until 2 years of age or beyond.
According to the latest statistics from the CDC, about 80% of American mothers start out with nursing children at their breast. Of babies born in 2012, around 50% of mothers were still breastfeeding them at 6 months.
It’s only in the last few decades that breastfeeding became the default method of infant feeding, and this has been a major change in cultural attitudes and social norms. In the 1950’s and 60’s, an estimated 80% of mothers were using formula, which was a “modern” and “fashionable” (and profitable) innovation of the 20th century. In the 70’s, that trend started to completely reverse as feminists campaigned for women’s right to breastfeed.
Now it’s practically become a moral imperative for women when it should be a choice. There have been numerous campaigns, government initiatives and “lactivists” (lactivists = pro breastfeeding activists) urging or pressuring women to breastfeed. “Breast is best” became a common phrase. This has caused some women to feel ashamed or guilty when it doesn’t work for them for whatever reason.
Despite the new promotion of breastfeeding as a “public health issue,” American society, in many ways, still doesn’t support breastfeeding women in the 21st century. Women continue to get harassed in restaurants, family businesses and public places when trying to breastfeed. While no U.S. state criminalizes breastfeeding, most do not explicitly protect a woman’s right to breastfeed. Women who are harassed usually have no legal recourse. There are issues in the workplace as well since most women don’t get paid maternity leave and most are not provided the time and a safe, clean place to breast pump.
There is still an underlying sentiment in our culture that breastfeeding is “disgusting” or “indecent,” and that mothers need to cover up during the act. This has a lot to do with the way society and the media sexualize women’s breasts.
As breastfeeding becomes more “normal” and accepted, we will hopefully see a positive shift in attitudes as well as social reforms that protect women’s rights and respect their choices.