From: John Young <jya@xxxxxxxxxxxx>
Date: Sun, 23 Feb 1997 13:16:59 -0500
The New York Times Book Review, February 23, 1997, p. 4.
Goddesses, Harlots and Other Male Fantasies
Throughout Western history, breasts have symbolized
anything and everything to men.
A HISTORY OF THE BREAST
By Marilyn Yalom.
Illustrated. 331 pp. New York:
Alfred A. Knopf. $29.95.
By Natalie Angier (Science reporter for The New York Times,
and author of "Natural Obsessions" and "The Beauty of the
A woman's breasts bear the paradoxical burden of being
esthetic organs. They are modified sweat glands that
secrete what is essentially enriched sweat, a lactational
charge without which the human race, until very recently,
could not have survived. At the same time, breasts in
Western culture have long been considered the paired
centerpieces of female erotic beauty, a woman's "natural
jewels," in the words of the culture critic Anne Hollander,
and the things that make men "stupid," as the humorist Dave
Barry has put it. Imagine if the pancreas had to be pretty
while releasing insulin. Or, just for fun, imagine if
fashion and female taste dictated the display of a man's
reproductive organs through a bit of pelvic decolletage.
In "A History of the Breast," a fascinating cultural,
political and artistic history of our most symbolically
freighted body part, Marilyn Yalom shows how the breast
dialectic has been in full swing for centuries now,
although the terms of the debate have shifted depending on
the needs and mores of the era.
There have been "good" breasts and "bad" breasts, giving
breasts and withholding breasts, breasts bared defiantly
and breasts bared submissively. Sometimes the maternal
breast has been in the ascendant, as we see in the many
Renaissance images of the nursing Madonna, Maria lactans,
who gently offers a breast to suckle the baby Jesus and,
vicariously, the hungry soul of every Christian. At other
times the sexual breast has reigned, an image of enticement
and even aggression, when harlots are depicted with their
breasts practically spilling out of their bodices, as if
social and moral chaos were about to erupt, or goddess
figurines sport snakes where their bosoms should be.
Ms. Yalom's stately romp through history is variously
enlightening, amusing and enraging, and by the time the
French Revolution arrives and the female breast is assigned
yet another iconic responsibility -- as an emblem of
liberty, fraternity and egalitarianism -- one is tempted to
mutter, why don't they get it off our chests already?
A senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender at
Stanford University and the author of several previous
books, including "Blood Sisters: The French Revolution in
Women's Memory," Ms. Yalom doesn't quite fulfill her
promise to "make you think about women's breasts as you
never have before," and her narrative sometimes is more an
accretion of details and fleeting observations than a
consistently argued thesis. Ultimately, though, any
failings of this book are not the author's, but history's
(as I will discuss later).
Ms. Yalom emphasizes that not every culture sexualizes the
female breast, and that in Africa and the South Pacific
women have gone about with their breasts uncovered and
their men not only unstupefied but rather indifferent. She
confines herself, then, to Western history, focusing on
"certain moments when a specific conception of the breast
took hold of the Western imagination, and changed the way
it was seen and represented."
In the beginning was the breast, she writes, and the breast
was sacred. No infant could survive without it, and thus it
is hardly surprising that some of the earliest artifacts
from the Stone Age are bone, stone and clay figurines of
females with enormous busts (as well as thighs and
buttocks). Breasts were best not only big but in abundance.
The fantasy of the multi-breasted woman, a staple of Indian
art, also found expression in the West, particularly in the
famous "poly-mastic" statues of Artemis of Ephesus, dating
from around the second century A.D., which show the goddess
with 20 or more pendulous accessories assumed to be
The ancient Greeks largely replaced the worship of the
breast with a celebration of the phallus, and indeed the
breast took on threatening undertones, particularly with
the legend of the Amazons -- the name theoretically derived
from the Greek words "a" (without) and "mazos" (breast).
The Amazons were said to be a tribe of powerful warrior
women who chopped off one breast to draw the bow more
easily. As for the other breast, it was used to nurse any
female children they bore; male infants were disposed of.
"The missing breast creates a terrifying asymmetry: one
breast is retained to nurture female offspring, the other
is removed so as to facilitate violence against men,"
During the Middle Ages the Roman Catholic Church's dim view
of corporality resulted in artistic portrayals of the human
form that scarcely distinguished between male and female.
But with the Renaissance and the renewed emphasis on the
flesh, the breast returned with fresh lessons to convey. It
became synonymous with spiritual nourishment and maternal
sacrifice, and images in religious art, the author says,
drew "the explicit parallel between the blood flowing from
Christ's chest wounds and the milk from Mary's breast."
Yet even as the "Madonna del Latte" image paintings
proliferated, the erotic breast sprang into view. In the
15th century, Agnes Sorel, mistress of King Charles VII of
France, was painted, like the Virgin, with one breast bared
-- not to suckle souls, but "served up like a piece of
fruit for the delectation of an observer." Poets wrote
paeans to the breast, littering their work with metaphors
from botany -- breasts were"buds," "strawberries," "apples"
and "cherrylets" -- or from astronomy and geography:
breasts as "orbs," "globes," "worlds" and "hemispheres."
Importantly, eroticized breasts in paintings were often
shown with a man's proprietary hand cupped on them. "The
hand on the breast ... spoke for the sense of possession
that men believed was their due," according to Ms. Yalom.
The breast became increasingly politicized. Ms. Yalom deals
at length with the debate over the widespread practice of
wet-nursing. When the state and the medical community
decided in the 18th century that women should suckle their
own young, rather than farm them out to hired paps, the
"domestic breast" came into vogue. Artists depicted
ordinary women in the act of breast-feeding. Jean Jacques
Rousseau argued not only that breast-feeding would attach
a mother more deeply to her child but that fathers, too,
would become more engaged in the family, resulting in
wholesale societal renewal. By the end of the 18th century,
breast-feeding had become such a cult that the French
Government ruled it would give no state support to a family
unless the mother nursed her children.
Undoubtedly aware of the market-value of their "natural
jewels," women have gone to great lengths to enhance and
emphasize their breasts. Ms. Yalom traces the evolution of
corsets and brassieres, and of gimmicks like the
19th-century "bust developer" -- a three-part program
consisting of cream, lotion and a metal object resembling
a toilet plunger.
Only in recent years have women begun to claim their
breasts as their own, as they did in the 1960's and 70's by
dispensing with bras altogether, or by declaring, as some
women do now, that breast-feeding can be a sensual
pleasure. Women can also find a distinctive humor in
breasts, one that has nothing to do with the kind of
adolescent humor found in Playboy cartoons. Witness the
1991 "Bosom Ballet," by the performance artist Annie
Sprinkle, in which she uses her elegantly gloved hands to
squeeze her naked breasts up, down, apart, to the side and
together; or the photographer Cindy Sherman's depiction of
herself as the nursing Madonna, milk dripping from a breast
prosthesis strapped to her chest.
This exhilarating burst of female takes on the breast
underscores what is so lacking in the historical material:
women's voices and women's vision. Ms.Yalom rues the fact
that despite her best efforts, she found very little in the
record to indicate how women have felt about their breasts:
whether they took pleasure in them, the extent to which
they chose to display their breasts or if they had any say
in the debate over wet-nursing. Hence, much of the
documented epic of the breast is a voyeuristic one, told
from the perspective of those who lack the organs yet still
claim ultimate authority on the subject. Let's hope that
women keep talking, if only to say, as Marilyn Yalom does
in paraphrasing Freud, "Sometimes a breast is just a