A History of the Breast.
It's not the Nobel Prize or Quantum Physics that comes to mind when thinking of Jayne Mansfield, Marilyn Monroe or Pamela Anderson. In A History of the Breast the Stanford University scholar Marilyn Yalom takes her readers on an adventurous journey to the source of men's infatuation with the bosom which eventually evolved into what is crudely known as the tits and ass culture of the late 20th century Western society. With an eclectic range of sources varying from iconography, biblical scriptures, treatises by moralists, Yalom allows us in this innovative study to look at breasts from sacred, erotic, domestic, political, psychological, commercialized, medical, and liberated perspectives. In the crusade to shape breasts into what they are today, men have had a formative role. You might say that behind every great bosom stands a man, because the influence of male artists, poets, moralists, physicians, advertisers, consumers, and not to forget the almighty plastic surgeon has been profound in molding the mammary glands of women into an object of desire.
The underlying thread in Yalom's study is how this personal anatomy of women fell in the hands of men. One of the most prominent images of women's breasts in the Christian tradition is of the Virgin Mary suckling the infant Christ child. Her bosom manifested sacredness, the nursing mother providing her helpless babe with the necessary nutrients in sustaining life. Mother's milk not only represented the material nourishment but also a spiritual one. Maternal breastfeeding encompassed (and still does) an entire religio-ethical belief system. This image has been portrayed numerously in goddesses, priestesses, and saints throughout Antiquity and the Middle Ages.
However, paintings of Mother Mary with infant in the Renaissance no longer pictured her two exposed breasts. A good example of this is a painting by Jean Fouquet's Madonna and Child. The viewer sees the Christ child perched on his mother's lap about to imbibe one of the exposed succulent and voluminous orbs of his mother. The other breast is concealed yet its contour greatly visible. The model for the Madonna was Agnes Sorel, the mistress of France's King Charles VII. According to Yalom this signifies a transition from the sacred breast that prevailed in the Middle Ages to the erotic breast that reigned in the Renaissance. This change put breasts into a socio-economic category. The "compact" breast of upper class society were intended for male pleasure - while the full lactating breasts of the lower classes who nursed their own children and those of their wealthy employers were not. The breasts of elite women had to be subdued by garments reinforced by a whale bone and wooden husks that would flatten their bosom. Sometimes the price for these vanities entailed inverted nipples and broken ribs. This fashion among wealthy women brought on new fruit and floral references for breasts. "Buds, strawberries, apples, and cherrylets" were common terms as well as cosmic and geographical terms such as "orbs, globes, worlds, and hemispheres."
For Yalom the Dutch Republic of the 17th century played a special role in the history of breasts. Dutch 17th century art portrayed a new attitude toward breasts in the domestic realm of the home. Bourgeois women were featured affectionately nursing their babes - a message not only visible in art but also endorsed in word by moralists. The domestic breasts of Dutch women were not torn between their sacred obligations of nursing their children and the erotic desires of their husbands. A husband's hand on the breast of his wife - a common genre - not only insinuated possession but also reflected a feeling of intimacy, friendship, tenderness, and respect which Yalom argues "suggests that the breast to be shared also contains a heart".
In the late 18th century breasts became politically stigmatized. With the onset of the French Revolution, the aristocratic custom of wet-nursing and sending children out to the countryside was replaced by bourgeois norms of maternal breastfeeding. A mother suckling her infant came to represent a morally good mother who would raise her children into virtuous French citizens. In Delacroix's Liberty Leading the People a bare-breasted Liberty is shown leading the people to victory. During political crises Marianne's unconcealed bosom would be used time and time again. In the First World War French posters portrayed Marianne standing next to a canon with her hair swaying in the wind and "upright breasts defying the German army". America also used her Statue of Liberty to drum up support for the war cause. Unlike France's Marianne, America's Puritan Liberty flaunted no bare breasts, but the accentuation of her clothed but well-endowed buxomness left little for the imagination.
For the Second World War, posters of women personifying the nation were replaced by real women in various work situations. Especially in the Second World War breasts took on a larger form. According to Yalom during troublesome times in history the biological differences between men and women tend to become more emphasized. Big-breasted girls featured as pin-ups and even on the noses of airplanes reminded the boys fighting oversees of what war destroys: "love, intimacy, nurturance". However, the mode initiated by Hollywood "bombshells" did not end after Nagasaki and Hiroshima. The post-war American motion picture industry carried the torch with big-breasted actresses like Marilyn Monroe, Gina Lollobrigida, and Jayne Mansfield on to the big screen. Film-makers and advertisers, especially, realized that if breasts could sell the war then they might promote more besides. The bosom became a commercial attribute. A well-endowed pretty girl in a commercial or advertisement can virtually sell anything: fruit, cars, coffee, and probably manure to farmers if needed.
This mania only enhanced the cult of the breast culture in America which spread over the rest of the West like wild fire. But in America the culture of the breast became more polarized and hypocritical. While women like Pamela Anderson make no secret of their silicon augmentations and teasingly flaunt their wares, breastfeeding mothers in some states can be arrested for indecent exposure if they nurse their children in public places such as restaurants or parks. The contemporary breast is in a state of confusion. There are too many realities of the breast in our culture. From the outside, the eye of the beholder of the breast has come to represent many things to many people. As Yalom concludes "Babies see food. Men see sex. Doctors see disease. Businessmen see dollar signs. Religious authorities transform breasts into spiritual symbols, whereas politicians appropriate them for nationalistic ends".
With a growing increase in breast cancer in the Western world, women have had to take repossession of their breasts. For women their breasts had symbolized sexuality, nurturance, and love but sadly enough they have also come to represent disease and death. Yalom's journey to the fountain of the breast culture is fascinating and enlightening. The subject matter is appealing enough, but Yalon's flare for telling and tongue-in-cheek humor offers an added enjoyment. However, in her plea to illustrate the infatuation of breasts by film and the monotonous male lust for the bosom Yalom forgets that Western men can be aroused by other parts of the female anatomy besides just a bosom. Which man's heart did not miss a beat in the film The English Patient (1996) when the erotic focus wets not drawn to bare-breasted Kristin Scott Thomas but rather to her moistened suberstunal notch just under her neck. Men are not that simple.
University of Groningen, The Netherlands
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|Publication:||Journal of Social History|
|Article Type:||Book Review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 1999|
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