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Everything You Need to Know About Breasts

Did breasts evolve for lactation or to enhance sex appeal? A new book explores why they matter.

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So, there’s no “perfect” breast in terms of male sexual preference?

Well, certainly Hollywood and plastic surgeons would like us to believe that there’s a universally preferred large breast, but the evidence just doesn’t really bear that out. There are a lot of men out there who like small- or medium-size breasts, and there are some men out there who don’t seem particularly interested in breasts. In fact, breasts are so varied in humans that if there really was this evolutionary or even sexually selected preference for large breasts, you’d think we’d see a lot more of them. Women with small breasts are just as capable of nursing infants and that’s why those traits persisted.

Speaking of plastic surgeons: You actually had one evaluate your own breasts for the book. What was that like?

It was really bizarre and funny. I always thought my breasts were sort of perfectly fine. I kind of went in there thinking, “Oh, he’s gonna tell me that, ‘Congratulations, your breasts are fine,’ because he’s this great judge of breasts and presumably he’s seen all these incredible deformities.” I walk in there and take off my robe and he squeezes me and squishes me and pulls out a measuring tape and gives his final pronouncement, “Well, let me just say you would be a perfect candidate for augmentation.” I had to just crack up. So much of that industry is about the soft sell — they’re just so good at making women think that they’re not good enough the way they are.

When did breast implant mania really begin?

The first silicon breast implant was performed in 1962, so 50 years ago. It was up and running pretty quickly after that. It was particularly popular among women who made their living onstage — the go-go dancers and the burlesque dancers and the topless dancers and then Hollywood. Eventually it leaked into the broader culture, and certainly by the ’70s and ’80s women were going for this. Then there was the implant scare of the ’90s, in which a lot of women had problems with their implants, and the FDA actually banned them for 14 years. But now they’re back; they’ve never really been proven to be linked to disease or cancer. In fact, more women are getting implants now than ever before — over 300,000 a year.

And breasts are getting bigger in general, not simply because of plastic surgery. What’s going on there?

The main factor there is, of course, the American diet. Women’s bodies are getting bigger and their breasts are getting bigger along with it. Men are getting bigger, too! In fact, men are getting breasts more often and male breast reduction surgery is becoming more and more popular.

There also may be other factors at play that have to do with hormones in food and birth control pills and in hormone replacement therapy, and of course we have all these estrogenic chemicals in our environment. All of those things appear to be interacting with our breasts on some level.

Somewhat related, why are girls experiencing puberty and getting breasts earlier and earlier?

I would say similar reasons. We don’t know for sure, but it appears that diet is the major factor there. Girls are sort of undergoing what’s sometimes called over-nutrition. A third of kids now are overweight or obese. You’re also seeing skinny girls getting breasts earlier, so the obesity theory does not seem to fully explain the phenomenon. There are researchers out there that have tried to examine the role of chemicals and pharmaceuticals, but the jury is still out.

 
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