A History of the Breast 
by Marilyn Yalom.
HarperCollins, 331 pp., £15.99, March 1997, 0 04 440913 3
Show More
Show More

‘The sexualised view of the breast,’ Marilyn Yalom asserts, is a Western phenomenon. Non-Western cultures, she assures us, ‘have their own fetishes’. This seems dismissive, running the risk of a National Geographic style of condescension, other cultures representing the (scorned) site of an (inferior) idyll in which everything hangs out, and there are no hang-ups. Women who have been ‘going abroad with their breasts uncovered since time immemorial’ are not necessarily bare of any cultural suspicions about them. Yalom has some of the vices and virtues of the writers of the Enlightenment in whose line she follows. If we see how changeable and culturally determined our view of ‘the breast’ is, we have, she believes, some chance of conquering the irrationality and superstition surrounding the fetishised object. What might happen then is not so clear.

Yalom’s book is pleasant enough, even if there are some contradictions and many gaps. She is not much given to acknowledging the work of others. In her study of the 18th century, for instance, she repeats what a number of scholars (Ruth Perry especially) have already dealt with, and this should be more openly recognised. Even more striking is the paucity of literary quotation, and the almost total absence of quotation from, or reference to, novels; the exception is Philip Roth’s The Breast. Yalom notes the works of a few Renaissance poets who wrote blazons describing the breast of the ideal mistress (among her other attributes), but otherwise ignores literature in favour of the graphic arts (anything from Rembrandt to advertisements for Maidenform bras). A History of the Breast is a sensuous object in itself – as the object she deals with is customarily represented to be. If Yalom wishes to question male appropriation of the breast, she also wants to perform her own eroticisation. The paper is substantial and silky and the book is profusely and agreeably illustrated. Some attitudes to the breast, some ways of viewing it which Yalom condemns, are so well illustrated that the reader may also share them before condemning them. It is part of the interesting problem Yalom has set herself that we – the male or female ‘we’ – cannot, should not, be disgusted by almost any graphic representation of the woman’s breast, even while we are being asked to understand and reject the kinds of objectification involved. After all, both male and female babies experience the breast as a primary source of pleasure and play, and it remains an erotic idea for nearly all of us. However we define our gender, we are all likely to be implicated in owning or objectifying the breast of another person from our earliest infancy, like the famously angry, greedy infant St Augustine.

‘Who owns the breast?’ is the basic question Yalom wants us to ask. The difficulty for women is largely defined in terms of a cultural desire to own and dominate the breast, which is taken over as a sender of messages, an obtrusively physical entity translated into the symbolic order. A woman does not ‘own’ her ‘own’ breast. Yalom is getting away from ‘the body’ to focus on one particular aspect of the female body. So important is the breast concept, so breast-centred our culture, that the name of our larger kind, the category to which we belong, has been given to us on the basis of the tits possessed only by the females. We are the ‘mammals’ – the mamma’s boys and girls, distinguished by our mammary glands. Are men really mammals, then – or do they just fake it?

The female bosom has been given special status, in a way that is bound to affect any individual woman’s presentation of her physical being. Men, after all, despite the phallic culture, have rarely had to make a personal, involuntary, public and consistent penile display. Rarely – but sometimes. The era of the codpiece (from the late 15th to the early 17th century) offers the closest parallel in the male world to the treatment of the breast in the female world. A man is fortunate in that his scrotum is hardly ever required to be a public event. It is unlikely to be measured and found wanting. But a woman’s ‘secondary’ sexual organs are public and subject to judgment.

For Yalom, the ‘history’ of the breast is to be traced in (overlapping) periods or stages. In the beginning, from Neolithic images through medieval paintings of the Virgin Mary, the breast is ‘the sacred breast’. It is a religious object, exhibited with veneration in relation to the Divine Power, as in Egyptian images of Isis suckling Horus, or nursing a pharaoh with the divine milk of life. Like most scholars who do not go into Egyptology, Yalom does not bother with deities other than Isis, or reflect on the worship of Hathor – often represented as a cow – from whom the sacred suckling apparently derives. Naturally, Yalom prefers to believe that the ‘beautiful Artemis’ of Ephesus is adorned with more than twenty breasts, although she admits that these globular objects might be bulls’ testicles; she is certainly correct in pointing out that, in representing Charity, later artists have used the many-breasted female.

After its reign as a sacred object, which lasted through the early Middle Ages, the breast fell among Renaissance artists and poets, who not only secularised it but made it the object of an erotic aesthetic. (Yalom doesn’t bother to investigate the Hellenistic or Roman erotic breast, which would have thrown her historical progression out of alignment.) Paintings of Agnès Sorel, the mistress of Charles VII, dramatically usher in a new era. The demurely erotic portraits of Agnès, Yalom states, mark ‘a transition from the ideal of the sacred breast associated with motherhood to that of the eroticised breast denoting sexual pleasure’. No longer the ‘possession’ of clerics or sacred art – or of babies – the breast becomes the treasure and the feast of wealthy men and their poets and painters. The erotic breast has to be small, perfectly round (a little apple) and high. Pendulous dugs are the sign of loathsome age or loathsome poverty. Fashion, in several waves, encouraged décolletage and, despite Puritan intervention, this continued, with a few variations, from the 14th to the 18th century.

The passion for the youthful erotic breast made it likely that a woman of any wealth or position would give her babies into the care of a wet-nurse. (There were, as Yalom shows, appropriate breast-styles for the nurse which were not those that applied to a high-born or beautiful young mother.) Classical medical theory supported the value of wet-nursing – Aristotle had thought the thin watery milk of the new mother was bad for babies. Husbands also found it more convenient to have their wives give the children to another to nurse; sexual intercourse was believed to sour a nursing woman’s milk and endanger the baby’s health. Nursing was a long-term affair, of two years or more, and it was patently unreasonable to demand husbandly abstention for so long a time, although the hiatus may have acted as a form of birth control and saved some women’s lives by preventing too-frequent pregnancy. Nursing is messy and time-consuming.

Yalom’s book would have been better, and much more interesting, if it had included more quotation from the contemporary debates on some of these matters, including those to be found in fiction, where shifting paradigms and ironies abound. In Richardson’s novels we find both the eroticised breast and the maternal breast. Debate about breast-feeding takes up a large part of the sequel to Pamela. And Lovelace, in Clarissa, is certainly a bust-man, in love with the erotic Renaissance breast:

A white handkerchief wrought by the same inimitable fingers, concealed – O Belford! what still more inimitable beauties did it not conceal! – And I saw, all the way we rode, the bounding heart (by its throbbing motions I saw it!) dancing beneath the charming umbrage ... She was even fainting, when I clasped her in my supporting arms. What a precious moment That! How near, how sweetly near, the throbbing partners.

For Lovelace, man of sensibility as well as Renaissance lover, the bosom, the attractive ‘throbbing partners’ so inadequately disguised by the thin white handkerchief, is itself the ‘umbrage’ of the heart: Clarissa’s bust is an enigma and a companion, a solid and a transparency. Yet Richardson recognises that this is just Lovelace’s view: his heroine has a different attitude to her body and to her rights over it. Lovelace’s gaze does not control what Clarissa’s breast is to her in the novel, and Richardson’s critique of the Lovelace view raises the question Yalom wants answered – ‘who owns the breast?’

Anxiety to keep the upper-class woman’s bust in its perfection, as well to maintain her health, supported the employment of wet-nurses during the lifetimes of Richardson and Rousseau. This often involved the dismissal of the infant from the family home – Jane Austen’s mother, for example, sent all her children out to nurse for two years (not an example found in Yalom). We have, as Yalom shows, few means of understanding what the wet-nurses thought, or how they and their own babies were treated. We do know that on the slave-owners’ plantations, female slaves were made to nurse white babies. Sojourner Truth reminded her audience of this uncomfortable fact at a meeting in Indiana in 1858, reported in the anti-slavery paper, the Liberator. In confutation of antagonistic rumours that she was a man in disguise, the former slave addressed her mostly white male audience:

she quietly asked them as she disrobed her bosom if they, too, wished to suck! In vindication of her truthfulness, she told them that she would show her breast to the whole congregation; that it was not to her shame that she uncovered her breast before them, but to their shame.

The perfect little eroticised breast of the Renaissance affected the sex industry directly – nowhere more than in Venice, where prostitutes were ordered to exhibit themselves by the Ponte dei Tetti with bare breasts (often made up). It also made the nurture of babies a sort of sex industry for the non-eroticised working-class mothers (or serfs or slaves) whose milk was deemed wholesome. The long-standing fashion created a new sign of class division between women. Dickens magnificently picks up that division (although not primarily as a division between women) in Dombey and Son, when Mr Dombey employs Polly Toodle as a wet-nurse for his motherless baby. Polly Toodle must be called ‘Richards’ to get rid of the ridiculous low-class appellation, and to separate her from her family. Mr Dombey is very anxious to treat their agreement as ‘a mere matter of bargain and sale, hiring and letting’, and is determined to keep the nurse and his child well away from the nurse’s children. ‘These children look healthy ... But to think of their some day claiming a sort of relationship to Paul!’ In this rejection of the ‘sort of relationship’ that he really knows to exist, Mr Dombey deliberately breaks with an older tradition which acknowledged a connection between a foster mother’s charge and her biological children; a nurse’s child, as ‘foster-brother’ or ‘foster-sister’, could claim a kind of kinship (which is the case in Fielding’s Amelia). This is not a matter Yalom treats at all, but it complicates any description of total separation – older class distinctions, however firm, did not necessarily mean, as the Industrial Age came to suppose, the cancelling of all lines of complex association and connectedness.

The fashion for wet-nursing was never anxiety-free. There was always a lingering worry that the baby might (literally) imbibe poor morals or lower-class attitudes or ignoble qualities through the foster mother’s milk. Bodily fluids – particularly blood – could be thought of as a medium of personality and morality. And, according to Greek biology, breast-milk is the woman’s menstrual blood transmogrified. The fashion for wet-nursing came under heavy fire in the 18th century, during the era of what Yalom terms ‘The Political Breast’, when new ideas of public and republican virtue demanded the appropriate domestication of women and the transmission of proper values through the virtuous woman’s suckling of her own children. Rousseau was neither the first nor the only important writer to argue for this, but he was the single writer with the greatest influence. Rousseau’s arguments in Émile and La Nouvelle Héloïse were effective and often quoted – despite the fact that Rousseau had all his (illegitimate) children by Thérèse sent to the Foundling Hospital, and forbade his lower-class partner to look after them. In the period of the French Revolution the corset and busk were dispensed with, the breast was (theoretically) more free, and bare-breasted Liberty became the sign of the freedom of the people. The permanence of virtue is, however, guaranteed only by the virtue of the females, and the virtuous woman stays at home and nurses her children. Jane Austen’s mother wasn’t troubled with this notion, but by the time of Madame Bovary (published in 1857 but set in the 1830s) we sense the new censorious view of the useless Emma, who can only visit her child at the wet-nurse’s abode.

The Victorians, who inherited this idea of the political or republican breast and the domestic virtuous bosom, were quite open about breast-feeding. When David Copperfield is introduced to Mrs Micawber, ‘a thin and faded lady, not at all young’, she is ‘sitting in the parlour ... with a baby at her breast’. ‘This baby was one of twins; and I may remark here that I hardly ever, in all my experience of the family, saw both the twins detached from Mrs Micawber at the same time. One of them was always taking refreshment.’ Dickens does not represent as sexually shocking the fact that the young boy David is constantly viewing a nursing mother with breast bared for her child; the 20th century has shrouded the matter in much more secrecy.

In Yalom’s paradigm, this century has been distinguished by three breastward movements. One is the breast-interpretation of psychology, not only Freud’s but several others’ – among them, pre-eminently, Melanie Klein. The breast figures in our dreams, nightmares and archetypes of reality. The second is the creation of mass fashion in underwear, which came with the invention of rayon and then nylon. Mass marketing of the basic body-shape offered liberation from the old corsets at the price not only of money but also new pains and struggles. In the flapper era, when women ostentatiously proclaimed their freedom from the constrictions placed on their foremothers, girls who had a bust had to strap themselves down, and pin themselves flat. Potions and vinegary recipes were claimed to make the bust smaller (Yalom quotes some of these). In the period after World War Two, by contrast, and especially throughout the Fifties, women had to try to pad out their breasts, to match the attractions of bosomy stars like Rosalind Russell, Marilyn Monroe or the egregious Jayne Mansfield. Brassieres entered the consciousness already colonised by Freud, and anxiety about bosom shape afflicted all women, even young girls who were urged to get into a ‘training bra’ as soon as they could. There was a boom in the bust. Fashion fixated on the breast, arguably even more than during the period of the amorous busk and wispy handkerchief. The reaction was the ‘bra burning’ of the Seventies (actually, as Yalom reminds us, this was a media invention: the original demonstrators merely threw their bras into a rubbish bin). Bra-trashing gave no release from fashion’s playful squeeze. Ironically, once the full bloom of the Fifties was over, a more subtle proportion came into vogue. It is always true that a large bosom is associated with physicality and lack of intelligence (Monroe and Mansfield). The big-busted girl with a brain may have difficulty in finding both a job and a desirable marital partner. When I was young (in the Sixties), one of my college mates at Oxford who had come into some money used it to have her bust surgically reduced. I thought at the time this was a foolish waste of money; I think more charitably of it now.

The last part of Yalom’s book is very sombre, pointing to the rise in breast cancer and the effort by women to do something about it. The reasons for the increase, which is largely a Western phenomenon, are still not known; suggestions range from fat in the diet to poisons in the environment, from inherited genes to relative longevity. The emphasis on breast cancer, our third and latest move in breast interpretation, also involves the admission that the breast in its latest phase is ‘The Medical Breast’. Once the property of priests, amorous kings, poets or philosophers, it has been taken over by doctors. Interest in the medical model dates from the rise of the political or republican breast in the 1690s, when Adrian Helvetius performed surgery on an Englishwoman and wrote about it in his ‘Letter on the Nature and Cure of Cancer’ (1697). Eighteenth-century women began to worry about breast cancer. Mary Astell was operated on for it, and so, with more success, was Frances Burney. Breast cancer – or suspected breast cancer – figured in literature by women earlier than one might expect; Yalom doesn’t cite Frances Sheridan’s Memoirs of Miss Sidney Biddulph (1761) or Maria Edgeworth’s Belinda (1801).

At the end of the 20th century we enjoy the very mixed blessing of our present condition, when, on the one hand, women are benefiting from a more open, realistic and informed discussion of their own bodies – but, on the other, are seeing their bodies only in the light of a problem. The breast has become a source of terror, rather than of pride and gratification. As soon as you stop feeding your young with your dutiful breast, it is time to worry about it, have it examined, medically photographed, inspected, perhaps removed. If we have a new ‘medical model’ of the breast, that model is based on a medical practice which views the female breast itself as an abnormality. Yalom nowhere mentions this, but it has been – and still is – customary in medical schools to cut the breasts off a female cadaver to render the body more ‘normal’ for budding students. Any woman who is thinking of donating her body to scientific research should be aware of the peculiar denigration in store for it.

The younger generation of women, who do not yet have to worry as much as their mothers about breast disease, can rejoice (perhaps) in the fact that breast-feeding is again in fashion. But then, women feel guilty about not being able to breast-feed if they are (as they must be) employed in jobs outside the home. There is still resistance to allowing a mother to nurse her baby in the office – and who can imagine a baby being put to breast in the boardroom!

Not least of the anomalies in the present condition of things are attitudes found within that virtuous republic, the United States – where in certain states or communities it is illegal for a woman to nurse her baby ‘in public’. True, in the US, the eroticised breast is used in millions of advertisements. Perhaps it is felt that the breast’s iconic capacity to move products and inspire undefined feelings of lust, longing and gratification might be imperilled by a more pragmatic and functional display of the female bosom in physical function. Perhaps, on the other hand, Americans still frown on breast-feeding in public because it is, after all, a basic erotic act. The frowns, on the whole, are found on the faces of those who most emphasise ‘family values’ and long for domesticated and nurturing women.

Yalom tries to come in with some slight optimism at the end of her historical survey, but the few poets writing on mastectomy and a few artists like Annie Sprinkle or Madonna, although they may contribute in important ways to women’s feelings about themselves, do not deliver what the last chapter heading promises: ‘The Liberated Breast’. Guilt, fear and a fashion-induced sense of inadequacy all infect women’s attitudes to their own breasts – and thus to their own bodily and psychic selves. Pseudo-openness may also mask repudiation: the summer beaches of parts of Europe are strewn with topless bathers and sun-worshippers, who adore their own openness and ‘naturalness’ but let their displeasure be known if they find in their proximity a body that is too fat, too scrawny, too old or too ill to live up to the standards of the Strength-Through-Joy breasts which perk up to the cancer-bestowing rays. Liberation comes in small increments, and sometimes from unexpected directions. In David Lodge’s very fine recent novel Therapy we have a story (by a male novelist) in which a man goes back to the sweetheart of his teens, even though she (like him) is now middle-aged – and even though she has had a mastectomy. Yalom, if she were given to novel-reading, might argue that even here the downside is emphasised; the woman’s husband, after all, cannot bring himself to have sex with her once her breast has gone. Men are still deciding how to look at a woman’s breast – or its absence.

We – the cultural ‘we’ – haven’t lost the impulse to incorporate the breast into a symbolic order or subject it to a set of rules – or at least to pack it inside a jogging bra. Yalom’s book reminds us that ‘the breast’ is still with us, in the form of real breasts, parts of the bodies of real people: her book is an attempt to bring culture’s Brobdingnagian ‘the breast’ home to our business and bosoms.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address, and a telephone number.


Vol. 19 No. 14 · 17 July 1997

Margaret Anne Doody (LRB, 19 June) suggests that it was and is common practice for medical schools to cut the breasts off a female cadaver to render the body more ‘normal’ for budding students. Nothing of the sort occurred at the Royal Free Medical School in the mid-Eighties. Eventually breasts were detached but so were arms and legs. We were a fairly feisty feminist bunch (male and female alike) and removal to make a cadaver more ‘normal’ would have had us up in arms. Would Ms Doody name the hospital where the practice she describes persists, in order that its female residents might direct their donated bodies to the Royal Free instead?

James Barrett
National Hospital for Neurology and Neurosurgery, London WC1

send letters to

The Editor
London Review of Books
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN


Please include name, address and a telephone number

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences