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January 3, 2013

Trials of the Tit-Havers: Some Thoughts on Reading Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History





Nice stroma, eh?


Muggins completists—a species, much like zombie pandas, that very likely exists only in my imagination—know that I have touched before upon the unfairness of life with regard to tits. Specifically, I have lamented the grossly unbalanced division of labor re tits between those of us who do the having of the things and those of us who do the appreciating of them.

For those of you who have never attempted it, let me tell you that appreciating tits is pretty decent work if you can get it. I have spent much of my adult life working in Japanese universities and other institutions that tend to attract college-aged females, and even at my advanced age, I can still put in three solid hours of tit appreciating before lunch with no thought of taking a break. And if fresh tits suddenly present themselves even during lunch hour, I’m more than happy to push aside my teriyaki sandwich to take a whack at appreciating them, no appointment necessary. Be it three a.m. or whatever, you can summon me to board a plane and go anywhere in the world where tits need appreciating, so long as it’s on the government dime. A veritable Secretary of Tit Appreciation, that’s me.

But this business of having tits…I just don’t know. At first blush, it seems a crackerjack situation to be in, because, whenever the urge to do some tit appreciating creeps up on you, voila! You always have an emergency set right there in front of you. However, via a bizarre sensation that some humans refer to as “empathy,” I have gradually come to suspect that tit-having is not quite all it’s cracked up to be. And this suspicion was confirmed late last year when I got around to reading Florence Williams’s excellent Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History.

Williams is a veteran of both environmental journalism and tit-having, so she clearly knows her stuff. She is also indefatigable. If she isn’t flying to New Zealand to interview a father-son team of anthropologists who study tit appreciation among human males, she’s off to San Francisco to talk tit development with a cell biologist; or to Houston, to let one of America’s top tit-job surgeons try to smooth-talk (and smooth-grope) her into an augmentation; or up to Washington State to chat up an experimental biologist on the effects on tits of an artificial form of estrogen called Bisphenol A, a substance that turns up in the lining of canned foods, mobile phones and “the shiny paper receipts we get at the grocery store” (spoiler alert: it’s not good); or to Peru to confer with experts at an academic conference on human lactation; or to Los Angeles to discuss breast cancer with a prominent epidemiologist; or, most sadly, to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, to debrief male ex-Marines (!) on their own environmentally-provoked breast cancers.

And if there’s a place in the world that she isn’t bodily going to, she’s probably sending traces of herself there: her urine (and her daughter’s) to Canada to be checked for environmental toxins, her breast milk to Germany for similar testing, her toe-jam to Djibouti. Okay, I made that last one up, but just thinking of all that travel and shipping wears me out.

The result is a work that, like Romeo and Juliet or Do the Right Thing, starts off all jovial and sprightly and sexy* only to pivot to the dark side the minute you’re too invested to back out, with Chapter 5 (“Toxic Assets: The Growing Breast”) serving as the death of Mercutio/Radio Raheem scene. From a bouncy, perky first act, we quickly segue into “everyone with breasts is going to die” and thence onward to simply “everyone is going to die.”

Along the way, though, one does pick up beaucoup stimulating factoids. Some of my faves:

1. Little girls may be made of sugar and spice and everything nice, but bigger girls are made of stroma. Defined by Williams as “a meaty constellation of fat and connective tissue,” stroma constitutes the nonfunctional (read “fun-baggy”) part of a tit. It’s not a word that rolls readily off the tongue, but give it time. “My stupid brother ditched that nice girl of his for some ditz with more stroma,” you could say. Work with me on this.

2. The use of silicone for breast augmentation was first put into practice in Yokohama, the very city where I sit typing these ever-so-memorable sentences. The stuff was shipped over for industrial purposes during the U.S. postwar occupation of the late Forties but stolen and injected into the chests of Japanese prostitutes, a profession that currently includes a few people I regard as personal friends. While the results seem to have boasted sales in the short term, the long-term results for the recipients were less sanguine.

3. The first woman to voluntarily receive silicone implants had to be bribed with a free ear job (the procedure she actually wanted) to serve as a guinea pig. Despite predictable aftereffects (rupture, immune system issues, hardening, being Texan), she was still alive and gainfully employed fifty years later when Williams found her.

4. According to the research by the aforementioned father-son team of ogling scientists, which involves strapping male subjects to a computerized eye-tracking device and then forcing them to look at naked ladies, male eyes lock onto a naked lady’s tits within two hundred milliseconds of an image’s appearance. The gaze may wander to other natural wonders but always returns to home base, and always for longer and longer stays. Okay, this one didn’t surprise me in the least, but the otherwise savvy Williams appeared taken aback. It was the only time in the course of the book when I felt, however momentarily, smarter than the author.

5. Breast self-examination is nowhere near as fun as it sounds. C'mon, raise your hand here if you're a heterosexual male who has never blurted out an ill-received joke, complete with Beavis-esque cackle, about your willingness to provide a breast cancer screening gratis. (Oh...oh really? Just me, then? Ah...) But if one of my ilk ever were allowed to perform an actual breast cancer screening—and assuming that said member of The Ilk were not Chris Brown—it is unlikely that he would take any pleasure in the task. Turns out that doing the job right requires an intense amount of pressure, along with a knowledge of breast geography that tends to lie beyond the ken of most non-tit-havers.

6. For all the anthropologists and evolutionary biologists on the case, there still isn’t any consensus on the question of why tits exist in the first place. (Mammary glands and nipples are common to all mammals, after all; your primates, your family pet, even your seventh-grade social studies teacher had those. It’s that pendular, flabby, protuberant titti-ness of tits that make human females so very preferable to, say, macaques in the eyes of over eighty percent of your Midwestern frat boys.) There’s one school of thought that the nursing function of tits drove the evolutionary process. In contrast to, say, a snout-nosed piglet, it’s hard for a flat-faced, big-wobbly-head-having human infant to get hold of a nipple attached to a flat surface; ergo the nipple had to advance outward to meet the poor kid halfway.

While this theory sounds plausible to tit-havers, tit appreciators are more likely to suppose the process driven by male preference. Early Man started noticing a bit of variety around the cave one Memorial Day weekend many millennia ago. Some potential partners had protuberances while others did not. Early Man grunted some grunts to the effect that those protuberances looked as if they might be fun to slap around during a bit of grinding, subsequently found it to be precisely the case, and thereafter cheerfully de-selected titless females out of existence. Survival of the tittest, if you will.

7. It’s not just your unemployed brother-in-law who thinks that “these young girls today are getting chestier all the time”; in postindustrial countries like America it’s a fact. Not just chestier, which is largely just a function of being fatter, but tit-having from a younger age. This, of course, is not good news for tit appreciators, because our eyes are helplessly drawn to tits of any sort in two hundred milliseconds, only after which do we realize to our shame (if any) that we are ogling a ten-year-old, who within another two hundred milliseconds is probably tweeting our slack-jawed mug-shot with a snarky title. But on the whole, it's even a worse deal for the ten-year-old herself. Tit-having is a wonderful thing for a time, but, like a Ron Jeremy porn scene, it can lead to all sorts of health issues if it goes on too long.

To summarize, Florence Williams has written a marvelous book, funny in places and informative throughout. I know, I know: tit appreciators don’t like to be overly analytical about tits. Thinking about why we like tits can be like analyzing why jokes make us laugh in terms of stripping away a thing’s capacity to give pleasure. But jokes don’t get cancer that subsequently maims of kills our friends and companions. We owe it to those friends and companions to be a little smarter about the body part that usually makes us stoopid.

So if you don’t want to shell out $20 for the book, follow my lead and send that amount to National Breast Cancer Foundation. Then take another look at that Rosie Perez picture. Feels good, doesn't it?



Extra Credit reading:

Can't vouch for the validity of this item, but I certainly want to believe.


Like charts and pictures with your tit-factoids? Enjoy.






* Remember Rosie Perez’s set in Do the Right Thing? Sure you do. No, no. No need to Google. You work hard for a living. Happy to provide the service. You’re welcome.