According to Marilyn Yalom’s A History of the Breast, the female breast has been perceived differently by men and women depending on the era and the country. In the beginning, the breast was a sacred thing because its only function in society ensured that it contained milk to nourish society’s babies. It was a fundamental necessity that entrusted the survival of a city’s people. Prehistoric symbols of full-breasted women were fashioned out of clay, rock, and even bone to emphasize the breast’s sacred existence. Since women were in possession of the breast, they were regarded as priceless figures and crucial to the propagation of mankind. Where has that respect for women and her breasts gone to?
Yalom outlines a historical regard for the female breast that provides the reader with an idea of how each society viewed the breast and therefore, the value of its possessor. In fifth century B.C. Athenian women’s bodies were covered and shielded from anyone’s view. They and their bodies were controlled and confined to the interior of their homes, their breasts covered by their dress. Their babies were breast-fed by wet nurses, and theirs were the only breasts exposed. The New Testament regards the female flesh as a threat to mankind, as it influenced the male gaze away from purity and God, and enticed them to act sinfully. In the French Renaissance, the breast became an eroticized vessel of abundance, and many women were painted with bare and voluptuous breasts. The 17th-century Netherlands domesticated the breast, an object of succor that belonged to her man and her children only.
During the Enlightenment period, the breast became the object of politics, male philosophers deciding whether a woman should breast feed her children or not. This is an issue that is controversial among women even today. In the feminist movement of the 70s, the breast was politicized in a different manner, women removing their bras and symbolically “burning” them to cast off the constraints society placed upon their roles in society. Since the early 1900′s to the present, the breast has remained a commercialized commodity, a marketable tool used to lure women and men into making major purchases — a symbol of womanhood that defines how women perceive their bodies and their own value in society. Today, women go under the knife to augment their breasts, attempting to match the ideal image of perfection inscribed upon her body and worth. Big breasts is equal to male gaze and approval is equal to success in all aspects of life.
No matter how the breast has been perceived, one thing remains true for every generation, every era, every culture: the breast has never quite belonged to the woman on whose body it was formed. It has always belonged to the men who owned them, married them, and ruled them. In all patriarchal societies, the female breast has been a fetishized symbol of female beauty and value—and women have had to keep up with the ideologies and trends and fashions and rules that governed their bodies. The only time that men and society begin to ignore the breast is when it becomes diseased, and unfortunately, it is the only time the breast actually belongs to the woman in possession of it.
According to Yalom, “It is the tragic reality of breast cancer that is bringing women into full possession of their breasts” (pg 276). Some of them are being abandoned by men and lovers who don’t find the cancerous breast, or the one-breasted woman alluring anymore. Whatever the case, the tumorous breast becomes the complete responsibility of the woman’s, and she learns to love it or hate it, revere it or repress it, eroticize it or domesticate it. A woman’s breast is finally her own and she can do with it as is her will.
The inspirational part of all this is that breast cancer brings women together. For the first time, women become allies—not in competition over status, beauty, and the men that love them—but as friends, companions, advocates, and support systems. Breast cancer brings all kinds of women together in fundraising walks and runs, on blog discussions, in organizations headed by women, and on Facebook (the color of bra phenomenon that made the news a few years back), all to create awareness and raise money to find the problem for the number one killer of women. Women come together to combat an illness that indiscriminately attacks them, garnering a community of strong women the likes of the one-breasted Amazons who fought like champions against pervasive enemies that threatened their their livelihood, their bodies, and their freedom.
It’s unfortunate that it takes cancer to create such an alliance, to demonstrate the innate strength and power of women, but more than anything, it shows how much power we have as women when we get together for a common cause. If only we did this for every societal threat that targets its venom on women and their value in our cultures. We would be infallible—unconquerable—and our bodies and all its parts would belong solely to us.
Marina DelVecchio is the author of The Prostitute’s Daughter, a memoir in which she shows how she has used literature to combat a life of abuse and poverty. She blogs about female agency and the necessary empowerment of our daughters at http://marinagraphy.com. Her work can be found at the Huffington Post, The New Agenda, the WM Parenting Connection, and BlogHer. She teaches writing and literature on the college level.