A History of the Breast Summary

Summary (Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Marilyn Yalom, a senior scholar at the Institute for Women and Gender Studies at Stanford University, dispels once and for all the idea of women’s breasts as “sexual ornaments—the crown jewels of femininity” as a universal truth. Examining historical images of breasts that range from paleolithic goddesses and Minoan bare-breasted snake priestesses up to those of the women’s liberation movement of the twentieth century, she illustrates how the portrayal of the breast changes from “good” to “bad” over time, depending on religious, political, market, media, and medical agendas. Readers cannot evade her primary question, that of who owns the breast: child, church, man, doctor, or indeed, woman herself.

In a clear, concise, and readable style that will appeal to both the professional scholar and the general reader, Yalom divides the text into nine thematic chapters: the sacred breast, the erotic breast, the domestic breast, the political breast, the psychological breast, the commercialized breast, the medical breast, the liberated breast, and finally the breast in crisis. Using representations of sculpture, painting, advertisements, propaganda posters, movie stills, and photography, each chapter is bountifully illustrated.

To make a case for the sacred breast, Yalom uses images of goddess worship, in particular the classical statues of the multibreasted Artemis of Ephesus, dating from around the second century c.e., and she employs early church paintings of nursing Madonnas to illustrate how within the Judeo- Christian tradition, women were validated primarily as mothers. Of particular interest in this section is her portrayal of the legend of the warrior-women Amazons, who chopped off one breast to better enable themselves to draw a bow. The remaining breast, it is said, was used to nurse female children only. Simply speaking, the breast in the Classical and early Church eras represented nurturance in the form of milk-producing vessels.

According to Yalom, however, during the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, “the breast’s erotic potential came to overshadow its maternal and sacred meanings.” Poets readily made allusions (strawberries, apples, globes, hemispheres) to the breast in this era, and the earlier sacred Church versions of Maria lactans suckling the baby Jesus (metaphorically the Christian soul) were transformed into erotic representations of nursing madonnas. In addition, secular paintings very often portrayed a man cupping, in proprietary manner, his wife’s or lover’s breasts. According to the author, from this point in time, after the emergence of a new social construction of the breast, maternal and sexual images of the breast vacillated back and forth throughout Western history.

Yalom positions the emergence of the domestic breast during the commercial explosion of the seventeenth-century Dutch Republic’s golden age. Using paintings of the Dutch masters, Yalom illustrates how, in a type of dovetailing of civic responsibility with breast imagery, painters such as Vermeer, Rembrandt, and Steen came to reinforce the Netherlands’ thriving commerce, medical progress, political freedom, religious tolerance, and cultural productivity.

Next, in the progression of the breast as a cultural icon, Yalom looks to the political breast and anchors her argument historically during the eighteenth century. Early in this century, according to the author, the practice of wet nursing gained popularity. By mid- century, ostensibly as a result of women’s efforts to preserve the youthfulness of their breasts, the incidence of wet nursing continued to increase until only the poor nursed their own children. Speaking in the name of Nature, however, “as Enlightenment thinkers set out to change the world breasts became a battleground for controversial theories about the human race and political systems.” Of particular importance in this movement was French philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau. During the French Revolution, social reform, it was believed, would come about as a direct result of mothers breast-feeding their young. A woman’s obligation to her country, then, was to oppose the common practice of sending one’s child into the country to a wet nurse and to nurse her child herself. Thus, symbolic propaganda posters of bare-breasted images depicting Liberty, Equality, and the French Republic became common.

The political utilization of the breast, however, was not limited to the French Revolution. The breast first came to be linked with the idea of democracy in this period. In the United States, in 1858, the courageous antislavery activist and former slave Sojourner Truth revealed her breasts in protest when a group of proslavery sympathizers challenged her gender. Surely a woman could not speak so eloquently and forcibly. Later, during World War I, propaganda posters of...

(The entire section is 1981 words.)