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Breast Intentions

book cover
An historian examines the political and sexual legacy of the creamy orb

A History of the Breast
By Marilyn Yalom
Alfred A. Knopf; New York; 1997; $32

Reviewed by Christina Waters

BOOBS. KNOCKERS. Tits. Hooters. Melons. Jugs. Chalambas. Tatas. Such schoolyard slang--beloved of boys, resented by girls--is ubiquitous enough to suggest just how potent the female breast is as an iconic symbol of sexual anxiety and desire.

Are Americans breast-fixated? Well (with apologies to Bill Paxton), you may not be up on current events, man, but Jayne Mansfield didn't make her way to the Silver Screen based on her needlepoint skills.

But Americans aren't alone. So fraught with mystery, excitement and conflicting passions is the human breast that since the moment the first Paleolithic shaman crafted the first fertility fetish, the entire planet has wrapped its lips around the primal mammalian teat. Whether that collective suck is an act of nourishment or an act of sexual pleasure is the underlying dynamic driving Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Breast, an exuberant banquet of scholarship that is as fascinating as it is long overdue.

Not only does Yalom graze substantially in the expected fields of fertility symbolism, religious ritual and medieval obsession with the Virgin Mary, but she zooms in for deep focus on such less-trod paths as the politicization of breast imagery and the disturbing clamor of 20th-century debate about the breast as a self-destructing agent of malignancy.

Yalom announces up front her intention to make us rethink our preconceived clichés about breasts. And she succeeds.

As Yalom moves forward in time, Egyptian pharaohs portrayed as nursing matriarchs and those famous Minoan bare-breasted priestesses wielding snakes help illustrate her point that (at least in proto-European cultures) the breast was invested with authority--its nurturing qualities at once mystical and potent.

Though Yalom is quick (but brief) to acknowledge that breast-fixation--and the attendant needs to both cover and yet winkingly reveal the bosom--is a Western stance, one wishes for a companion volume to her work that would trace breast mystique, or lack thereof, in non-European cultures. But that remains--as does a walk on the wilder side of mammophilia--another story.

Eurocentrism aside, Breast is a rare gem--a substantive page-turner. Romping through the rich Middle Ages frenzy over the mystical orb, in which the Virgin Mary as role model for chaste female perfection is depicted nourishing the Son of God, Yalom gives us poetic evidence for the shift away from the breast extolled for its creamy contents to being textually fondled for its creamy surface.

Though speculative theorizing is not necessarily the intent, nor the strength, of the book--Yalom glosses over the tantalizing turn-about of increased breast-fixation during periods of sexual repression--her chapter on the breast as an object of medicine and, specifically, the current agonizing over breast cancer is a tour de force. There is searing irony that a woman's least alienated relationship to her own body should be a fatal attraction, and Yalom milks it for all it's worth.

Finally, in her end-musings on the complex liberation of the breast in today's First World agenda--from bra-burning to artistic self-mutilation--the author addresses the taboo subject of the sexual arousal experienced by mothers during nursing.

Only here do we come full circle. Only here, in this touchy and tender area, do maternal nourishment and sexuality finally coincide for the woman in question--no longer the object of male erotica, but the subject who bears/bares her breasts.

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From the February 27-March 5, 1997 issue of Metro Santa Cruz

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