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Breasts are the great, mysterious glands that fascinate and confound us. They are used to sell cars and beer and they are used to feed babies. They can be used to lure lovers. They are mysterious because we idolize them but we know very little about them.

I remember talking with a woman who told me in medical school they were studying cadavers. She said they took a scrotum and dissected it this way and that way. When it came to the female body the breast was lopped off and they never looked at it.

Several years ago I was at the Bodies Exhibit at the South Street Seaport in lower Manhattan. I had my oldest child with me, she was ten years old at the time, and I had my son who was a few months old.

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I noticed that the exhibit of the female body showed a breast that was perfectly round. Since I see breasts almost daily in my work as a lactation consultant I knew that breasts are not perfectly round. At the end of the exhibit there was the opportunity to ask questions.

“Was there an aesthetic point of view in making the breast perfectly round?” I inquired. My ten-year-old rolled her eyes (Oh no, there goes mom again talking about breasts to perfect strangers, let me crawl away now.)

“Why don’t you ask him? He knows everything,” responded a woman as she pointed at a studious looking man in a white lab coat.

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“Hi, there! Do you know why the breast was carved to look perfectly round?” I asked. The ten-year-old turned beet red.

Mr. Studious pushed his gold wire rimmed glasses higher on the bridge of his nose and said:

“Breasts are round.”

“Yes, I understand but mammary tissue is not perfectly round, it goes up into the arm pit.” I moved my hand across my breast and up into my armpit. My baby drooled and his eyes followed my hands.

“Breasts are round,” insisted Studious.

“Well, they may look round in a bra but they are much more than just round.”

Studious huffed and said, “Would you like me to get out the anatomy book?”

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“Yes, please!” I was delighted. “Look up Tail of Spence.”

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Studious scanned the book ready to make me a fool and then he slowed down, his face fell as he read. He looked up, pushed those glasses back and said, “You are right.”

 

“I know! I am a Lactation Consultant!” I was beaming. The ten-year old was beginning to show a bit of respect, pride even, and the baby was beginning to pull at my sweater to get some milk.

I am always talking about breasts and in various conversations it has occurred to me that most people do not know what breasts are like except for the few that they have encountered whether it is their own or a lovers or a quick glimpse in the locker room.

So I wanted to share a little to take the mystery out. You mystery is scary. That means that breasts can be scary, like the unknown, the dark, a new school. All of these unknowns are scary. Let me demystify the breast!

Breasts come in all shapes and sizes. They have a nipple and areola, which also come in all shapes and sizes and many various colors ranging from light pink to dark brown. Some breasts have a little bit of hair on them and some have a lot of hair.

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Some breasts have big nipples, some have small nipples some have inverted nipples.

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In current culture breasts that are used to sell bear and cars in advertising actually look like breasts that are engorged with milk. Breasts that are engorged with milk are big, round and heavy and are quite uncomfortable.

Most women have some variation in the size and shape of her breasts. Some women have two different sized breasts.

At birth some babies will have milk in their breasts, some call it “Witches milk.” Some babies will even get engorged. This is rare but it happens.

Some people have extra nipples. During lactation sometimes these nipples will drip milk. Some women get engorged in their armpits – this is the Tail of Spence! It is a sort of milk line that goes up into the armpit.

Breasts are perky when they are young and smallish. Many breasts are sloping.

Breasts will sag with age whether or not you have a baby or whether or not you breastfed. Bras contribute more to sagging than lifting. As we age everything kind of moves a bit south.

What Do Boys Get?

May 15, 2011

When I was about ten years old my breasts started to develop. They were tender lumps on my chest. When I told Mama that  I had sore lumps on my chest she marched me right up to Jo Voller’s house.

Jo was the oldest mom on the street. She had five children, four of them girls. She was a breast cancer survivor and she was menopausal. I stood in her kitchen, a kitchen I visited frequently while playing with the two youngest girls, Terri & Debbie; but this time I was alone with Jo and Mama. Jo asked me to lift my shirt and she gently, yet firmly, touched my growing buds and in a quick moment assured Mama that I was developing normally.

As my breasts grew Mama avoided buying me a bra and I avoided asking for one. Terri, who was two years older, had a training bra. I suppose she was training herself to wear one because there was nothing there to support.

I always knew my parents were growing up along side us kids – they were kids themselves when my brother was born.  Mom was straightforward and honest with us, forging new territory in honest discussions of human development. She checked out a book from the library with collaged illustrations for our talk about where babies come from.

When I got my period she gave me a pearl ring – my birthstone is a pearl. When my period came I was so excited and proud. For the  year before, every time  I got a stomachache I wondered if my period was coming. There was no stomachache or cramps, it just showed up in 7th grade following my first teen party and my first slow dance.

As a single woman in New York I worked at a small location scouting agency.  Cece and I forged a close friendship over the years at work sitting next to and across from each other in the small office.  We dissected our lives, compared and contrasted our development, our relationships. Cece and I are both middle children – she has two brothers. I have an older brother and a younger sister.

When Cece’s mom told her about where babies come from she briefly described the unfortunate circumstances that would make appearances monthly and devastate most of her life.  She took it in and asked her mother “What do the boys get? If I have to have this, what do the boys get?” She was distraught.

Several years later, pregnant with my third baby, I am having dinner with my two girls, Phoebe, nearly ten years old and Chloe, 4. Rob is out for a business dinner. It is a girl’s night. Phoebe tells me her breasts are feeling tender and lumpy. I go to the bookshelf and whip out my latest copy of Our Bodies, Ourselves. There is a lovely illustration of the different stages of breast development. We discuss the development of girls and women’s bodies. They have watched my belly grow, they have both been nurtured at my breasts.

It is a school night, dinner is over and it is shower time. We go together to the bathroom. I turn on the shower, the girls get undressed and Phoebe looks at her nude body in the mirror and says “It is so cool! We get to feed babies with our breasts. We get to grow babies on our bodies. What do boys get? They don’t get to do that!”

The girls get into the shower and I “Yes!” myself for doing a good job. Then I weep that Mama is no longer around for me to call and tell her what I learned from her.