An accessible and enlightening narrative-led investigation of this intimate body part
When the doctors tell Corien van Zweden, after a recurrence of cancer, that her left breast will need to be removed, she is startled by their presumption that an immediate ‘reconstruction’ is what she wants, or indeed needs. With more questions than answers, she resolves to understand her breasts on a biological level, but also to recognize what they mean to her, to other women and to society as a whole.
In this investigative biography, Van Zweden leads readers through the many transformations breasts undergo as well as their shifting roles from the day a girl first notices her nipples changing, to what one third of women will later face — breast cancer, and then to the changes brought about by menopause. The only body part that we are not born with, the breast’s unique ability to transform itself on a cellular level tragically makes it more susceptible to cancer. Roughly a quarter of all tumours occur in the breasts; numbers which are only increasing in the western world.
Though told primarily through the window of her own experiences, Breasts offers a mosaic of women’s testimonies, detailing their relationship with their breasts, be it one of apathy, obsession, joy, sadness, pride or disgust. These multiple and complex feelings are often dictated by generational and cultural divides. How are women’s attitudes to their bodies affected by a society in which today’s teenagers are literally bombarded with hundreds of thousands of images to compare themselves with? The market for enlargement and reduction surgeries grows in leaps and bounds each year.
Van Zweden expands on these experiences at each of the breast’s three life stages — growth, blossoming and decline — and dives into the current debates, including why women have breasts (that they attract men is a disputed theory), how to weigh up the benefits of breastfeeding against the (environmental) toxins present in breast milk, and the psychology of prosthetics. We meet plastic surgeons, sexologists, porn stars, philosophers and lactation experts as Van Zweden consults the latest scientific research and delves into history to trace changes in the ways we experience breasts — big and small, hidden or revealed — and their indisputable role in femininity.
The story of the breast is not just the story of the woman who has them, but the story of those who behold them and who judge them, and the professionals who concern themselves with them. At the end of the book, Van Zweden poignantly reveals why she finally decides not to have her breast replaced.