Has there ever been a part of human anatomy so celebrated as the female breasts? Breasts have been subjects for centuries in art, literature, music, fashion. There are even depictions dating as far back as Egyptian hieroglyphics and the ruins of Pompeii. You cannot turn on the TV, surf the web, go to the grocery store, or even venture outside of the house without seeing someone’s cleavage. And while we see them all the time, what do we really know about our breasts? We will discuss breast cancer later this month, but first let’s just have some breast awareness.
Breasts are quite extraordinary, actually. They are, evolutionarily, the life giving force to our offspring and an important part of our sexuality (and sometimes identity). And while their function is quite practical, they are not always as perfectly perky as our society may lead you to believe. It is completely normal for women to have one breast that is larger than the other, and about 70 percent of the time it is the left breast (although no one knows why). The difference can be as small as a fifth of a cup size to significant discrepancies of cup sizes. And just when you think you have found the perfect bra to fit each of your unique breasts (congratulations, by the way), panic, it didn’t fit this morning! Relax, this is normal. Frustrating, but normal. Fluctuating hormones are to blame for acute breast size changes, like just before your period, starting or taking hormone medication, or if you are pregnant. These changes are temporary (ok, pregnancy not so temporary) and will resolve when hormones level out again. Weight changes, gaining or losing, can also affect breast size, as breasts contain fat (adipose) tissue in addition to breast tissue. And if that was not enough to make you run out and buy more bras or just give up all together and go for the sports bra, some sex experts claim the breasts can even swell up to 25 percent during intense sexual arousal. With all of the changes happening, you really need to become comfortable with what your “normal” breasts feel and look like. Most breast experts in the medical field are no longer recommending self-breast exams (so toss the shower how-to placard), but we are moving towards “breast self-awareness“. If one or both breasts are looking a little out of the ordinary, it’s time to see your provider.
And just like breasts, the areolae (pink/brown areas around the nipple) and nipples are also unique in the size, shape, and color. Nipples can be “normal”, flat, or inverted. Most of the time, the shape does not affect their function, although sometimes inverted nipples affect or interfere with breastfeeding. Hormones, particularly during pregnancy, may change the way your areolae and nipples look. Again, knowing what is normal for you helps cue when to seek medical advice. And yes, it is a normal (involuntary) nerve response for your nipples to constrict (harden) when aroused, touched, or cold. Hollywood frequently capitalizes on this normal phenomenon.
Breasts and sex, they go together and that is nothing to be ashamed about. About 80 percent of women view foreplay involving the breast as arousing and an important part of their sex lives. A study in the Journal of Sexual Medicine used MRIs to track brain responses to different types of physical stimulation, and it was found that nipple self-stimulation led to activation in the part of the brain related to the genitals. In another small study, 29 percent of women said they experienced “breast orgasm”. These are both sympathetic nerve responses (those you cannot control) and widely vary among women.
Lastly, one of the most amazing things we can do as women, breastfeeding. Whether you have chosen to breastfeed or not, chances are you know someone is or will be soon, so let me wow you with some reality. Breastfeeding is hard. Amazingly, 76 percent of woman attempt it according to the CDC. By three months 37 percent are exclusively breastfeeding and by six months a mere 16 percent are still at it (the American Academy of Pediatricians recommends exclusively breastfeeding for the first six months). It can be technically challenging, time consuming, painful, exhausting, and one of the best things you can do for your baby. The World Health Organization says it best, “it is the perfect food”. As women, we need to support each other in this heroic effort (and not with a do-it-in-the-ladies-room kind of way). For a society that wholeheartedly and eagerly sexualizes female anatomy, we do a poor job of supporting one of the breasts most important purposes, breastfeeding. Consider asking your place of employment if “breastfeeding welcome here” posters can be clearly displayed to welcome breastfeeding mothers. When you see a brave mother who has ventured out with her infant and is breastfeeding, consider picking up her restaurant tab or giving her a bottle of water. Even if it is just a smile of affirmation or gentle encouragement from across the way, do something, anything. Trust me, your kind effort may be just enough to keep her going for the rest of the day.
Our breasts are unique, reverable, and multifunctional. As you embark on your journey of breast self-awareness, consider this: Over time how are the shifting roles (and sizes) of our breasts affecting the way we view ourselves as mothers, lovers and women?