The Evolution of Breasts: does it matter?

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On the shore of the Chesapeake Bay, Maryland, October 2016. I walked for about an hour up the tideline until we came to this little spit. We passed quite a few people without much interaction at all. We heard one young man say simply, in a bored tone, “That was wild.”

 

I started this piece as a reply to the evolution comment thread under my Live (Top)free or Die article, but decided just to post it as its own article since I haven’t been posting during this election season.

(I’m fine, for those that have written to ask if my absence implied anything bad.  While I am very personally busy with some great projects, I am happy and healthy.  Thank you for asking.  I have been out and about bare-chested and have been working quite hard on some legal conversations in Maryland, Rhode Island and Delaware.  I’ve been laying low because I feel like the tone of the national conversation regarding sexual assault right now has created an environment in which it is very difficult to have quiet, meaningful conversations about equality.  To those outside the U.S., suffice to say, the collective social anxiety leading up to this election is palpable and wide-spread and as I have repeated throughout my blog, you really can’t make headway with someone who is in mid-brain panic, and right now, the whole country feels like it is in a mid-brain panic, so I’m letting everything settle down until I come back with any regularity.  Please be patient.  Just a couple weeks to go hopefully.)

Anyway, to the commenters in the thread, thank you all for remaining civil. I take great pride in the tone of the comments section on this blog. We discuss some difficult topics but almost never resort to personal insults and when we do misspeak we apologize, accept apologies and continue with the substance of the conversation. More than anything, I value that.

As far as evolution and breast size goes, as I mentioned in a previous comment, for me to make a meaningful response as to how human breasts have evolved would take a graduate degree or at least, as Alex has said, some avid personal devotion to the topic. I don’t say this to diminish any evolutionary theories forwarded in this thread…but I believe none of the participants in this evolution conversation are from the United States, if I’m correct.  I note this simply to preface that here in the United States and no doubt elsewhere, historically, evolutionary arguments have been used to justify inequality regarding race and gender primarily, but also with other things like sexuality, intelligence, ability, athletic ability and so on. As such, it makes me inherently uncomfortable to talk about evolution and equality in the same breath. I’m not saying let’s not have the conversation, but I am saying that it feels raw and vulnerable to speak of the intersection between evolution and equality, because evolution should in no way alter or abridge equality.

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Chesapeake Bay shoreline, Maryland, October 2016. The wind was blowing so hard the football turned 90 degrees when we threw it. Other than that, the day was unremarkable, as it should be.

Evolution certainly is an interesting intellectual debate, and I’m all for that. But it should be immaterial from an equality standpoint how we arrived where we are as human beings vis-a-vis evolution, creation, socialization etc. Equality is equality and the beauty of the vision (if not the practice) of the United States is that however you got here, whatever biological, divine or social path brought you here, you have an equal place here. This of course is not remotely true in the United States, but as an ideal, as a founding principle, it is beautiful.

I think the rage we see in the United States exists because once a people forward such a lofty ideal, once the expectation of equality and opportunity sits in the hearts and minds of the people, when those people are brought to dream and hope and aspire to happiness and freedom, when that equality and opportunity is denied to some of those people by others of those same people, the distance between the ideal and the reality creates a deep anger and resentment in the oppressed, and a deep fear of power loss in the oppressors.  And rightly so.

I suspect that if true equality ever exists in a human society, it will see less rage and violence than we do now.  What will there be to rage against?

But as evolution relates in my mind to topfreedom and gender equality, while authentically interesting to speak of the biological history of breast evolution or sexual evolution in general, evolution is no justification for unequal treatment. In the extreme examples, attempts to make a master race are nothing more than attempts to manipulate evolutionary forces to eliminate one type of human and proliferate another. In less genocidal situations, evolutionary arguments can still be and are easily co-opted to justify some differential treatment or other. (I’m not saying anyone in this thread has done this, and thank you for that.)

My assertion is simply that in the United States we have held aloft this ideal of equality that we have yet to realize. Treating all bodies equally is but one part of realizing that ideal.  Treating the races and genders equally under the law is going to take generations, because the unequal treatment we have normalized has existed for centuries if not millennia.

Evolution?  Creation?  It doesn’t matter, because in this country, at its founding, we said it doesn’t matter.  However we came to be we came to be equally, and so we remain.

“Equality” of course is a nebulous term.  As I use it, I mean equal treatment under the law.  Social equality is a much, much more complicated math, but the fact remains that we cannot work on social equality without underlying legal equality.  The system must treat us as equals before society will.  Legal equality is easily definable.  Social equality is almost undefinable.

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Chesapeake Bay shore line, October 2016. A friend of mine told me that afternoon she had spent the same span of time as this photo bare-chested about a half mile north of this point. She said there were two male fishermen and a couple sharing the sand with her, and a Natural Resources police officer came by to check fishing licenses but didn’t address her at all. How cool would it have been to bump into each other strolling along? Someday…

Last thought, to ease Alex’ concern about the loss of beauty of the female breast, my personal “narrative” of topfreedom has never included the 100% desexualization of the breast or female body.  I don’t know of any topfreedom advocate calling for this.  If you read back here you will find that since the beginning I have been asking for us to simply examine the obligatory legal sexualization of the female body. Women should be allowed to decide when their bodies are sexual and when they aren’t, legally speaking, meaning an assailant cannot use the fact that breasts have always been seen as sexual to justify an assault, harassment, etc, if a woman chooses to go bare-chested.

The beauty of the breast is as important to women as it is to men, possibly more so. If you read back through my post about the breast cancer march in D.C. this summer, you will read that we heard touching and moving stories of the effect of breast removal to self esteem and sexual confidence, (but also the regaining of that lost confidence as the women grew to re-accept their bodies.) I would venture to say that most women don’t want the attractiveness of the breast to evaporate. I certainly don’t.  But hair and lips and calves can be very attractive too.  We navigate those all the time.

To nutshell my position on men and breasts, I personally would like to see the whole drooling man-child image evaporate when we define our expectations of male behavior toward women. The vast majority of heterosexual and bisexual men can and do navigate their sexual attraction to women and respect the autonomy of that woman’s body in the sense that they confirm consent before sexual contact. It is a bit harder I think for people (of all genders) to swallow the idea of true gender equality, but I don’t feel that’s always malicious. I think we have grown so accustomed to the roles we have now that changing those roles feels quite disruptive and scary.

But whether it is malicious or not is also immaterial in a way, because the negative effects of inequality are real no matter what their underlying cause.

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16 thoughts on “The Evolution of Breasts: does it matter?

  1. Hi Gingerbread,

    Nicely written.

    I’d like to provide a link to the previous comments:
    https://breastsarehealthy.wordpress.com/2016/08/31/live-topfree-or-die-roses-and-thorns-from-new-hampshire/comment-page-1/#comment-1596

    I read your blog “Do We Really Want Breasts To Be Non-Sexual?” and especially like this quote:

    > it is important to understand people’s feelings on breasts and honor them.

    It’s important for me to point out that I’m 100% with you on the notion that going bare-breasted should be a right for everyone, before I continue.

    The only problem I have with the rationale is the argument that this is about equality, that going bare-breasted is exactly equal to men going bare-chested. I think people should be (and in many European beaches are) allowed to go fully naked. And _that_ is equality. Breasts are a powerful sexual ornament. The thought of having to cover up is definitely an inequality and I find it difficult to understand that this is the law in a western country (i.e. certain American states). However, exposing breasts is more powerful than exposing a chest. Some, including famous biologists, say it’s genetically programmed. Others say it’s culturally learned. Personally I think it’s definitely a mix of both, as demonstrated by the cultural differences between Europe and America. We do know that attraction towards breasts exsisted for 30,000 years as demonstrated by superstimuli in archeological artefacts like the Venus of Willendorf. When I discuss this with friends, nudists and non-nudists, we all agree that going bare-breasted is “one-upping” males going bare-chested, because men don’t have sexual ornaments growing there. We all agree that women should be allowed to go bare-breasted, but the distinction is important in order to understand the resistance.

    Because if we remove the thoughts on gender inequality from the equation, it boils down to common decency. While for my Asian friends it’s acceptable or sometimes even considered polite to slurp and spit on the ground, when they visit I tell them it’s legally allowed but considered rude (I also said it’s rude to burp because in my prejudice I thought that was normal too, but they say they don’t do that at home either.) so they don’t. I’m not saying this is a good analogy, but it illustrates that there is simply no one-size-fits-all norm. Legally we’re allowed to go bare-breasted everywhere, but you hardly ever see it in cities, work environments or residental areas. For some of us it’s a favorite leisure in parks and beaches. Though with our cities becoming highly multicultural, we understand that we have places where everyone lives or needs to go (stores, city centers) and cannot expect everyone to ignore sexual triggers, while at the same time we have beaches where we can enjoy and express our freedom where those who cannot handle sexual triggers can decide not to go.

    It is important to know that we (as a society) came up with this location-based “dress code” naturally, but there are limits to the amount of freedom we’re willing to sacrifice in the name of “common decency”. This is becoming clear amidst the refugee crisis that’s hitting Europe. The recent influx of a prudish and gender-inequal culture has caused certain municipals to instruct people to cover up even in non-residental areas. This is causing quite a rage, and some instances even made the news: http://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2016/06/21/row-over-refugee-shelter-in-germany-as-nudists-are-told-to-cover/

    > What will there be to rage against?

    The machine?

    :’D

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Before I respond directly to this comment I want to say that I spent the day pondering the evolution thread. I want to express that it is a valuable conversation to have as it explores the source of associations positive and negative people have about female breasts. And that is certainly vital to dismantling fears and prejudices.

      As to your assessment that female bare-chestedness is a step above male bare-chestedness, that is interesting because no one has ever actually voiced that to me before. I’ve sat with this a few minutes and what bubbles up in my mind is children. Girls who have no sexual ornaments dangling from their chest are still not allowed to go barechested here. There is no physical difference yet our rules are different. Also, I have been taking pictures of barechested men and in reviewing them have found quite large breast tissue on many men. Many adult women have small to no breast tissue. And for homosexual men, presumably, the sexual power of the female chest would mean little compared to the sexual appeal of a toned male chest. Also, women find male chests and shoulders very sexual.

      My personal leaning is that breasts are inherently feminine and like feminine hair and lips and hips have a sexual association. However the intensity of those sexual associations occur because if the taboo with which we treat them here. Put a clod of dirt in a locked box and tell people they can’t look at it and people will fetishize that piece of dirt as a challenge. Achieving a vision of that forbidden dirt clod will represent a conquest, which signifies power, which makes the conqueror feel strong and safe.

      So maybe female bare-chestedness is one-upping male bare-chestedness, but really only time will tell. I believe that with equality comes humanity.

      It is also of course worth noting that if for the sake of argument there is no direct equivalence between male and female barechestedness that we default to giving the imbalanced “power” to men and not women.

      Time will tell…

      Thank you as always.

      Liked by 4 people

      1. > Girls who have no sexual ornaments dangling from their chest are still not allowed to go barechested here.

        What? Are you serious? Are you saying a 7 year old girl already needs to cover up by law? I did not know this. I’m trying to be civil, but that is absolutely, well, I want to say idiotic. It’s hard not to judge when something is clearly hypocritical. Here especially young teens cover up their ornaments once they start to show because they don’t feel comfortable (yet) walking around bare brested when it’s new and awkward and painful and uneven. Or cover up to hide the fact that they don’t show yet. Teens will be teens. But pretty much all kids below 10 play on the beach naked or just wearing trunks. Leave them innocent and untainted by our world and their puberty for as long as possible.

        > there is no direct equivalence between male and female barechestedness that we default to giving the imbalanced “power” to men and not women.

        I like and agree with most things you are saying, but I wholeheartedly disagree here. And it’s an important different perspective. Admittedly, this is probably because ‘we’ (as a European society) choose our rules socially because we already have the law, yet ‘you’ (as an American society) (obviously not personally) still have sexist laws in certain states. That said, here it is: We default (and rightly so) to giving more _value_ to the female breast than to the male chest. _Power_ (the way you mean it) has nothing to do with it. Except perhaps the power the female breast has to persuade others.

        Liked by 1 person

        1. Hi Alex: Correct, in the U.S. it is very rare to see parents allowing girls to go barechested at any age. Witness the huge market for little girls bikinis, which in my opinion sexualize the body by defining a taboo region.

          As far as my contention that in the presence of an inequivalence of power we continue to give that imbalanced power to men, I am referring to the freedoms granted to people under the law. Institutional power is represented by such things as rights and freedoms, not by who can get the other more distracted. Those with power can vote for example. One way we limit the power of some people (youth, felons) is to remove their vote. The difference between citizens and non-citizens is in the rights and freedoms we grant each group. Those imbalances express power. As regards bare-chestedness, men enjoy a freedom women do not enjoy. That is an imbalance of power. The disparate treatment of genders and bodies increases the self esteem and confidence gaps. That gap impacts education, relationships, workplace success,
          victimization,crime reporting etc. These are power imbalances.

          One of the arguments American men use to defend going to strip clubs is that the dancer “has all the power.” Meaning the dynamics of the dancer/patron relationship mean the woman can use her body and sexuality to coerce money from a relatively powerless man. Combine that with alcohol and the man is virtually a rape victim, so I’ve heard it described.

          I’ve never bought into that image,
          patron as victim. Having known some dancers, while yes they may feel powerful sometimes, the circumstances that bring them to be stripping in the first place indicate their lack of institutional power. Literally all of the dancers I have known experienced childhood molestations, rapes and sexual assaults. Dancers are often single mothers struggling to raise their children, many with drug addictions and financial desperation.

          Little girls don’t grow up dreaming of giving intoxicated, groping strangers lap dances. Parents don’t gush with pride telling the family over the table how their daughter earned a $1000 in one shift, clutching hands, we’re so proud of you, Sweetheart. Make it rain.

          As the Netherlands and
          Germany show us, sex work can be far, far more dignified and safe than we do it here in the U.S. But here in the U.S. I can feel a correlation between the freedom gap as we treat our bodies under the law, beginning as children and continuing into adulthood, and future gender gaps like rapes, assaults, esteem and body image difficulty, aspiration etc, which negatively impact education and health, which disenfranchise women and minorities more than white men, which is the definition of a power gap.

          Maybe female breasts do draw more attention than male breasts. That is not power. That is objectification.

          I trust you will receive my strong language as sincere expressions of my strong feelings and not as personal attacks toward you. I very much appreciate your continued participation and consideration. These conversations are what drive this movement forward. Thank you. Be well. C.

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          1. > I trust you will receive my strong language as sincere expressions of my strong feelings and not as personal attacks toward you.

            Yes, I understand and appreciate it.

            > Maybe female breasts do draw more attention than male breasts. That is not power. That is objectification.

            I will have to admit that I’m not better then. I try to hide it, but I will always look at breasts like a kid looks at candy. My girlfriend likes this and teases me with it. On the beach I look at male fatty breasts with silent judgement thinking they don’t want to take the effort to take care of their body but they help me look better. And I look at male muscle breasts with silent jealousy for the attention they receive. Because I see the females look at them like kids at candy and hide it a lot less than I do vice versa. Perhaps because there are less men with actual (unnatural for human daily life – it requires daily training) muscle breasts. It’s a superstimulus.

            Speaking of strip clubs and raising you theatrics; if you ever visit Las Vegas, I suggest you go check out “Zumanity” (by Cirque du Soleil). We did on our holiday, and we both enjoyed it. This is a classy and sexy (topless) performance, and these girls (and guys) do probably bring home boatloads of money (considering the ticket for a front row seat) and I dare to say that if their parents aren’t proud, it’s the parents fault for being prejudiced.

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  2. In a world of mediocre blogging, your writing shines out like a veritable diamond! It’s eloquent, well thought out, well-argued and at times, positively poetic. I suppose my enjoyment of your posts is due partly to the fact that I agree with everything you say – confirmation bias and all that – but nonetheless, it’s a real pleasure reading your output. I am also in awe at the bravery you display in your campaign. Long may you continue.

    Liked by 3 people

  3. Evolutionary arguments that have been used politically, Social Darwinism, are virtually all based on 2 dimensional caricatures of evolution. Concepts like “survival of the fittest” are over simplified to “survival of the one who can bench-press the most”.

    The evolution of altruism is ignored even though it is a trend in evolution. It is why your lymphocytes don’t eat you before you are even born. They behave altruistically even though, in the short term they could get more nutrition by eating all of your cells instead of just alien invaders.

    And once people accept the Theory of Evolution, they think that this also implies that they should accept every bit of speculation about how particular threads played out. Any reasoned argument no matter how weak the supporting evidence, is accepted without much question. There is a story where they set up an evolutionary experiment . The took an electronic device called (I think) a field programmable array (FPA?). This device is made up of about a hundred (or was it a thousand) sub circuits each of which can be programmed to act like a single electronic device. They then set up a computer and programmed it to program the FPA. It created a thousand random arrangements of electronic devices and tested and rated each against a simple electronic task (turning one signal into another). The closer the resulting signal coming out the other end of the array was the higher the score that the arrangement got. All but the most successful were deleted and the most successful were copied and mutated (one sub circuit was changed from whatever device it was to a different random device) until there were a thousand of them again. Then each arrangement in this second generation was tested, rated and either deleted or copied and mutated just like in the first generation. Within a thousand generations they had an arrangement that did the job.

    Now the interesting part was that when they looked at the resulting device it looked completely different from any such arrangement that an engineer would have made to achieve the same thing. It used fewer devices and it didn’t arrange them in subsets that achieved particular goals. When an engineer would set about solving such a problem they would first arrange a few devices to do one part of the task and then arrange another few devices to do another part and so on and then connect all the parts together to achieve the total task.

    But the evolved arrangement didn’t do that. There was no story to tell about what part did what. The whole arrangement did the whole task, end of story.

    The human body is somewhere between the two. So the heart is obviously a pump. But what is it pumping? Blood. And what is blood for. Sure it carries oxygen. But it also carries carbon dioxide, sugar, waste products. It also acts as a internal communication system, carrying messages in the form of hormone concentrations from one organ to another. It also acts as a source of pressure, used in keeping invading organisms out of wounds, and inflating certain organs that need inflating sometimes. It is even used to communicate with others by changing the colour of our skin sometimes. So what is the function of blood? Like the arrangement, the whole blood thing does the whole task, end of story.

    So when Social Darwinists say that x trait came about for y reason and therefore justifies z political response, they are generally wrong. In evolution every trait came about because it was part of a whole organism that did the whole task of survival and reproduction, more or less end of story. Any story we tell about how a particular part of the human body came to be the way it is, is just made up, the same way that any story that you tried to tell about how devices 7 through 13 of the successful FPA came about would be made up.

    The true story of how human female breasts got their shape is a story that stretches over several million years and has a cast of billions or even quintillions of characters (given that non-humans (particularly leopards, snakes and bacteria for instance) had a part to play in shaping the evolutionary story of humans) And every one of those characters has a full life story that is part of the overall story. And its that whole story with all its drama and myriad detail that is the cause of female breast shape, end of story.

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  4. Female breasts as sexual objects are a relatively (human history wise) new phenomenon. In large parts of Asia, Africa and some parts of South America, women have been living bare chested till as recently as a hundred years ago. The current sexualization of female breasts party stems from Victorian era norms and colonialism and partly from Playboy.

    Liked by 2 people

  5. Thank you Gingerbread for yet another thoughtful and well written post and an interesting subset to the discussion.
    One thing that is so often missed in the discussion of what is and is not a sexual organ or a secondary sexual characteristic, is the Brain. When it comes down to it the brain controls it all. Our perception of what is attractive, that is. But like a computer, the brain can be re-programed. Yes, for some a bulbous female breast is irresistible. But put that same structure on a hairy male and the same viewer is disgusted. It is not the physical structure that is so alluring, it is the brain’s interpretation of the ideal. Evolutionary theorists are not immune to this process. My belief is that the taboo of the breast has risen an obsession in society that is harmful. While at the same time plump (facial) lips are seen every day in vast numbers but we forget that they are also secondary sexual characteristics and in evolutionary terms, represent in stunning similarity, the aroused labia. Far more a sexually symbolic “ornament” but socially acceptable in most societies. The arbitrary taboos confound me.

    Also on the subject of breast evolution(?), we have the effects of (hu)man-made chemicals, including BPA, that act like synthetic hormones. These chemicals have been tied to the massive growth in the average breast size in the United States. From a “B” in the 1950 to some say as much as a “D” today.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. If nude beaches were allowed I’m
    All for it a nude body leaves nothing to hide Thad therefore there’s no reason to lust what is under a swimsuit we were all born nude so what’s the big deal the human body is a beautiful
    Thing

    Like

  7. I also was very concerned about you since it was so long since the last post, but thanks for letting us know why. Quite understandable. Now I feel better. Stay well and keep enjoying what we know to be so good for us all.

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Apropos the deplorable lies and mid-brain panic in the “American” (USA) way of select a new president:
    Lies and panic is for elections; Truth and logic is for democracy.

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  9. Thank you for another interesting and thought-provoking blog article, and for reassuring everyone that your absence is due to perfectly understandable sociopolitical reasons and not for anything related to ill-health or family bereavement.

    The bulk of your piece reminds me of the cartoon (there are two versions with different names) in which a barechested man stands opposite a barechested woman with exactly the same size breasts, saying “Good Lord, Ethel… You can’t appear in public like THAT!”

    Liked by 1 person

  10. I couldn’t agree more – equality and evolution have nothing to do with each other. Once a greater part of the world was bare breasted across all sexes. Covering women up seems to have been an aspect of controlling them and making them unequal. Amanda Foreman’s program “The Ascent of Woman” is well worth watching to understand how women have been “subjugated” from early times from a position of equality. In Bali before WWII women went bare breasted. After the war this changed when Bali became a part of Indonesia which was predominantly Muslim. Yet in the country some women continued to go bare breasted and when one western traveller asked an old lady why she went bare breasted she replied that when she was a girl only prostitutes covered their breasts and she didn’t see why she should have to change.

    Liked by 1 person

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