Miscellany — From the November 2015 issue

Miracles and Wonders

One woman’s search for a perfect bra

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The human breast moves in complex ways, a fleshy oscillation. This was demonstrated in an experiment conducted by Australian researchers, in which large-busted women ran on a treadmill while wearing infrared-emitting diodes on their chests. I wince at the thought of it. Breasts have no muscle; they are collections of glandular and fibrous connective tissues and fat, supported in part by the skin. The average weight of a woman’s breast is around a pound, but breast weights of ten pounds and above are possible; breasts range from soft lemons to flopping eggplants, and they swing, brother: a demonstration of Newton’s second law with every step.

Unlike other mammals, humans have breasts that remain mature outside lactation. We are born with mammary glands spread within the chest wall, stretching from the armpit down toward the groin, but not with breasts. They are the only organs to develop after birth — usually a single pair, though extra breasts do occur, in both men and women. Unmistakable, yet greatly varied, the visible breast can be shaped like a pear, melon, apricot, or orange — for some reason, produce is a common metaphor — but also like a cone, sausage, softball, plate, ham, or loaf of bread. The fibrous tissue of the breast is a kind of suspensory structure called Cooper’s ligaments that allows the breasts to move freely but gives little support. Breasts may lie near each other or be widely spaced; they may grow high on the chest or low. The nipples can point toward each other, away from each other, up, down, or straight ahead.

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Illustration by Katherine Streeter

Breasts can change dramatically, sometimes gaining and losing more than 10 percent of their weight during a single menstrual cycle. Size is largely a matter of fat deposition and seems to be genetically determined. Fat women can have small breasts and slim women can have medium breasts, but the idealized figure with large breasts on a thin body is rare — at least rare in nature. Not uncommonly, a woman’s breasts are different sizes. Breasts of the same shape and size may have different mass; breasts of different shapes may have the same mass but different degrees of flaccidity. For women, the peak of breast development is around the age of twenty, and atrophy begins by forty. Breasts come and breasts go, and when gone, they are often acutely missed.

No one can explain why women have continually swollen breasts; the evolutionary function of such a unique body part is hard to fathom. Many have theorized that the loss of strong pheromonal attractants in humans required a compensatory mechanism — because otherwise how would a man know a woman? Such theories fail to explain a great deal about human sexual desire and even less about the life of the breasted. We simply have them, almost all our lives.

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Sallie Tisdale’s most recent essay for Harper’s Magazine, “An Uncommon Pain,” appeared in the May 2013 issue. Her Annotation, “The Magic Toilet,” appeared in the June 2015 issue.

More from Sallie Tisdale:

Context August 7, 2015, 3:01 pm

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