The Female Breast: Our Culture’s Obsession and Ambivalence

by Letha Dawson Scanzoni 

(with responses by Melanie Springer Mock and Kendra Weddle)

Breast PaintingLet’s talk about breasts.

Everyone else seems to be doing that lately! The media especially.

First we had Angelina Jolie’s courageous New York Times article about her preventive double mastectomy, which has helped increase public awareness of this possibility for women who carry the BRCA1 gene, as she does—a gene that greatly increases the chances of developing both breast and ovarian cancer. Her article generated numerous other articles. Then the results of a new study released this week showed why genetic-screening is especially important for African American women with a family history of certain kinds of breast cancer or ovarian cancer.

Also one day last week, the main page of the online New York Times featured Jockey’s new bra-sizing project in which a special measurement system has produced 55 new bra sizes to solve the problem of finding a perfect fit.

Then there was the news story of the father who planned to give his wife a framed Mother’s Day photo showing her breastfeeding their infant son. But a Walmart employee refused to print the photo, saying it violated the company’s nudity policy. Walmart later issued an apology, but by then the young mother had already arranged a “nurse-in” at the store.

We’ve all heard other stories about retail stores, restaurants, and various other public buildings where women have been told to leave because they are breastfeeding a hungry baby. The women are often shamed and humiliated by accusations of “indecent” behavior. Some managers may demand they feed the baby in the women’s restroom. (How would you feel eating your meal in a bathroom?) The message has been that women’s breasts must be hidden when they’re used for their most natural purpose.

At the same time, the media seem to enjoy inundating us with titillating stories and photos of celebrities who have a “wardrobe malfunction,” or wear see-through tops, or who don’t wear contour “modesty” bras designed to make sure nipples don’t bulge out. (One reader of the celebrity stories in the Huffington Post commented, “Huffington Post’s obsession with boobs makes me wonder if the site is run by a group of horny middle school boys.”)

Then there have been the occasional news stories of politicians who have desired cover-ups of exposed breasts on a statue (hiding the female “Spirit of Justice” behind drapes in 2002 when John Ashcroft was U.S. Attorney General) or on a state seal (a 2010 decision of Virginia Attorney General Ken Cuccinelli, now running for Virginia governor). And it’s said that in the Victorian era, it was considered improper to say the word breast in public, even when talking about that part of a chicken served for dinner. The proper term was “white meat.”

Why the ambivalence?
It seems we humans can’t make up our minds about whether to think of women’s breasts as natural physical structures designed to provide nourishment for infants, or as distracting and exciting erotic appendages, or as just something else about the human body to be ashamed of—or dissatisfied with.

That ambivalence is highlighted by feminist folksinger, songwriter, and activist Kristin Lems, in her humorous 1978 song, “Mammary Glands,” the chorus of which goes:

Mammary Glands! Oh-wo! Mother Nature’s delight
You can’t make cream or butter ‘cause it’s just a human udder
And a natural mammalian sight.

(First stanza)
Do you want to pay to take a peek
At what drives men insane?
Well they’re in anthro books galore and I’m
just sure that you’ll adore ‘em
Even cave women have the same two simple. . . (CHORUS)
(Quoted with permission of Kristin Lems.)

Unfortunately, when the song was released, first as a 45-rpm single, even some feminists missed the satire and overlooked its point. One major distributor of women’s music did not include it in its catalog and later told Kristin it struck some of their staff as “irreverent” and made them feel uncomfortable. She told me that since then, she has thought about it in the context of language used by other artists in songs released not long after hers. “While I believe that ‘seizing and taking back’ the words that are meant to hurt us can be a good thing,” she says, “I wonder why my song was not (initially) considered in the same light?” A possible explanation: “I think it might have been because the song was a challenge to men who love breasts to think of them in a new, less exploitative way, and [thus the song was] not so ‘woman identified’ in the way that was defined at the time.” Since that time, “Mammary Glands” has become one of Kristin’s most popular songs and is included on her “Oh Mamma” album.

A “breast biography”
All this got me to thinking about my own breasts and the feelings I had at different stages of my life. Maybe it’s a good idea in these breast-obsessed, body-image conscious times to put together a kind of mental “breast biography.” Here’s mine:

Age 9. Two little bulges were showing up on both sides of my chest. I didn’t like it at all and wished I could push them back in! I wondered if there were ways to do that. I worried that breasts would get in my way and put a stop to my tree-climbing tomboyish ways.

My teen years . Unlike many young girls today, eager to wear their first bra, I was not. But it had become inevitable as my teen years approached. This was the time when cone-shaped pointy bras were in style. Maidenform started their “I dreamed” series of advertisements, one of the most successful ad campaigns ever. It began in 1949 (when I was age 14) and went on for 21 years!. Once my teen years got underway, I became content with my body image and the size 34-B bra I wore. Clothes fit nicely, and all was well.

My twenties through mid-forties. These were the years of marriage, two babies, and breast-feeding, which I found a very enjoyable bonding experience. This period of my life was a time of total contentment on the breast front. (No pun intended!)

My mid-to-late forties to early sixties. During this time in history, most doctors were prescribing hormone replacement therapy (HRT) for perfectly healthy woman, supposedly to prevent cardiovascular problems such as heart attacks and stroke and to prevent osteoporosis as well. This was eventually proven wrong and, in fact, worse than wrong. Three different doctors in two states insisted I take estrogen and progestin. I argued with them repeatedly but yielded to their strict adherence to the medical guidelines of that time. Eventually I persuaded one to put me on the lowest dose possible, and finally I just quit altogether. I was on HRT for at least 15 years and by then my breasts had enlarged to a double D or even F-cup size. (This didn’t happen to all women on estrogen and progestin, but it did happen to some— and some women were apparently happy with this breast enlargement side effect. I certainly was not. But one doctor told me about an 80-year-old patient who said, “Why couldn’t this have happened while my husband was alive!”)

My early sixties to early seventies. Because of the hormone-induced breast enlargement, bras were a big problem for me,and the straps cut deeply into my shoulders, causing both shoulder pain and backache. I was extremely unhappy with my breasts during those years.

Age 72. Diagnosed with breast cancer. I had a double mastectomy (with no regrets then or now) and am a five-year survivor. I did not have breast reconstruction because I had no desire for further surgery, having had numerous other surgeries for joint replacements. Although many women have had great success and are very pleased with reconstructed breasts, it is not always as simple as it is sometimes made out to be. Many facts must be taken into consideration in deciding about it, as one doctor pointed out in this New York Times piece during the discussions about Angelina Jolie’s new breasts.

Breasts or no breasts— it’s still an issue
Before my surgery, a friend sent me a story of one woman, who, after a double mastectomy, wanted to swim topless so had a bikini top tattooed on her chest so that it would look as though she were wearing a bathing suit. I don’t know whether or not she got away with it. But I read about a similar situation last year on the “I Blame the Patriarchy” blog (an indescribable, one-of-a-kind blog, produced by a Texas woman named Spinster Aunt Twisty, who has a lot to say, using wit, wisdom, satire, sarcasm, social criticism, and iconoclasm, and packaged in a lot of profanity, which may offend some readers—so be forewarned).

In a post she titled “Discrimination Korner: Cover your boobs whether you have them or not,” she writes about a woman who, after a double mastectomy, was ordered out of a swimming pool in Seattle for swimming topless. Seems her scars were upsetting people, so she was told she must wear a “gender-appropriate top.”

Commenting on the incident, Twisty referred back to one of her earlier posts written after her own mastectomy without reconstruction— and the “Catch-23” women are caught in. She wrote:

“If you have mammary tissue, you have to cover it up. If you don’t have mammary tissue, you’re obliged to get some, then cover it up. If you don’t get some, you still have to cover it up. To put it another way: you have to hide it in order to prove that you have it. If you can’t prove that you have it, you have to prove that you’re willing to fake having it.”

Women and their breasts over history
Dealing with breasts and how to cover and or support them has apparently been an issue throughout recorded history. Take some time to watch this 5-minute video on the history of the bra from the National Geographic Channel. I found it fascinating to learn how much steel was saved for the war effort when women were asked to stop wearing corsets as an act of patriotism during World War 1 as steel became scarce. Seems a lot could be done by freeing up for military use the steel that was used in corsets designed to pull waists in and breasts up and out. The BBC History magazine also has a fascinating article on medieval lingerie, including a newly discovered bra that looks surprisingly modern in design and challenges the idea that the bra was invented in the early 20th century.

God, breasts, and the Bible
I want to end my meandering thoughts about breasts by noting that scripture talks about breasts positively— in both the erotic sense ( Song of Solomon 1:13 and 4:5) and the nourishment sense (Isaiah 66:11). Our bodies are beautifully designed and, as the Psalmist says, “I praise you because I am fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps. 139:14). No room here for ambivalence, or exploitation, or shame, or mockery.

But there is another important point to emphasize on this topic as well. It comes through in one of David Hayward’s spiritual-message cartoons drawn for his blog, The Naked Pastor, on the Patheos website. In a post, titled “What if this is God’s greatest secret?” Hayward has drawn a picture of a robed God with breasts. In his drawing, the members of the Trinity are in a discussion as Jesus asks, “When are we going to let them know?”

In previous cartoons, Hayward has portrayed God in the traditional form of a white-haired, bearded old man, so I was surprised and pleased to see Hayward’s acknowledgement of what we in EEWC-Christian Feminism Today know so well—that the metaphor for God as female is just as valid as the metaphor for God as male. And the female God imagery that comes through in some scripture passages often portrays a mother with a baby drawing nourishment from her breasts. “Can a woman forget her nursing child or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” promises God in Isaiah.49:15 (NRSV). And then there’s Isaiah 66:13, “As a mother comforts her child, so I will comfort you.” Psalm 131:2 shows the Psalmist drawing comfort from God’s tender embrace. “It’s enough for me to keep my soul tranquil and quiet like a child in its mother’s arms, my soul is as content as a nursing child” (The Inclusive Bible).  As I read that, I can almost hear a mother humming a lullaby as the infant is soothed, stops crying, and falls asleep.

One of God’s names in Hebrew is El Shaddai (although it is translated in Genesis 17:1 as “God Almighty”). It depicts a God who provides nourishment. And because of a connection with the Hebrew word for breast, some students of the Bible have suggested El Shaddai can be rendered, “the God of many breasts” or “the God who nourishes.” The medieval mystics often spoke of drawing nourishment from God’s breasts.

Yet, scripture makes clear that as important as breasts are, a woman is so much more than her breasts and reproductive organs. When a woman shouted at Jesus, “Blessed is the womb that bore you and the breasts that nursed you,” Jesus replied, Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it!” (Luke 11:27 NRSV)—which, of course, is exactly what his mother, Mary, did.

So now it’s your turn, Melanie and Kendra. What are your thoughts about breasts?

That Cultural Ambivalence Runs Deep— A response by Melanie Springer Mock

backFour weeks into my summer break and without many time commitments to meet, I’ve still been getting up at 4:45 a.m. On some mornings, I go running with friends or with my dog; on other mornings, I attend exercises classes at a gym I recently joined, spinning and lifting my way to a more chiseled body.

Because, deep down, part of my focus on exercise is really about that: about having an attractive female form, with well sculpted arms and legs, a flat stomach, a butt shaped just right. While I might say I work out for all the right reasons—wanting to stay healthy into old age, for example, or a longing for the energy endorphins can provide—what also fuels several hours of exercise each day is sheer vanity. I want a nice body.

Let’s face it. Like many women in America, I’m ambivalent about my physical form. I want to say it doesn’t matter what my breasts, arms, and legs look like. I want to accept my Self as she is. I want to be confident that I can be lovable, no matter what I look like. I want to say that appearance isn’t important. But then there I am, dragging myself from sleep at 4:45 a.m., trying to keep reins on any middle-age sags.

Letha’s post provides an excellent synopsis of the ways our cultural ambivalence about the female form often focuses on breasts. We both glorify and revile them. Restaurant chains are constructed with breasts as their raison d’etre; men may say they love the chicken wings at Hooters, but we know what’s really drawing them to the dinner there, and it’s not the barbeque sauce. Titilitated by tits, we scan the tabloids for information about celebrities’ boob jobs, their wardrobe malfunctions, their summer romps in bikinis. We even notice when our female politicians show a little cleavage, as Hillary Clinton did for her 2008 presidential bid.

At the same time, people cringe when women decide to breastfeed in public, even when they do so discreetly. Google “breast feeding in public” and you get scores of articles, images, videos, and blog posts defending a woman’s right to feed her baby—and, just as often, arguing that a woman should choose a more private place to provide nourishment. Were that there might be such rigorous debate about whether men should eat chicken wings at Hooters—or save gawking at breasts for the privacy of their own homes.

Clearly we, as a culture, are ambivalent about the female body. This ambivalence plays itself out even among Christian feminists, exemplified by a conflict that swept onto Twitter this weekend over a blog post about breasts. On the very popular blog Rage Against the Minivan, Kristen Howerton invited her friend, Sharideth, to talk about the flipside of modesty culture. Sharideth wrote about an experience of going to a bar, and witnessing a woman with “aggressive boobs” and “glitter on her tits” get gawked at. Sharideth wonders if the woman in this situation had any responsibility for how men might perceive her.

This post caused a Twitter storm, especially after Sarah Moon, on her Sarah Over the Moon Patheos blog, called out Sharideth (and Kristen, too), for the kind of victim blaming rampant in rape culture and in purity culture. Moon felt that Sharideth’s claim that a woman’s body was a trap is especially problematic, and reflects the tired ideology that women are Eve-inspired temptresses, responsible for men’s morality. Her comments section, along with Twitter and other blogs, exploded after this, with people taking sides, calling names, creating divisions.

In the midst of this internet conflagration, I see again the ambivalence we have toward women’s bodies, I see again my own ambivalence. I want to agree with Sarah Moon, that women cannot ever be blamed for men’s response to them. I want to agree with Kristen Howerton and her friend, that why else would a woman put glitter on her boobs, save that she wanted people, wanted men, to look.

Obviously, this ambivalence is so deeply entrenched in our collective psyche that it affects most every woman, even a self-identified feminist like me. After all, I rail against the tabloids and their voyeurism about celebrity bodies, but still spend time flipping through  them and magazines like People and Us in doctor’s offices and grocery lines, enchanted by the secrets they dish. I proclaim that women should be free to express their sexuality, but am not above privately critiquing a colleague whose plunging necklines seem less than appropriate for a Christian college campus. I argue that women are not responsible for men’s response to them; I am puzzled when women choose to wear clothes—or glitter—calling attention to their boobs.

And I’ve been ambivalent about breastfeeding, too, potentially the most primal and sacred function of women’s breasts. When we were in the process of adopting my first son, who was seven months old, a close friend suggested I try breastfeeding him. I was honestly horrified by the idea, given the work it would take to make me lactate and the difficulty of getting a bottle-fed and failure-to-thrive child to turn to me for sustenance; I was also bothered by the assumption that feeding him formula would not be good enough, would reflect my lack of care or love for him.

We never seriously pursued breastfeeding him, and both his dad and I enjoyed an equal opportunity to bond with him through feedings. (I still remember fondly those days when he fell asleep to his bottle, blissed out in my arms.) But still, when I hear other mothers talk about breastfeeding their babies, when I see the visceral connection breastfeeding gives them to their children, I ache for the missed opportunity, regretting that I will never be afforded that experience.

See what I mean about ambivalence?

Here’s one more. I really struggle with the idea of breast augmentation, of taking the body God’s given us and surgically trying to improve it. But I know many Christian women go under the knife, spending large sums of money to enhance their appearance. It seems like their values are askew, like they cannot love themselves for who God made them, and need medical intervention to carve their bodies into what they perceive to be an ideal form.

In the midst of my judgment, though, I think about this: that I pay out money for a gym membership. And new running shoes. Gear to work out in the winter, and in the summer. Most mornings, I get up way too early, spending one or two hours every day working out, making my body more attractive, more sculpted.

If I was truly happy with my Self, if I truly believed I was created in God’s image, would I be working this hard? Paying this much? Assuring myself that every part of my body—yes, even my breasts—can resist the gravitational forces of aging?

Can I believe myself blessed, my body beautifully designed, no matter what it looks like?

“Nourished by Her”— A response by Kendra Weddle

GoddessMark and Grace Driscoll’s book, Real Marriage: The Truth about Sex, Friendship and Real Life Together, made a splash in the evangelical world last year. Heralded as THE book to address marriage and sex with candor, the Driscolls did, in fact, take on many topics often not considered by well-meaning Christian authors, including breast augmentation.

In our self-focused age of Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and all the rest, I was not surprised the Driscolls were willing to talk about personal aspects of marriage in a candid way, and I suppose their transparency (although I think it was virtually all Grace’s honesty and not much of Mark’s) helped some people communicate with their spouses about things they might otherwise refuse to share.

Still, I was surprised by what they said about breast augmentation.

They argued cosmetic surgery is not against the law and it is not forbidden by Scripture (because it is a recent medical invention). Further, it is potentially helpful if it makes a woman more attractive to her spouse and therefore increases the gratification (and, I suppose, frequency) of sexual intercourse. Therefore, as long as it doesn’t become an obsession and there is nothing enslaving about it, cosmetic surgery including breast augmentation is permissible.

They continue by noting cosmetic surgery is increasing in popularity in the United States, primarily among women who most often seek liposuction and breast augmentation. This trend is simply a reality of our culture—neither good nor bad—and, since the Bible doesn’t say anything about such things, it is reasonable to assume biblical silence means breast augmentation is permissible.

The short-hand version of their thinking is that enhancing one’s beauty is paramount if it is done to heighten sexual satisfaction within marriage.

What I found surprising—and disturbing—about the Driscoll’s approach to this topic is that they claim they are putting forward a book on the biblical foundation for marriage; and yet their treatment of various items, including breast augmentation, was nothing more than a formula for self-gratification at the potential cost of others.

I expected, on the other hand, to read about weighing the long-term risks of such a procedure against the potential gains of body image or heightened sexual play. Too, I would have thought they should consider the benefits of maturity; that one place we grow as human beings is within long-term relationships, where becoming gracious and accepting of life’s limitations is part of the challenge of maturation. Coming to terms with our imperfections and weaknesses is a vital component of learning how to be more compassionate toward others—the goal of all enduring religious systems.

Additionally, if the Driscolls were serious about offering a biblical view of marriage (and breast augmentation) why didn’t they consider the question of financial resources? Is it biblical to use our money on unnecessary procedures in order to gratify ourselves or should we help others in need, an act of generosity enabling us to move beyond ourselves and to become more actively hospitable and gracious?

The Driscolls are not alone in their immature approach to body image broadly speaking and women’s breasts in particular. Unfortunately, these are the voices heard most often and most consistently.

In light of this reality, I’m glad Letha encouraged us to think about breasts especially in light of biblical images.

As I grow in my understanding of God, one of the images that has been most helpful is El Shaddai in part because I grew up singing Amy Grant’s song. Then, however, I understood the translation of this Hebrew term to be “God Almighty.” The last several years, however, I’ve gravitated to the equally appropriate translation that Letha mentioned, “The many breasted one.”

I wonder how we as a society would view breasts if we conceived of God as nourishing us with Her body?

FemFaith Authors
Letha Dawson Scanzoni is an independent scholar, writer, and editor. In 1978, she and Virginia Ramey Mollenkott wrote Is the Homosexual My Neighbor?, one of the earliest books urging evangelical Christians to rethink their views on homosexuality (updated edition, 1994, HarperOne). More recently, Letha coauthored (with social psychologist David G. Myers) What God Has Joined Together: The Christian Case for Gay Marriage (HarperOne, 2005 and 2006). Another of Letha’s most well-known books is All We’re Meant to Be: Biblical Feminism for Today, coauthored with Nancy A. Hardesty (Word Books, 1974; revised edition, Abingdon, 1986; updated and expanded edition, Eerdmans, 1992). Visit her website at Dr. Kendra Weddle is associate professor and Chair of Religion, Humanities, & Interdisciplinary Studies at Texas Wesleyan University and coauthor of Building Bridges: Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Friends and If Eve Only Knew: Freeing Yourself from Biblical Womanhood and Becoming All God Means for You to Be. Melanie Springer Mock is a professor of English at George Fox University. She is the author or co-author of five books, including most recently Worthy: Finding Yourself in a World Expecting Someone Else (Herald Press, April 2018). She is member of INK: A Creative Collective. Her essays and reviews have appeared in numerous publications. She lives in Dundee, Ore., with her husband and two sons.


  1. Wow! This is another awesome FemFaith! Letha, you gave an impressive historical view, and I appreciated your honest “breast biography” and the positive biblical breast imagery. Melanie, I appreciated your honesty about your ambivalence toward your body image, and identified with your feelings. Kendra, I was impressed with your book critique and your bringing in the issue of economic justice, and I love your last sentence.

  2. I loved this discussion. I have never liked my breasts. They are and have always been small and pointy. I always wanted round and larger, but go under the knife to change them? I am way to fearful to take that kind of risk or spend that kind of money. Clothes do a good enough job camouflaging. However, as I’ve gotten older and watched my face fall and my neck turn into a gobbler, I stand in front of the mirror doing a finger face lift and argue with myself about it. Should I or shouldn’t I? So far fear and thrift rule, but…


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