Breasts have been feared and worshipped throughout history, seen as both nurturing and suffocating. Kate Worsley meets Marilyn Yalom, who has researched the meanings that they have had to carry over the ages
The topic: breasts. The venue: The male-dominated Reform Club, Pall Mall. It's enough to bring out the Carry-On camper in anyone. "Boobies! Big bouncy boobies!" I'm tempted to retort, when the young pups on the door block my way and ask my business in these tobacco-tinged halls.
Waiting in a cool side room is American academic Marilyn Yalom, author of the acclaimed A History of the Breast, with her British publisher, one of the club's first female members. Yalom, whose previous books include a women's history of the French revolution, founded the Institute for Research on Women and Gender at Stanford University.
She is in London on a fleeting trip that includes showing her granddaughter around the waxworks musuem Madame Tussauds. So did she find herself checking out the waxy depiction of bosoms through the ages? "Well, yes, I did," she admits. "After four years working on the breast you do tend to see them everywhere."
Our carpet-fitter certainly could not take his eyes off Yalom's book as it lay on our kitchen table. In a series of cover pictures pairs of large breasts are shifted about recklessly, manipulated by their owner's black-gloved arms into unfeasible, cartoonish positions. Fiftysomething Yalom, by contrast, is dainty and neat, adorned with thick rolled ropes of gold.
Her history of the breast ends on a high, with this century's tentative budding of women's records of how they feel about their breasts and the rise of the Wonderbra. "Cleavage is the thing these days," Yalom says.
So what does she think of the current baring of the female belly, a la All Saints, the female pop group? "In the paintings of the Renaissance, where you see women for the first time with breasts uncovered, the breasts become an enhancement of the face, it is as if they are reflecting each other. So," she shrugs amiably, "we're just carrying it down a little bit further."
Yalom wears her scholarship lightly, but her research is impressive. She covers art, psychology and theology, the image of the breast oscillating through the centuries between the fearful and the alluring, the nurturing and the suffocating. We all move between wanting to escape the breast and to sink back into it. In the light of this, the sheer variety and weight of meaning breasts have had to carry should not be surprising, but the examples that Yalom collates deliver insights into every sphere of life, from the economic to the spiritual.
Most striking is the distinction between the used and the unused breast she identifies as arising in the 16th century. Wet-nurses had been used by the upper classes since the Middle Ages. By the Renaissance, however, it had became common practice, despite a storm of medical and moral protest, to send babies to the country to be nursed by strangers for up to 18 months - something that today looks like rampant neglect.
So while the upper-class ideal bosom, untouched by infant mouths, was small, high and widely spaced (by the 18th century there was even a "Divorce corset" incorporating a padded steel triangle to separate the breasts), the country wench was doomed to dangling dugs, tugged down by multiple users.
How did this hierarchy arise? "The wealth of the Renaissance made a greater divide between the affluent, living in the cities, and the country," Yalom says. "The country and the peasant woman get associated with nurturing. I see the breast as becoming a commodity at that point: just one more thing that could be possessed by men. So it would be in the affluent burgher's interests to be the sole possessor of his wife's breast."
Centuries of poor mothers wet-nursing the children of the rich ended as breast-feeding became "a tenet of egalitarian politics". The cult of the breast as nurturer of the people peaked during the Enlightenment. French Republican Philippe Le Bas's last words to his wife concerned their son:
"Nourish him with your own milk - inspire in him the love of his country."
The 18th-century fixation on female breasts and breast-feeding as the fount of nationalism, Yalom suggests, also explain why Linnaeus's coining of the term Mammalia, from the Latin mammae (milk-secreting organs), was widely adopted even though milk secretion is a characteristic of only half the human race. Delacroix's bare-breasted portrait of "Liberty Leading the People" demonstrates the breast's now largely forgotten potential as a political symbol.
Today, breast-baring is more of a commercially strategic move (see Emma Noble's nipples, ad nauseam) than a political act. The feminist breast-fest in Fay Weldon's recent television drama Big Women was more than faintly embarrassing. And the continuing shock value of public breast-feeding, especially in the United States, is a measure of how the primary function of these secondary sexual characteristics has been denied.
But what Yalom calls "the fully commodified" breast has not been entirely swallowed up by consumerism: its latest role as signifier is as anxiety index. "Today the breast reflects a medical and global crisis," Yalom writes. "We are anxious about our breasts, just as we are anxious about the future of our world."
What seems like a modern epidemic, cancer of the breast, is an unbearably physical reminder of the breast's potential for pain as well as pleasure. After his wife, the journalist Ruth Picardie, died of breast cancer last year, journalist Matt Seaton wrote: "If I close my eyes and travel in time, I can still feel the delicious weight of Ruth's left breast in my right hand. Eros and, as it turned out, Thanatos, gorgeously cupped in my palm. That was before we knew about her cancer. Once we knew I found it unbearable to touch her there."
Yalom speculates that in an age of anxiety, we elevate the breast as object of fun in order to stifle our unease. "We have come to fear our breasts, to see them as potential enemies, to fight against the fatal genes they sometimes harbour."
A History of the Breast by Marilyn Yalom is published by Pandora, Pounds 12.99.