A History of the Breast

Yalom, Marilyn

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Wear, Delese
  • Date of entry: Apr-07-1999


Yalom begins her examination of the breast with the following statement: "I intend to make you think about women's breasts as you never have before." This she accomplishes by organizing the nine-chapter book around the following: (1) the sacred breast, (2) the erotic breast, (3) the domestic breast, (4) the political breast, (5) the psychological breast, (6) the commercialized breast, (7) the medical breast, (8) the liberated breast, and (9) the breast in crisis. Throughout the book, which covers twenty-five thousand years, she situates breasts' meanings as dependent on particular social, political, historical, and cultural phenomena.


In this remarkable book, Yalom asks readers to examine the breast from angles most have probably never considered given their particular historical and cultural position: coded as both "good" and "bad," sacred and erotic, life-giving and life-destroying. Similarly, Yalom traces changing conceptions of the "ideal" breast across time and culture, which include garments (and more recently medical practices) that enhance or downplay the breast's significance, beliefs about the breast's "usefulness," and relationships women (and men) have with the breast.

Certainly one of the most interesting and useful chapters for health care educators is the chapter on the medical breast. Here Yalom begins with the earliest medical documents concerning breasts (Egyptian papyri from the eighteenth dynasty) that concern a nursing woman's milk flow, moving through Hippocratic theories concerning the origin of breast cancer, to other Greek ideas about wet nursing (including not only the properties of ideal breast milk but also the desired characteristics of wet nurses), to beliefs from a Middle Ages text on curing tumors of the breast (excrement of all kinds!) and that breast milk was a form of menstrual blood.

Yalom's stance toward these historical practices, along with those she traces from the Renaissance ("medico-moralists" who dictated such things as hair color for wet nurses), is that of the bemused but not dismissive historian who chooses both texts and practices that highlight the utter vulnerability of women at the hands of men making decisions about women's bodies. The entire book would be appropriate for classes on the body, women's health, history of medicine; selected chapters are appropriate for topical issues such as breast cancer.



Place Published

New York



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