Book Review: Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast

The first of its kind, a timely and much needed contribution to studies of this renowned body part and its cultural significance. . . .the Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast is an essential, empowering resource for anyone interested in understanding the historical magnitude and cultural importance of the breast.

Breast Cancer Consortium

Smith COVER CropBreasts have been a source of obsession throughout human history. They have come to symbolize nourishment and sexuality, fashion and creativity, even fear of disease. Since the end of the 19th century when the development of photography and media favored some models of beauty over others, women’s breasts started to be used “to sell products of all sorts.” Images of flourishing breasts, normatively imposed on real, flesh-and-bone women sometimes encouraged surgeries and other measures to help women conform to the apparent standards. Yet advancements in biomedicine opened opportunities to transform breasts in ways that also support chosen identities.

These topics and others fill the pages of Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast, a new volume edited by Merril D. Smith (to be released in September, 2014) that is a first of its kind, a timely and much needed contribution to studies of this renowned body part and its cultural significance.

The volume opens with a chronology of “breast events” spanning from 33,000 BC, featuring a carved mammoth tusk believed to be the oldest representation of a human female breast, to 2013 with Angelina Jolie’s prophylactic double mastectomy. The 141 entries written by an international group of scholars and artists from various disciplines cover the gamut from Amazons, Beauty Ideals, Breast Cancer, Breastfeeding, Corsets, Dance, Eating Disorders, Pin-Up Girls, the Virgin Mary, and the Women’s Movement. Each entry provides scholarly, accessible commentary and suggestions for further reading. The volume includes a bibliography, a guide to useful websites on select topics, and a sampling of TV shows and movies.

Two entries by BCC member Amber Deane focus on mass media and  advertising of the female breast as a means for socializing girls and women into accepted gender roles and displays. The majority of images in mass media sexualize women, positioning them as sexually available, provocatively dressed, or further objectified by showing only parts of their bodies — often the breasts, faces covered or obscured. Breasts in the media are also presented as realistic and authentic even though they typically fail to reflect the normal variations of women’s natural bodies. Deane reminds readers that both the objectification and sexualization of women and girls falls into the background of media saturation, but studies have shown these trends to be harmful in a number of ways, including having negative effects on cognitive functioning, physical and mental health, sexuality, and attitudes about gender.

Several entries are devoted to breast cancer, a disease in the U.S. of which “few can be unaware.” These entries give readers critical tools for thinking about controversies surrounding the disease, including the benefits and harms of mammograms. Pink ribbon awareness has led to the diagnoses of small tumors that would not have been found otherwise and, in many cases, would not have progressed. This phenomenon of overdiagnosis is one of the thorniest issues surrounding breast cancer at the moment. Despite the increased number of cases found through screening, “women with invasive breast cancer die at nearly the same rate as they did fifty years ago” (p. 3). Other issues involve breast cancer charities, such as the scandal that erupted in the U.S. in 2011 when Susan G. Komen for the Cure announced its decision to prevent Planned Parenthood from applying for grants.

An entry on “Pink Ribbon Campaigns” co-authored by Breast Cancer Consortium founder Gayle Sulik and BCC member Edyta Zierkiewicz traces the history of the pink ribbon and its association with breast cancer awareness campaigns. The color pink—chosen in 1992, in a corporate boardroom, to avoid legal issues surrounding breast cancer’s first activist symbol, a peach ribbon — was “soft and delicate, pretty and sedate, soothing and comforting, and stereo­typically feminine, everything breast cancer was not” (p. 188). Companies then launched their own pink ribbon campaigns. National Breast Cancer Awareness Month had been established several years earlier in 1985 by the American Cancer Society and was underwritten by one of the largest multinational chemical corporations, Zeneca Group Plc, which later merged with pharmaceutical giant Astra AB to become AstraZeneca, one of the wealthiest members of the breast cancer industry. The great “public service potential” of awareness month gave way to industry. Now better known as Pinktober, it disseminates “upbeat, simple messages about breast cancer [encouraging] people to participate in the ‘war’ against the disease through consumption and participation in pink ribbon culture” (p. 189).

Women’s associations and groups are taking steps to change the conversation on breast cancer and its exploitation for commercial purposes. With the ultimate aim of mitigating the epidemic, elements of the breast cancer movement have joined forces with other social movements to oppose the status quo. Using formalized strategies as well as social media and scholarly and artistic activism, there is a renewed sense of urgency surrounding this disease that has the potential not only to affect breast cancer but other diseases that grapple with corporate medicine, emerging evidence, commercialization, and potential conflicts of interest between industry and advocacy. If knowledge is power, the Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast is an essential, empowering resource for anyone interested in understanding the historical magnitude and cultural importance of the breast.


Cultural Encyclopedia of the Breast Edited by Merril D. Smith. Lanham, MD: Roman & Littlefield, 2014. 300pp. ISBN: 978-0-7591-2331-1, $85.00 (hardback). ISBN: 978-0-7591-2332-8 , $84.99 (eBook).


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