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A History of the Breast Hardcover – January 28, 1997


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Product Details

  • Hardcover: 331 pages
  • Publisher: Knopf; 1 edition (January 28, 1997)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0679434593
  • ISBN-13: 978-0679434597
  • Product Dimensions: 9.4 x 6.6 x 1.4 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1.6 pounds
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #1,001,124 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

What's in a breast? That depends on who's asking, says Marilyn Yalom, author of this scholarly, illustrated treatise on the breast in Western society. "Babies see food. Men see sex. Doctors see disease. Businesspeople see dollar signs." Breasts have been denounced as wanton, or idealized as givers of power or life in images of Egyptian goddess Isis nursing pharoahs; sturdy, maternal Mother Russia; or the more eroticized, bare-breasted symbol of republican ideals in France. Psychologists, religious leaders, advertisers, and pornographers have rhapsodized over, vilified, and used breasts to sell everything from war to Cadillacs. And, finally, women have seen in them pleasure, power, sustenance, fear, or failure to measure up.

From Publishers Weekly

The image of the nurturing Madonna, invented in 14th-century Italy, resurrected an earlier tradition of big-breasted Paleolithic figurines representing fertility or nursing goddesses, Yalom claims. But beginning in the Renaissance, she says, the breast, stripped of its relation to the sacred, became the playground of male desire, taking on in the West a predominantly erotic meaning that it has not possessed in other eras and cultures. According to Yalom, writings on the breast by Rousseau, Freud, Jung and novelist Philip Roth reflect a male-centered, sexist worldview. With wit and dispassionate scholarship, Stanford researcher and feminist scholar Yalom decodes the social constructions of the breast as political symbol of liberty in the French Revolution, idealized domestic comforter in the Dutch golden age, modern advertising commodity and source of titillation in the arts, entertainment, erotica and pornography. She charts women's increasing involvement in the sexual politics of controlling their bodies and breasts, from 1960s bra-burning to today's growing concern about breast cancer. Intriguingly and amply illustrated with reproductions of paintings, sculpture, prints, posters, ads and photographs, this enlightening, often surprising cultural history will compel men and women to think differently about the breast.
Copyright 1996 Reed Business Information, Inc.

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Customer Reviews

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Overall the book is arranged both thematically and chronologically when possible.
TammyJo Eckhart
That through out western history the breast has been viewed as good and bad, and by men mostly and religious men in particular.
Beth DeRoos
An excellent book for the social historian, women's studies person, or art historian.
Courtney L. Lewis

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

35 of 37 people found the following review helpful By A Customer on July 30, 1998
Format: Paperback
I found this to be an easy to read, informative book about how the west has viewed the breast in art, politics and medicine. As a researcher in the sociology of reproduction, I was impressed by her synthesis of wet nursing and breastfeeding in her chapters on the politics of the breast. I found her analyses compelling. The review of how the breast appeared in art was new to me and here I appreciated Yalom's writing style--accessible yet thorough. Her weakest chapters are the one on psychoanalytic treatment of the breast, and the one covering recent culture. I found her coverage and analysis of the psychoanalytic literature to be out of place and she didn't seem to integrate it as well as I'd have liked in the politics/art of the time. The final chapter on recent cultural attitudes and representations of the breast could have been an entire book, so I felt a bit cheated. It wasn't clear why she included some things and not others, and I think she gave short shrift to the current issues surrounding breastfeeding, esp. to characterizing La Leche League on the basis of one person's anecdotal quote. But overall, a great introduction to the breast and definitely a stimulus to reading more, especially about non-Western attitudes toward the breast. It might have been interesting to include a cross-cultural chapter... Finally, the photographs are numerous, interesting, and nicely complement her analysis.
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30 of 32 people found the following review helpful By Beth DeRoos HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 28, 2003
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
With a wonderful blend of serious history and modern humor where appropriate, the author presents a thought provoking run down on the history over 25 centuries and the photos of Annie Sprinkles Bosom Ballet on page 268 made the purchase worth every cent.
As the author wisely notes that Westerners assumptions about the breast is often wrong, and that Non western cultures have their own fetishes be it small feet in China, the nape of the neck in Japan, the buttocks in Africa and the Caribbean. That through out western history the breast has been viewed as good and bad, and by men mostly and religious men in particular.
The book is excellent in showing how the breast has been used to depict power and justice be it in war posters (Bosoms For The Nation) or the lady of justice with one breast exposed. To breasts used to sell products or alas slaves. (The commercialized Breast) How the whole idea that breasts were owned according to some by the husband, or were considered babies domain. That it wasn't until the women's movement that women demanded that what was on their bodies belonged to them to do with as they wished, be it nipple piercing, nudity, no bra etc. (The liberated Breast)
There are photos of mastectomy survivors and lord knows dozens of bare, exposed, all size breasts, which I assume the reader would expect in a serious book about the human breast.
It is a book I am so glad I bought. Also check out her excellent History Of The Wife book.
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22 of 24 people found the following review helpful By Lawrence Zaroff on December 9, 1999
Format: Paperback
Yalom's book meets the highest standards for careful academic work, and, as a source, will turn out to be the standard for investigation into the subject in the future. But the appeal is broad and will engage the general reader, the historian, the physician. In short it is a good history, a good cultural study, and a good read. Fine writing, intriguing illustrations dilated to include such diversity as the political breast, the surgical breast, the nursing breast, the pornographic breast. An excellent analysis.
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10 of 10 people found the following review helpful By Courtney L. Lewis on May 9, 2001
Format: Hardcover
Marilyn Yalom (her latest work, History of the Wife, is spectacular) shows her characteristic style of humor and scholarship in history of the breast. Relying on both art and personal accounts, Yalom goes era by era detailing various Western cultures' attitudes toward the female body and specifically the breast. She spends a great deal of effort detailing modern concerns like breast cancer treatment and breastfeeding controversies and with the background in the first half of the book, the reader is easily able to see how current attitudes have been shaped throughout history. An excellent book for the social historian, women's studies person, or art historian.
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7 of 7 people found the following review helpful By Luxx Mishley on January 10, 2010
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
I first came across A History of the Breast while researching the evolution of the corset for a graduate term paper. Immediately intrigued by the straight-forward title and various brief reviews, I picked up the book with the intention of diving in at the earliest possible opportunity. Of course, that opportunity didn't seem to come until about 2.5 years later.

Marilyn Yalom's A History of the Breast is a fascinating work focusing on, obviously, the cultural evolution of the perception of the breast. Yalom's text moves chronologically and pulls from any and all material available, from statues to literature and pamphlets, to advertisements and modern social movements. While I was personally most interested in her examination of the breast as it evolved from "The Sacred Breast" of ancient civilizations to "The Domestic Breast" of the Dutch, the text attempts to cover a wide range of subjects extending into politics, psychology, and commercialism.

What I feel is an unfortunate flaw in Yalom's work is her assumptive attitude towards her reader; she assumes that her audience consists solely of other feminist scholars, and seems to be writing directly to them as opposed to a wider audience of scholars and enthusiasts. While very little of the work actually seems to rely on feminist theory and interpretation, Yalom's historical analysis at times appears to be overly-hostile to her subjects (specifically those of the Renaissance) while providing no academic basis for such hostility within this individual work. As a student and instructor of literature, I found her treatment of English literature particularly troubling; it seems to detract from the strength of the writing, as it reduces great works to rather shallow interpretations.
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