Boobs, ta-tas, honka honkas, melons, titties. (Hm, see the common trend in nicknames for “private parts”?) I think boobs are great. There, I said it. I worked as a bra fitter at Victoria’s Secret for a couple years. Not only did I see many, many, many girls and women nearly topless, I tried my best to help solve their breast-related dilemmas. The youngest girls I ever fitted were 10 year old twins with a helicopter parenting mother, and the oldest woman was a sassy 84 year old with a thick Scottish accent who fondly referred to her breasts as “hush puppies.”
Breasts have come to stand as both a symbol of sexuality and nurturing. They can feed and nurture a baby, be a source of pleasure (thank you nerve endings!), and define us as women. Yet even though society is completely infatuated with breasts, there is still so much which we don’t know about them. Researchers have been hard at work to figure out our most pressing questions, like why puberty is happening so early and what causes/cures breast cancer. In the meantime, let’s talk about what we do know about breasts.
First, let's start with Puberty 101: When your ovaries release a surge of estrogen, it travels through your blood stream and links up to the receptors in breast tissue. Receptors have a special shape which the estrogen fits into perfectly, just like a lock and key system. This triggers growth in the breasts (and other puberty related changes elsewhere in the body). Yay! Now you have breasts and can start awkwardly shopping for training bras. What are boobs you ask?
1. They are mostly fat
Yep. You read it right. Breast tissue can be up to 60% fat. Breasts are also composed of glands which produce milk (mammary glands and ducts), lymph nodes (which clean up dead cells and other gunk our bodies produce), nerve endings, and billions of estrogen receptors.
Have you ever lost weight and noticed your breasts are suddenly smaller? Well fat is part of the reason. Please, please, please keep this in mind the next time you see a workout to “tone your boobs.” The only thing these workouts do is train the pectoral muscles. This muscle group should ABSOLUTELY be strengthened… but it actually lays underneath the breast tissue, so you aren't actually changing the shape of the breasts. You can reduce the fat content of your breasts to some extent, although part of that simply depends on your fat distribution. Y’know, for some of us it goes into the thighs and other people see it in their belly or arms.
2. They are constantly changing
Ok, so hands down the most common statement I ever heard while bra fitting was “Well I was fitted *insert length of time* and I was a *insert bra size*.” But guess what? Breasts change every 30 days or so. As your body prepares to have a baby (i.e. the time leading up to your period), a surge of estrogen is released by the ovaries to get your breasts ready to become baby feeding machines. Oh you didn’t get pregnant? Ah, what a shame. Estrogen slows its roll...until... time to repeat next month! This explains why many women report swelling and tenderness of their breasts before getting their periods.
While that might be a nuisance (or not) in the short term, let’s think of the long term implications for this. I started puberty at about 12 years old. Let’s assume I’ll hit menopause at 50. That means if I’m regular and have no children, I’ll have 456 periods. Ok, maybe I have 2 kids, so that’ll only be 438 periods. This means that over my lifetime, even if I have no changes in weight/hormones other than puberty and menopause, my breasts will naturally change over 400 times.
But realistically I will probably experience some change in weight and/or body composition during that time. This also doesn’t include effects from medicines, hormonal diseases, etc. Keep this in mind if you notice that your bras aren't fitting the same. Accept the fact that your breasts will naturally change and find comfy bras! (Psst I recommend getting a bra fitting once a year. Victoria's Secret, Maidenform, Lane Bryants Cacique, and other retailers like Macy's will do them for free!)
3. Your breasts are a reflection of your life
Uh oh, like a 4AM drunk conversation, things just got real deep. This isn’t gonna be some hippie “your boobs are your life” point. Quite literally, if you got your breast tissue analyzed, it would show which chemicals you have been exposed to. Many chemicals are lipophilic, which is a fancy way of saying they love fat. Chemicals can enter through your lungs by the air you breath, through your skin by anything you apply to it, and through your intestines from what you eat.
Ok why is this a big deal? Well remember those estrogen receptors we talked about? Turns out that plenty of substances (both natural and man made) look almost exactly like estrogen on a molecular level. This means they can fit into the estrogen receptors and trick your breasts into jump starting the same processes estrogen does.
Don’t believe me? In 2007 lavender and tea tree oils were found to be the culprits behind breast development in young boys. This isn’t to say that lavender oil is some evil chemical, but we do need to be aware of how the things we put into our bodies can affect us. Unfortunately we don’t know a whole heck of a lot about the 80,000 chemicals being legally used in the US.
The other concern are chemicals called persistent organic pollutants. Basically, these chemicals love fat, build up in it, and hang around for decades. They do the same thing in the environment too! Remember, even if you lose significant amounts of weight, fat cells shrink but don’t disappear. Research in this field is expensive, time consuming, and difficult as it takes quite a bit of work to say "YES this one chemical is the cause for *insert disease*."
These chemicals can also be transmitted through breast milk, because it is a fatty based solution. Now, don’t panic, the researched benefits of breast milk are absolutely worth any potential exposure to chemicals in the short term. In the long term? Again, we don't know.
So what can you do? Take your breasts seriously and be kind to them! I also suggest you watch "The Secret Life of Breasts" on Netflix. This 45min documentary from the Smithsonian Channel served as some of the inspiration/background for this post. It also has more information including the specific chemicals building up in our bodies and where they come from.