Thursday, March 05, 2009

Potentially Inappropriate Posts Part 1: Human Sexuality, Part 2

Yesterday we discussed how women are the peacocks and men are the peahens in terms of who is wooing who in the species Homo sapiens sapiens. I attempted to demonstrate that one of the "big guys" that women have for attracting the opposite sex are her mammary glands (exemplified by Salma Hayek, to the left). Well, let's talk about, those.

Most mammals have more than two "breasts." In fact, it's difficult to call what most mammals have "breasts." Most mammalian females have multiple nipples connected to mammary glands that swell with milk when babies are around. Mammary glands are a defining character of mammals, of course. They began their evolutionary history as modified sweat glands--a form retained in monotremes. In other mammals, mammary glands expanded to include several distinct nipples. Have you ever seen a big momma pig on her side with a dozen piglets suckling happily? In every non-human primate, mammary glands are specifically for feeding the young. Male pigs don't get all excited when they see a big mammary gland hanging from the belly of a sow. And male non-human primates could care less about female breasts, even when those glands are swollen. Monkeys and apes are more...well, ass-men. The female posterior swells during estrus and the males start hootin' and hollerin'.

But human females are the only mammals with perpetually swollen breasts, leading most to conclude--quite rightly--that breasts serve an important secondary function. As I said before, they're the equivalent of ceratopsian neck frills. It's hard not to swivel your head when a girl like Salma walks by. But here's a question for you. Has the advertising power of breasts overpowered the baby-feeding role? That is, among human females, is nursing now the secondary purpose of breasts? Is showin' them off the primary purpose?

Breast implants show up pretty early in American girls. Sue Williams was the first Playmate to have implants--in 1965. However, breast enhancement wasn't the safe science it is today. Silicone was injected directly into the breast tissue, often multiple times. This led, invariably, to cancer in many women. Later implants were considerably safer: saline implants preceded silicone gel implants. Both have their own set of problems, including the risk of rupture and the sometimes-hideous visual results. Breast implants are invariably tougher and thicker than breast tissue itself, and although they may be visually attractive, people tell me they're not all that fun in...the...sack. And there's another gigantic downside to breast implants:

In some cases (this depends primarily on the implant's size), breast implants impede the ability to nurse. Did you hear that? In addition to the health risks caused by the surgery, the foreign material in the body, and the recovery afterward, you might not be able to nurse your babies!

But why do women get breast implants in the first place? Two primary reasons, I think:

1) Attract the opposite sex, and;

2) Reconstructive surgery after damage to the breast because of cancer or injury (or masectomy).

The first reason is undoubtably the most common. And think about it--that's a helluva gamble. Your risk your own life on the surgery table in hopes of attracting the opposite sex, which reproductive drive tells you to mate with and procreate, but then, hold on--you might not be able to feed the baby! That's...incredible! Breasts have switched from being primarily for feeding babies to attracting mates. No other animal does this! But again, I ask about technology and medicine. Certainly breast implants would not be as popular were it not for advances in medicine that make them safer. What's more, women don't always feed their babies with their own breastmilk. There are wet nurses and bottles for that. Of course, both are potentially inferior, as the mother's milk passes on important immune agents to the baby. It's that crazy? It boggles my mind, honestly. We're so happy with our technology and medicine that the very organ that makes us mammals is losing its defining purpose. That's epic stuff.


Sean Craven said...

Zach, this is a fascinating subject -- duh -- and a lot of really interesting things are going on in the comments. Lemme throw down a few thoughts on this post and then a couple of more general observations.

One thing I find interesting is that a fascination with breasts isn't limited to straight males. I once read a piece about how there are straight women and gay men who perk up at the sight of cleavage -- the term they used for this was 'boobiesexuals.'

It's also interesting to note the way culture plays a role in this. Americans are known for being more breast-prone than men of other nationalities.

And I once read a book about a researcher in New Guinea who got into a conversation with some indigenous dudes on the subject. Their preference was for older women whose breasts had sagged -- they liked the way they bounced when they walked.

To go to a more general observation, isn't it interesting how violent people's emotions can get about sexual signals?

I don't just mean the attraction -- look at those comments on the last post and you'll see people responding with some measure of real hostility to bodies they do not find attractive.

This isn't a take it or leave it thing -- there's a complex bundle of emotions tied up in this stuff.

I'm not above it myself. Ask me what I think about the current standards of beauty in popular culture and you'll get a load of, "Sinews and silicon, thinly veiled pederasty, infantilization, the two groups most disdainful of the female body are gay men and straight women and they're the ones setting the standards, etc, etc, etc."

Funny, that. And it makes it really, really hard on women -- ever see the look on someone's face when they overhear their body type being disparaged? It's depressing, man.

It's also funny how we don't necessarily see others with real accuracy. Our attitudes toward them have a very real effect on the way we perceive them.

How many times have you gotten to know someone you initially thought was quite unattractive only to start appreciating their cuteness when you realized that they were cool? Not in an overwhelming, "Oh, god, not having my hands on her is making me die a little," way but in a, "Yeah, I guess I can see the point of that," way.

The flipside happens too -- for me, no good looks can survive the discovery of stupidity.

I once saw an attractive woman turn ugly right before my eyes -- literally, it was like watching a morphing special effect in a movie -- when she turned her grocery cart sideways to block an aisle and started yapping on her cell phone in a crowded store...

I will be watching these posts and the comments, agog.

Matt said...

The previous poster mentioned how culture plays a role in this. In fact, as with much of human "nature," culture really has a big impact on standards of beauty. I'm not going to write a whole thesis on this, but I would say that attraction to large breasts is a very Western attribute, and not necessarily present in every culture. I would guess that even in non-Western cultures today that include attraction to busty women, that a large part of that is due to the dominant influence of Western culture on the rest of the world. Not that anyone's complaining... :)

Sean Craven said...

Matt, there is some truth in what you say -- but before you jump to any conclusions you might want to take a look at traditional Hindu representations of the female form from pre-Westernized India and Southeast Asia. Lemme tell you this much, they've got a lot of temple carvings that are definitely not safe for work...

Julia said...

Sean raises a good point. I have several gay friends (they are absolutely positively gay, in long-term gay relationships and civil partnerships and would be insulted if anyone implied that they were attracted to women). All of them, to a man, are absolutely obsessed with their female friends' breasts, not least my own. To the extent where, on one of the plant forums I'm a member of (which is almost exclusively populated by gay men), they are something of a running obsession.

Raptor Lewis said...

I don't see why you justify these posts as science (though you DO bring up an interesting point), when all (okay, not all) you want us to do is to look at the pretty women about sex. Okay, in general, the science I DON'T get, but I DO kind of see your opinion of sexuality in the Human species compared to others (Alright, there's SOME science.) Besides, I don't believ this is inappopriate at all, but an issue that may want to be addressed. It's sort-of interesting.

Zach said...

Lewis, a few points.

1. I absolutely love looking at beautiful women. My wife is a beautiful woman. I have books filled with beautiful women. Staring a beautiful women lowers my heartrate and relieves stress. And I'm probably not alone. But I'm interested in WHY that happens.

2. I'm also interested in what makes us special when it comes to humanity's sexual signals. Like I said before, ceratopsians have horns and frills, chameleons have crests and color-changing, birds have plumage and song, and humans have...well, all the things I've been talking about. I swear I'll get to men one of these days, because we're interesting, too.

3. Of course it's science. I can question the sexuality of clams and geckos but not people? We're animals, too!