The world is full of lies, and it’s hard to get through life without taking a few on board. Luckily, we’re here to sort the fact from the fiction, and find the plankton of truth in the ocean of bullshit. This week: Breasts! What are they actually for? What connects toplessness with alien harems? Let’s motorboat our way to the truth by uncovering some breast facts and myths.
Lie #1: They’re for Feeding Kids
Are they? Nipples are, for sure, but on breasts the jury’s out. See, no other mammals have permanent breasts — their nipples are always there, but the breasts around them come and go depending on whether they’re lactating. If you see a buxom gorilla, chances are there’s a little baby gorilla somewhere nearby.
Why, then, do human women both develop and keep breasts? Is there an evolutionary reason for perma-tiddies? Nobody really knows, although there are plenty of theories. Evolutionary psychologists have devoted a lot of study to the area, and why humans developed permanent breasts around the same time they started walking upright, although most theories boil down to either “dudes like them” or “babies like them.” While their development is generally thought to have happened as a result of humans beginning to walk upright, it might also have had pretty dramatic, society-shaping knock-on effects — face-to-face sex, for instance, and this fun thing “kissing.”
Lie #2: ‘Go Topless Day’ Is Totally About Equality
2020 saw the 13th annual Go Topless Day, in which the Sunday nearest August 26th — Women’s Equality Day — sees marches in favor of topfreedom, the idea that men and women should be treated the same in terms of what they can and can’t wear in public. Men can walk around without shirts on, so women should be able to as well.
• Read next: How ‘Big Naturals’ Conquered the World
Absolutely, but there’s a bit more going on with this particular day. Go Topless Day was started up by Claude Vorilhon, also known as Raël, a 74-year-old French former journalist and one-time pop star who founded the UFO-based religious movement Raëlism. It’s a hard belief system to describe — there are no gods in it, rather, ancient aliens who were mistaken as gods when visiting Earth, but the Bible also features heavily. The main idea is that an advanced alien species called the Elohim created humanity, and occasionally created a human/Elohim hybrid, of which Raël is one (others have included Jesus, Buddha and Mohammed). The hope is to eventually make an Earth the Elohim wish to return to, and in doing do achieve immortality for everyone. Cool!
Raëlism has a lot of human-sized beliefs as well, a lot of which are pretty great for a religious organization. They are extremely pro-LGBTQ rights, for instance, very supportive of the rights of sex workers and in favor of mass free distribution of birth control, and have set up separate organizations vehemently against female genital mutilation and pedophilia (these are called Clitoraid and NOPEDO — you can probably figure out which is which). Seems great, right? Is the founder also a racecar driver? You bet your ass he is!
It’s also very, very into doin’ it. Sociologist Susan J. Palmer, who has written extensively on the group, describes it like this in Sexuality and New Religious Movements: “Raël claims the Elohim created us to feel sexual desire as a panacea for humanity’s violent impulses and a way to bring about world peace. Through the hedonistic pursuit of sexual pleasure, new pathways between the neurons in the brain are forged. This enhances the individual’s intelligence and increases the eligibility of the intrepid sexual adventurer/ess for ‘regeneration’ (i.e., cloning) by the Elohim, upon his or her demise. Thus, for raelians, sex brings hope of eternal life and individual salvation: a kind of physical, quasi-immortality.”
Great stuff, right? Banging your way to galactic immortality. However, the way some of this works is a teensy bit problematic, like Raël’s alien buddies’ insistence on him procuring them some totally hot babes. According to Raël, he was told, “We prefer to be surrounded by individuals of great beauty corresponding to the absolutely perfect original models of the different races that we once created on earth.” This led to the Order of Angels, a group of beautiful women chosen by Raël himself to be, uh, “consorts” for alien visitors when they arrive. They are ordered to follow strict diets to retain genetic purity, and not to have sex with anyone. Well, Raël himself is half-Elohim of course, so they can have sex with him if they want, but nobody else. Hmm. Seems a bit… hmm.
Go Topless Day is just one of the International Raëlian Movement’s ventures — others include a swastika reclamation campaign (the organization’s logo is a swastika inside a Star of David), the Paradism campaign for a world without work or money and Back to Kama, which can charitably be described as “hopefully well-intentioned.” Oh, and they claim they cloned a person. There’s a lot going on with them, is the thing.
The inconsistencies with how society and the law treats the human body are clearly outdated and unfair, and the idea that a shirtless man is fine but a shirtless woman is breaking the law is ridiculous. Seeking to redress that might well be the primary motivating factor in organizing Go Topless Day. But, you know, the guy behind it sure does love a pair of tits!
Lie #3: Breast Cancer Is a Thing Only Women Get
Everyone can get breast cancer. It’s much rarer in men than women, but does exist — in the U.K., for instance, 85 or so men die of the disease, a fraction of the 11,500 women who do. Men who do get it are often embarrassed by what they thought was a woman’s disease. Psychologist Kerry Quincey, who does a lot of work with men diagnosed with it, told The Scotsman: “The misconception that breast cancer is a women’s illness has long been perpetuated. This can, and does, have a profound impact on men who are diagnosed with the disease; psychologically, because men find it difficult to talk about their diagnosis; and physiologically, with the lack of awareness and associated stigma contributing to preventable deaths.” Organizations like the Male Breast Cancer Coalition and Walk the Walk are trying to lessen this stigma.
• Read next: Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Testicles
Men aren’t famed for their tig ol’ bitties, though, so how are they managing to get breast cancer? Well, dudes still have breast tissue, around and behind the nipple. Hormone imbalances (like the estrogen increase caused by obesity) can lead to a dramatic increase in breast tissue called gynecomastia. And, as anyone who has spent a lot of time around teenage boys knows, there are some busty little bastards out there — 70 percent of boys temporarily develop breast tissue during adolescence.
Lie #4: Hey, There Sure Are a Lot of Breasts in Art!
Not as many as there nearly are — saunter through a gallery of Renaissance art and you quickly notice just how many women have one breast hanging out (and all in paintings by dudes). What’s going on? Is the idea that one is acceptable but two would be rude?
The most common reason to have one breast out is to feed a baby, and that’s what one revealed breast generally symbolizes — motherhood, fecundity, spiritual nourishment and maternal sacrifice. A staple piece of religious art at the time was Maria lactans — Mary nursing Jesus. Back then, wet-nursing was widespread, in which wealthy women would pay another woman to breastfeed their child. Showing Mary lowering herself to it was meant to show her humility and selflessness.
The association with motherhood stuck around. One 1594 painting in the Louvre shows two topless sisters, one tweaking the other’s nipple. This — by both drawing attention to, and concealing, the nipple — is thought to symbolize the tweakee’s pregnancy with the illegitimate child of Henry VIII. That’s a historical purple nurple.
So one out was admirable, even holy. However, having both out meant being of ill repute. According to a 2004 paper in History Today looking at 17th century art, “in portraits, the exposure of both breasts tended to be restricted to court ladies who were known to be mistresses.”
All that said, some of it was almost definitely horny artists pushing their luck as far as they thought they could. “Just get one out, you’ll look really holy.”
Lie #5: “My Ideal Woman Has a 36D Rack,” Etc.
Tabloids like the Mail Online (the creepiest publication in the world) love putting bra sizes in headlines — “Mother-of-Two, 29, With 38KK Breasts Says Her Giant Chest Is Ruining Her Life,” “Student, 20, With Natural 34J Breasts Is Crowdfunding to Have Them Reduced,” “Mother With J-Cup Breasts Says They Have Left Her Housebound” and so on. Back in the days of Russ Meyer’s sexploitation films, publicity materials surrounding his movies would go to great lengths to point out that Anita Ekberg wore a 39DD, or Darlene Gray a 36H. The makers of the sequel to Piranha 3D absolutely high-fived when they decided to call it Piranha 3DD — a double D, you see, because it has large breasts in it. High numbers and far-down-the-alphabet letters: phwoar!
The accuracy of any of these sizes is fairly open to question. Bra sizing is really complicated and idiosyncratic — there’s a thing called “sister sizing,” for instance, where, by volume, a 32D, 34C and 36D bra might all hold exactly the same volume of breast… but also totally might not! It’s really complicated! Human bodies come in lots of shapes and sizes! Loads of people are wearing non-ideal bras! Most women’s bra size differs depending on the brand and style of bra they’re wearing, and can change a lot based on relatively minor weight fluctuations.
The sort of dude who spouts off about his ideal woman, regurgitating things they’ve seen in porn and throwing incredibly specific measurements in there to seem all worldly? That dude is, in the most diplomatic wording possible, a silly-assed butthead. Considering most men don’t even buy their own fucking underpants, purporting to be an authority on bra sizes is likely to leave you looking — and we all know how this sentence is going to end, and we’re all ready for it, it’s going to be fun — like a bit of a boob.
Also, a shithead!
• Read next: Five Lies You’ve Been Told About Whiskey