By: Nicole Pulsinelli
Breasts are sexy.
They are hailed as a sexual beacon. But how has society come to this conclusion?
According to experts, this is a by-product of both nature and nurture. However, cases have been made leaning in the direction of a stronger nurture influence.
Larry Sawchuk is an associate professor at University of Toronto Scarborough campus’s anthropology department. He says there is a number of places children are taught that breasts are sexual, from home to the media.
“Marketing and advertising played a role in the whole issue of making breasts more of an object than what they’re intended to do biologically, which is nurturing the child,” he said.
He also makes a case that magazines such as Playboy Magazine and certain films glorify breasts in a sexual light.
Carlyle Jansen is the founder of women’s sexual health shop, Good for Her, at 175 Harbord St. in Toronto and sex educator. She is also a mother of two boys. She recalls a time her sons watched a Jackie Chan movie with her brother-in-law. In the film Chan and his sidekick are choosing a woman to receive massages from. The woman who was chosen was cupping her breasts and presenting her cleavage. Jansen says her eight-year-old has since referred back to that scene, finding it funny.
“(Children are) like sponges and they pick up on what is sexualized in the media,”she said. “Part of the issue is children absorb everything, but they don’t understand. They don’t comprehend what’s behind it.”
Jansen says her youngest son maintained an attachment to her breasts until he was three years old, having already been off breastfeeding for a year. She said though she had to wean him off, the attachment he had been simply a habit of comfort. Jansen believes that to be a product of nature.
I wouldn’t say that was sexualized,” she said. “I think as we grow that early memories of comfort could get translated into something you crave and might sexualize. Hopefully not your mother’s (breasts), but I do think that can translate.”
Tina Malti Assistant professor at the University of Toronto Mississauga campus’s Department of Psychology says though children are first exposed to breasts in childhood, they may not acknowledge sexuality right away.
“Breasts are just part of any child’s experience of being mothered,” she said. “I think it (sexualizing breasts) happens in adolescence than childhood.”
Malti says how body image is illustrated to children will affect how they perceive bodies. Children may be taught to be more respectful of bodies.
This doesn’t mean Malti believes children are safe from the way media may influence how society’s values. Aside from media persuasion, Malti also makes a case for the nature argument.
“I believe we are told by the media (to sexualize breasts) because obviously they’ve become desirable things,” she says.
However, aside from media persuasion, Malti also makes a case for the nature argument.
“From an evolutionary perspective, people could think that there are other components. Nature signals fertility, for example.”
Sawchuk sees the validity in the nature argument, but also notices something else.
“Humans are the species that objectify breasts,” he said. “It’s a very unique quality.”
However, he also mentions that human behaviour is “not really a by-product of simple genetics.”
“In general, sexuality has become a media topic and that is related to how people perceive that issue,” Malti said.
Sawchuk say there’s a case to be made that the media is geared towards who the audience is and is dictated by the environment.
“Where we are in cultural heritage is heavily influenced by the age of the individual we talk to,” he said. “The socioeconomic status and the ethnicity of the individual- it would all vary.”
This means the media nurtures more than just the views of children. It also has influence on the people who raise them.
“Much of this is learned behaviour from watching mom and dad react,” he said. “There are visual and auditory cues the child can be picking up on.”
Jansen says society is being taught by the media what beauty is and breasts play a part in that.
“The message they’re getting is that a women is about her breasts, her beauty and her youth,” she said. “So, they can’t decipher it and we don’t have good enough media literacy in our schools and in our homes.”
Jansen says breasts are the quintessential image of femininity and a lot of weight is placed on them. She says it’s fine to celebrate them, not objectify them.
“I don’t think it’s bad in itself,” Jansen said, “It’s a problem when it’s weighted stronger than other things.”