Frances E. Mascia-Lees

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Frances E. Mascia-Lees is Professor of Anthropology at Rutgers University.


  • Perhaps we should not be surprised by such statistics: after all, men seem to have an overwhelming attraction to breasts. Isn’t a woman’s wish for an enhanced bust line just a natural response to a primal desire to attract a mate? Many contemporary thinkers would suggest that this is the case. They invoke the notion of sexual selection in their arguments, arguing that some time long, long ago in the human evolutionary past, some males became erotically aroused by females with visibly enlarged breasts, choosing them more often as sex partners than their “flat-chested” sisters, thus maintaining this trait in human populations. Some writers even argue that men’s attraction to breasts was a key to the survival of early humans. Given the putative significance of breasts to the human species, is it any wonder that women in the twenty-first century spend millions of dollars, and take medical risks, to enhance theirs?
  • Although sexual selection arguments are extremely popular, there is another, more plausible explanation for why enlarged breasts evolved. As I will argue, females with visible breast enlargement would have been better able to support themselves and their infants in the environment in which our early human ancestors lived. Indeed, I suggest that the more robust notion of natural selection is the key to understanding why women have breasts, not the problematic idea of sexual selection.
  • Whatever the exact selective advantage of fat, it is clear that the evolution of permanent breast enlargement in human females need not be explained through their erotic appeal to men. What my colleagues and I hoped to show by presenting our explanation is that a reasonable argument based on natural selection could be developed. Our model is not as “sexy” as the explanations that see breasts exclusively as erotic attractors of men. But it avoids relying on such poorly substantiated concepts as differential parental investment, female dependency, and sexual selection, ideas that may reinforce twenty-first century notions about women and gender roles but have little, if no, empirical evidence to support them. The idea that female breasts are little more than objects of sexual attraction for men is a popular one in many European societies, and certainly in the United States, among not only producers and audiences of slick programs on “The Learning Channel,” but also quite obviously among many scientists. But, it seems, they may be indulging more in sexual fantasy than scientific fact.

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