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Abreast: The Basics of Boobies

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Breasts are both part of the reproductive anatomy -- in that they are how those who choose to feed infants that way do so-- as well as part of the sexual anatomy -- in that breasts are often sexually sensitive, as well as a common part of many people's sexualities and are a part of the body which is frequently interpreted as sexual by those attracted to people with breasts. For some, breasts, like the vulva, are often also a part of their gender and sexual identity, and a common source of body image woes and worries.

(They also tend to frequently be the hapless victims of very bad puns, as will be evidenced in this piece more than once. My apologies.)

For those of you with breasts, just like your genitals, they're not just sexual, and during many times of your life or a given day they won't be at all, an issue that those who breastfeed often are made to struggle with, since breasts being presumed as primarily sexual creates problems when it comes to being able to breastfeed, particularly publicly. In fact, it's safe to say that our breasts as sexual are a secondary function, and that the primary function of breasts is for breastfeeding, even if we never use them for that purpose.

The Shape of Things

Post-puberty, female breasts are composed primarily of four different things: connective tissue, fat, milk glands known as lobules, and milk ducts. The breasts sit on the rib cage, over the chest or pectoral muscles, and are connected to the body by ligaments. technically speaking, males have breasts, too, but due to hormonal differences between those who are XX and those who are XY (mostly estrogen levels), male breasts do not usually have the same prominence female breasts do, and also cannot serve the same function when it comes to breastfeeding.

There’s no muscle in the breast itself, though there are muscles (the pectoral muscles) beneath the breasts. The parts of the breast which create their size and shape are fat and glands. Between the ligaments of the breast are pockets of fat which contain the mammary glands (lobules) and those lead to milk ducts.

The area of the breast which is in the center of the breast, usually darker than the breast and surrounds the nipple (and is sometimes confused with the nipple) is called the areola. Milk ducts behind the areola -- about 15 to 20 of them in each breast -- lead to the nipples from the mammary glands, and during and after pregnancy, those ducts will produce milk to nourish a baby.


Boob BS Alert #1 There are no supplements or creams on the market which can increase breast size. Using some of them may cause the skin to swell, but not only are those results temporary, many supplements contain compounds dangerous to long-term health. As well, building muscle under the breast may change the appearance of the whole chest and how breasts sit on those muscles, but still won't change the breast itself.

I have some small bumps around my nipples. They aren't painful and look somewhat like pimples but are the same color as the rest of my nipple. I have become really self conscious about it and was wondering if these bumps are normal or not...?

There are also glands called Montgomery glands within the areola, which you can see sometimes, and look like little bumps. Most nipples protrude slightly (and noticeably when she’s aroused or cold), but some people have what are called inverted nipples, where the nipple turns inward into the breast, which is a normal variation.

Breasts come in a lot of different shapes: some look round or globe-like, other breasts may appear more oblong or triangular. For those with very small breasts, only the areola and nipple may protrude or have a visible shape. Some people have what are called tubular breasts, which have less glandular tissue than other breasts and look a little long and cylindrical. Breasts also vary in how much they stick up or drop down, and whether breasts are large, small or anywhere in between we'll see variances in the "droop" of breasts. No one breast shape is necessarily more functional or better than another, and just like people vary widely when it comes to what our genitals look like, or what shape our noses are, we also vary widely when it comes to our breasts.

Our breasts may or may not be proportional, or seem in harmony with the size of the rest of our bodies. There are larger people with smaller breasts, and smaller people with larger breasts. It's common enough for many people with large hips and thighs not to have an hourglass shape, or thin waists and breasts which are the same measurement as their hips: far more people are naturally rectangular or "pear-shaped," or have smaller breasts in comparison to their hips and thighs than those whose breasts match or exceed that size.

Some people also expect areolas and/or nipples to "match" the whole of the breast. In other words, if a person has large breasts, she "should" have large nipples; a small breasted person "should" have small nipples. But areola size doesn’t necessarily correspond to breast size. Those with large breasts can and do have small areolas; those with smaller breasts can and do have larger areolas. It’s normal for breast size and shape to differ slightly between one set of breasts. Areola and nipple size, however, tend to be pretty symmetrical: the areola and nipple of one breast will usually be the same or very similar for the other.

The size and shape of breasts vary so widely because each person’s breasts are made of up different amounts of the various sorts of fatty, mammary, and fibrous tissue, and because the individual fat and muscle composition and structure, as well as the hormones -- estrogen, progesterone and prolactin -- in the body, vary so widely. That’s part of why even in one person, in a given month, breast size can vary slightly, as can the tenderness of the breast. Many people experience subtle and sometimes noticeable changes to the breasts with every fertility cycle. Sometimes sexual arousal will also cause breasts to swell and appear somewhat larger or fuller.

Most of breast size and shape is determined by genetics: but because genetic combinations are so unique and not just about the genes from one side of a family, it’s still possible for a given person’s breasts to look nothing like their mother’s or sister’s. Too, breast size or shape doesn't always "match" the rest of, or other parts of, our bodies. A large person can have small breasts and vice-versa, and someone with full hips won't necessarily have full breasts.


Boob BS Alert #2 Cosmetic breast surgery and implants in teens is on the rise. Breast implants, while safer than they used to be, still pose risks like an inability to nurse a baby properly, rippling, scarring, sensation loss, serious and even life-threatening infections. FDA scientists have found a significant link between silicone gel implants and fibromyalgia, a disorder that causes pain and fatigue in the muscles, tendons and ligaments. A National Cancer Institute study found that those with implants had increases in cancers of the brain, respiratory tract, cervix and vulva. According to the FDA, 43% of all implant patients have complications within just three years of surgery. Considering the cost of breast implants, that breast implants are not one-time surgeries but require upkeep every few years, even removal or replacement, and all the risks they pose, they’re pretty iffy business.

I am 22 and concerned that my breasts have not developed properly. While I understand some women naturally have small breasts due to genetics, weight, physical activity level, my breasts have hardly developed since I started menstruating around age 15. I usually wear a bra size 32 or 34 A. I am wondering what might cause the developmental delay, and what are possible courses of treatment? I was rather active when I was a teenager, but I feel that my breasts should have reached a more mature state by now. I will soon have a pelvic exam--is the OB/GYN the proper doctor to ask about this, or is it possible that I have a hormonal imbalance and need to see an endocrinologist?

I'm turning 18 very soon and was wondering if its still possible for my breasts to get bigger. I'm a 34B, I'm happy with them but I would still like them to be bigger, and have even been thinking about surgery. My mom is a C sometimes D, so I assumed my boobs would be bigger. My boyfriend thinks that they have been getting bigger.

As explained here, everyone has a different pace when it comes to puberty. But for the most part, at this time in history, most people will be finished with or near-to-finishing their breast development by your ages. From the time breasts start developing, it usually takes around three to five years for that major development to complete. You may still find that at different times in your fertility cycle they change a bit, and during the course of your life, may also see some changes.

By all means, our breasts often do resemble the breasts of others in our family, but not just our mothers. We'll want to look to your mothers, sisters, both sets of grandmothers, aunts, the works. Even then, sometimes some of us are just outside the pack.

Both of you may simply be smaller-breasted compared to others or to your own ideals. There's nothing immature about smaller breasts, nor does physical activity inhibit breast development. I would not consider there to be a possible developmental delay or problem based on no other symptom besides having small breasts. If there clearly is breast tissue on your chest -- not just a puffy nipple or a bud only beneath the nipple -- it seems clear you did have breast development. Certainly you can always ask your general doctor or an OB/GYN you see about your breasts, but I'm willing to bet that unless you have other issues or symptoms you haven't mentioned here, nothing has gone wrong.

Since so many people tend to be curious about averages, currently, for fully-grown people, the average breast size in the United States and Europe is generally listed as being somewhere between a 34B and a 36C (around 40 inches around the fullest part of the breast). Breast asymmetry is common (where one breast is a different size than the other), and all the more common while breasts are still developing.

It is typical for younger people whose breasts are still developing to have breasts which sit higher on the chest than they do in older people, and for people to experience breast, areola and nipple changes during or after pregnancy, when using hormonal contraceptives, at or after menopause, and with substantial changes to body weight. It's also normal for breasts to have visible or not-so-visible stretch marks due to basic breast development or breast changes over the years.

Tit for Tat With the constant increases in the popularity of breast implants (and other cosmetic surgeries), some women, specifically, find themselves feeling more insecure than ever about their breasts, and sometimes people seem to get pretty nasty with quips about who is "real" and who is "fake."

I'll be short and sweet: women have never seemed to be helped by pitting themselves in bodily competition with other women. Whether it's women with implants dissing natural breasts or women without calling women with implants "fake," getting all caught up in the real breasts/fake breasts jazz just seems to be a road to nowhere. While cosmetic surgery certainly presents risks and has plenty of downsides, a person who has had surgery like implants is still a real, whole person and when we think of or treat real, whole people like crap, we usually wind up feeling like crap, too. Accepting your own breasts -- however they may be, surgery or no -- is the way to improve your body image, not putting down someone else.

Do also understand that usually, augmented breasts (particularly when we are talking about implants, not reductions) do not tend to look the same as natural breasts do, so making comparisons isn't so sage by that token, either. Implants tend to make breasts look more globe-like in shape, and they also don't tend to behave the same way when it comes to gravity, particularly the newer implants. So, if you find yourself feeling like your breasts don't look right because they don't look like augmented breasts, just understand that that's because they're just plain different. Think of augmented breasts as one more breast variation. No one is better than the other, and getting into internal or external pissing matches when it comes to your body and someone else's body just isn't very likely to result in anyone feeling better about anything.

Breast Health

If you have started developing and haven't started doing regular breast exams yet, there's no time like the present to get started. While breast cancers are uncommon in younger women, if you get in the habit of self-exams now, it's going to be a snap to keep doing them later when you may be at a higher risk. It's also been found that being active in your teens can be a help at fending off breast cancer, which is good to know since being active is not only good for your general health, but for the enjoyment of your sexuality as well. So, turns out that making sure you get off your butt a bit every day is good for you for one more reason.

The Feminist Women's Health Center has an excellent page on self-exams here.

What you're looking for when you do a self-exam -- or what your doctor is looking for when she or he does one for you -- are changes to your breasts like:

  • • Lumps, hard knots or thickening
  • • Swelling, warmth, redness or darkening
  • • Change in the size or shape of the breast
  • • Dimpling or puckering of the skin
  • • Itchy, scaly sore or rash on the nipple
  • • Pulling in of your nipple or other parts of the breast
  • • Nipple discharge that starts suddenly
  • • New pain in one spot that doesn’t go away

If you do ever find a lump, don't make yourself crazy over it: many breast lumps are benign and nothing to worry about. Just get in to see your doctor to find out what's going on so that if there is cause for concern, you can get care as soon as possible.

When you get in the habit of doing self-exams, over time, you'll get to know pretty well what's normal for your own breasts. So, while at first, you may not feel like you know what on earth you're looking for, the more often you do self-exams, the more familiar you'll get with your own breast texture so that you are likely to be able to tell when there is something that feels different with your breasts than usual. It can also be helpful to let your doctor know, the first time you get a breast exam, that you need to know how to do self-exams. They can help you know what's normal and what to be on the lookout for.

We're not talking about breasts feeling lumpy overall: it's normal for some breasts to feel lumpy or fibrous. It's also normal to have times when your breasts are more tender than others, which is usually related to your fertility and menstrual cycle.

Scarleteen users experiencing pregnancy scares will frequently point to breast tenderness as a likely symptom of pregnancy. However, there are many common causes of breast tenderness in women who are not pregnant, and breast tenderness is more likely to be due to these than to very early pregnancy.

Some typical causes for breast tenderness are:

  • • Hormonal changes during the menstrual cycle, particularly in the second half of the cycle or just before or with menstruation
  • • Certain medications (like birth control pills or hormone replacement therapies) or foods (such as caffeine, alcohol, salt or dairy products)
  • • Stress or general illness
  • • Fibrocystic breasts (which is really just a variation in the texture of breasts, not anything to worry about, but making some changes to diet or medications may help with discomfort, so gab with your doc about it)
  • • Breast growth (during puberty, guys may also experience this)
  • • Bras which are too tight
  • • Breastfeeding, pre-menopause or menopause
  • ... and yes, pregnancy

I Just recently got my nipples pierced. While cleaning the piercing, I pressed my nipple and some watery- white (ish) liquid came out of the nipple, but I'm not sure what it is. I've heard before that all women can produce breast milk even if they're not/have never been pregnant, but I just would like to know if it is possible that with no actual effort a woman can produce breast milk, just like it happened to me. It is just a few drops coming out of each nipple. Is it possible that this is breast milk? if so, is it dangerous that I keep on pressing my nipples to get this "milk" out of them just out on curiosity? If I keep doing this thing, will I create more and more milk everytime? Thank you for your help, this site really rocks.

Some people who are not pregnant and who have not recently been pregnant may indeed lactate. It's not particularly common, but not exactly rare, either. If you suspect that is the case what you'll want to do is see your doctor and have your prolactin levels checked. Sometimes, the pituitary gland overproduces prolactin -- which is the hormone responsible for milk production -- and in some people who are not pregnant, that results in lactation. If your prolactin levels are elevated, you might also find that your estrogen is low or that your periods have ceased or become infrequent. Why you want to have that checked out is to be sure you're not having any problems with your pituitary (like a tumor) or like another health issue, such as hypothyroidism, kidney or liver problems, which can also have this effect. You'll also want to make sure that you're not having that or other discharges which may be due to a health problem. Perhaps obviously, if you have had any pregnancy risks, you'll also want a pregnancy test since if you are actually lactating the most common cause of that is indeed pregnancy. There are more benign causes for this too, such as side effects from certain medication and sometimes even just exercise or sexual stimulation.

However, it's also possible (and more likely) to have nipple discharges that are not lactation. Since you just had a nipple piercing, what you're probably seeing is lymphatic fluid, a very typical thing to see when a nipple is healing from a piercing. You don't want to keep squeezing that out or messing with it: just let it be. And should the color or scent change when that fluid does come out on its own, that'd also be a good reason to just check in with your healthcare provider.

When it comes to breast discharges, know that some breast discharges are normal, even if they may seem weird or be unexpected. You might find that every now and then, particularly when your nipple is squeezed, you see some discharge: it might be clear or milky looking, or even greenish, yellowish, black or bloody. It might be thick or thin. If it's something that seems to go away pretty quickly, chances are it's nothing to worry about, even though it's smart to mention it during checkups. A lot of the time nipple discharge is just due to a clogged follicle -- just like with zits, which can also appear on the breasts.

What do you want to report to a healthcare provider? New lumps, unusual or sudden discharges; breast pain, sensitivity or insensitivity that is a new issue and which persists or gets worse. As well, some people with exceptionally large breasts for their frames experience discomfort or pain which is something to discuss with a doctor. Don't forget that your doctor or OB/GYN is also a fantastic person to talk to about any breast concerns in general, whether those are about health or about function or appearance.

As long as I can remember, I've had a lack of feeling in my breasts-specifically my nipples. It's never been a problem before, I figured that it might be something that I just couldn't derive pleasure from by myself. I'm not specifically numb there, I do feel pain, but that's pretty much it. It's kind of like touching the outside of your thigh; there's feeling there, but it takes more than a light touch for the body to even register that it's being touched. When my boyfriend tried playing with them and sucking on them, I found myself having to fake moans so as to not hurt his feelings (I've told him before I can barely feel anything. He seems determined to give it a chance every time we fool around and I'd rather humor him over something so minor rather than hurt his feelings. I know, I know. Faking moans isn't a healthy relationship. Trust me, we're fine other than my wonky body.) He's convinced himself that since my nipples get hard, I must be able to feel it now, but if I didn't know he was right there, I probably wouldn't notice a gosh darned thing. Most of the women who complain about a lack of feeling seem to have just given birth or gotten their nipples pierced (neither of which I've done). I'm eighteen years old and as stated previously, this isn't a sudden change. Is there a problem with my body?

Am I weird? I'm 22 and I've been sexually active for a while now, however I have something that's been bugging me. I don't enjoy my breasts being touched sexually. It's not that I'm adverse to it, I just don't normally feel enough to enjoy it. With my first partner I was worried that maybe my partner just wasn't doing it right, but with other partners it's been the same and even on my own it doesn't do much for me. I wouldn't worry so much if my partner didn't enjoy touching them so much, but he does and I feel like I should enjoy it so I pretend to enjoy it. Is this unusual?

How sensitive to and receptive to touch the breasts are not only varies from person to person (and it also seems to sometimes be impacted by size: those with larger breasts seem to report less sensitivity more frequently than those with smaller breasts), but it also tends to be based on how sexually aroused we are. The more aroused we become -- overall -- the more sensitive our breasts will tend to become.

But that still isn't a hard-and-fast rule: not all people enjoy sexual stimulation of their breasts or find it all that thrilling. I would not come to the conclusion that there is something wrong with you or your bodies. I'd chalk this one down to simple variability in physical sensation and human sexuality. We tend to see a range when it comes to breast sensitivity and sensation that goes from someone like you -- or a person with even less sensation -- to women who can reach orgasm through breast or nipple stimulation alone.

Partners need to accept variability in sexual enjoyment or sensation between different people. I'd suggest making clear to your partners that clearly, when it comes to you and your breasts, a theory like that you "should" be able to enjoy breast play because your nipples get hard is wrong. It shouldn't hurt anyone's feelings that your body is unique and that it responds like your body. Quit with any faking of enjoyment, and just be honest, candid and request acceptance. Now, if a partner enjoys your breasts and you also enjoy them playing with them but it just isn't anything to write home about for you when it comes to sensation -- sometimes, we don't get a lot of sensation from something, but still enjoy it because we get enjoyment in partners doing so -- then you two still get to do that. But if you really don't even like it, on top of not feeling much, then you just let a partner know that, and he or she should let it go.

If we're going to be sexually involved with people, we to need to be able to learn and accept the uniqueness of a partner's body -- be it about breasts or anything else -- rather than trying to get it to conform to our expectations. We all also have to recognize that often, one partner is not going to meet every sexual desire we have or like every single thing we like, and that's totally fine. In sexual partnerships, it's really about having many of our desires met (and about so much more than just sex when it comes to our compatibility). We'll all live with one or two things that we might like but a partner doesn't.


Boob BS Alert #3 Bras aren’t needed for breast health, and no viable data has ever shown that brassieres prevent breasts from sagging over time. The sag or droop of breasts over time is about genetics and the unique proportion of fat and tissue of a given person's breasts. Wearing them is an individual preference based on physical and/or emotional comfort. For those who like wearing a bra to bed, there’s also little to suggest that it’s unsafe, especially if the bra is soft and flexible. In other words, whether you choose to wear a brassiere or not, either choice is healthy and neither choice will impact the health or the bra-free appearance of the breasts.

To bra or not to bra?

Just like underwear or jewelry, brassieres are totally optional. If you want to wear one, wear one, and if you don't, you don't have to. Some women like wearing them for physical support (particularly larger-breasted people) or modesty, some just because they think bras are pretty or like how their breasts look better in one. They're also a common fashion piece anymore, and have been for some time. Others prefer to ditch brassieres, and either just wear an undershirt, tank top or camisole, or go without anything at all. Your family or friends may have their own opinions on brassieres -- plenty of folks have had fights or arguments about not wanting to wear one and being told it's the only "proper" thing for women to do, others have wanted one earlier than a parent felt it was needed or appropriate -- but bras are one of those things where what you feel is best for you should be the order of the day.

Bras come in a lot of different styles and fabrics, from pieces that look like they should be in an art museum (and cost as much!) to worn-in utilitarian numbers that do the job without being overqualified. Some kinds of bras don't require intricate sizing -- like many sports bras -- and can adapt pretty well to a good range of sizes, while others do require knowing a very specific size. For those which do require very specific sizes, you'll need to know your band -- the measurement by inches around your ribs, just under your breasts -- and your cup size -- the differential between that band size and the measurement around the fullest part of your breast. For instance, someone who wears a 36B bra is 36 inches around her ribs and 38 inches around the fullest part of the breasts. If you need help with sizing, you can ask where you buy a bra or see a piece like this one which explains how-to.

On a green note, if you're looking for bras which are comfortable, eco-friendly and well-made to last you a while without breaking the bank, you might want to try looking to retailers like Decent Exposures or Blue Canoe.

Breasts can be a pretty loaded issue. For any of us who grew up reading Judy Blume, we probably remember this quote as well as any: "Are you there God? It's me, Margaret. I just told my mother I want a bra. Please help me grow God. You know where. I want to be like everyone else." And for those of us done with breast development, we're probably really glad it's over.

When people first start developing breasts, it can be uncomfortable emotionally and socially: having everyone notice or even point out that you're developing breasts can be pretty awkward, as can suddenly getting sexual attention because of breasts, particularly if you're not feeling sexual yourself. (And if any guys are being particularly insensitive about it, you might ask how they'd feel if those unexpected erections that make them feel much the same way were up where everyone could see them 24/7.) Because human breasts do tend to be an outward marker of gender or biological sex, it's relatively easy to get pretty tied up in what breasts say about gender, especially if you have to hear quips about it, like someone suggesting larger breasts are "womanly," (which can not only leave smaller-breasted women feeling cruddy, but can affix a gender identity to larger-breasted women they don't want), or that a given size of breast is more or less sexy or beautiful. If you grew up idealizing or expecting a certain kind of body or breast, and yours don't turn out that way, you might feel bummed out. Even a partner really enjoying and liking your breasts can present issues: you might worry that's all they like, or if you don't like them so much yourself, might worry they're just humoring you or be less-than-thrilled with their big interest in a part of your body you could care less about. If you really dig your breasts and a partner isn't as big of a fan as you are, you might find yourself concerned they aren't as great as you thought.

For sure, breasts are different than feet or hands. And it's understandable that they can be strongly affixed to ideas or feelings about gender, sex or attractiveness. We tend to live in a pretty breast-fixated culture, and that fixation sometimes manifests through the sexism we also live entrenched in, which can make it really unpleasant at times. But do your best not to make a mountain out of...well, just a boob.

Like many other parts of your body, they are but one more part, and they will also change over time, which is normal. Your feelings about them may also change with different times in your life, and different times for your breasts: if you breastfeed, for instance, you may find yourself thinking very differently about them than you did before. When you're 60, you'll probably think of them differently than you did at 15. Like a lot of body issues, often it's our issue that creates problems, conflicts or stress rather than what we think is causing the issue (our breasts, who have never done anything to anyone, the poor dears). It only makes sense to watch how much we're devoting or investing into a body part when it comes to our emotional or intellectual energy or our cash: if you're having problems or feeling really concerned about your breasts, try and find the line between acknowledging you just feel insecure at the moment and obsessing and stay on the side of simple acknowledgment. And when you find yourself thinking, or other people saying, seriously stupid stuff about breasts, just check it and make a mental note that those thoughts or ideas aren't because something is wrong with your or any breasts, but because something is wrong with those ideas (or those people).

When it comes to how others feel about your breasts, it's just like anything else: peoples aesthetics are totally arbitrary and personal, and what we like on a partners body will also not always stay the same: often, the longer we're with someone and the more intimate we become with them, the more we discover all of their beauty and the better able we are to see them as a whole, integrated person rather than a bunch of parts. And we all know how much greener that grass is down the block: if we've large breasts, smaller ones likely seem better, and if we've small breasts, we might think a larger set would result in us being more comfortable. But what we know is that no one size or style of breast has ever left all people immune from body image concerns or somehow been perfect for everyone. You know where I'm going with this.

A breast is just a breast, and a breast is so much more than just a breast, too. But if they're healthy, it's all good (and if and when they're not, we can deal with that, too). Love 'em or hate'em, but they are what they are, they're yours as they are and it's always going to be your breast -- uh, best -- bet to accept and care for them like you do all the rest of your body and not to take them too seriously or put too much stock in just two bumps. If your own ideas or outlook about your breasts are getting you down, you don't need to change your breasts: your need to change your ideas or your outlook.

To quote someone else who knows as much about dealing with boobs and the way the world deals with them as anyone, more about getting wanted and unwanted attention than most of us, "If you don't like the road you're walking, start paving another one." (Dolly Parton)

written 07 Sep 2008 . updated 22 Nov 2013

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