More women seeking breast augmentation are opting for smaller sizes than previously. Although most procedures are performed to increase breast size, a growing number are breast reductions. Why the change?

The Psychology of Breasts

Critics of modern media often complain that the female body is overused in advertising and entertainment. They certainly have a point. The expression, “sex sells,” applies mainly to images of attractive women, but there are good evolutionary reasons why this is the case.

Evolution shaped the female face and form more extensively than is true of any other female mammal. Permanently enlarged breasts are a sexually-selected trait analogous to the colorful tail plumage of male peacocks (1). Such displays are designed by evolution to attract attention, which explains why large breasts are so overused in advertising.

Women's history of sexual selection has a number of important implications for human social behavior. They include the following:

  • Women are perceived as more physically attractive than men despite some remodeling of masculine body shape, face, and facial hair to enhance sexual attractiveness (2).
  • Physical appearance is more important for social perception of women than men (3)
  • Women's popularity as mates is still heavily influenced by their physical attractiveness.
  • Females of our species expend a lot more effort, and expense, in enhancing their physical appearance than men (2).

In addition to these generalizations, the breasts play a role in sexual attraction and sexual behavior that is unique amongst mammals. In every society, breasts are stimulated during foreplay. They are neurally connected to brain regions representing the genitals and are therefore supplementary sexual organs.

Changing Standards of Bodily Attractiveness for Women

Evolutionary psychologists and anthropologists introduced the idea that physical attractiveness operates as a signal of biological quality in general and capacity to produce healthy offspring in particular.

Such signals are particularly important for women because female fertility is curtailed by age. Given that long term pair bonds are found in most human societies, it makes sense for men to be most attracted to women at the start of their reproductive career, typically beginning in their early twenties (4).

Having narrow waists, and plentiful fat stores around the breasts and buttocks is an outward sign of a hormone profile indicative of fertility and youth. For those reasons, women with curvaceous bodies are perceived as sexually attractive and fertile throughout the world and this perception is enhanced for unusually curvaceous women like Marilyn Monroe. Women with breast augmentation thus replicate this stronger sexual signal.

However, as more women get involved in the paid workforce (as occurred in developed countries from the 1960's onward) they began to desire a less curvacious body image (2).

Research indicates that there is a conflict in social perception between seeming sexy and fertile, and being perceived as professionally competent.

In other words, women with a stereotypically feminine body shape are perceived as less professionally competent. For that reason, as women join professions in larger numbers and de-emphasize marriage as an economic strategy, they downplay their curvaceousness in formal dress and aspire to a more slender, less curvaceous, body ideal. Recently, with greater emphasis on competition in the economy, women participate more in contact sports and emphasize physical fitness in dress and preferred body image.

This larger pattern may shed light on women's current preference for smaller implants.

The Shrinking Breast Implant

Cosmetic surgeons report that the preferred implant size is declining noticeably, as measured by bra sizes that range from A to D. The most popular implant today is equivalent to a cup size of B+/C- rather than the former preference for C+/D-.

It is worth noting that this difference roughly corresponds with gender differences in preferred breast size, where men find women most attractive if their breast size is larger than the feminine ideal (2). Although masculine preferences for feminine body type change over time in parallel with feminine body ideals, women's preferences vary much more than men's do. It is likely that male standards of attractiveness are influenced by the more slender and fitter ideal favored by economically successful women.

Shrinkage of implant size is clearly substantial and this goes along with the trend in preference for a more slender body ideal. The change in implant size likely stems from women's greater contemporary interest in careers. On the other hand, men continue to prefer curvaceous women and select dates largely on the basis of physical attractiveness, rather than career potential (5).

Women provide various alternative reasons for preferring smaller implants than in the past. They do not want to attract attention to themselves as sex objects. They prefer smaller breasts that seem younger, fitter, and more shapely. Very large breasts are unwieldy and can contribute to back pain (that can motivate women to seek reductions).

The good news is that unlike earlier generations, modern women are more intent on pleasing themselves than on maximizing their sex appeal merely to please men.​

References

1 Barber, N. (1995). The evolutionary psychology of physical attractiveness. Ethology and Sociobiology, 16, 395-424.

2 Barber, N. (2002). The science of romance. Buffalo, NY: Prometheus.

3 Jackson, L. (1992). Physical appearance and gender: Sociobiological and sociocultural perspectives. Albany: State University of New York Press.

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