Biology in the News Explained

Breasts and Society

Continued from Part 1

Except possibly for the most committed long-term breast-feeders, breasts spend the majority of their lives as secondary sexual characteristics, arguably unnecessary for reproduction, but certainly unnecessary post-reproduction. Although they may be considered necessary by some for mate attraction, they clearly have the broader role in most societies as a gender cue. And most of our human societies are obsessed with gender cues.

For example, it seems very important to most American mothers (and probably some dads too) that the gender of an infant be instantly identifiable. The problem with humans is, there are no characteristics other than genitals with which we can make this distinction before puberty. So, even moms wearing jeans, T-shirts and ball caps tend to dress their infant daughters as if they were on their way to all-pink Princess Land. At least during babyhood, blue is supposed to be reserved for boys.

Beginning during toddlerhood more cues are used; now that kids have enough to work with, hair length and style is often the primary cue. Certainly there remain girly (i.e. pink) clothes that boys aren’t allowed to wear, but notice that the babies in pink, frilly dresses often morph into jeans-wearing little kids.

Of course there is the interesting asymmetry in cultural gender cues. Women may “cross dress,” but it just doesn’t have the impact of a man wearing women’s clothing, because basically, a woman is allowed in our society to wear “men’s” clothing, while a man is not allowed to wear “women’s.”

The Atlantic’s recent piece on transgenderism in pre-adolescents is a perfect illustration of our inability to see beyond cultural constructs regarding gender. Although the article presumes to explore both sides of the issue – whether or not we should let little kids have sex changes – it actually misses the entire crux of the problem.

We should be discussing not whether people should get sex changes, but why people feel the need to get them. Anecdotally, it appears that more transgenders are men who change to women. This pattern is consistent with the idea that perhaps many transgenders do not so much want to have the genitalia of the other sex, but do have personal preferences about clothing, behavioral roles, etc. that are associated strongly with the opposite sex in their culture. Oversimplified, a man might think: I would like to wear pink frilly dresses. Men in my society are not allowed to wear pink frilly dresses. Therefore, I want to be a woman.

Because of the cultural asymmetry of our patriarchal society, women who prefer to dress or behave more like cultural norms for men are more easily socially accepted than vice versa. In the Atlantic’s story (by Hanna Rosin), the “transgenderism” among children certainly seemed biased toward boys wanting to be girls. It was clear however that the focal child of the story simply wanted to wear girls’ clothes and have girls for friends. As a prepubescent, he doesn’t yet know what his genitals are really for, so he can’t possibly understand what it means yet to swap them out.

Parents who actually use hormones to render their pre-pubescent children effectively sterile – and perhaps more to the point, less sexually sensitive – should be open to charges of abuse. It’s appalling that a society would find this action more acceptable than the idea of a boy wearing a dress to school, but apparently that’s where we are.

What no “expert” in the story questioned was American society’s (and probably most others’) need to pigeonhole individuals into a fairly arbitrary idea of “gender.” Why cannot even those who think about these gender issues all the time question the assumed vital necessity that a boy’s favorite color can under no circumstances be pink? One step back is all that is needed to see the patent absurdity of this rule. And yet it is absolute, never questioned.

It was clear that Rosin misses the point completely, given this statement about the transgender boy’s mother: “Tina had no easy explanation for where Brandon’s behavior came from. Gender roles are not very fluid in their no-stoplight town, where Confederate flags line the main street.” It is exactly in a society with stricter gender roles that you would expect to find more “transgender” individuals, because the acceptable behavioral and fashion preferences by each gender are more narrowly defined. If the kid were growing up in Greenwich Village, there’s a better than even chance he would not feel the need to become a girl in order to act “like” one.

Which is probably the biggest reason why the idea of losing one’s breasts is abhorrent to women who are in a long-term relationship and intend to have no more children, who make an effort to save their breasts, or reconstruct if they cannot. It is the reason why male-to-female transgenders have them made. Breasts are a major cue for gender, and most people want to be easily identified as their gender. There’s nothing strange about this. Clear identification of everybody’s gender is a hugely important cue for social interactions. But imagine for a moment if it were not – that as a cultural species, we recognized that the pigeonholing of gender is not actually necessary for a functional modern society that claims to believe in gender equality, and is perhaps even counterproductive. Imagine if we acknowledged that by immediately labeling someone’s gender (as with race), we tend to see a trait first, rather than an individual, and so we just decided not to worry about the stereotypes anymore. Wouldn’t that be nice?


17 Responses to “Breasts and Society”

  1. Shlog Blogger says:

    Men and women (boys and girls) have different chromosomes, different genitals, different endocrine systems, different brain wiring, different sporting ability- so why is it so freaking difficult to get your head around the idea that perhaps- just PERHAPS- boys do actually prefer blue? I know this doesn’t fit with your typical flat-earth-gender-theory but get with the science baby.

  2. Biotunes says:

    Any real science would demonstrate clearly that the idea that a color preference as a genetic trait is patently absurd – different cultures around the world use different (arbitrary) dress cues to identify gender. And “different sporting ability”? You’ve got to be kidding.

  3. Tim says:

    Oh, not this again. Speaking as a transsexual man, I ‘feel the need to get a sex change’ because I feel a profound sense of disconnection and incongruence with my own body, and feel more natural and mentally stable being viewed as a man.

    I’m not macho, I don’t fit into standard male stereotypes, I think there’s a lot of negative bullshit about masculinity. Furthermore, I would not suffer many social penalities for living life as a ‘masculine’ woman. Honestly, I feel like I’m letting the side down by not being a badass, unconventional, stereotype-defying woman! Yet despite having done my best to find a proud female identity, it didn’t work for me. All it did was make me miserable.

    Even if we discarded all preconceptions of masculine and feminine behaviour, I would still feel like my body was, at a deep and fundamental level, profoundly wrong, and desire to shape it to fit the more usual male template. Nobody knows what causes this, but it’s something that exists independent of gender stereotypes, and I am really sick and tired of non-trans feminists claiming that the existence of trans people is a bad thing and that we wouldn’t exist if society didn’t hold to stereotypes.

    If anything, if we loosened up stereotypes, you’d find there were more transgender people about the place, because there’d be less stigma in admitting to it.

  4. Adam says:

    I would greatly appreciate it if you did not attempt to impose your experience on to me. This post assumes that everyone has the same experience as you, which is not the case. This post exemplifies cissexism. It assumes that transsexuality has something to do with gender roles rather than sex. That transsexual people would not exist if we lived in some kind of nightmare of forced androgyny for all.

    I could care less about gender roles. I moved through the world as a man for a year before I physically transitioned and I was still miserable. It made no difference that I could wear men’s clothing and have people call me “he.” The only thing that brought me some peace was cutting off the breasts that did not belong there and taking testosterone.

    You can have all the opinions you want, but please don’t tell other people what to do with their bodies. Yes, women are traumatized when the lose a breast just like they would be if they lost a limb. You might want to think about why you are so anti-breast. Maybe you are transsexual, M.L.?

  5. Ben says:

    I don’t want to undermine the personal experience of transsexuals, but using your personal experiences from emotional development as objective and final evidence is rather untrustworthy. It’s incredibly necessary as a variable, but not as the sole or even primary conclusive word on such a vague aspect of human life and biology.

    Just because you do not “feel” that gender roles didn’t have an effect on you, really does not rule them out. I’m not saying you have the burden of proof to say that they didn’t, I’m saying there’s not enough evidence to make a call. Look at studies of feral children. They are incredible testimonies to how vast our lives as human beings are constructed by society, not by innate features.

    No one is asking you to ask these questions in your own life. You have the right to pursue happiness. However, in the field of science, such claims to certainty where there is reasonable doubt can only be retrograde. This may have a causal link to a moral issue that makes one want to sway the outcome, but the cold and distant truth is “We don’t know yet”.

  6. Matthew Crockett says:

    To say the author is off would be an understatement. As a self-aware species we feel a need to define ourselves as distinct from other people. Gender is one of the parameters we use. To suppress gender would be to damage someone’s sense of self. The argument about clothes is also off because women don’t routinely literally wear the same clothes as men. The feminine slacks came into existence at the same time as shoulder pads as part of a push for workplace equality for women who got a job rather than become homemakers. By assuming a uniform look, emphasis was shifted to the intellectual. The creation of female jeans is based on a practical consideration of women being more likely to do more rugged activities (yard work, hiking, etc.) than in times past. In both cases the garments are distinct enough to tell the intended gender even when they aren’t being worn. A man’s jeans have different lines and are made to be worn in a different way than a women’s jeans. Color identification is a contrivance but then so are all gender-specific customs in all societies.

  7. A lot of women, including myself, wear not feminized versions of traditionally male clothes, but the actual clothes marketed to males, for many reasons. People don’t give me a second look, whereas a male wearing clothes marketed to women clearly attracts attention. Your argument is fallacious. Society says it is OK for women to be “more like a man” but it is still in the mainstream much less acceptable for a man to take equivalent steps to be “more like a woman.” That may seem to be changing slowly, as there are more stay-at-home dads, etc, but in reality is that while the exceptions to societal norms may have become marginally more acceptable, they remain exceptions and show no sign of becoming more than that.

  8. Leo says:

    Your ignorance and cissexism are astounding.

    Yes, I agree with you that our tightly-defined gender roles are unnecessary and damaging. I DO know plenty of cisgendered people who do NOT confirm to standard gender roles, behaviors, clothiing, careers, and so on. But that doesn’t make them transgendered. It simply means they’re bucking the norm, and I applaud them for that.

    However, your insistence that transgender people are just cisgendered folks who really long to be able to express the stereotypes of the opposite gender? That’s ignorant and obnoxious, and is spoken from a place of cisgender privilege. I suggest you check your assumptions a bit more carefully.

  9. Leo, I admit I make some assumptions, and am really just throwing out an idea that is meant to be food for thought, not an attack on any adult’s personal choices. But you do resort to personal attacks, instead of adding to the discussion to explain why I am wrong. Surely you would acknowledge at least that an adult taking steps to help a pre-pubescent child become transgender because of a rigid view of gender roles is beyond inappropriate, which is the main point of my post. I’m quite sorry to have offended you, I would be much more interested in an actual argument, since yes, I’m certainly ignorant at least of the term “cisgenerder” (although I can divine it from context). For example, how is it exactly that all “cisgenered” people are privileged? I would argue that many who do not wish to conform to cultural stereotypes in many parts of America are subject to discrimination because of those choices. (I resent a bit your assumption of my “privilege,” just as you resent my assumptions.)

  10. Leo says:

    First, I’m assuming you’re cisgender. It means “same-gendered,” just as “transgender” means “opposite-gender.” It means you are psychologically content with the physical sex you were born with.

    And “cisgender privilege” means you’ve never had to face the social, emotional, psychological, and practical challenges of being transgender. You’ve never had to tell people “Don’t call me ma’am, I’m a sir.” You’ve never had people scream at you for being in the “wrong bathroom”… for BOTH bathrooms. You’ve never been sneered at for shopping in the wrong clothing department. You’ve never had someone argue with you that you couldn’t possibly be named X because it’s a girl’s name, or vice-versa. You don’t live in a society where your job and and rental house can be taken from you JUST because you finally “came out” because you’re about to start hormones. THAT is cisgender privilege.

    And I know… I know… you never think of these things. And THAT is the definition of the state of privilege – that you never HAVE TO think about these things. You never think about all these challenges, and how much it can diminish life, because you live in that state of privilege. It’s nothing you asked for. It’s nothing you expect. It’s certainly nothing you can change. It’s simply an inherent part of not being transgendered. Society will treat you with a certain level of normalcy, simply because your gender matches your assigned sex at birth. In other words, YOU’RE NORMAL, according to society.

    Now, if you shirk gender roles and stereotypes to any extreme degree, yes, in some areas, you will be subject to discrimination. It’s not the same as the extremes of discrimination against transgender folks, but I’m fully aware of how bad it can be. That’s simply another illustrative example of how gender-privilege applies to the “gender-normative” people, to the exclusion of those who don’t follow the norm.

    Let’s look at another example. I have “white privilege.” I didn’t ask for it, but I appear fully Caucasian, so therefore, I have it. Society treats me differently than it would if I were black, or Hispanic, or Middle-Eastern. It’s not right, and it’s not fair, but it’s how life is. I have white privilege. And because I have been made aware of it, I try every day to undermine the structure of white privilege in society, making a concerted effort to prevent minority groups from being marginalized, instead of getting defensive about my own state of privilege. Now, if I try to speak about the “black experience” despite having no first-hand knowledge whatsoever about what it’s like to be black, and without doing a LOT of research in order to understand black culture, history, and disadvantage in society, then that means I’m speaking from a position of white privilege and I need to shut my trap and listen so I can learn a few things.

    “Privilege” isn’t something to get defensive about. Almost everyone has some level of privilege. Privilege is any aspect of societal expectations about people based on a demographic trait – race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, gender orientation, body shape, disability, and so much more. You’ve heard of male privilege, right? If a group is split 50/50 men and women, in a typical scenario, if a woman is talking, a man will not only interrupt her, but feel justified in interrupting her, and his opinion will be taken over hers. A man will be expected to be smarter, stronger, and more assertive. A man will not have to justify his promotion by dodging accusations of sexual favors to get ahead, being told he was “only promoted to fill a quota,” or be accused of undermining the fabric of society if he doesn’t shirk his career to “stay home and take care of the kids.” There are a million examples… and it’s one of many different forms of privilege.

    I hope that explains it a little bit more. Do some research. There are many resources available to explain the nature of privilege, defined in this sense.

    At any rate, the attack isn’t “personal.” I don’t know you. It can’t be personal. But based on your blog post, I am assessing that in THIS particular issue, you are ignorant of all the facts. “Ignorant” isn’t an insult. I, for example, am grossly ignorant of ancient Chinese history, motorcycle maintenance, and fine vodka. I am moderately ignorant of a great many more things. I’m a biologist, a costume-maker, a sci-fi writer, and a queer. I know about things in my realm. The thing is, I would never post about a topic I was ignorant about, except to say, “Hey, I’m trying to learn about this. Here’s what little I know. Correct me if I’m wrong, and please add to the discussion.”

    As a biologist, and as a rationalist, I understand what you’re trying to do. You’re trying to propose a hypothesis about the nature of transgenderism, and how it relates to the tight confines of gender roles within society. It’s a nice hypothesis, and someone once tried to use that line on me. I was sure they meant well, but there was no way I could get across to them just how rude they were being. I consider myself a strong proponent of feminism. I know that women can be tough, strong, and smart. I served alongside women in the Army who threw aside all the “gender role” stereotypes. I’ve known lesbians who were more “butch” than some of the “all-American males” I’ve known. But they all still identified as women. STRONG women. Tough women. And THEY are the ones who re-define gender roles and break the lines of gender roles. And it’s a good thing that they’re doing that. But just because I was born with ovaries doesn’t mean that I’m out to redefine what it means to be a woman. I’m just trying to define myself as the man I know I am.

    I also believe that the tight gender roles we have in our society are damaging, limiting, narrow-minded, and wasteful of the natural variation of the human species. I agree with you there. Absolutely agree.

    But still… it doesn’t explain or eliminate the concept of transgenderism. I was always a “tomboy,” I suppose. But I remember being ticked off at being called a girl, and being uncomfortable simply being REGARDED as a female. Sure, I was tough. I was a weight-lifter, a distance runner, an intercollegiate athlete, and eventually an Army officer. I was also at the top of every math and science class I ever took. Nobody ever held me back as a child from anything I wanted to do, regardless of gender stereotypes. I was never told, “You can’t because you’re a girl.” Well… I was told that when I became an adult, actually, but by then I already knew who I was.

    I see beyond gender roles. I don’t define myself, my friends, my family, or the people I meet by stereotypical gender roles. I don’t believe in them.

    And I still feel like a man.

    My transgendered friends are from all walks of life. College art students, emergency room doctors, retail employees, and research biologists… all with different backgrounds. Some with accepting parents who never pushed restrictive gender roles on them, and others from extremely conservative backgrounds. Some are straight, some are gay. Some took on very “masculine male” or “feminine female” personas. Others forged their own identities. What they all have in common is that they KNEW.

    Now, I know transgender folks who ARE transgendered, but don’t fully transition physically for various reasons. COST is a huge reason. Other medical issues can play a role. Fear is another reason. Known complications of bottom-surgery is a big one (especially for FtM’s). And some don’t feel the need to change everything physically, as long as they can present themselves to the world as the gender they know they are.

    Either way, you had an interesting hypothesis, but not only did it fall short, but it’s been hashed out many, many times. Trust me, almost every transgendered person has heard almost that exact question: “Why can’t you just change what it means to be a man/woman, instead of having to mutilate your body? You’re such a handsome/lovely man/woman! You should be happy with your body, and your gender, and just change society.” Perhaps you didn’t mean it that way, but seriously, it’s really insulting.

    Anyway, you want me to add to the discussion. What I’m telling you now is that all these things have been discussed before, and these discussions are all over the internet. There are resources and websites that address the things you’ve mentioned, in detail. Perhaps I should have spent a bit more time earlier to provide more detail, but my wife and I had errands to run.

    And now, I need to go to bed. Best of luck to you, and perhaps we’ll cross paths again.


  11. Thanks Leo, for your very substantive reply. I do appreciate it. But you still make faulty assumptions about me. One doesn’t have to be transgendered to have experienced much of what you relate, and in fact I have. I am commonly mistaken for male by those who address me, and have on multiple occasions been assaulted by bathroom police, though I admit only in one type. I shop for men’s clothing all the time, and though usually that’s not a problem, I understand (to a much lesser degree, I openly admit) a little of where you’re coming from. This all happened when I still had breasts, but of course is exacerbated now by my not having them (which I am totally happy with, myself).

    I’m also on your side. The argument I’m actually making is that if society weren’t so obsessed in their stereotypes about gender, I would not have these issues and would not be more privileged than you. Yes, I know, we have the same ideals about race, and the issues will not likely go away there either. But replace my words with those about race and perhaps you see what I mean. I would never say as a white person that I know of any blacks who want to be white, but wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where there would be no advantage to being one race or the other, because everyone is treated equally? This is analogous to what I’m saying, which is wouldn’t it be great to live in a world where everyone could be who they want to be without someone else trying to pigeonhole them by gender.

    You may feel this has been hashed out, and I’m sure there is a lot out there, but I maintain that when a mainstream publication such as the Atlantic suggests that there are valid reasons for helping an eight-year-old child change his gender, then such a blatant display of how we are messed up on this issue is worth discussing. (And you didn’t answer my question about whether or not you agree that this might be valid).

    Good luck to you. I’m not actually trying to belittle who you are. I totally support it.

  12. Leo says:

    I probably needed to know more about you and your blog before I jumped to conclusions. You see, the only people who I’ve ever heard make the points you made are people trying to tell folks that they “shouldn’t be transgender,” and try to be “nice” by saying that I could just be a very masculine woman and that would be fine.

    I think we probably agree far more than I realized when I read your post. I thought you were trying to argue that transgenderism is defined by societal gender roles, and by people trying to break out of those roles. Perhaps that does play a role in it for some people, but I don’t think I know any.

    Also, to note, I’m sorry that you got treated like that in public restrooms. Not cool, and that sucks, and yes, then you DO know what it’s like. Nobody should have to suffer through that.

    I think the article said that the medical community would treat to suppress puberty until the child was older and could make more rational decisions. If, when the child gets older, he or she decides they don’t want to transition, they can stop the suppressive drugs, and the person will go through the natural puberty for his or her gender. It gives the child a better chance later to make an informed decision. It’s not precisely “helping an 8-year old change his/her gender.” It’s giving a family the resources to deal with a difficult situation early when all possible clues indicate that the child MIGHT be transgendered.

    The thing is, the transgendered folks I know said they felt “not right” when they were younger, but they still followed the gender roles they were told to follow… up to a point… even if it made them uncomfortable. These very young children? Not typical for the transgendered folks I’ve met. But if someone had asked me when I was younger, “Do you feel more like a girl or a boy?”… I might have finally had some way to relate to how disjointed I felt.

    But anyway, I think we agree on the problem with narrow gender roles, if nothing else. That’s certainly something we all need to work towards changing. I know completely straight, cisgendered men who are treated poorly by society because they like hobbies such as knitting and baking, or perhaps they’re just too mild-mannered. It’s a sad world we live in where people are treated like garbage just for trying to be true to themselves.

    Cheers, and be well.

  13. Thanks for an informative discussion, Leo, you have helped educate me more about what transgendered folks go through. I too am sorry about all your trials, it makes me very angry that people are so callous about how they treat others because of their own narrow ideas about how other people should be. You have given me a more nuanced view of the children issue. I believe that above all people should listen to what their children are trying to tell them without judging them, but I’m afraid we have a way to go towards that ideal.

    I would like to end with my favorite amusing “restroom police” encounter. While in grad school, I went to a concert with a female friend and we were both standing in the (naturally) long line for the women’s room, chatting, (Mind you, we weren’t even close to the door yet.) An older woman in front of us abruptly spun around and told me, “This is the line for the *girls* room.” I told her, “I know that,” and after a pause she said, “Oh, I’m sorry, I didn’t see your earrings!” Unfortunately I am never quick on the trigger with the right response but if I had been, I would have said, “Yes, I grew them when I hit puberty.”

    Cheers, and the best of luck to you.

  14. mysti says:

    I do believe that transsexualism is a result of ‘not fitting’ in the box their birth gender is supposed to go in, but sex change may be the only way to combat the trauma, which is why people are discussing whether children should be allowed to sex change, transsexual people are often miserable before they transition, so it is debated as to whether it’s right to prolong a child’s suffering because things may turn out for the better eventually, or do something about it right now that the child may not be happy with in the future?

  15. Zoe Brain says:

    For a biologically based view of gender identity – just the studies, no editorialising – see

    The presentation by Professor of Biology Veronica Drantz may also be useful. That’s available via

  16. Babbleon says:

    My son’s favorite color is (and has been since he got a favorite color) pink. Light pink. My dad likes it too. We do end up fighting the stereotypes at least once a month (no, he wants and may have the *pink* school shirt, thankyouverymuch), but it’s better than teaching him to lie about himself and his preferences.

    As best I can tell, he’s comfortable with his male identity, not really interested in frilly clothes or dresses (though dinosaur costumes are *awesome*), though he does prefer to play with girls. He thinks his penis is pretty interesting, though.

    I know this is anecdote, not data, but my reading of the literature indicates that transgenders tend to feel actual body dysmorphia, which clothes would not help.

    I don’t think that people should do irrevocable surgery before puberty, though. Puberty is confusing enough. Kids should wait until they’re at least 18.

    My mom wouldn’t even let me get my ears pierced until I was 16.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

− three = 2

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>