Women’s breasts are getting bigger. According to the historic art, women seemed to have much smaller breasts than the contemporary women.
Last century :
The average American bra size has jumped from a 34B 20 years ago to a 34DD in 2013, according to a new survey by lingerie retailer Intimacy.
What’s going on?
Dr Marilyn Glenville, a nutritionist specialising in women’s health and hormones, says: ‘It’s clear that we’re not just talking about fat, but increased levels of breast tissue, too.
‘So we have to look at what stimulates breast tissue growth — and that’s oestrogen, the female sex hormone. Oestrogen is what changes our body shape during puberty.’
The link between increased oestrogen levels and bigger breasts is so clear that there are even ‘breast-enhancing’ supplements on the market containing ingredients such as fennel seed and fenugreek, which are said to have oestrogenic properties.
Dr Glenville says: ‘It makes sense to look at the ways in which our exposure to all types of oestrogen — the hormone our own bodies produce and oestrogenic chemicals we come into contact with — has changed over the years.’
‘Girls today reach puberty earlier than ever before, and are going on to have fewer children and breastfeeding for less time. As a result, we have far more periods than our ancestors would have had and we are exposed to more monthly surges of oestrogen, which stimulates ovulation.’
In addition, today’s young women were born to the first generation of women on the contraceptive Pill. Early versions of the Pill contained far higher dosages of synthetic oestrogen than they do today, and little is known about the long-term impact of this increased hormone exposure on future generations.
So, could the changing shape of our breasts indicate an increased sensitivity to oestrogen?
Dr Glenville says: ‘Pregnancy and breastfeeding have a protective effect against breast cancer because they control the hormones which stimulate the growth of new cells in breasts.
‘But with more women today putting off pregnancy until later in life and having fewer children, they experience many more monthly cycles than previous generations did, and are exposed to more oestrogen.
‘I’m certain that if you looked at photographs of Victorian women, who on average had five or six children, you’d find them comparatively flat-chested.’
But, of course, that is far from the only difference between women’s lives then and now.
HRT also tops up depleting oestrogen levels in menopausal women, who — like women on the Pill — often go up a cup-size or two when they begin a course of treatment.
But it’s not just women on the Pill or HRT whose oestrogen levels, and cup-size, might have increased as a result.
In 2002, research published by the Environment Agency showed that an ‘exquisitely potent’ form of oestrogen — which is believed to have entered the rivers through the urine of Pill and HRT-users — was responsible for changing the sex of half of all the male fish in British lowland rivers, and could be contaminating the water supply.
Now, it has been suggested that the influence of these xenoestrogens (literally ‘foreign oestrogens’) could be responsible for the rapid decline in male sperm count and fertility.
‘We can’t assume these pollutants have no effect on us,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘There are many questions still to be answered, but if xenoestrogens are potentially responsible for declining male fertility, they are potentially affecting women, too — and the proof could be in our bras.’
So how do we avoid these surplus hormones? The answer is, we can’t. And it may come as a surprise to know that they are found in everyday items.
‘Pesticides, plastics and cosmetics are my main concerns,’ warns Dr Glenville.
For instance, a xenoestrogen called Bisphenol A (or BPA) is widely used in the manufacture of tinned food, drinks cans, plastic bottles, glass jars, electronic equipment and till receipts — to name but a few items.
You are what you drink: Two-thirds of the milk we consume comes from pregnant cows, meaning we are absorbing more oestrogen
Although the European Food Safety Agency maintains that BPA doesn’t pose a risk to the public, many scientists consider it to be a potentially harmful ‘hormone disruptor’, and several of the world’s leading food manufacturers are putting timetables in place to remove it from all of their products. Heinz insists it’s at ‘an advanced stage’ of removing the chemical from its UK baby food range.
But, until now, our exposure to it has gone virtually unchecked.
‘The same goes for xenoestrogens in the deodorants, make-up and moisturisers we use,’ says Dr Glenville.
‘We apply them to our skin and often directly on to the breast. Our skin absorbs those chemicals readily. It is not inconceivable that those chemicals stimulate growth in breast tissue.’
But we’re not just covering ourselves with oestrogen, we’re drinking more of it, too.
The introduction of intensive dairy farming methods to maximise production means that about two-thirds of the milk we consume comes from pregnant cows. To ensure that a dairy cow has a steady supply of milk, she is almost constantly pregnant.
But taking milk from a pregnant cow, especially during the last few weeks of her pregnancy, raises questions about the high levels of oestrogen and other hormones in milk — and how they might affect those who consume milk every day.
‘It’s not just about exposure to oestrogens, but how our bodies cope with them,’ says Dr Glenville. ‘It’s possible that increased alcohol intake impairs the liver’s ability to help us metabolise and excrete excess hormones.
‘We also live more sedentary lifestyles these days, which may mean we metabolise these hormones less quickly.
‘Hormones that aren’t efficiently excreted can re-circulate in the body and the cumulative effect of this may be a build-up of oestrogens, which — over a long period — could alter our natural body shape. It’s something we should take notice of.
‘After all, developing very large breasts can have all sorts of health and wellbeing implications — and forces a lot of women to consider breast-reduction surgery.’
Big breasts can affect posture, causing chronic back pain and leaving permanent indentations on shoulders where bra straps cut in.
Health problems can be emotional as well as physical — some women are left very self-conscious by their large chest and the undue attention this attracts, which is why they have turned to professionals such as Dr Puneet Gupta of The Private Clinic of Harley Street.
Due to an increase in women inquiring about breast reduction operations — each year around 10,000 women pay up to £5,000 for private operations — he is pioneering a new kind of reduction surgery called Microlipo, which reduces the risk of breast damage associated with older surgical techniques.
‘Like all forms of surgery, breast reduction is now more widely known about and more affordable than it was,’ he says.
‘There have always been women who have disproportionately large breasts, compared to their frame. But they are more likely to seek help now. The women I see are usually sick of the physical and psychological discomfort.’