A RESEARCH paper titled “Scientific analysis reveals major differences in the breast size of women in different countries” recently made the rounds on several news sites. It compares the size and volume of women’s breasts in 108 countries. It is entirely fraudulent. News agencies, at least initially, simply did not bother to check. Two UK newspapers, the Daily Telegraph, a broadsheet, and the Daily Mirror, a tabloid, reported on the findings without any critical comment <http://www.telegraph.co.uk/women/life/us-women-have-the-biggest-breasts-in-the-world–study-reveals/ and http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/countries-boasting-women-biggest-natural-8315288#>.
A number of Philippine newspapers also failed to verify the credibility of the research paper. ABS-CBN <http://news.abs-cbn.com/life/07/07/16/study-ph-women-have-smallest-breasts-in-the-world>, the Philippine Star <http://www.philstar.com/fashion-beauty/2016/07/08/1600807/study-filipino-women-have-smallest-breast-size-world>, and the Technology section of the Philippine Daily Inquirer <http://technology.inquirer.net/49202/filipino-women-have-smallest-breasts-study> all cited the research as fact and bandied about data that claimed Filipino women were at the bottom of the world league table. They supposedly possessed “the smallest breasts in the world.”
The research paper in question appears in something called the “Journal of Female Health Sciences” <http://www.sciencedatabaseonline.org/ADB1/Scientific%20Article%20JOFHS>. The web page lists seven co-authors, six of whom are listed as academics. I did a simple Google search on the “Journal,” the six named academic authors, and their institutional affiliations, and came up with absolutely nothing on all counts. The “Journal,” the academics, and their institutions simply do not exist.
What should have been easily dismissed as outright fraud was instead given credence by sloppy media too lazy to check, and not averse to spreading sexist claptrap to feed a public appetite for the prurient. It’s not without precedence, of course. The German newspaper Bild, not so long ago, came out with its own “Atlas of cup sizes” boob map <http://www.stepmap.de/karte/weltkarte-koerbchengroesse-1117664>, although it astutely did not claim scientific rigor.
But amid the fakery, there is sometimes a grain of truth.
Bona fide medical journals are awash with scientific research projects on breast sizes. Some studies pursue an interest in the evolution of the female body, breast-feeding, or chart changes in women’s health and nutrition. These are directly relevant to maternal health, the work of dietitians, the underwear industry, particularly bra-makers, or cosmetic surgery. Other projects, like the studies that attempt to find corollaries between breast sizes, female physical attractiveness, and men who solicit and ogle women, might have something to do with analyzing human behavior, but just sound so downright outlandish that they merit a place in Marc Abrahams’ Annals of Improbable Research <http://www.improbable.com/about/people/MarcAbrahams.html>.
Serious scientific research on breasts, especially those that make global comparisons and look for anomalies in breast structure and tissue, and genetic mutations, are profoundly important to medical advancements in breast cancer. We now know, for instance, that race and ethnicity, in addition to age, present significant risk factors in assessing the probability of cancer among women. American studies show that Asian and Hispanic women have a lower risk of developing and dying from breast cancer than white women. Inherited mutations of the BRAC genes, which are one of the leading causes of hereditary breast cancer, are common among Jewish Ashkenazi women of Eastern European origin. Innovative and cutting-edge research projects such as these are built on a long tradition of scientific investigations of women’s bodies.
How race and geography influence changes in women’s bodies worldwide, especially in relation to female reproductive life—puberty and the onset of menstruation, menopause, breast development, buttock size—has an academic history that dates back to the age of the Enlightenment. Medical research on the links between areas of the world, diseases, sex and reproduction, was part of a noble scientific discipline known in France as “géographie médicale” or medical geography. By shaping a perception of the colonial world through concepts of healthy and unhealthy places, French medical geographers did much to further their own imperial interests.
British colonialists in India and Africa, as well as Spaniards in the Americas and the Philippines, enthusiastically contributed to this scientific discipline with cartloads of research on women’s breasts, hips, bottoms, and genitals. They left a legacy for a succession of new colonialists, most notably Americans.
But if you think it was only white male imperialists producing this knowledge, think again.
Honoria Acosta-Sison (1888 – 1970) has the distinct honor of being the first Filipino woman doctor in the Philippines. She was a product of the American educational system. She attended Drexel Institute in 1904 and graduated with an MD from the Women’s Medical College, in Pennsylvania, in 1909. She returned to the Philippines in 1910 to specialize in obstetrics and gynecology at the University of the Philippines, becoming known for her work on the female pelvis and the introduction of low cesarean section.
Acosta-Sison set her research against the background of earlier studies on primitive races that claimed women of these races possessed a pelvis both narrower and deeper than white women, and whose labor during childbirth was physically easier. She measured the pelvises of 181 Filipino women and found the Filipino pelvis was slightly narrower and relatively deeper than her North American counterpart, a characteristic she attributed to the Filipino’s relatively diminutive stature. She did, however, discover an interesting anomaly.
The cavity enclosed by the lower circumference of the Filipino pelvis was, puzzlingly, the same size as white women’s. A range of disorders involving weakened and softened bones that particularly affected the lower spine and pelvis were considered as possible explanations.
But Acosta-Sison found one explanation convincing. She thought that the most likely reason was the fact that Filipino women liked to sit, for prolonged periods, in a squatting position. In a paper published in the prestigious Philippine Journal of Science, Acosta-Sison elaborated:
It must be remembered that the Filipino woman from her childhood has habitually accustomed herself to the squatting position or to sitting on the hard floor with the knees drawn up, and her occupation is such that she is obliged to be in this position for nearly the whole day. Whether she sews, cooks, washes, or sells in the market, she nearly always assumes this position.
Acosta-Sison, much like her fellow Western-educated medical colleagues at the turn of the 20th century, was convinced that race and geography significantly affected the development of the female body. For this esteemed physician, the bodily behavior, social practices and customs of Filipino women, from breastfeeding to even the most banal and mundane habits—squatting on one’s haunches—had a direct impact on the changes that altered or defined the structure of the Filipino woman’s body.
I have read an awful lot of old scientific research on women’s bodies. The truth is, some of it is quite smutty and salacious. Some of it we now know to be plain wrong. But it is by far more interesting than the fake, fraudulent and pointless stuff that floats about on the internet today.
Dr. Rachel A.G. Reyes’ edited volume, Colonial Medicine in the Spanish Philippines, will be published by the Ateneo de Manila University Press. With thanks to Gina Rozario.