29 September 2012
It isn't my imagination. The necklines on women's clothing have been scooping lower and lower over the past decade, everywhere you look. There's been a steady progression during my lifetime from seeing the hollow at the base of a neck, to seeing collarbones, to seeing the hint of the topmost swell of a breast, to plunging so low that only the nipples are left to the imagination (and sometimes not even them).
I'm not exactly complaining. I just wish that revealed cleavage wasn't some sort of uniform. Variety is the spice, a little mystery is nice. Not to mention, I'm sorry, but most obese or overweight women (and men) should not be baring their blubber. That's my bias.
In general, though, men enjoy watching women's bodies, and seem especially to enjoy looking at women's breasts. So much so that for some men, an autonomic reaction sets in ~ they are seized by paralysis, their eyeballs nearly pop out of their skulls, and they all but salivate. Many women mock men's response, even as they (women) bare ever more flesh.
So is this just men being childish idiots? Turns out it's not ~ there's more to men's obsession with breasts than meets the eye (as it were). Studies have tested hypotheses ranging from "full-breasted women subconsciously signal reproductive advantage" to "breasts came to men's attention when (over evolutionary time) sexual intercourse shifted from rear-entry to face-to-face, with breasts providing a powerful visual stimulus linked to coupling". As an evolutionary biologist, I can see some merit to either argument, but doubt that this is the whole story.
George Dvorsky at the blog io9 reports on a biochemical alternative, proposed by the authors of the new book The Chemistry between Us ~ Love, Sex, and the Science of Attraction. Their explanation relates to a mother's bond with her infant, and is summarized thus ~
"When a woman gives birth, her newborn will engage in some pretty elaborate manipulations of its mother's breasts. This stimulation sends signals along nerves and into the brain. There, the signals trigger the release of a neurochemical called oxytocin from the brain's hypothalamus. This oxytocin-release eventually stimulates smooth muscles in a woman's breasts to eject milk, making it available to her nursing baby.
"But oxyotocin-release has other effects, too. When released at the baby's instigation, the attention of the mother focuses on her baby. The infant becomes the most important thing in the world. Oxytocin, acting in concert with dopamine, also helps imprint the newborn's face, smell and sounds in the mother's reward circuitry, making nursing and nurturing a feel-good experience, motivating her to keep doing it and forging the mother-infant bond. This bond is not only the most beautiful of all social bonds, it can also be the most enduring, lasting a lifetime.
"Another human oddity is that we're among the very rare animals that have sex face-to-face, looking into each other's eyes. We believe this quirk of human sexuality has evolved to exploit the ancient mother-infant bonding brain circuitry as a way to help form bonds between lovers.
"When a partner touches, massages, or nibbles a woman's breasts, it sparks the same series of brain events as nursing. Oxytocin focuses the brain's attention to the partner's face, smell, and voice. The combination of oxytocin release from breast stimulation, and the surge of dopamine from the excitement of foreplay and face-to-face sex, help create an association of the lover's face and eyes with the pleasurable feelings, building a bond in the woman's brain."
But wait ~ what about the man's brain? It seems likely to me that the same oxytocin-dopamine release serves as a pleasure enhancer for infants/men too. Either neurochemical by itself exerts a powerful influence on perception and behavior. Together, they are mutually-reinforcing, and can form a feedback loop which is stimulated by the sight of an attractive pair of breasts. If more men (and women) were aware of this, perhaps they would show more restraint in their displays and in their ogling. Perhaps not.
A footnote ~ it is a mistake to think that all men are obsessed with big breasts. As with any other aesthetic experience, beauty and pleasure are varied and subjective. There are those of us who prefer breasts that are small-to-medium in size, pleasingly-shaped, and part of a slender, athletic physique. I have the sense, with no research to back my intuition, that the neurochemical research summarized above might explain more than the visual pleasure men take in women's breasts (or the pleasure that women take in a man's taut, firm butt ~ all you women who work out at a gym know what I'm talking about). The visual might also translate into a compelling tactile wish. For me, it's as though magnetized nerve endings in my hands and fingers are activated ~ they want to reach out and cup, caress, and tease those beautiful orbs. It takes the force of will to restrain them.
Lest you feminists/humanists out there (of whom I am one) get the wrong idea, this discussion is not about objectifying women, or reducing them to their body parts. It is simply an attempt to understand one facet in the complex interplay between women and men. My eyes travel to a woman's face before detouring to her body. Beautiful eyes, sensuous lips, and most of all a lively intelligence are the initial attractors for me. Call me a sapiophile ~ intellect, creativity, imagination, and humor get my attention and turn me on. That sweet double-handful is icing on the cake.
My gratitude to Dr. Carin Bondar for the research link.