Gilding the Lily
by Vince Hemingson

Like good scotch, you'd think most of us would prefer our breasts straight up. It would seem self-evident, at least to the vast majority of men, that breasts in and of themselves are good things. And as good things go, you would be justified in asking yourself, how on earth could you improve on an already good thing like the breast?

Some might even argue that after several million years of evolution and the refinement of natural selection, that the female breast has come very near a state of perfection. And in terms of size and shape it would seem that there is an abundance of choice to suit nearly every taste. Generous or petite, perky or pendulous, soft or firm, you would think that there would be a breast to satisfy every penchant, sate every appetite. But you would be wrong.

Being human it seems antithetical to our nature to leave well enough alone. Part of the human condition it would seem, is a proclivity to tinker. Even with perfection. We just can't seem to stop ourselves from wanting to gild the lily. Oh to be sure, with the advent of modern science and technology and silicon, industrial giants like Dow-Corning and Dupont have tried to entice us since the sixties that 'Better Living Through Chemistry" can be extended to the human breast. But breast augmentation is a relative newcomer to an age old human predilection to improve upon that pinnacle of perfection, the female breast. And bigger is not always better.

Hawiian Queen with tattooed breast 1880'sTheir is ample anthropological and archaeological evidence to show that women have been altering the appearance of their breasts in order to enhance their attractiveness since the dawn of time. I am speaking primarily of tattooing, but also of body-painting and piercing. This phenomenon is more widespread than isolated and cuts across many different cultures around the world. Mummies of ancient Egyptian courtesans show that their breasts and bellies were tattooed. Berber women in North Africa still tattoo their breasts with beauty marks to this day. Tattooing of the breasts has been practised by the women of the hill tribes of the Philippines, the Maoris of New Zealand, many of the Polynesians of the South Pacific, and many of the native peoples of North America. It is an extraordinarily common practice.

In modern Western society since the mid-18th century there has even been a significant percentage of the women of the population who have been tattooed and contrary to popular myth, not all of them have been prostitutes or women of easy virtue. When Captain Cook and his crew returned from their voyages to Polynesian, the salons of London and Paris and the other capitals of Europe were abuzz with tales of tattooed savages. Many of Cook's men, and even his Officer's, had got tattooed. This craze even extended to member of the upper classes and it was not uncommon for members of the social elite in England to gather after dinner in the great country houses and partially disrobe in order to show off their tattoos. Winston Churchill's mother, Lady Randolph, or Jenny as she was called by close friends, is known not only to have been tattooed but to have had her nipples pierced.

If, as many of us would believe, breasts approach perfection, why would so many cultures advocate and encourage their alteration, some might even say mutilation? Like most things in life there is probably no one answer but a number of theories have been put forward. Tattooing in many cultures is a ritual closely tied to the rite of passage from adolescence to adulthood. In both men and women tattooing demonstrated to the rest of the community that the individual tattooed was now an adult, ready to take on an adult role and assume adult responsibilities. The tattooing was a rite that was painful and bloody, a clear demarcation line between childhood and adulthood. For men it meant they were now warriors, expected to protect the community with their lives if necessary. For women it meant they were now sexually mature and ready to bear children.

So why was it necessary to tattoo the breast? Clearly we associate the breast with fertility. The breast is the giver of sustenance, the source of nourishment without which none of us can survive. The breast is life. The breasts are also a powerful sexual signal, a form of mimicry, fleshy lobes evolved from when we first reared ourselves up on two hind legs in the ancient veldt, cleavage destined to remind us in our subconscious of the buttocks we no longer gazed upon in mating as instead we looked deep into each others eyes. Breasts may be life, but breasts are also sex. The breast is such a potent totem in our lives that it is only natural that we would mark them in powerful declarations that define who we are within our own cultures.

So a woman who tattoos her breast is saying not only that she is sexually mature, but also that she is a sexual creature. The tattooed breast, the decorated breast, is a lure. It says look at me. In a world where breasts were once uncovered and commonplace, the breast with the tattoo served to remind the male of the species to look twice. As if we needed prompting. Even today, particularly in the West where a woman's breast is seen as a sexual flag, and hence is kept mostly covered, the idea of a tattooed breast is seen by many men as being particularly alluring.

Women who have tattoos will tell you many stories of their effect on the opposite sex. Trish, a strikingly attractive business professional in her mid 20's, says men are nearly uniform in their reactions upon learning she has a tattoo. "They all look at me to see if it's visible," she says laughing," and then they almost always ask me, 'Where is it?'. As if! Or they'll look at you coyly and ask, 'Can I see it?'. And I usually tell them, 'Only if you're lucky!' Trish says she got her tattoos because they had an important symbolic value to her but she doesn't discount the fact that they make her feel sexy as well. The tattoo on her breast is strategically placed so that she can keep it hidden if she so desires but should she want she can also have it peek out at the world. "There's no question that if a man sees part of the tattoo," says Trish with a wink, "that he wants to see the rest. It's a very powerful feeling." And no doubt one of the reasons she got her tattoo in the place where she did.

So while the breast itself is a powerful symbol and an extraordinary sexual signal, the tattooed or pierced breast may be even more so. Depending upon your view then, a decorated breast may be a case of gilding the lily, or icing the cake.

If you want more information about tattooing, past or present, breasts or otherwise, please check out the rest of  The Vanishing Tattoo

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