Why Boobs Matter (in Skepticism and Elsewhere)

There’s been a lot of talk about boobs lately so I thought today would be a good time to take a look at some of the myths that continue to circulate around breasts. Here are 5 common stories you’ll hear about breasts and the facts behind them:

1. Underwire Bras Cause Cancer.

I still periodically get this spam and I bet you do too! It appears to have started with a book called Dressed to Kill, written by two medical anthropologists, Soma Grismaijer and Sydney Ross Singer.

The book claimed that underwire bras compress the lymphatic system under the arms and breasts, supposedly causing a buildup of toxins. This has been widely refuted by several sources. The American Cancer Society says:

We do not know of any epidemiologic studies published in scientific journals that suggest bras directly contribute to breast cancer risk or that lymphatic compression by bras might cause breast cancer.

Read more after the fold!
2. Staring at boobs is good for men’s health.

This is a claim that is often attributed (wrongly) to the New England Journal of Medicine. In fact, this study was never published in any medical journal. According to Snopes:

The article referred to above was not printed in The New England Journal of Medicine or any other major medical journal. It is, in fact, a slight reworking of a piece that has run on at least two occasions in that celebrated tabloid Fountain of Truth, the Weekly World News (13 May 1997 and 21 March 2000) and has escaped into the wild.

Yep, the Weekly World News, that bastion of fine journalism… Sorry guys.

3. Silicone breast implants increase your risk for cancer and other disease.

The FDA has approved silicone gel-filled breast implants made by Allergan and Mentor.
The website does warn of several possible risks to breast implants, including the danger of rupture, a potential impact to a woman’s ability to breast feed, either by reducing or eliminating milk production and routine mammograms may be more difficult with breast implants. But no danger from the contents of the implants themselves, saline or silicone.

4. Your breast size determines how much breast milk you can produce.

Breast milk is determined by the milk glands in the breast; breast size is dependent on the amount of supporting fibrous and fatty issue in the breast. So women with larger breasts won’t necessarily produce more breast milk. Some women do have trouble producing milk or find it more painful or uncomfortable than others but that is not related to breast size.

As far as I can tell, the breast size/milk relationship is nothing more than another way to add to the insecurities that plague women with smaller breasts. You’re ‘less of a woman’ and ‘less of a mother.’ Ugh.

5. Parasites can live in unwashed underwear and cause larvae to grow in your breasts.

Oh dude. The images for this one on Snopes are hideous. I don’t recommend you look at them. Suffice it to say, they involved photoshopping a breast together with a lotus seed pod to make it seem like some sort of nasty parasite had infected a breast. There’s also a video floating about which actually does show doctors removing parasites from a woman’s breast (again, I don’t recommend watching it). This is a genuine video but is caused by the larvae of the Tumbu fly. According to a 2004 study:

Cutaneous myiasis of the breast due to infestation by the larva of Cordylobia anthropophaga is rare. To the best of our knowledge, only one case has been reported in the English literature.

I’ll wait for you to come back from screaming into your pillows. Sorry about that.

What else is out there?

I only touched on a few myths here. I could have done a whole section on just breastfeeding myths or breast cancer myths. Breasts are, no pun intended, a touchy subject and people can sometimes be embarrassed to discuss. This taboo means that it’s easier for bad information to get out there and stay in the public consciousness.

So, keep in mind, there are lots of reasons that we need to keep breasts in the forefront of our minds when it comes to skeptical discussions. Our boobs depend on it!


Maria D'Souza grew up in different countries around the world, including Hong Kong, Trinidad, and Kenya and it shows. She currently lives in the Bay Area and has an unhealthy affection for science fiction, Neil Gaiman and all things Muppet.

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  1. Interesting about the (incredibly bizarre) one about bras causing cancer. WTF?

    I does remind me of something that as far as I know is legit. My high school bio teacher talked about cell abnormalities being caused by external irritation. His example was that it’s common for women to get a bump on their skin on their back where their bra clasp rubs.

  2. The lotus boob really IS horrible. A friend showed me that picture a while back and it’s been bothering me (off and on) since. (It’s also pretty obviously fake, but it’s still eeek).

  3. @Craig:

    If it rubs, you’re wearing the wrong bra.

    Wearing an underwire bra prevents the need for plastic surgery (i.e. breast lift)– not that anyone actually needs one, but you know what I mean. Wearing one all the time, even sleeping in one, if you can stand it, keeps the ravages of gravity from de-perkifying the larger ones.

    I know that because of anecdotal evidence from myself and two other women I heard talking about it on TV, and I’m choosing to be unskeptical about it, so there. ;p

  4. Hahahahahahah, I knew that if I continued with my subtle actions and quiet work out of the lime-light. It would bring about the great day of boobs. I have succeded. I see your boobs. Now on too the next step.

  5. Thank you for making this nearly impossible to read at work…I’m sure one boob picture would have sufficed.

    And by one boob picture, just be clear, I mean one picture of two boobs.

    Happy boobquake!

  6. See, I disagree with #2. Looking at boobs make me happy. Being happy leads to taking care of myself. Taking care of myself leads to being healthier.

    Conclusion. My health is linked to your boobs. ;-)

  7. @Bjornar: Love this comic! “Jehovah like.” :-)

    “Hold on. He said Jehovah. Stone him! Oh, wait. I said it, too!”

    Oh, and myth #2 is completely true. I’ve performed numerous experiments and sacrificed much of my time exploring this myth, and I feel better every time I “finish my study”, if you know what I mean. There…conclusive proof of the power of Boobies!!

    Yay for BoobQuake! It’s for the children, you know.

  8. In middle school, the gym teacher told us that wearing a coloured bra caused breast cancer. Of course, she also taught us that women had one more rib than did men…

  9. You mention the plight of smaller-breasted women, and yet the post is riddled with what obviously is the ‘ideal’ breast size. I don’t want that to make me sad, but for the sake of honesty: it does a little…

  10. @SJBG: Until recently, I definitely felt I got the short end of the boobiestick when compared to my younger so-well-endowed-that-it-should-be-illegal sister. It wasn’t until I tried a pair on that I realized they didn’t fit my body. I just looked…dumpy.

    So now I just wear my “Who needs big tits…when you have an ass like this?” shirt and smile with mild sympathy at my sister’s larger than life everyday difficulties.

  11. @SJBG:

    They’re all different sizes… they’re just… pushed together for max cleavacity.

    And all of the photos are OUR boobs. We took them ourselves and submitted them to Maria (and the group) last night… and I’ve never been so glued to my email. But if you take issue with our lack of cup diversity, you need to complain to Rebecca. She’s the one who put together this… wonderful… group… of… boooooooobies *drool*

  12. @Elyse: Ah, I see now. But even pushed together, mine could *never* look like that…

    @Ashley.Ele: Don’t worry, I’m usually of the same attitude. What I admittedly lack in tits I well make up for in ass, and whenever summer rolls around I’m very happy for all the cute little tops and dresses I can get away with that my better-endowed girlfriends feel they have to steer away from (except this one friend; she goes all out and I love her for it).

    But *every*now*and*then* usually when stuff like this comes up and suddenly boobs are even more everywhere than they already are, it becomes clear that when most people think of “boobs” they’re actually thinking of cleavage, and I simply don’t have that to offer…

    But I’d say 90% of the time I’m satisfied with my lovely ass and the likelihood that what boobage I do have will stay perky longer. :-)

  13. @SJBG:

    Boobage is a fine and glorious thing, but a lovely ass trumps sweater bumps any day of the week! As Gabriel is to boobs, thus am I to butts.

    Boobs may cause earthquakes, but a well framed ass can stop time.

  14. @SteveT: I like it all, myself. I love boobs, but I can’t say a nice pair of legs affects me any less.

    I also can’t imagine dating/ not dating someone just because I like/ don’t like some part of her anatomy.

  15. @SJBG: I have small boobies too. Used to have Ds when I was larger, but now I have droopy Bs, and I don’t really cleavage so much as en-flatten, even with a push up bra. >_<

  16. @SJBG: I absolutely have to disagree with your statement that boobs = cleavage in the average mind. It certainly doesn’t in mine.
    I think what we’re seeing here is a tendency to think cleavage shot when one needs a SFW-boob illustration, but a tight sweater over some not suitable for cleavage boobs would have worked just as well.

  17. @SJBG: I represent the small boob end of the spectrum. But you’re right that when people think boobs, they think cleavage – so much so that’s what I thought, too, and didn’t think there was really any point in submitting my picture. :/

  18. @Skept-artist, I would correct that list in the following way:
    Chelsea (I wasn’t sure either)

    But I kinda hope I didn’t get them all correct because that would make me look bad …

  19. @exarch: I’m not too worried about how I look, because for me, the boobs didn’t really aid in figuring out who anyone was (if I even did). It was actually all of the other clues (tattoos, clothing, mouths). The only exception is Elyse. Her boobs are all over Twitter :)

  20. Thank you, Maria, for debunking the stupid “big boobs = more milk” myth. I hear that so frequently as a fake evo-psych-ish excuse for why hetero men are supposed to prefer big boobs.

    Non-lactating boobs all have about a couple teaspoons of milk-producing tissue. Everything else is just fatty connective tissue.

  21. They might not cause cancer, but they aren’t the most comfortable bras. I admit my sis just got me onto wireless bras- though they they don’t look as nice as the wire ones.

  22. @Amanda, something about lactating boobs which I wasn’t aware of for a long time (and which many other men probably also don’t know about):
    While boobs may increase in size during pregnancy and during the time the newborn is being breast-fed, afterwards, they often end up actually being smaller than before the pregnancy.
    At least, that’s what I’ve been told by the few women I’ve talked with about this who’ve had babies themselves.

    It seems counter-intuitive.

  23. @Jen: Maybe we need a small boob pride post. ;-)

    @exarch: I’ve heard that too. One of my friends growing up was one of three very well-endowed daughters, yet their mom was even flatter than me. Curious, one day I asked my friend what was up with that, and she responded: “She breast fed four kids*, what do you think?”

    *there’s a son too

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