19 February 2020
Breast size matters
Published online 7 February 2020
More than two-thirds of women worldwide are unhappy with their breast size. Researchers say there could be health implications.
A survey of 18,541 women in 40 countries has found that most women are largely unhappy with the size of their breasts. The dissatisfaction is linked to poorer psychological wellbeing, low self-esteem and less awareness of breast cancer.
Women in Egypt are among the least happy, along with those in Brazil, Japan, China and the UK, according to The Breast Size Satisfaction Survey led by social psychologist Viren Swami of Anglia Ruskin University, UK.
Women were shown pictures of breasts and asked to choose one that represents their actual breast size, and another for their desired size. Around 48 percent of participating women chose larger breasts while 23 percent wanted smaller ones.
Respondents in Egypt and Lebanon leaned towards the largest breast size ideal. Egyptian co-author and dermatologist Salma Samir Omar from Alexandria University attributes this to “a beauty standard that is reinforced by local media.”
“Local media was a stronger predictor of breast size dissatisfaction than Western media, which was not what we expected,” adds Swami. The study found that objectification and fetishization of medium-to-large breasts is more global than what was expected, at least in urban settings.
The problem goes beyond aesthetics, however, according to Swami.
Women surveyed who perceived the size of their breasts to be far from “the ideal”, whether that was larger or smaller, said they were less likely to examine for lumps, which can potentially lead to a delay in seeking help for breast cancer. “This is a serious public health concern,” says Swami.
The survey found that unhappiness with breast size was less prevalent in older women. Swami adds that studies suggest motherhood can sometimes act as “a buffer” against the development of negative self-perceptions, perhaps due to “a focus on what the breast does rather than what it looks like”. The researchers would like to look into this aspect more in future surveys, in addition to investigating the impact of breast size satisfaction on participation in physical activity.
Swami hopes the survey will provoke a public discourse at the intersection of medicine, mental health and society.
“We believe that several psychological interventions are needed to alter how women perceive their breasts and promote greater importance of the functional value of breasts rather than unrealistic beauty standards,” says Egypt’s Omar. “Interventions are needed that improve breast pathology awareness and highlight the importance of a woman’s role in detecting pathology.”
Swami, V. et al. The Breast Size Satisfaction Survey (BSSS): Breast size dissatisfaction and its antecedents and outcomes in women from 40 nations. Body Image 32, 199-217 (2020).