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Mon, April 1, 2013
Emotional Breast Health: What Is It and How Can It Be Improved?
Although we all have them, the meaning women attach to their breasts is based on personal experience; each woman has a very unique relationship with her breasts - regardless of physiological similarities and differences.

Today, the majority of research and media coverage on breast health focuses on the prevention, treatment, and psychosocial effects of breast cancer. While this coverage is certainly important considering the tremendous impact that breast cancer has on the lives of women, we must be mindful not to make the assumption that because a woman is not facing breast cancer, her relationship with her breasts is unremarkable or unimportant.
 
My journey to better understand emotional breast health began in 2006 when I began a qualitative research venture and interviewed six women on the psychological experience of undergoing elective breast reduction surgery. Six years later, I completed a follow-up study which examined the large-breasted woman’s experience of her relationship with her breasts since development.

Both studies had one glaring theme in common: a woman’s relationship with her breasts has the potential to significantly impact her day-to-day life, beginning in childhood. In both studies, women that were unhappy with the appearance and size of their breasts were more likely to struggle with low self-esteem, poor body image, difficulty with intimacy, decreased confidence in social interactions with others, and anxiety (particularly in the workplace).

If you are unsure about whether you have an emotionally healthy relationship with your breasts, journaling may be a good place to start. Begin by asking yourself the following questions:
  • How would you describe your breasts to somebody who could not see them?
  • Do you feel as if your breasts serve multiple roles? If so, how? What is your experience of balancing or not balancing those roles?
  • Has your relationship with your breasts contributed to the way you engage with others? If so, how?
  • Are your breasts symbolic for you? If so, how?
  • What was the experience of developing breasts like for you?
  • Has your relationship with your breasts changed over time? If so, how?
  • What kinds of messages have you gotten from others/the media regarding your breast size? To what extent do these messages bother you?
  • What do you enjoy about your breasts? What do you resent about them?
 
If when answering these questions, you are struck with feelings of anger, resentment, discomfort, avoidance, depression, or anxiety, then working on your emotional breast health should be a priority, since having an emotionally healthy relationship with your breasts is vital in maintaining high self-esteem, positive self-image, and healthy romantic relationships.
 
Having an emotionally healthy relationship with one’s breasts is especially important for women during times of transition. For new mothers, resentment toward one’s breasts can make breast-feeding emotionally and physically difficult, and women who are uncomfortable with the appearance of their breasts may unintentionally model poor body image and unrealistic expectations about breast appearance to their children.

Research has also shown that women who are resentful toward their breasts are less likely to regularly touch this part of their body, and therefore are less likely to readily notice changes such as masses or lumps that may be early indications of breast cancer.
 
According to Millsted & Frith (2003), “Breasts are seen simultaneously as a marker of womanhood, as a visual signifier of female sexualization, as synonymous with femininity, and as essential for the nurturance of infants. It is not surprising then that women experience their breasts in confusing and contradictory ways.” (p. 455) 

Since many women have deep-rooted and confusing feelings about their breasts, working with a psychotherapist can also be helpful. For women who are considering breast reduction or augmentation, or are preparing for breast cancer treatment, discussing their relationship with their breasts with a medical professional is imperative in developing realistic expectations and ensuring emotional health pre and post-surgery.

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