The Untold History of Breast Implants

You probably already know that breast implants and modern-day “boob jobs” are the most common form of plastic surgery. More than a million breast augmentation surgeries happen every year around the world, with the biggest beneficiaries of new breast implants located in the United States and Brazil.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Whether silicone or saline, implants are big business in the twenty-first century. But did you know that the history of breast implants goes back nearly five thousand years? It’s true! Boob jobs aren’t a modern idea: our ancestors looked for a way to make women’s breasts bigger too.

Researchers say that they can find evidence of women looking to augment the size and shape of their breasts as far back as the year 3000 B.C. when Minoan women invented corsets. The “boob job” as we know it, however, became most common in the 1700’s, when doctors began experimenting with breast implants made of ivory, metal, glass, and rubber.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

These early experiments went badly, as you might expect, causing terrible pain, infections and sometimes even death. That didn’t stop doctors and scientists from continuing on, trying to find a way to make women’s breasts bigger.

In 1890’s Germany, Dr. Robert Gersuny pioneered the use of injections of paraffin wax directly into women’s breasts to make them bigger. This procedure, however, soon revealed serious side effects and complications for patients, including the development of tumors in women’s breasts. Nevertheless, paraffin wax kept being used worldwide at least through the early twentieth century. Men and women either didn’t know about the risks, or decided it was worth it.

Photo: Flickr/ Clancy Ratliff

After the flapper period in which Western women tried to make their breasts look smaller, pinups and stars like Marilyn Monroe and Jane Russel once again paved the way for trying to make women’s breasts look bigger. This led to more experimentation with (what seem now to be) dangerous substances. In the United States, liquid silicone and fat from a woman’s own body were often injected directly into boobs, and some doctors experimented with muscle and skin grafts to women’s breasts.

In the 1950’s, surgeons tried a new kind of implant, a polyvinyl sponge to increase breast size. This kind of implant was another painful failure, as the sponges tended to get invaded by collagen, and collapse into hard little balls (actually making breasts smaller). To try and fix this, doctors then added a plastic sack around the sponge, but that didn’t work any better. Women suffered infections, more hardening, and terrible fluid accumulation.

Silone-filled sacs were finally developed in the 1960’s for use in breast augmentation. This was a step in the direction of more success, and better results. Most of the problems caused by modern silicone-filled implants come from long-term problems like silicone leaking from the implant, or ruptures of the sac that can cause the silicone to enter the body, resulting in autoimmune diseases.

Photo: Wikimedia Commons

These concerns became serious enough in the late 1980’s that by the 1990’s, most doctors were using saline-filled breast implants. The idea was that even if the implant ruptured or leaked, it would only be leaking salt water and would not harm the woman.

Today, the whole international community of plastic surgeons uses both breast implants filled with silicone or saline. While early versions of the silicone breast implant experienced problems of ruptures, causing serious health issues for the women receiving them, by the twenty-first century, reformulations of the implants led to both silicone-filled and saline-filled devices being considered safe.

Choosing between silicone and saline implants for women is usually based on the feel of the implant, with silicone reportedly feeling more “natural.” Women also consider the potential for scarring, understanding that saline implants generally leave less of a scar. And of course, some still worry about the risk involved in the potential leakage of silicone gel.

In the twenty-first century, women have been given an additional option: fat transfer for breast augmentation, a technique that uses liposuction to remove fat from one area of a person’s body in order to transfer it to the breasts. This option produces a smaller increase in breast size, but sometimes women like it as a more “natural” method of breast enhancement.

Photo: Flickr/ Deepak Singh

Sadly, it’s also important to note that while such procedures as paraffin or silicone injections have been proven to have dangerous consequences, in the twenty-first century, these procedures are still offered in many nations in unlicensed clinics.

For women without the money or the access to licensed doctors, this can be their only option. Poor women in some Asian nations, for example, still get back-alley paraffin injections for breast augmentation in part because the procedure is quick, cheap and relatively painless in the moment, while providing an initially attractive result. In places like Brazil, transsexual women often can’t get treatment in licensed clinics, so they get silicone injections to increase their breast size, or complete their transitions.

Breast augmentation is big business, and it’s been around for a very long time. Both men and women have been willing to subject women to a long string of very bad ideas in pursuit of making their breasts bigger. The question becomes- is the juice worth the squeeze? Pardon the pun, but from this chair, I’d say the answer in most cases is typically a resounding “no”.

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