Boobs: Varieties of breast shapes and nipple types

When I learned about adolescent breast development, I was stoked for my boobs to grow. It seemed like breasts were the quintessential trait of “womanhood”.

“Any day now!” I would gleefully tell myself as I peeked down at my chest most mornings.

That day never really came.

I’m flat-chested. But having a small bust throughout puberty felt unexpected. I thought boobs had to be at least a B-cup, or pretty significant mounds, basically anything that wasn’t my bust.

Having tiny boobs initially seemed disappointing and like something I had to feel ashamed about. Going from training bra to cup bra didn’t seem applicable to me. Most of the bras I came across were very padded — it seemed like they were misleading my traits and wearing one felt unnecessary because I didn’t think I needed the support. Yet not wearing a bra, I felt, was viewed as sloppy.

Despite my acute awareness of my lack of boobs and frustration with available bras — as well as with the long history of societal fixation and favor of large female breasts — I liked my small bosom.

But breast traits go beyond just big and small boobs, there are distinct shapes, as well as types, sizes and colors of nipples and areolas.

The breast is defined as either of the pair of mammary glands extending from the front of the chest in pubescent and adult females (1). In adolescents, breast growth is primarily caused by the secretion of estrogen from ovaries. Lingerie experts at ThirdLove, a San Francisco based startup, developed a precise Breast Shape Dictionary that distinguishes 9 breast shapes. I can instantly identify mine as athletic, which they describe as “wider more muscular breasts with less tissue.” It’s comforting to see appropriate terms and an accurate variety when breasts are so often viewed in binary (big boobs / small boobs) terms.

9 breast shapes

Asymmetrical: breasts are not the same size
Athletic: wider and muscly
Bell shape: thinner top, rounder bottom
East west: nipples point outwards
Relaxed: hang downwards
Round: fully circular
Side set: further apart outwards
Slender: narrow and hang downwards
Tear drop: slightly more round at bottom

The nipple is defined as the protuberance of a mammary gland which in the female the lactiferous ducts open and milk can be drawn (2). AKA the center part of the boob that usually sticks out and can feed a baby if the body produces one. The nipple is surrounded by the areola, a ring of pigmented skin. Dermatologist and pediatrician Dr. Tsippora Shainhouse, when speaking to Seventeen magazine, identified 8 types of nipples:

8 nipple types*

Bumpy: montgomery glands are prevalent
Flat: nipples blend into the areolas
Hairy: hair growth on areolas
Inverted†: nipples retract inward to the areola
Protruding: nipples extend outwards from areolas
Puffy: the nipple and areolas form a unison raised mound
Supernumerary: extra nipple
Unilateral inverted: one nipple retracts inward to the areola

*nipple color and areola width also varies with each type
†nipples can be inverted to varying degrees

Acknowledging the diversity of breast characteristics is essential in deconstructing the way female breasts are perceived and portrayed.

Mainstream society, advertising and media continue to hypersexualize women and their breasts. They perpetuate a narrow idea of the ideal breast that women are left trying to meet to feel “normal” or “attractive”.

In reality, the attractiveness of breasts is far more subjective. Female breasts also have purpose beyond aesthetics — like breastfeeding — but social attitudes surrounding this have conditioned many to feel uncomfortable about doing so in public settings (6).

Boobs are publicized as objects that can be made more appealing through artificial enhancement, while their natural potential purpose is meant to be kept private. Embedding basic knowledge of breast feature variety into society can lead to appreciation of inherent appearance and normalization of function.

Take care of your boobs and see a doctor if you notice changes.


References

1. Merriam-Webster. Definition of BREAST; 2017 [cited 2017 Jan 6].

2. Merriam-Webster. Definition of NIPPLE; 2017 [cited 2017 Jan 6].

3. Chao JD, Memmel HC, Redding JF, Egan L, Odom LC, Casas LA. Reduction mammaplasty is a functional operation, improving quality of life in symptomatic women: a prospective, single-center breast reduction outcome study. Plastic and reconstructive surgery. 2002 Dec;110(7):1644–52.

4. Hartmann LC, Schaid DJ, Woods JE, Crotty TP, Myers JL, Arnold PG, Petty PM, Sellers TA, Johnson JL, McDonnell SK, Frost MH. Efficacy of bilateral prophylactic mastectomy in women with a family history of breast cancer. New England Journal of Medicine. 1999 Jan 14;340(2):77–84.

5. MacDonald T, Noel-Weiss J, West D, Walks M, Biener M, Kibbe A, Myler E. Transmasculine individuals’ experiences with lactation, chestfeeding, and gender identity: a qualitative study. BMC pregnancy and childbirth. 2016 May 16;16(1):1.

6. Boyer K. “The way to break the taboo is to do the taboo thing” breastfeeding in public and citizen-activism in the UK. Health & place. 2011 Mar 31;17(2):430–7.