The Link Between Breast Size And Mental Health in Young Women

The Link Between Breast Size And Mental Health in Young Women

Doctors carrying out breast research say that having asymmetric breasts should not be a dismissed health issue. (Photo by Foxline.com.ua | Getty Images)

Anyone who has ever been a teenage girl can tell you that your breasts — and how you feel about them at any given moment — play a gigantic role in your self image during adolescence. 

Now, for the first time, we know exactly how much. Researchers at the Boston Children’s Hospital have found that both asymmetric and extra large breasts have a negative impact on the mental health of teens. The results were so pronounced that the lead doctor is recommending insurance agencies cover reconstructive surgery to solve these breast issues.

In a new study published in the journal Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery, the researchers looked at 59 young women aged 12 to 21 with breast asymmetry differing by at least one cup size, with 40 percent fitting the clinical definition for tuberous breast deformity, a condition affecting normal development of the breasts. The doctors also evaluated young women who did not have breast asymmetry for comparison.

They asked all the girls a series questions to assess emotional health and well-being, and girls with asymmetry scored significantly lower on those measures than girls with normal breasts.

Girls with overlarge breasts showed similar psychological risks.

Study author Dr. Brian Labow, a surgeon and Director of the Adolescent Breast Clinic at Boston Children’s Hospital, says there was a need that wasn’t being met in addressing breast health. Specifically, he wanted to look at address the effect of asymmetry on the self-esteem of adolescent girls, whose breast concerns are normally passed over due to age and continuing development.

“I love the awareness for breast cancer, and the pink ribbons, but cancer has really dwarfed all other breast health problems,” Dr. Labow tells Yahoo Health.

Even now, reconstructive surgery for breasts is usually only covered by insurance companies if it’s related to breast cancer. Dr. Labow wanted to show the need may exist for other conditions, too.

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“If a young women doesn’t have a normal breast developing, there’s no provision for her,” he says. “So the question is: ‘If a breast is still functional, should it be reconstructed?’ With these findings about mental health risks, we’re setting the stage for that discussion.” However, reconstruction for adolescent girls is an issue that can be addressed down the line, after bones have matured, weight is relatively stable, and shoe size stops growing.

For a lot of girls whose breasts simply aren’t developing normally, there are more immediate steps that may help girls with their self-esteem. Dr. Labow says his team is working with the oncology department at Boston Children’s Hospital to modify clothing, bras and swimsuits for young girls to feel more comfortable if they have asymmetry issues.

“We found that breast asymmetry negatively impacts social and emotional functioning, but most of these girls don’t necessarily need surgery,” says Dr. Labow. “It’s not for everyone, and we’re not advocating it for everyone. But with the corrective clothing, a girl can feel more confident. She can feel whole.”

Dr. Labow recommends taking a young girl in to see a breast specialist if her breasts don’t seem to be developing normally, asymmetry is an issue, or she talks of other concerns that appear to be affecting her self-image. “We just saw a patient yesterday who was 13, and she’d definitely be a surgical candidate down the road,” he says. “But often, just keeping an open, ongoing discussion is helpful. I can tell young patients, ‘You’re not alone, this is common, and you have a variety of options.’”

Since breasts are such an important identifying feature for a woman, Dr. Labow says addressing breast-development problems and explaining options can be enough to significantly improve a young girl’s outlook.

“One of the great feelings I have as a doctor is when a patient can just say, ‘Thank heavens! There’s a name for what I have.’” says Dr. Labow. “Breast asymmetry isn’t a necessarily an emergency, but it’s always a good time to ask questions.”

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