Category Archives: anatomy


Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

Part of the Japanese My Body series, this children’s book about breasts comes from the people who brought the world Everybody Poops, The Gas we Pass, The Holes in Your Nose, All About Scabs and, my personal favourite, Contemplating Your Bellybutton. It focuses on the relationship breasts play between mother and child, and includes several pictures of breastfeeding. It’s presented through cartoons, but there is something deliberately realistic about it, they do not want to hide behind metaphor or euphemism (see previous posts on mechanical metaphors in kids’ body books and ‘poo’ books). There are explanatory diagrams (cross sections, etc) as well as scenes of people laughing at their-own and others’ bodies. As with all the books in the series, the message seems to be that it’s ok to giggle and be interested in our bodies: our bodies are pretty interesting afterall, and pretty funny.

Breasts, by Genichiro Yagyu.

I thought about this book when, in Chicago last week, I spotted an ambulance with “medics for melons” scrawled along one side, on it’s way to a breast cancer fundraising walk. There was also a car with two large pink cushions strapped to the back, which after some thought I realised were meant to be a giant pair of breasts. I could see the appeal; a jokey way of declaring breasts as something worth talking about, and a couple of big cushions to sit on at the end of the walk. I wanted to take a photo, but it felt like a bit of an intrusion. These cushion car breasts were oddly life-like. Moreover, people were standing next to it, and I was conscious that these events, for all their humour and desire to raise awareness, are often a time where people remember friends and family who have died. They are pilgrimages of grief. It felt rude to get my camera out, so here’s a drawing instead:

A car and its cushion-breasts.

Moving in the opposite direction to the people on this walk, I was struck by the diverse set of cultural imageries of breasts they were working within: in some cases applying, in some cases trying to transform. A bit later, in another part of town, I also walked by an event called ‘sausagefest’ which seemed to be, amongst other things (i.e. selling sausages) raising money for prostate cancer. (The semiotic play with body parts utalised by cancer campaigns is maybe a whole other issue itself though).

Like any bit of out bodies, breasts are not just bits of our bodies. They have a multitude of symbolic, personal, social, political and scientific meanings; meanings which often cross, even clash. I’m tempted to say this is true of breasts more than others parts of our bodies, but we could say similar of hands, legs, eyes or the penis. Or even of parts of us we see less often (e.g. hearts, guts, lungs, the brain), including those we need scientific understanding and/ or equipment to see (e.g. blood cells, chromosomes, neurones, enzymes).

There’s the subjective experience of having breasts yourself, there are medical ideas of them and artistic representations which may well be more objective, or at least accumulate further subjectivities. Breasts are also objects their owners share with others. I remember a friend talking about the way he had to “reclaim” his girlfriend’s breasts after they’d had their first child. He quickly received a clip round the ear from her, I should add. Again, this isn’t unusual in terms of bodily parts. We might offer a hand for shaking, holding, a high-five or a fist-bump. We  might offer to “lend” a hand too, metaphorically or otherwise. We share blood, or at least we may choose to donate it to shared social blood banks (as long as our blood is declared safe), we share lips to kiss, shoulders to cry on, an arm to lean on, etc, etc.

Breasts come in a range of shapes and sizes, and change over time. Their semiotics are similarly shiftable. Just as breasts may be used to symbolise something else entirely, they may themselves be understood or reconsidered via analogies with other forms or cultural objects. A friend, listening to coos over how much her baby daughter had grown, patted her chest with both hands and smugly beamed “goldtop” (translation: very creamy brand of milk). Anyone who has taken a life class will know what it is like to be asked to consider a model’s breasts geometrically. There’s a neat line in Alan Bennett’s A Question of Attribution where a character says he thinks Titian’s depictions of breasts look like they’ve been put on with an ice cream scoop. It’s used by Bennett as a way of showing a clash of cultural and sexual identity between two very different characters, and is an example of the ways breasts can be divisive too.

Here’s a final image of breasts in culture, from a 1970s cake decoration book by Jane Asher. I’m tempted to just laugh at it, the book certainly invites you to. Still, I can see how it’s offensive too. For me, the cake seems very 1970s, reflecting a changing attitudes to breasts. Perhaps the days of the booby cake will come again though. Other things I bumped into last weekend in Chicago included the site of the first a Playboy mansion (to background of protests at the reopening of a London club) and a El train full of young women returning from the city’s Slutwalk. Just because cultures of bits of our bodies change over time doesn’t mean the change is linear, or that everyone’s changed in the same way.

Alan Bennet: “It’s like they’d been put on with an ice cream scoop”.

Mechanical metaphors in kid’s body books

This is the cover of Usborne’s classic kid’s book How Your Body Works. The book has been around in some form since 1975, so you might have seen it before. I’m interested in it for many reasons, but this blogpost is going to focus on the way it reflects an oft-used metaphor when it comes to explaining the human body, that of a machine.

Cover of How Your Body Works

Comparisons of the body to machine are sometimes seen in a negative light; endemic of a mechanistic worldview which is overly-reductive approach to something as complex and beautiful as the human body.


Ok, a “yawn” is over-trivialising the anti-mechanist critique, but I want to argue that kid’s body books employing robot metaphors are a bit more complicated than that (personally, I think you can say the same of Blake’s Newton, but that’s another story). My central point is that mechanical analogies provide a diverse set of cultural referents. Machines comes in a range of sizes, shapes and styles, and people use and think about them in a range of ways. Further, both machines and the way cultures have understood them has changed over time.

Perhaps a mechanical analogy allows some form of abstraction, providing some distance from specifics when handling issues like reproduction, infection and digestion. For example, the section outlining what happens when a blue robot loves an orange robot very much.

how (robot) babies are made
Such abstraction may also provide an expository role. Yes, the human body is a lot more than, for example, a set of bellows (below), but the image filtered down the multitude of things going on inside a person’s chest so we can learn about one thing at a time. Reduction for explanatory purposes isn’t (necessarily) to say the world really is that simple.


Mechanical analogies for specific systems (e.g. lungs as bellows) is one thing, but when it becomes a matter of depicting the whole body, we start moving towards associations with robots. The metallic skeleton on the cover of the Usborne book isn’t necessarily a robot, but there is something robot-like about him.

There are a wide range of cultural associations that might come with such allusions. Think of Dr Who, and robots are nearly always symbols of what is inhuman or a lost humanity (e.g. their nod-to-Metropolis Cybermen, or hide-behind-the-sofa Daleks). But think of Wall-E, or these smiling robot tshirts I spotted recently, or these robot cookies. Robots can be your friends. At the Science museum this week you can “meet Kaspar the friendly humanoid robot”.

There’s a nice study of robots in children’s literature by Margaret Esmonde in this 1982 collection of essays on machines in science fiction. According to this study, the robot or cyborg is generally a benevolent character in children’s stories, often acting in loco parentis or as a reasonably sympathetic step-brother. Even where there are “bad” robots, they tend to be destroyed with the aid of “good” ones. Her only example otherwise being Dr Who. Interestingly,  such child characters tend to be boys – a robo-brother, not sister – though she does mention one, it is very much an exception to the rule. I also wonder if there is something to be said about the childlike representation of robots in not only fiction, but news stories (even research projects) too; that we take the sometimes limited abilities of robots as a reason to pat them on the head and go “aww”.

The gender and generational points are just as an aside though, my main reason for mentioning Esmonde’s study is that the robot of children’s popular culture may well be a very sympathetic, even empathetic, character. Just because it is not human, doesn’t mean it is inhuman. Esmonde describes a few fascinating case studies. For example, a picture book produced to illustrate the UN declaration on rights of the child: a little boy lives a secure and caring life under the love and protection provided by his robot guardian. ‘Nosey’ people intervene and separate them, so the robot returns, disguised as a human and takes the boy back and they live happily ever after.

Esmonde traces mechanical characters in children’s fiction back to  L. Frank Baum’s Oz series. There is Tik-Tok, pictured, who you might know from the 1985 movie (see also this io9 piece on Pre-Golden Age SF Robots), and possibly the most straightforwardly mechanical man, the Tin Woodman, who everyone knows from the musical (“if I only had a heart”). Esmonde also discusses the lesser-known Chopfyt, a fascinating character made from cast-off “meat” parts of the two other men. She stresses these characters were all relatively ambiguous in their humanity, there isn’t the humans vs robots distinction which is so often played out in Dr Who. She also argues that Baum is content to leave these questions unanswered.

In my introduction I stressed that technologies and our cultural ideas about them have changed over time.  With this in mind, it’s interesting to see a very Tik-Tok style robot re-used in Phillip Reeve’s steampunk-ish Larklight books which self consciously re-uses old futuristic tropes of the robot to play with hopes, fears and other aesthetics surrounding them. Reeve is an extremely complex writer when it comes to images of technology, I haven’t space to discuss it here, but there are some brief notes on him buried in this paper. Or just read his books (the Mortal Engines series too, and do it before they are all movies).

Getting back to non-fiction, let me introduce you to The Body Owner’s Handbook (Nick Arnold & Tony De Saulles, 2002). This is part of Scholastic’s Horrible Science series, and structured out under the narrative conceit an instruction manual for the human body. In some respects, this is quite straightforward body as machine stuff. As are later points in the text which refer to the digestive system as a ‘fuel storage tank and conveyor belt’ and a ‘body repair shop’ is used to discuss cell replacement (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 22, 28). It is quite self-aware about this, and seem to expect the audience to be as well. As mentioned in my post about poo books, in some respects make fun of the distance provided by the mechanistic imagery (whilst also applying the convenience of it).

However, I think The Body Owner’s Handbook is slightly different from How Your Body Works in the way it conceives of its technological metaphor. For a start, it combines it with a loose narrative of a childlike Frankenstein monster. I’m drawing a line under the Shelly comparisons now. It is fascinating and arguably key to understanding the book, but a whole other blogpost. Suffice to say this is a slightly more “meaty” approach to (bio)technology and a (post)modern critique.

Monsters aside, The Body Owner’s Handbook seems to be applying a machine metaphor rooted in consumer technology. As with a lot of the books in Horrible Science, the language and imagery is heavily influenced by advertising styles (though, it should be noted with their tongue firmly in cheek):

Looking for a new body? Why not choose the real McCoy – the one and only Human Body. It’s Planet Earth’s most advanced living machine! It’s built of the finest material to a tried and tested design that’s over two hundred thousand years old! (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 8 )

This is a technology you would buy. It is not one that powers the “dark satanic mills”. Neither is it one you’d build yourself. It is ready made, just for you. This is not a Fordist form of mass production where the mechanical body is available in any colour as long as it’s black. This body is available in a variety of colours; “light brown, dark brown, pink, beige and yellow” (The Body Owner’s Handbook, 2002: 9).

In some respects such a contemporary consumer-tech model of the body allows for a connection with a sense of individualism: note the location of the apostrophe in the book’s title, it is body-owner singular. Yet, this note on race is emphasised by arguing that bodies are all the same underneath; the sense that everybody’s body is the same is very important to the scientific stories of the book. Perhaps this is the curtailed (and occasionally illusionary) individualism of interaction with branded technology. To some extent such identities come, to some degree, pre-packaged. Pink microscope anyone?

Moreover, such pre-packaged advanced tech comes with a greater degree of ineviable black-boxing. There are right and wrong ways of interacting with its surface, but its internal workings are a relative mystery to users. As many writers on technology have argued – indeed many writers on post/ late modernity have argued – the quantity of specialisation that goes into producing much contemporary means they come with greater mystery. Personal computers make one of the nicest examples of this. In the early 1980s, many personal computer users not only programmed but actually made their own kit. By the early 1990s, even the professionals could only produce one small aspects. Perhaps then, mechanical metaphors no longer provide simplicity? (if they ever really did)

Significantly, The Body Owner’s Handbook warns: “The body isn’t designed to be opened by non-experts and this can result in serious body breakdowns” (p12). In some respects this is in some contrast to a line in one of the first Horrible Science books, also about the body:

[science] belongs to everybody, because everybody’s got a body – and you’ve got every right to know what’s going on in yours (Blood, Bones & Body Bits, 1996: 5).

That said, perhaps back in those golden years of hobbyist tech and meccano collections, when kids built their own crystal radios (grew their own computers, spewed out their own difference engine, etc etc), no one told them to “tinker” with their physiology. Or maybe they did (um, maybe let’s not go too far with this tinkering analogy…). As The Body Owner’s Handbook‘s use of Frankenstein reflects, biotech has always been a slightly different matter.

Perhaps the most important thing to keep in mind is that they are only interesting as examples of what adults choose to produce for children. Personally, I think this is fascinating in itself, but it isn’t necessarily a sign of what children themselves think. In the light of a spate of “wrong superheroes” stories last week, this is something to keep in mind. If you want to know what children think, ask them. Musing about the media presented to young people is interesting and worthwhile when understood on it’s on terms, but it doesn’t tell us what is going on in the heads of actual children.

My main point, however is that if we do want to think through some of the symbols involved in technologically informed explanations of bodies, is pays not be reductive/ simplistic about machines.

CSI: the children’s toy

I attended a conference on Forensics in Culture last week. The very first slide in the very first paper was of some children’s edu-tainment toys inspired by CSI. E.g.: this facial reconstruction kit. The speaker implied a sense of surprise that children would be playing with forensics in such a way. I thought it was a bit weird too. I suspect this amazon reviewer speaks for many:

those eyes, man! Those EYES! […] it will be staring at you, waiting to make its move, plotting your demise – or at least that’s what it feels like. Maybe if the head didn’t have such an accusatory look on its face (“WHAT HAVE YOU DONE TO ME?”) […] “Merry Christmas Timmy! Here’s your CSI Facial Reconstruction head. Now you can reconstruct the ruined face of the victim of a violent and gruesome murder!”

When did forensics become entertainment? Moreover, when did it become so domesticated it could be packaged into a childrens’ toy? It’s about death and crime. The slide of this toy was met with several laughs at the conference. For me, however, it was the lack of humour embodied by the product itself which interested me.

It reminded me a bit of The Planet Science Whodunit, a forensic education event for teenagers I worked on back in 2003. The premise was that someone had stolen a guitar from boy-band Busted. Schoolchildren could sign up for kits to do some forensics-inspired activities to “solve” the crime. There were prizes; we had a panel of celebrity suspects; it was all played for fun. Although in many respects this project was inspired by CSI, we were careful to limit any references to traumatic crime. It was lighthearted. Indeed, one of the criticisms that could be leveled at this project was that it trivalised issues surrounding crime.

Another comparison with the CSI toy is the style applied by Horrible Science (major UK brand of science books for 7-11’s, I did my PhD on them). Perhaps the best example of their approach to blood and guts is the covers of Blood, Bones and Body Bits (1995, and 2008). Here, Horrible Science wraps its dismembered bodies, blood and viscera in a comic book form.

It’s ok somehow because it’s “just for fun”. Blood and guts take center stage here, but in a very comic way. It knows “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” are following you, it camps it up deliberately. It doesn’t take itself seriously and doesn’t expect you to either. It’s childish and Bugs-Bunny like, it’s surreal and so slightly unreal through it’s comic qualities. This is an example of what I described in my thesis as Horrible Science’s “ironic bloodthirsty pose”, something you can see applied across the series, to lesser and greater degrees than in the Horrible Histories, depending on topic. It is one of the many ways in which the series are “Science as Pantomime” (title I gave my thesis).

I took “ironic bloodthirsty pose” from David Buckingham’s great book on children and television, where he listens to children explain what they like about watching horror. One of the points Buckingham makes from these conversations is the appeal of a sense of adulthood in watching horror. For all their slightly childish joking, in some respects what the young people relished was the seriousness of it all, it helped them create distance from an idea of a trivial silly little kid. I remember feeling that the Whodunit idea was a bit more grownup than other Planet Science projects I’d worked on, the allusions to forensics were a key part of that, even framed as a joke.

You can find some more discussion of such ambivalences in Martin Barker’s excellent history of a campaign in 1960s Britain against horror comics. I’ve blogged on this before: why the Horrible books might be illegal. As I mention there, Horrible Histories author Terry Deary has argued that his approach wouldn’t have been possible if Roald Dahl hadn’t already brought about an acceptability of the grotesque in British children’s literature. Or, for slightly different analysis, Jane Kenway and Elizabeth Bullen, in their book Consuming Childhood, also talk about the way contemporary children’s media tries to make children “aspirational”, to want to act more grownup, as a sort of marketing strategy (see also this and this on such late 20th century shifts in style of address in children’s media).

So, considered from the perspective of the comic-gore of Horrible Science, the CSI facial reconstruction kit seems odd that it doesn’t frame itself in humour jokes (though we may laugh at it). Maybe, conversely, the seriousness allows for the gruesome-ness in a US context, where edu-tainment media tends not to have comic-gore and irreverence of Britain’s Horrible books? A rather straightforward example of forensic science lending a form of legitimacy, even in kids’ media?

That said, it looks as if the company who make these toys has gone bust, so maybe everyone had the WTF reaction of the “those eyes, man! Those EYES!” comment on Amazon.