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My friend “Althea” was a lovely woman, slim, ebullient, blonde and
blue-eyed, surrounded by men, not the least her husband “Fordyce,” who
gave her real-gold jewelry and brought her breakfasts of nasturtium-leaf
omelets in bed.

While Althea would light up any room she entered and relax you merely
with her smile, I am not saying I envied her — her sunny disposition,
her easy laughter — I am not saying that at all.

I’m brunette, more studied, less spontaneous. And I have something
Althea lacked … discernible breasts.

In the decade I knew her, Althea never stopped trying to grow
breasts. Those she had were not enough. Despite her accomplished life of
teaching, radio, writing, counseling and other talents, nothing made up
for her missing breasts, nothing. And so she availed herself of gym
workouts, aerobics, weight-lifting, massage, acupuncture, herbs, even
homeopathic tinctures, hoping against hope to achieve a breakthrough …
a bulge, a swell, a … bump.

Nada.

“I priced them,” Althea declared last week, “$4,600.” This was before
we found credible flesh-colored rubberized, ah, female chest-replicas
selling for under $25 at a Halloween shop in a highway mall right
outside Cherry Hill, N.J., the East Coast’s very own Los Angeles. But
Althea would never be caught dead wearing anything THAT tacky. Why,
it could almost be a Marv Albert party prop!

Certainly breasts have been fetishized in America. One man I knew
slightly, a former editor of a runner’s magazine, declared he would
never date a woman without breast implants. Another, a California
guy, could pick out the exact brand of implants a woman wore, at 10
paces, McGanns or what.

The thing is, not all women are in love with those bodily parts.
Romantically inclined “Celeste,” an old boyfriend’s sister whose teenage
journals swooned for Richard Boone’s rugged Paladin, went on to become a
nun, followed by breast reduction surgery upon leaving the convent.
Growing up right after the Roaring ’20s, my own mother bound her breasts
for that flat Flapper look. My own bosom seems to wax and wane with my
romantic state. Everyone seems to want the opposite of what they
actually have.

But now there’s hope for the Altheas of the world.

Soon, science will be able to grow breasts in a Petri dish. I kid you
not.

Science has actually begun the process of creating credible
artificial breasts. And they are using “natural tissue expansion” rather
than controversial insertion of possibly dangerous synthetic products
such as silicone. This new method of enlarging breasts, United Kingdom
medical correspondent Lois Rogers writes in the overseas Sunday Times,
involves the first human trials for laboratory-grown replacement
“nipples constructed from cartilage derived from purified pig-ear
cells,” while the rest of the breasts will be developed “using cells
from a woman’s own body.” Although the pig-part is a bit tricky because
porcine viruses could jump to humans.

While at first this may sound like an, er, extension of what my
visionary friend Myra called fat bussing — reverse liposuction –
taking fat cells from one place in the body where they are a deficit and
re-installing them in another place in the body where they would be an
enhancement, these new developments seem, on the surface, better, much
better.

This process actually grows them. What a boon to cancer survivors
seeking reconstructive surgery, those interested in cosmetic breast
enlargement, and yes, even the vanity market. Though it’s the vanity
market that scares me. We will have genetic women, and then we will have
“Modular Babes.”

But it won’t stop there.

Someday, entire complex internal organs such as hearts, kidneys and
livers may be grown this way. Massachusetts surgeon Dr. Joseph Vacanti
pioneered the breast replacement process before selling it to an
American biotech company. Dr. Vacanti and his brother Charles — the
geniuses who in 1995 launched a

human ear
grown
from cartilage cells on the back of a live mouse, generating its blood supply — envision a future in which science may someday regrow eardrums, damaged digestive systems, degenerating blood vessels, faulty fingernails, you name it.

But American ingenuity may be soon be eclipsed by British persistence.

The Scotsman
Online
reports England is set to establish a research center for growing replacement organs and spare body parts.

They even have a name for it: the National Tissue Engineering Centre, capitalizing on what they call “a paradigm shift about reconstructing the body — replacing body parts with tissue grown from the patients’ own cells.”

I am not thrilled. This is prime material for Wes Craven, Paul Verhoeven, David Cronenberg, and those other celluloid horror-meisters and splatter sultans.

Long ago, before she “went Hollywood” and gave us “Sleepless in Seattle” and “You’ve Got Mail,”

screenwriter Nora Ephron
penned novels and essays. In one of her most memorable, “A Few Words About Breasts,” she confessed her breast-obsession. “I suppose that for most girls, breasts, brassieres, that entire thing,” she wrote, “has more trauma, more to do with the coming of adolescence, with becoming a woman, than anything else.”

“Don’t worry about it,” said Nora Ephron’s friend Libby. “You’ll get them after you are married.”

Ha!

In pursuit of a more perfect, um, profile, a much-younger Nora Ephron bought an appliance known as the Mark Eden Bust Developer — clearly a kissing cousin to Suzanne Somers’ Thigh-Master; slept on her back for four years, splashed cold water on her bust at night like a perfectly endowed French actress advised, and, then, admitting defeat, began padding about in padded bras of different dimensions.

“Well, what can I tell you,” she fretted about the so-called hang-up of her life. “If I had had them, I would have been a completely different person. I honestly believe that.”

Presumably the millions Nora Ephron has since made from her movies are balm enough.

Will a geriatric Nora Ephron finally succumb to the alluring siren’s call of science? What about my friend Althea? Certainly former feminist spinster Gloria Steinem’s recent nuptials at age 66 has taught us never say never.

Just as Philip Roth’s 1973 satirically Kafkaesque novel, “The Breast,” has a professor awaken having been transformed into a 155-pound female breast, the possibilities science sets before us seem limitless.

For you, fine.

Me, I’m leaving with the body I came with.

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