Considering how much breasts are revered and/or fetishized — especially in Western cultures — it’s shocking how little is actually known about how they work. Relying on science, anthropology, history, and a healthy dose of whimsy, science writer Florence Williams presents an entertaining and illuminating cultural history of breasts. From the beginning, you know it’s going to be good:
We are sprouting them at younger and younger ages. We are filling them with saline and silicone and transplanted stem cells to change their shape. Most of us are not using them to nurture infants anymore, but when we do, our breast milk contains industrial additives never tasted by our ancestors and never meant to be digested by humans at all. More tumors form in the breast than in any other organ, making breast cancer the most common malignancy in women worldwide. Its incidence has almost doubled since the 1940s and is still rising. Breasts are living a life they’ve never lived before.
Unsurprisingly, Williams devotes much of the book to the environmental factors that have wreaked havoc on breast biology over the last century. More and more chemicals are entering our bodies than every before. Plastics, as many know by now, are a huge culprit. So are things like nail polish remover (whose tiny role in the book has made me paranoid about every touching the stuff again — seriously, I’ve had chipped polish on my toes for ages now), and the pesticides used on produce. Though these chemicals enter our bodies in minuscule amounts, they build up and affects our systems in ways that scientists are still struggling to pinpoint.
But something scientists do know: breasts, being the complex body parts they are, are able to purge this storage of chemicals in one efficient way: through breast milk. Knowing what she knows now, Williams frets about having passed all of her toxins to her firstborn (the firstborn gets the brunt of the toxins). Toward the end of the book, she talks about the development of cancers, of the breast and otherwise, in men. She focuses on a military base that had contaminated water; most of the women who were pregnant at the height of the contamination periods weren’t affected, but the children they breastfed — now adults — are now developing cancers and illnesses related to those chemicals. And yet it’s not an anti-breastfeeding book. Williams writes just as much about the benefits of breastfeeding; these chapters are utterly fascinating. So no: you will not find a definitive end to the breastfeeding wars in this book, but you will find a ton of interesting facts to help you make informed choices.
Williams also explores the history of breast implants, discussing the freakishly scary compounds used for implants in the early days, and the women who received those implants (and who now face a myriad of health issues). She then brings readers to the present-day breast implant capitol: Texas, where bigger is better (sometimes whether the patients want “bigger” or not). The implications of this mainstream acceptance of implants are sobering. Williams writes, “Thanks to the alliance of two kinds of silica-based technologies — breast and computer chips — most young people learn about bodies and sex from the Internet; they have seen many more factory-made breasts than real ones.”
Williams makes science, history, and anthropology entertaining and easy to comprehend. It’s an important and sometimes terrifying book with plenty of questions and no easy answers, but it’s a must-read.
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History was released in may 2012 by W. W. Norton & Company.