Breasts : a natural and unnatural history – Florence Williams

Disclaimer : Normally I finish a book before writing a review, I am half way through this book but I was SO IMPATIENT to write about it that I am doing so now.  Also, there are so many notes worth sharing that I would essentially be writing a paper rather than a blog.

I am often drawn to the cover of a book -primly- “a book is judged by a cover until it is read” that is not the case with “Breasts : a natural and unnatural history”   I picked up this book for the title, I don’t know why..curiosity I suppose. I hardly got to page two before I was recommending the book on.  It is funny and devastatingly informative.  While I have had a pair of breasts since my own puberty and never realized how much I didn’t know about these fascinating organs.

“Not even the experts among us are certain why all these things happen, or even why we have breasts in the first place.  But the urgency to know and understand breasts has never been greater.  Modern life has helped many of us live longer and more comfortably.  It has also, however, taken a strange and confounding toll on our breasts.  For one thing, they are bigger than ever, according to lingerie manufacturers and purveyors who are ever increasing their cup offerings to sizes like H and KK.  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.” (2)

See the notation – page 2 people!  Breast feeding her second child she learned of all the contaminants typically found in breast milk.  Like any good journalist she sent a sample “off to Germany to have it tested for flame-retardants, a common class of chemicals known to accumulate in fat and cause health problems in lab animals.  My levels came back higher than I expected and ten to a hundred times higher than those found in European women.  My exposure came from electronics, furnishings, and food.” She also found that she had an ‘average’ amount of Perchlorate, an ingredient in jet fuel (6-7) Average. Average? AVERAGE!!!!

Unsurprisingly, the approach to breasts and the conclusions drawn about their evolutionary purposes have changed as “women climbed the ranks of anthropology and biology departments” (7)  Previously “Scientists have spent decades looking (and looking) at the breast, trying to figure out how on earth humans got so lucky.  For years now, many have been seeing breasts as a wonderful adornment, a peacock’s tail – designed to attract the opposite sex.  When humorist Dave Barry wrote, ‘The primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid.’  he was summing up a half century of scholarship on the subject” (7)

I think you can see my fear that I would be too quote-tastic.  The fact of the matter is that the information she provides is not only illuminating but a call to arms.  Breasts are apparently adapted as a sort of thermometer for our surroundings, full of fatty tissues they absorb all that is terrible and toxic in our environment, though they developed themselves to be so permeable (it would seem) so that they might better feed our progeny.  It has been a long time since I read a book that was at once so informative, funny and devastating with the knowledge it was providing.

Ladies, did you know that our breasts can tell if we are having a boy or a girl and make subtle changes to the milk accordingly? (I have to admit I did not write down the page number of this quote and can’t find it now but re-read it three times because I couldn’t believe how clever and subtle breasts could be.)  Also we all know that breasts go during puberty and change periodically over the course of the month, during pregnancy, breastfeeding, etc.  but did you ever consider that the breast is the only organ we have that does most of their development after birth? “The breast has to fully build itself out of nothing during puberty.  Even then, it’s not done.  The gland grows new milk-making structures under the influence of pregnancy hormones.  Once an infant has weaned, a switch flips somewhere and the gland shuts down and shrinks,  The breast must construct and then deconstruct itself over and over again with each pregnancy. ..Even if a woman never gets pregnant, her breasts pack and unpack a little each month just in case.” (49)

Go ahead and take a moment to give your breasts a look of admiration. Really, who knew how amazing they were?

The point of the book, however is not solely to talk about the wonders of the breast but also to talk about what we are putting into the environment, how it is affecting our health and how like butterflies (also learned in this book how many women have butterflies inked on their breasts 🙂 )and frogs they are harbingers of what we have wrought on the landscape of the planet.

Did you know that :”Unlike in Europe, American companies are not required to perform safety studies on the chemicals before they introduce them into the marketplace.  In fact, they have a strong incentive not to perform them  In the United States, every chemical is assumed safe until proved guilty.  The burden to do that falls on government and university scientists, who don’t have the institutional muscle or resources to keep up. ..Of the 650 top-volume chemicals in use, four billion pounds are made here or imported each day for use in products and materials” (98-99)

Halfway through and I already thoroughly and unequivocally recommend the book.  Even if the second half is terrible, (unlikely!) I have already learned more than I thought was possible about a quite magnificent part of my body.  Thank you Ms. Williams!

To buy a copy of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural Historyon Amazon I invite you to either follow the link or visit your favorite bookstore.


One thought on “Breasts : a natural and unnatural history – Florence Williams

  1. Pingback: What Do Women Want – Daniel Bergner | Books - Any Which Way They Come

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