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Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it’s sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?...
Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it’s sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?
In this informative and highly entertaining account, intrepid science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of anthropology, biology, and medicine. Her investigation follows the life cycle of the breast from puberty to pregnancy to menopause, taking her from a plastic surgeon’s office where she learns about the importance of cup size in Texas to the laboratory where she discovers the presence of environmental toxins in her own breast milk. The result is a fascinating exploration of where breasts came from, where they have ended up, and what we can do to save them.
Winner of the 2012 L.A. Times Book Prize for Science & Technology
In this alternately hilarious and deeply sobering book, crackerjack science journalist Florence Williams explores one of our most delightful, miraculous, and yet still mysterious organs: the breast. With pictures of pinups marking chapter divisions and a photo of grassy mounds on the cover, it's more than tempting to say that the currently fashionable mode of single-object nonfiction (think of Mark Kurlansky's Cod or Salt) has rarely been so, ahem, titillating.
Giggle if you must. Titter, even. This book will nonetheless command your respect. Despite the fact that we as people spend so much time loving them, hiding them, ogling them, hating them, displaying them, feeding with and being fed from them, Williams shows us what boobies we've been about breasts. She begins with examples of just how amazing mammaries really are. We may know, for instance, that ever since Linnaeus proclaimed it, the ability to nurse has made us mammalian. However, even now scientists don't fully understand how the body transmutes blood to milk. We haven't completely mapped the complex feedback loops through which our milk passes on immunities and responsively calibrates nutrients for our children.
Complex they may be, but breasts are also convenient: our ability to nurse enables us to move and work and travel widely and eat almost anything as we mother. As well as seeming fetching, breasts' round shapes support our children's mounded heads and bending larynxes, which then support our ability to think and stand upright and speak. While some (mainly male) scientists have studied breasts merely to see how they function in attracting men, Williams shows how breasts have evolved to support babies. Breasts lead us not only by their sexual promise but by our own furious desire to survive, individually and as a species. Intrigued? Hooked? Well, just as you're about to get as cozy as a nursing babe, Williams turns a hard right out of our deep evolutionary past into our sometimes unsettling human present, when our bodies are awash in industrially generated substances. The very environmental responsiveness that helps breasts react to both babies and the outer world now makes them vulnerable to assault by a barrage of post- World War II chemicals. Breasts are our frontlines, literally. They are particularly sensitive to endocrine and hormone disruptors — chemicals that are poorly understood, poorly regulated, and nonetheless densely stored in breast tissue. It's more than yucky to let toxins from ubiquitous plastics accumulate in our breasts, it's downright dangerous. Williams wants those of us who care about breast cancer to stop letting chemical companies off the hook. Genetics will only take us so far in explaining rising cancer rates, she points out — we need to demand better regulation.
Because it's not just any one of us (or our mothers or wives or sisters) whose well-being is at stake. Breasts remind us that we're not the highest peak of our own food chain. What makes it into our bodies becomes concentrated in the food we make our babies, who are poorly prepared to handle the complex industrial chemicals we're now feeding them. Williams, who has gone so far as to have her own breast milk tested and her own levels of artificial estrogens monitored, consciously turns herself into the canary in the mineshaft. But as she makes all too clear, the rest of us are participating in the experiment whether we like it or not.
Full disclosure: I read this book while breast-feeding, holding my ten- month-old's small head as I read. I was alternately awed and horrified. I felt newfound love for the wonderful relation I was in, both with my son and with the species at large. Even so, I felt newly defensive on the part of the breast — and wished to become a standard bearer, not merely for the striptease but for the science of what is safe. My one wish for this book was that it would end with a list of people I should call or write, actions I could take on behalf of the breast and its beneficiaries. Which is to say, as William reminds us, absolutely everyone.
Tess Taylor is the author of The Misremembered World, a collection of poems. Her nonfiction and poetry have appeared in the Times Literary Supplement, The New York Times,andThe New Yorker.
Reviewer: Tess Taylor
Introduction. Planet Breast 11
Chapter 1 For Whom the Bells Toll 29
Chapter 2 Circular Beginnings 65
Chapter 3 Plumbing: A Primer 79
Chapter 4 Fill Her Up 95
Chapter 5 Toxic Assets: The Growing Breast 139
Chapter 6 Shampoo, Macaroni, and the American Girl: Spring Comes Early 167
Chapter 7 The Pregnancy Paradox 223
Chapter 8 What's for Dinner? 247
Chapter 9 Holy Crap: Herman, Hamlet, and the All-Important Human Gut 271
Chapter 10 Sour Milk 309
Chapter 11 An Unfamiliar Wilderness: Periods, the Pill, and HRT 341
Chapter 12 The Few. The Proud. The Afflicted: Can Marines Solve the Puzzle of Breast Cancer? 367
Chapter 13 Are You Dense? The Aging Breast 397
Chapter 14 The Future of Breasts 425
Permission Credits 523
Posted June 17, 2012
This book is a must-read for every woman on the planet and for most men too. It's written in easy to comprehend language which is like a cold slap in the face couched with a soft caress. It's important for any woman who is considering becoming a mother, ever. It's important for women who have already become mothers. It's important for any woman who will ever reach menopause.
It's not just about what we put in our bodies and where it eventually turns up - but what we breathe, what we sit on, what we wear - essentially all aspects of our lives.
Florence Williams tells this story with humor yet with urgency. She has done massive research for our benefit and I think it's amazing.
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Posted June 13, 2012
What a fascinating study of our breasts! Florence Williams asks questions I would not think of asking, but I am keenly interested in the answers. I was so enthralled with this book that I missed subway stops and used even the short ride in the elevator as an opportunity to catch a paragraph or two. This book does have a decidedly biological bend, but that is key to understanding (or at least starting to understand) how these fabulous organs work. As a nursing mother, this book both scared me (breasts share environmental toxins with our babies) and inspired me (breasts also share a complex biological ecosystem with those babies). I recommend this book to everyone who is interested not only in the sociological or cultural aspect of breasts (although there is some of that), but in how these beauties work and impact our lives from nursing babies to implants to breast cancer.
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Posted March 6, 2014
Posted August 19, 2013
Posted August 19, 2013
Posted July 21, 2012
The best nonfiction book I have read in a while. It's very heavy on the technical info but has just enough anecdotes and genuinely interesting information to keep you hooked!Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted July 3, 2012
Important info for all women to read! The book is a little all over the place, but the research is undeniably current and fascinating. I am buying seveal copies for my girlfriends. I will never think of my "breasts" in the same way.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted June 16, 2012
I found the book interesting at first, with many details about the breast and history of it. But as I kept reading I found it too depressing and worrisome to finish.
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Posted June 3, 2012
Although I chose to read this book as a joke, the idea of learning about an organ I know little about seemed interesting. The book started with fascinating facts about the evolution of breasts and possible explanations as to why they evolved. Unfortunately, the remainder of the book went into excrutiatingly scientific detail about all the latent toxins breasts absorb. I was disappointed to find that most of this book turned out to be about how pervasive harmful chemicals are in our lives. I was hoping for more about the history of breasts, cultural differences regarding how society regards them, or what they say about us as one of the only species to treat them functionally and astheticly.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted May 23, 2012
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Posted January 4, 2013
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