Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History [NOOK Book]

Overview

A 2012 New York Times Notable Book

A 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Award Winner in the Science & Technology category



An engaging narrative about an incredible, life-giving organ and its imperiled modern fate.


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Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

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Overview

A 2012 New York Times Notable Book

A 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Award Winner in the Science & Technology category



An engaging narrative about an incredible, life-giving organ and its imperiled modern fate.


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

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review
Breasts is less a primer on anatomy than a catalog of environmental devastation akin to Rachel Carson's 1962 classic Silent Spring, which detailed the impact of industrial chemicals…on animal life. But Williams, who cites Carson as an inspiration, has written a far scarier book. Carson examined birds and fish. Williams looks at us…Where lesser writers might gag or flee, Williams homes in, leavening her bleak overall message with macabre asides.
—M. G. Lord
Publishers Weekly
In her comprehensive “environmental history” of the only human body part without its own medical specialty, Outside contributing editor Williams focuses on the importance of understanding breasts as more than sex objects: they act as “a particularly fine mirror of our industrial lives.” Americans have 10 to 40 times the amount of flame retardant chemicals in their breast milk as Europeans, for example, and improved nutrition is responsible for earlier onset of puberty in girls—which is linked to higher breast cancer risk. “You know we’re living in a strange world when we have to biopsy our furniture,” Williams comments. She sweeps the reader along a journey extending from the evolution of human breasts from sweat glands, through cosmetic breast enhancements, the science and politics of breastfeeding, and possible links between pollutants and breast cancer in both women and men. Her clear explanations of biology and other technical matters ensure that readers without a scientific background can follow her account.She concludes with recommendations for individuals and governments to prevent further breast-related health problems. Williams puts hard data and personal history together with humor, creating an evenhanded cautionary tale that will both amuse and appall. Illus. Agent: Molly Friedrich, Friedrich Literary Agency. (May)
Discover
“A smart, wry synthesis of evolution, physiology, microbiology, environmental science, and even biomechanics.”— Carl Zimmer
New York Times Book Review
“Akin to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring.”— M. G. Lord
Wall Street Journal
“Exceptional.”
Booklist
“Starred Review. Meant to nurture the next generation for life on planet Earth, breasts are also humanity's first responders to environmental changes. And what have modern-day chemical exposures wrought? The answers to this question and many more are found in Williams's remarkably informative and compelling work of discovery.”
San Francisco Chronicle
“Williams has done us all—men and women—an enormous favor.”
Los Angeles Review of Books
“With a scientist’s mind, a journalist’s eye, and a mother’s heart, Williams has produced a wide-ranging environmental history of the breast…Williams delineates one of the most consequential dramas at the intersection of human evolution and environmental change.”
Elle
“Highly informative and remarkably entertaining. . . . [Williams’s] inquisitive tone deftly melds careful reportage and a witty streak of lay skepticism.”
Boston Globe
“Much like [Mary Roach’s] Stiff, Breasts benefits from its author's field trips…Seen this way—the breast as a canary in a toxic coal mine—[Williams's] call to protect them feels both timely and urgent.”
Carl Zimmer - Discover
“A smart, wry synthesis of evolution, physiology, microbiology, environmental science, and even biomechanics.”
M. G. Lord - New York Times Book Review
“Akin to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring.”
Susan Love
“A wonderful and entertaining tour through the evolution, biology and cultural aspects of the organ that defines us as mammals!”
Mary Roach
“Florence Williams's double-D talents as a reporter and writer lift this book high above the genre and separate it from the ranks of ordinary science writing. Breasts is illuminating, surprising, clever, important. Williams is an author to savor and look forward to.”
Carl Zimmer
“Be brave, buy this book, and withstand the giggles and sniggers of your friends. For here is a wonderful history, stretching across hundreds of millions of years, of an astonishingly complex part of the human body. Williams weaves together research on nutrition, cancer, psychology, and even structural engineering to create a fascinating portrait of the breast: that singular gland that gave us, as mammals, our very name.”
From the Publisher
"[A] remarkably informative and compellingwork of discovery." —-Booklist Starred Review
New York Times Book Review - M.G. Lord
“Akin to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring.”
Elle
“Highly informative and remarkably entertaining. . . . [Williams’s] inquisitive tone deftly melds careful reportage and a witty streak of lay skepticism.”
Kirkus Reviews
Five decades after Rachel Carson's Silent Spring, breasts may have replaced birds as early indicators of chemically induced catastrophe. According to Outside editor Williams, breasts are the proverbial canaries in the coalmine, warning us of environmental damage that may be causing early puberty, breast-milk contamination and other maladies. "Breasts are an ecosystem," she writes, "governed by long-evolved functions, migrating molecules, and interconnected parts." Williams buoys her arguments by interviewing a host of scientists, surgeons, breast-implant candidates and even former Marines who believe they have developed breast cancer from drinking tainted water at the Camp Lejeune base. In the name of science, she also volunteered for experiments, "detox[ed]" from processed foods and personal-care products and sent her breast milk to a lab to test for flame-retardants. The author peppers these encounters with accessible information on how breasts evolved, how they develop and, tragically, how they can go wrong. While Williams excels at making complex science understandable to an educated lay audience, some of her conjectures come across as hyperbole, as she decries "modern times" in which we are "marinating in hormones and toxins" without considering some of the ways in which chemistry has led to better living. Her conviction that childbearing and lactating protect women from breast cancer may alienate women who either can't or don't wish to have children. One senses that she is proud of herself for refusing even an Advil after giving birth and for eating organic food and climbing mountains, but this slightly smug tone detracts from the otherwise valuable evidence she presents. Lively and thought provoking, albeit tainted by self-righteousness.
The Barnes & Noble Review

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

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780393083866
  • Publisher: Norton, W. W. & Company, Inc.
  • Publication date: 4/30/2012
  • Sold by: Barnes & Noble
  • Format: eBook
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 177,696
  • File size: 4 MB

Meet the Author

Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside magazine, and her articles and essays have been widely anthologized. She lives in Washington, DC.
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Table of Contents

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

Acknowledgments 437

Notes 443

Permission Credits 523

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 11 )
Rating Distribution

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Sort by: Showing all of 11 Customer Reviews
  • Anonymous

    Posted June 17, 2012

    A Fantastic Read

    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.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 13, 2012

    What a fascinating study of our breasts! Florence Williams asks

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 6, 2014

    Who wants to have sex with me?

    We can go in my bedroom

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2013

    Bunnie

    Kissee her fiercely squeezing her breasts then sucked her neck

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted August 19, 2013

    Jade

    I moan and grind u. Mommy u feel so good i moan

    Was this review helpful? Yes  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 21, 2012

    Really great read

    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  No   Report this review
  • Anonymous

    Posted July 3, 2012

    Important info for all women to read! The book is a little all o

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 16, 2012

    Too Worrisome to finish

    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.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 3, 2012

    Mostly about toxins

    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.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 23, 2012

    No text was provided for this review.

  • Anonymous

    Posted January 4, 2013

    No text was provided for this review.

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