Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History

In her alternately hilarious and deeply sobering book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, 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 boobs 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 also 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.