It was a little frustrating. Whenever I mentioned to someone that I was reading Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams, I would get a chuckle and a knowing, “of course you are.” The web site Better Book Titles accurately sums up the assumptions here. But NO! Really, breasts is an amazing book of science reporting that I came by honestly. I first heard of the book when the author was interviewed by Terry Gross on Fresh Air. I listened to most of the interview parked in front of my house. The discussion of environmental contamination and its potential for health effects is quite literally my kind of science. I bought the book immediately.
The book begins with an overview and a discussion of the evolutionary science theories about the human breasts appearance and location, which is different from all other mammals. Many physical anthropologists suggest that the obvious answer to these questions is to signal and attract men. The scientists that promote these male-centered theories are typically men. Williams then delves into “women-centered” theories that are much more compelling for their consideration of what the breasts actually are and do. It’s an important distinction:
What’s appealing about these women-centered theories for the breasts is that they make some attempt to understand how the organ actually works. The boobs-for-men theories do not.
By the time Williams is done, the boobs-for-men theorists have surely packed up their labs and moved on to other subjects of inquiry.
Williams also distinguishes between the “aesthetic breast” and the impossibly complex biological machinery breasts. She visits “boob job ground zero: Houston” to get a first-hand glimpse at the breast augmentation medical/industrial complex. Williams tells the bizarre story of the first modern medical implant patient (she only wanted an ear tuck) and the evolution of the implant industry. In the early days of breast augmentation surgery there were only three sizes of implants: small, medium, and burlesque. Williams notes that the “burlesque” is merely average by today’s Houston standards.
Williams then connects the world of implants to the larger world of chemicals:
The same year that Timmie Jean was exchanging an ear tuck for a boob job, Rachel Carson published a book about the destructive power of pesticides. These two events had more in common that it might appear, for both heralded a new era of synthetic compounds that would forever alter breasts.
The discussion of the chemical assault on breasts and its health implication is where I think that Williams writing really shines. The problem, in a nutshell, is that many man-made chemicals that are long-lived and persistent in the environment are structurally very similar to estrogen. These compounds are then able to activate estrogen receptor sites, which may in turn wreak all kinds of havoc. Because of their chemical properties, these chemicals are preferentially stored in breasts (and other fatty tissues) and can be passed to infants through breasts milk. The health implications, ranging from early puberty (which has its own consequences) to breast cancer are staggering.
Breasts is an endlessly fascinating and important book. I couldn’t stop discussing it with whoever was closest to me at any given time. According to my Kindle, I underlined 82 passages, which easily destroys my personal record for making notes in an e-book. Time will tell if Breasts will join landmark environmental books in the pantheon created by Silent Spring, but, to this reader at least, it has that feel.