FORGET Fifty Shades of Grey: if you want to see other commuters snigger on the bus or train, try reading a book called Breasts.
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
by Florence Williams
WW Norton, 352pp, £15.99
But Florence Williams’s tome isn’t some titillating tale (sorry – a mammary pun seems mandatory): it is a fascinating – and occasionally frightening – exploration of these most fetishised of body parts.
Breasts, unless diseased, are rarely taken seriously. Although Williams does allow herself a little fun with our fun bags (beginning the book with some of the more imaginative names we have bestowed on them, from “dairy pillows” to “chumbawumbas”), she then swiftly steers away from the juvenile to argue that we have fixated on breasts’ aesthetic appeal at the expense of their evolutionary importance.
Lactation, according to an expert Williams interviews, is “perhaps the single most earth-shaking event in mammalian ascendance”. It gave an advantage over the dinosaurs: our young don’t need to grow up near places with good protein sources, just near their mothers.
Among mammals, though, pendulous orbs that stay throughout adulthood are a defining characteristic of humanity – chimps won’t fill an A cup when they’re not producing milk. And yet, Williams notes, we know surprisingly little about the basic biology of the bosom. Moreover, it is the only major organ without a medical speciality.
Which, of course, hasn’t stopped doctors milking money from our chests. Williams’s chapter on the breast enlargement business should be required reading for all Jordan-wannabes, revealing a history that “reads like a horror novel” long before the PIP scandal. After experiments inserting everything from glass balls to ox cartilage, silicone became the material of choice and a woman called Timmie Jean Lindsey the first human guinea pig. Lindsey didn’t even want bigger breasts, only to have her ears pinned back, but a surgeon offered the operation she wanted in return for one she didn’t. Fifty years on, her implants still in place but ruptured, Lindsey sometimes feels shooting pains in her chest.
It isn’t just augmented breasts that concern Williams, though. For the scary message of her book is that we are entering a brave new world of bosoms where they have gone “from being honed by the environment to being harmed by it”. Artificial oestrogens seep from many plastics and as breasts store fat, they also store these fat-loving chemicals: “Our breasts soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges.” This affects breast milk and has been linked to the early onset of puberty, as well as rising rates of breast cancer.
Beyond the warning, Breasts is peppered with facts that deserve to be shared. A Houston doctor who claims to perform up to 17 augmentation operations in a day owns a breast-shaped swimming pool, complete with a Jacuzzi nipple. On the internet, breast milk is sold for a much higher price than oil.
Williams’s great success is in proving that breasts are even more fascinating inside than out – they deserve far more than a snigger.
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