Book review: Breasts: A Natural And Unnatural History

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FEMALE readers of Florence Williams’ litany of the marvels of the organs which, apparently, have virtually made human evolution possible, are early warning signals for environmental disaster and are so complex that their full powers have yet to be discovered, may find themselves glancing down a lot: can these two mounds of fat really do so much?

Male readers may be best advised to keep their eyes fixed on the page, especially if in a public place.

From Pink Ribbon campaigns to Page Three, breast-feeding advocates to implant scandals, breasts are – obviously – everywhere. Yet Williams’ engaging pop-science round-up of breast affairs shows that there’s still a lot to learn about them. She skims through a number of ongoing research studies which have only tentative results, as it’s only relatively recently that breasts have been properly studied, except perhaps by cancer specialists. Tellingly, the Human Microbiome Project, which aims to decode the genes for every major gland of the body, somehow left out breast milk.

But from what is known it does seem that human breasts, with their unique shape and nutrition, made us what we are. Williams neatly debunks that old chestnut about breasts evolving to charm men by reminding them of buttocks as male scientists’ wishful thinking: breasts were an awful lot more practical than that.

The downside is that while their “plastic” adaptability was great when we were evolving, now it makes them highly susceptible to modern toxins. There’s a long history of scandalously cavalier medical attitudes to breasts. Williams recounts how, in 1962, the first woman to have silicone put in, Timmie Jean Lindsey, just went to the doctor to have a tattoo removed and agreed to the operation only if they’d pin back her ears for free. But leaking implants are almost the least of our worries, given that even non-augmented breasts seem to be contaminated with all kinds of substances with scary acronyms: BPA, MEP, MCPP, MEHHP and so on. Traces of flame retardant from furniture are seeping into breasts and, thus, being passed on to babies. Kids are going through puberty and getting breasts earlier and earlier. It’s frightening stuff with no sign of easy solutions.

Williams is a science journalist, rather than a scientist, and makes liberal use of her own experiences: she has her breast milk analysed, discusses her children’s health, learns to examine her breasts using a silicone dummy complete with sample tumours, and even informs us that her husband is “a leg man”. She adopts a chummy tone, with frequent jokes, unfortunate phrases like “picking up the breast ball where the Human Microbiome Project dropped it” and a strange habit of referring to breasts as independent creatures: “…Breasts desperately need a rosier future.”

It rather contradicts her point that breasts have long been thought of as disembodied objects, separate from the rest of us. And the jokiness comes across as apologetic, as if she can’t quite believe that we’re willing to take the subject seriously. But the book is easy to read, with plenty of curious facts and anecdotes, and while it may not yet be the definitive mammary history, it’s probably the breast so far.

Breasts: A Natural And Unnatural History

Florence Williams

WW Norton & Co, £15.99