In Slate, Lindy West has an engaging and intriguing review of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, a new book by Florence Williams on the science, history, and future of breasts. The review concludes with "Five Things I Learned About Breasts From Florence Williams' Breasts" (not excerpted here), which I found fascinating:
Williams' journey begins when, alarmed by a news article about toxins in breast milk, she decides to get her own milk tested. And, surprise! It's packed with toxins—specifically, chemical flame retardants—that Williams is funneling directly into her baby. ("Well, at least your breasts won't spontaneously ignite!" her husband jokes, because that's exactly what you want to hear when adjusting to the news that you're a human baby-poison factory.) This sends her down a rabbit hole in search of deeper understanding of her own anatomy— into the evolutionary history of mammals, to Peru to investigate nursing and weaning, back to the first breast augmentation surgery, and all over the world to interview more boob experts than you can shake a pasty at.
And she discovers that breasts are complicated. Impossibly so. She learns that it’s the breast’s permeability that make it such an evolutionary powerhouse (lots and lots of estrogen receptors help human puberty occur at the optimal time; nutrient-rich breast milk makes for giant brains)—but that same permeability is also, partially, what causes one in eight women to develop breast cancer. Our breasts make us great but they also make us vulnerable, and you can’t help but come away from Williams’ book feeling a bit helpless. (Self-examinations! Self-examinations are key!) While she makes the story as dynamic as possible, there’s no escaping that this is science journalism—there are lots of PBDE levels and octa-203 and penta-47 and dioxin and “lobule type 4” and other such enemies of lively prose. But that’s OK—there are enough surprises and genuinely horrifying learning moments to keep a reader (especially a lady-reader), uh, latched on.