Breasts: the secret history of boobs

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.

Your Breasts Are Trying To Kill You (via Skepchick)


  1. It occurred to me the other day that our entire biological Class is defined as Mammalia. Thats how important mammary glands are. Nature placed them at a very high level of classification. To obsess over them as simply sex objects fails to appreciate their very important role in our evolutionary history.

  2. “and all over the world to interview more boob experts than you can shake a pasty at.”

    Flo, I present the “Winning of all teh internets this week” award to you.

    Sure, i’m a “breast man”, but not because i’m just a guy, its because of their function. Yes, the male may be needed to give life the first kickstarter backing, but its the female that does absolutely everything else. Where the actual conception takes place, gestation, birth, AND from their own breast, the nourishment for the newly minted mutant to actually survive.

    Our female population can MAKE PEOPLE! FFS!!! Worship them as such.

  3. Her boobs are grassy.

    Shouldn’t that have the Grand Tetons on the cover? Or would that be too obvious?

  4. I never understood the classification of being a breast or thigh man. I always seem to get asked around Thanksgiving and I always have to go with, “but I’m a vagina man”.

  5. Interesting.  I like how she points out that breast milk is full of the chemicals that we absorb in our everyday life.  I plan to use that argument when I argue why I do not intend to breastfeed my hypothetical future children.

    1. The breast-feeding-only militants are immune to facts, just like any other flavor of wingnut.  Your best bet is to simply tell them to bugger-off, and feed your future hypothetical child however you think is best. 

        1. Just for the record, I think this is a completely jackass attitude to have. Your last sentence basically says “if you don’t breastfeed, you don’t care about your kid”. In the nicest possible way: get bent.

          I know not one, not two, not even three, but a _number_ of women who have had kids, and been unable to breastfeed: not ‘can’t be bothered’ as you seem to imply, but ravaged by mastitis, thrush, cracked nipples, etc. This isn’t a “oh just get over it” thing: I know people who have _actively hated their kids_ over this. To be a new mother, to know you’re supposed to love this kid, but to feel nothing but _resentment_ because of the perceived obligation to breastfeed and the effects it has on your own body? Not fun.

          Yes, breastfeeding’s best for health. Is it more important to the kid than having a mother who doesn’t feel love for them, who ends up in post-natal depression, who attempts (or commits) suicide? Exaggerating? I promise, none of those are hypotheticals. I’m not saying breastfeeding causes these of course, but having society treat you with nothing but contempt if you don’t really doesn’t help fragile new mothers.

          This is a simplistic attitude to “what’s best for babies”, and frankly it’s insensitive and insulting.

          1. Yes. I’m quite aware that many women have reasons why it’s not possible to breastfeed. Deciding in advance that you’re just not going to do it is a different story. If you’ve already decided that you don’t want to provide the best care for your baby, don’t have one.

        2. Seriously?  “Not having a functional immune system”?  That’s got to be one of the most hyperbolic, unsupportable statements I’ve ever read. 

    2. Of course, everyday life is also full of the chemicals of everyday life. I’ll leave you and your hypothetical children to decide how to deal with that conundrum on your own though.

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