Best of the Breast

Book review of "Breasts" by Florence Williams; Plus, a Q&A with the author

by Meredith Norton
breasts book image
Photograph: Bryan McCay

Even as a breast-cancer survivor, I didn’t think the subject of breasts could hold my attention for 300-plus pages. I was wrong. I spent two days either frozen in my chair or running back and forth to the kitchen to share a tidbit with someone, anyone. I recently spoke with Florence Williams about humanity’s most fascinating organ.

By Florence Williams

MORE: As a flat-chested woman with a respectable behind, I was baffled to read about some nutty speculations on the evolutionary purpose of breasts—specifically, that they’re -needed to help the upright female maintain her balance. What got you started investigating all this?
FW: I jumped into this rabbit hole when I learned that my breast milk had toxins in it—flame retardants and pesticides. I started asking questions about what that meant for the health of our children as well as our breasts. Now I’m more aware of the hidden ingredients in my furniture, food and face creams, and I know where they end up—in us! I’d like to see more public pressure to test chemicals for safety.

MN: I have to confess that I once made muffins for my in-laws that they raved about until they discovered ingredient number three was my own breast milk. Suddenly the muffins were inedible. Milk from a cow was preferable. Why is this?
FW: It is so interesting that human milk is considered taboo and icky, because in many cultures lactating is such a normal activity. The dairy industry is all bent out of shape now because there are so many milks on the market: almond milk, soy milk. They’re saying, “We are the real milk!” I have to laugh and say, “Actually, you’re not.”

MN: You write that on the Internet, young people “have seen many more factory-made breasts than real ones.” Are boob jobs going to seem as essential to the next generation as nose jobs were to ours?
FW: It is a failure of the imagination that we raise our girls to think they need a certain type of breasts in order to be valued in society. We have to step in to help them find self-esteem in other places and to say, “Look! These are not real!”

MN: You call breasts sentinel organs. What do you mean by that?
FW: Well, I do think breasts tell us a lot about the world we live in. If we have toxins in breast milk, if girls are reaching puberty uncommonly early and if global breast-¬cancer rates keep rising, that tells us our planet and our bodies are not in sync. Breasts are an ecological organ. We should listen.

Next: 'This is How' by Augusten Burroughs

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