A 2012 New York Times Notable Book
A 2013 Los Angeles Times Book Award Winner in the Science & Technology category
An engaging narrative about an incredible, life-giving organ and its imperiled modern fate.
Did you know that breast milk contains substances similar to cannabis? Or that it’s sold on the Internet for 262 times the price of oil? Feted and fetishized, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece. But in the modern world, the breast is changing. Breasts are getting bigger, arriving earlier, and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle with breast cancer, even among men. What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?
In this informative and highly entertaining account, intrepid science reporter Florence Williams sets out to uncover the latest scientific findings from the fields of anthropology, biology, and medicine. Her investigation follows the life cycle of the breast from puberty to pregnancy to menopause, taking her from a plastic surgeon’s office where she learns about the importance of cup size in Texas to the laboratory where she discovers the presence of environmental toxins in her own breast milk. The result is a fascinating exploration of where breasts came from, where they have ended up, and what we can do to save them.
In her comprehensive "environmental history" of the only human body part without its own medical specialty, Outside contributing editor Williams focuses on the importance of understanding breasts as more than sex objects: they act as "a particularly fine mirror of our industrial lives." Americans have 10 to 40 times the amount of flame retardant chemicals in their breast milk as Europeans, for example, and improved nutrition is responsible for earlier onset of puberty in girls which is linked to higher breast cancer risk. "You know we're living in a strange world when we have to biopsy our furniture," Williams comments. She sweeps the reader along a journey extending from the evolution of human breasts from sweat glands, through cosmetic breast enhancements, the science and politics of breastfeeding, and possible links between pollutants and breast cancer in both women and men. Her clear explanations of biology and other technical matters ensure that readers without a scientific background can follow her account. She concludes with recommendations for individuals and governments to prevent further breast-related health problems. Williams puts hard data and personal history together with humor, creating an evenhanded cautionary tale that will both amuse and appall. Illus.