Breasts are pretty universally admired for their aesthetic, erotic, and nutritional benefits, but they are also largely misunderstood, framed too often as sex toys or food sources rather than as the vulnerable and complex organs that they are. So wrote journalist Florence Williams in her 2012 book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History (WW Norton), a social and scientific account of the bosom.
The book, which won a Los Angeles Times Book Prize earlier this year, delved into all kinds of topics: breast implants, early-onset puberty, breastfeeding, and breast cancer (among both men and women), all through an environmental lens. The New York Times compared it to Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, that seminal examination of the devastating impacts of industrial chemicals on flora and fauna. “But Williams, who cites Carson as an inspiration, has written a far scarier book,” the Times review said. “Carson examined birds and fish. Williams looks at us.”
Breasts, the reader learns, are harbingers of ecological health (or lack thereof) — absorbent pillows that act as an excellent storage medium for the chemicals and toxins we’re exposed to on a daily basis. In addition, or perhaps because of that fact, incidence of breast cancer is on the rise (one out of every eight American women will develop the disease in their lifetime and family history accounts for only 10 percent of those cases), boobs are getting bigger, and they’re arriving earlier in young women’s lives.
“Our bodies, I learned, are not like temples,” Williams wrote in her introduction. “They are more like trees. Our membranes are permeable; they transport both the good and the bad from the world around us.”
It was her experience as a breastfeeding mom that piqued Williams’s interest in the subject of mammary glands. After reading reports of pollutants in breast milk, she sent off a sample of her own to be tested for industrial chemicals. Williams, who will speak next Thursday at Maine Women’s Lobby fundraising event in Rockland, was shocked to discover the presence of flame retardants in her own breast milk, plus trace amounts of the pesticide DDT and of perchlorate, an additive sometimes found in jet fuel. Her toxin levels, which were 10-100 times higher than those in other parts of the world, were described as average for an American woman.
Turns out, the fatty tissue in Williams’s breasts — in addition to comprising a crucial piece of her reproductive system — was also acting as a kind of archive of the pollutants she’d been exposed to over the years. Thus began an exhaustive inquiry into knockers.
“Breasts are such a dynamic and responsive organ,” she said on the phone recently from her home in Washington DC. “They’re in constant conversation with the world around us, always changing, pretty dramatically, through our lives. The breast is a really interesting organ to write about because it’s so charismatic and fun and we love breasts, but they’re also these signals for environmental problems.”
Williams’s research is particularly relevant in Maine, where the Alliance for a Clean and Healthy Maine (a coalition of which the Maine Women’s Lobby is a member) has been pushing for increased labeling of chemicals found in plastic food packaging, particularly bisphenol-A (BPA), for these very reasons.