Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
by Florence Williams
I stumbled upon this book while perusing the shelves at Barnes & Noble and was immediately intrigued. Who wouldn’t be, with BREASTS emblazoned across the cover in all caps? As it turns out, I’m really glad I read it.
Categorized under Science on the back cover, this non-fiction book covers just about everything you ever wanted to know – and probably never even thought to wonder – about the glorious organs for which mammals are named. Clearly the author has the utmost respect for her subject, having undertaken painstaking research and world travel to learn about the human breast’s history, present, and future, and even offering her own breasts up for scrutiny.
Williams covers fascinating ground in Breasts, offering up such little known facts as, “To be functional for nursing an infant, a mammary gland need fill only half an eggshell. Big breasts are not required,” as well as the more sobering fact that our breasts are, unfortunately, like soft sponges, soaking up and storing a lifetime of toxins. The human breast is both awesome in its abilities, and extremely vulnerable.
Breasts, it seems, have always drawn admirers – and not just, or even mainly, for their ability to feed human infants. Breasts have an undeniable sexual allure, and women have been finding ways to enhance and augment their breasts for much longer than most people probably realize.
In the early twentieth century, implant materials included glass balls, ivory, wood chips, peanut oil, honey, goat’s milk, and ox cartilage.
Before that, paraffin injections were not unheard of, and once the plastics revolution hit, experimentation with polyvinyl/polyethylene sponges implanted into women’s breasts took place. The vast majority of these, not surprisingly, had very bad, and often deadly, or at least disfiguring results. Even when silicone finally hit the market, it was initially injected directly into women’s breasts, rather than being contained in an enclosed implant.
“There’s nothing like America’s consumer culture to convince us that what we have isn’t quite good enough,” Williams posits. For as long as – perhaps longer than – there have been women pining for bigger, “better” breasts, there have been doctors willing to make those dreams come true, even arguing that small breasts are a “deformity.” How’s that for feeding on our vanity and insecurities?
Inevitably, Williams discusses breast cancer at length – everything from risk factors to the rise in incidence to ongoing research and treatment – and ultimately, how little is still really understood about human breasts.
If a woman is postmenopausal, she can reduce her risk by eating well and exercising and by not drinking excessive alcohol or smoking. Unfortunately, though, these gains are small. It appears that by the time a woman reaches menopause, her cancer destiny is mostly laid out by some mysterious combination of her genes, the pattern of growth taken by her breasts, and the accumulated damage (or lack thereof) to her cells over many decades. Menopause is simply the end zone in a game of chicken between breasts and carcinogens. By this stage of life, it’s too late to change the things that may have set her down a particular path: the childhood exposures, her reproductive history, the hardiness of her genes. New exposures, such as to hormone therapy, may put her over the edge. But her cells will keep aging no matter what she does, and as they do, they’ll collect more mutations.
All of this has had me obsessing over my own breasts and their possible destiny –
I’ve always assumed that my multiple pregnancies have offered me a good measure of protection from breast cancer, but as it turns out, my first pregnancy came too late in my life (age 29) to do me much good in that respect; apparently, pregnancies occurring in the late teens and early twenties offer the best chance of cancer protection. Additionally, while breastfeeding offers some good cancer protection because of the dynamic, specialized combination of hormones that course through a woman’s body during lactation, every time a woman weans a child, her breasts go through a period of “involution” where cells are radically changing and are vulnerable to mutations that can lead to cancer; so theoretically, the more times a woman weans, the more risk she is exposed to, and especially in older mothers who have accumulated more toxins in their breast tissue just be virtue of having had breasts longer than younger mothers. So there’s another couple of Xs on my risk factor chart: multiple weanings, and older mother. I’ve also always assumed that I had a pretty slim chance of developing breast cancer because there isn’t a family history of it, especially on my mother’s side. However, what I know now is that the vast majority of women who do develop breast cancer have no family history of it, and I realize now that it’s possible that neither my mother nor her mother developed breast cancer (to date, anyway) because they both had children young and had hysterectomies while still in their 30s.
It is frightening to ponder these things.
From a purely aesthetic standpoint, I’ve succumbed in very recent years to being unhappy enough with the looks of my breasts that I’ve begun daydreaming about buying some perky new ones. After reading this book, though, I’m leaning the other way. I’m in my mid-forties, after all – why shouldn’t I have breasts that show their age and all they’ve accomplished? I’ve successfully fed seven babies with these babies – and when I really think about it – that these two humble mounds of flesh have provided the sole sustenance for SEVEN babies for the first several months of each of their lives – I’m kind of awestruck. They have more than fulfilled their intended purpose.
In a nutshell, Breasts is illuminating, humbling, and sobering. I highly recommend it to anyone who has or loves breasts. We all owe it to these magnificent organs to understand and respect them more than we do.