Jan 22, 2014

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams

One could argue that it doesn’t really matter why we have breasts. (…) But it does matter because, as we’ve seen, the origin stories wag long political, sexual, and social tails. Beliefs about the origins—and thus “purpose”—of breasts can even influence their health and functioning. It’s not just the feminists who are down on the sexual selection stories (…): over-sexualizing the breast detracts from infant health and contributes to body image problems in young women.
My first piece of non-fiction of 2014 was a book that takes a close look at the science and cultural history of a piece of anatomy most women share — in other words, just my kind of thing. In Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, Florence Williams tells the story of the human breast from an interesting mixture of evolutionary, biological, environmental, anthropological and sociological perspectives. We learn about breasts as an organ and what they’re actually for; about the often horrifying history of breast implants and the attitudes and beliefs that contribute to their popularity; about the pathologization of small breasts and the commercial interests driving it; about the facts and figures behind breast cancer; about breast feeding and the contradictory pressures that have been put on mothers over time; about puberty and breast development; and about the terrifying mixture of industrial chemicals that increasingly have been finding their way into human breast tissue and breast milk over the past few decades.

One of my favourite things about Breasts was the feminist anthropological angle from which Williams approaches the age-old question “why do humans have breasts”? She addresses the patriarchal biases that have led to this question mostly being answered from a “because men like them” perspective and says:
The breast has always been a favorite of evolutionary biologists, who imbue it with colorful origin stories that may or may not be rooted in reality. Scientists have spent decades looking (and looking) at the breast, trying to figure out how on earth humans got so lucky. For years now, many have been seeing breasts as a wonderful adornment— like the peacock’s tail— designed to attract the opposite sex. When humorist Dave Barry wrote, “The primary biological function of breasts is to make males stupid,” he was summing up a half century of scholarship on the subject. Breasts, said a whole generation of academics, evolved because men loved them and preferred to mate with early cave women fortunate enough to have them.

By the latter quarter of the twentieth century, though, as women climbed the ranks of anthropology and biology departments, they had—and continue to have—some other ideas about how these mysteries arrived on the female chest. These gate-crashers hypothesized that it was actually the maternal woman who drove the evolution of breasts. Perhaps our she-ancestors needed those few extra grams of thoracic fat to gestate and nurture their babies, who are, after all, the pudgiest little primates in the history of the earth. The debate over breast evolution is important, because the creation stories color how we see breasts, how we use them, and how we burden them with our expectations. Because the dominant story has been all about the visuals, it discounts what’s actually in breasts. How do they work? How are they connected to the rest of the body, and how are they affected by a larger ecology?
Williams alerts readers to, as the quote I opened with puts it, “the over-sexualisation of the breast”, and I think the points she makes are valid and important. I have to say, though, that as a woman with no personal interest in motherhood I was sensitive to the fact that a complete turn towards a “breasts are for feeding babies” narrative would also not tell the whole story of how women who have breasts experience them. Just like there’s nothing wrong with enjoying sex apart from reproduction, it’s completely fine for women to enjoy the sensual potential of a part of their bodies on their own terms, regardless of their biological role.

But Williams is careful to separate science from cultural narratives: the latter influence the former, but they’re not one and the same. It’s important to keep in mind that not all women have an interest in motherhood, and that if they have breasts they get to decide what they represent for them personally; but it’s equally important to remember that a scientific understanding of breasts that’s primarily centred on male sexuality will distorts our knowledge and could have grave consequences for women’s health.

One of the things we discount when we focus on aesthetics and forget what breasts actually do biologically is their sensitivity to the environment: breast tissue absorbs industrial chemicals like whoa, and it’s easy to let this fact slip if we’re solely obsessed with what breasts look like from the outside. As William says, “breasts carry the burden of the mistakes we have made in our stewardship of the planet, and they alert us to them if we know how to look.”

Breasts is a book that espouses an environmental understanding of human health, and I found that valuable and terrifying in equal measure. The bad news is that we’ve made a serious mess of things and we’re paying for it with our bodies; the good news is that knowledge is power and we’re beginning to understand this fact.

If I had one problem with Breasts, it had to do with the fact that Florence Williams sometimes resorts to a sort of rhetoric I’ve been inoculated against thanks to excellent books such as Paleofantasy or Beyond Human Nature: she grounds her arguments on the idea that modern lifestyles are at odds with how human beings are meant to live, and this is why our problems arise. For example, she says that “our Palaeolithic legacy has left us with other mismatches, such as obesity and diabetes. It’s becoming increasingly obvious that our bodies weren’t designed to handle modern, industrial diets.”

Don’t get me wrong; I’m not denying that there are valid ways to critique industrial diets and their consequences for our health; it’s just that this can be done without embarking on a dubious “this isn’t how we’re MEANT to live” path and throwing the concept of human adaptability under the bus. It’s facile rhetoric, and as the great Marlene Zuk would say, it’s both misleading and scientifically weak. To be fair on Williams, though, that excerpt is at odds with other sections of the book where she does embrace the idea of adaptability and acknowledges that we’re not hopelessly stuck in the Palaeolithic. After all, she does say:
When it comes to breasts, the ecosystem metaphor is apt. The new sciences of environmental disease and epigenetics are redefining the very notion of human nature. They’re challenging us to recall an ancient belief system that says we are deeply connected to our environment. Twentieth-century medicine had us believe our DNA was our destiny. Now we understand our DNA was built to bend. The pendulum of science is swinging away from the preeminence of the genetic code to the surprising power of our soil, air, water, and food. In this current cultural moment that worships technology and throwaway convenience, it’s a good time to remember our physical interdependence with the larger world. If breasts are to be saved, their salvation will lie in this recognition.
That’s something I can certainly get behind.

In sum, Breasts is well-written, accessible, informative and often terrifying — but in a useful way. Recommended.

Other interesting bits:
It soon became the fervent stance of the plastic surgery profession that such women were legitimately diseased, either because of “micromastia”—small breasts—or because of their severe psychic inferiority complexes, a handy Freudian concept in vogue at the time. And where there’s a disease, there’s a cure. One surgeon’s autobiography was filled with slump-shouldered, depressive “before” pictures and gleeful, exuberant “after” shots. The message was clear: bigger breasts could change you from a loser to a winner. As recently as 1982, the American Society of Plastic and Reconstructive Surgery told the U.S. Food and Drug Administration that “there is a substantial and enlarging body of medical information and opinion… to the effect that these deformities [small breasts] are really a disease which in most patients result in feelings of inadequacy, lack of self-confidence, distortion of body image and a total lack of well-being, therefore due to a lack of self-perceived femininity. The enlargement of the female breast is often very necessary to insure an improved quality of life for the patient.”

I was increasingly learning that the whole blame-your-lifestyle approach to understanding breast cancer is problematic. In a way, it presents an excuse not to probe into the deeper reasons for disease. As environmental historian Nancy Langston put it, “Traditional medicine and public health practices have been reductive, focused on individual risk factors for disease.” Instead, she argues, we need a more ecological understanding that explores how genes and the environment interact to compromise our immune system in the first place. Ultimately, we should be asking and answering, “Why do some women have dense breasts? Is there anything we can do to prevent or lessen the impact once it kicks in?”
They read it too: Feminist Texican Reads, Citizen Reader


Affiliates disclosure: if you buy a book through one of my affiliates links I will get 5%.


  1. >>>the idea that modern lifestyles are at odds is how human beings are meant to live

    This drives me craaaaaaazy. I have a couple of Facebook friends who are always posting statuses along these lines. It's frustrating because like you, I agree with some of what they're saying -- there are aspects of our modern lifestyle in developed nations that are seriously damaging and wrong -- but not with this concept of what we're "meant" to be doing. It just feels like not too far a jump between that and antigay arguments about the evolutionary imperative for men and women to reproduce.

  2. Yes, yes, yes, exactly! I suspect that Williams probably knows better, but that sort of rhetoric is so common that she let it slip into how she frames some of her arguments.

  3. Sounds like a really good, informative book. Thanks for such a well written review!

  4. Stefanie: I actually thought of you when reading it - it's definitely right up your alley!

  5. I had been meaning to read this, but it fell off my radar. Thanks for the reminder. I am glad you liked it!

  6. Fascinating! That 1982 study is particularly creepy in the way it turns perfectly healthy normal body parts into "deformities." Yikes. The environmental perspective is really worth knowing about.

  7. A fascinating post - so much here to think about (not least why that sort of rhetoric continues to be propagated by people who are otherwise fairly intelligent!). I'll keep an eye out for this one. Great review.

  8. So glad I already have this book or your review would have made me blow the budget to go buy it. :)

  9. This review hit home. I've always been super self-conscious about my (above average-sized) breast. I always had the feeling people would judge me because of them, they wouldn't take me serious. Hence my to hide them (you can see it clearly in my posture). Even with all the reading I've done, I can't figure out if it's all in my head.

  10. hi!
    i've commented before, but i only do so sometimes, i don't know why. everytime i visit your blog i get immersed in it and i read - and re-read - several of your reviews. and each time i comment is to say this, how much i admire your takes on the books, the way you're so gentle with words, i'm not sure how to describe it. but your blog gives me a warm feeling, the same way having a book on those rainy days does.
    anyway, i know this isn't quit related to the post in question (which i really liked and i'm always interested in this sort of book), but i'd like to ask you: have you been reading contemporary portuguese fiction? and by that i mean anything written in portuguese, be it from portugal, from some countries in africa or from brazil etc. cause i think there are some interesting things going on, especially in african litterature written in portuguese. it's interesting for me to navigate between these books because they show how the same language is used by each culture, and the way words and phrasal constructions are adapted.. i mean, of course it's obvious that these things are going to happen, but it's interesting anyway.
    and have you ever read "um copo de cólera", by raduan nassar? he's a brazilian author. it's such a tiny book (it's a novella, to be more precise), but i found it really interesting and i'm curious to see what you'd think about it. if i'm not wronged, penguin will publish a translation of it in its modern classics collection. i thought it was really cool =D
    nassar also wrote another book called "lavoura arcaica", which i think it's really powerful and for me it was a difficult read since it exposes so much the violence whithin gender definitions, i don't know... to be honest it's been years i read it, and i should re-read it.
    it's only i was curious, really, about your feelings on portuguese fiction.
    sorry for such a long comment -_-
    bye =D

  11. Oh, and just to add something: i'm currently living in Europe =D I'm going to stay here in france until september 2014. i've visited london for the first time in the new year's holyday and i really loved it. i can't wait to go there again!

  12. Kelly: You're welcome! It's definitely worth reading!

    Rohan Maitzen: I'm now reading Hot Flushes, Cold Science by Louise Foxtrot and she illustrates how the exact same process happened in regards to menopause - from normal transition to pathology. It's scary and illuminating stuff.

    Vicki: Thank you! Do pick it up if you have the chance.

    Debi: I'm glad you do too, as definitely up your (and Rich's) alley!

    Alex: I'm really sorry you've had to go through that :( I suspect that when you become self-conscious about something you perceive it getting more attention than it does in reality, but that isn't too say there aren't perfectly valid reasons for you to have become self-conscious in the first place. There are a lot of crappy assumptions surround breast size and it sucks that you've been made to feel that way.

    Bárbara: Hello! First of all, feel free to let me know if you come back to London! I'm only about an hour away and it would be nice to show you around/swap book recommendations :D To answer your question, I've fallen a bit out of touch with Lusophone literature in the past few years, partially because I don't have access to it here. I always mean to check out new books I might have missed when I go back home, but other things get in the way. I've read some really interesting African authors writing in Portuguese (like Mia Couto and Olinda Beja) but I know there are plenty more for me to discover. If you have any more recommendations, I'm all ears! I'll definitely keep an eye out for Nassar. And now a recommendation of my own - if you can find anything by Alice Vieira, definitely pick it up. She's a Portuguese children's author and her stuff is just so subtle and smart and emotionally resonant, in the way the very best children's books are. I particularly recommend Os Olhos de Ana Marta.


Thank you so much for taking the time to comment - interaction is one of my favourite things about blogging and a huge part of what keeps me going.