I remember when the book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams (W. W. Norton & Company, 15.95 USD) came out. I was working in a library and saw it sitting on a cart of new books. I was impressed by the cover image* – two fertile hills covered in grass that were just the right shape to suggest breasts. Way to be suggestive without being provocative, cover designer. Since I was well into nursing my first child, I probably thought something like, hey, that’s probably pretty relevant to my life right now. Too bad I have no time to read anything that requires much thought.

Fast forward to 2016 and Book Riot’s reading challenge. One of the categories is “Listen to an audiobook that has won an Audie award.” I am an audiobook fan, but usually I only listen to them when I’m driving somewhere for more than an hour with no other adults in the car. Also, most of the audiobooks I listen to have to be something I can follow even if I miss a minute here and there (since even sleeping kids tend to wake up hungry/screaming/upset that they’re still in the car). Listening to this was a challenge for me; I heard most of it while folding laundry or washing dishes while the boys were otherwise engaged.

I’m a huge science nerd, so I didn’t want to miss a minute, which meant backing up the audio in my Hoopla app quite often. It also meant that it took me over two months to listen to the whole thing, and I had to check it out on the app three times. My perseverance was worth it, though – well worth it. Williams covers the gamut of subjects related to breasts: the male fascination with breasts (including scientific studies that seem to support the idea that breasts evolved as a signal of fertility to potential mates); the origins of breast implants (including an interview with the first recipient of breast augmentation); how breasts develop as girls go through puberty (and the fact that girls are now getting them years earlier than the did a few decades ago); what happens to breasts during pregnancy; how attitudes toward breastfeeding have changed throughout history (definitely a hot topic now, with social media full of stories of breastfeeding women being told to finish in the bathroom or leave an establishment despite laws protecting their right to nurse in public); what’s in breastmilk (including sugars that infants can’t digest – but vital gut bacteria can, as it turns out); and how lactation works. Two subjects seem to take center stage, however: the impact of environmental toxins on breast milk (and, therefore, babies) and the connection between the presence of chemicals like flame retardants in breast tissue and breast cancer rates. These last two subjects are, presumably, the “Unnatural” part of the subtitle.

I’m nearing the end of my fifth year of parenting, but it seems like a lifetime of scientific findings have come about in those five years, and that a great deal of the market has changed for the better because of them. When I was pregnant with my first child, in 2010 and 2011, I remember reading about the presence of flame retardants in virtually every piece of upholstered furniture on the market today, along with the link to a plethora of health problems that a few studies had suggested, including early puberty and miscarriages in girls who were exposed to high levels of flame retardants in their mothers’ breast milk. I looked into the possibility of finding furniture free of flame retardants, but IKEA, one of the first manufacturers to take steps to eliminating flame retardants at the time, had only just started to offer some furniture without the chemicals.

Today, several major furniture manufacturers have pledged to eliminate flame retardants, in addition to IKEA. Among them are  Ashley Furniture and Crate & Barrel. This shift in the industry is largely possible because California (the state with the flammability standards which pretty much all furniture manufacturers adhere to for all furniture sold in the U.S.) has rewritten its laws regarding flammability in furniture so that standards can be met without chemicals. This is all to say that some of the shocking truths revealed in Breasts (which was published in 2012) are a bit old news now (the pressure to eliminate flame retardants was just starting to gain momentum when this was published), but the impact of toxins like those found in flame retardants is no less profound. Williams writes, “[S]ome of the chemicals we pass on to our daughters will stay in their bodies long enough for them to bequeath them to their offspring. Even if we cleaned up our planet tomorrow, the industrial detritus of the last century has created a three-generation problem.” (199)

No one is saying that breast isn’t best anymore, but the amount of chemicals (flame retardants being only one of many to be concerned about) being found in breast fed babies is cause for alarm. Adult female bottlenose and striped dolphins, scientists have found, generally have the lowest concentrations of things like PCBs (flame retardants) and DDT, and first-born juveniles tend to have the highest. Why? Because the mother dolphin dumps a lifetime of contamination into the milk she gives her first offspring, while successive offspring have less build-up of chemicals to pass along. Findings like this have prompted some interesting recommendations from health authorities. Sweden, for example, recommends that women try not to lose their baby weight while breastfeeding, as fat tends to suck up harmful chemicals like a sponge, and getting rid of fat simply flushes more chemicals into breast milk.

If fascinating (and eye-opening – and scary) anecdotes like these aren’t enough to maintain your interest (and it certainly was mine), Williams’ writing style is accessible and amusing – conversational, even, and Kate Reading does a phenomenal job of reading Williams’ words in the audiobook version – it’s clear to me why this presentation won an Audie. Reading excels at reading the quotes of the many scientists, doctors, and other professionals Williams interviewed for the book with unique voices and, usually, rather impressive accents. From a British father-and-son team of scientists studying how (and how long) men focus on images of women to the plastic surgeon in Texas (and his buxom female assistants and nurses), Reading gives every quote its own dialectical treatment. Perhaps, if I had read this book the old fashioned way, it would have been a little dry here or there, but the audiobook version was a joy to listen to. I rarely laugh while washing dishes, but I did while washing dishes and listening to Breasts.  I could hear the smirk on Reading’s face when she read the very tongue-in-cheek chapter in which Williams walked through the process of getting breast implants at the office of a plastic surgeon named Dr. Michael Ciaravino:

“It was all so real, so slick and seductive, so full of metaphorical lotuses that I almost left with a new titanic rack.” (58)

And a bit later,

“He took a step back and mashed my breasts together with his hands, then squeezed each one like a club sandwich. I felt like I was awaiting the word of St. Peter. I was secretly hoping one of the world’s foremost experts on flawed breasts would be so vexed by my nice, very normal breasts that he’d tell me he had nothing to offer.” (59)

And, in the last chapter, as Williams summarizes the bleak future for breasts: high rates of breast cancer and still no great understanding of what causes it and terrifically inaccurate means to diagnose it, a call to action:

“We can invent the internet, but not something better than blasting ions into our boobs using 40 pounds of pressure?” (278)



*The cover image for the hardcover first edition is referenced here; the price refers to the paperback, which features a far less interesting line drawing of a woman’s torso.

The first edition cover image: