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Breasts: A natural and unnatural history

Florence Williams

  • awardWinner, L.A. Times Book Prize, Science & Technolgy, United States, 2012
  • Feted and fetishised, the breast is an evolutionary masterpiece.
    But in the modern world, the breast is changing.
    Breasts are getting bigger, developing earlier and attracting newfangled chemicals. Increasingly, the odds are stacked against us in the struggle against breast cancer—even among men.
    So what makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable?

    As part of the research for this book, science journalist Florence Williams underwent tests on her own breasts and breast milk. She was shocked to learn that she was feeding her baby not just milk but also fire retardants and a whole host of other chemicals, all ingested throughout her life and stored in her breast tissue.

    At its heart, Breasts: a natural and unnatural history is the story of how our breasts went from being honed by the environment to being harmed by it; a revealing and at times alarming look at the way the changes in our environments, diets and lifestyles have altered our breasts, our health and, ultimately, the health of future generations.

    Accessible and entertaining—part biology, part anthropology and part medical journalism—Breasts is a wake-up call for all women.

    Read Florence’s compelling article about breast surgery in the Guardian.

    Florence Williams
    About the Author

    Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, New Republic and numerous other publications. Her work often focuses on the environment, health and science. In 2007-08, she was a Scripps Fellow at the Center of Environmental Journalism at the University of...

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    Text publication date:
    23 May 2012
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    Praise for Florence Williams

    ‘Florence Williams’s double-D talents as a reporter and writer lift this book high above the genre and separate it from theranks of ordinary science writing. Breasts is illuminating, surprising, clever, important. Williams is an author to savour and look forward to.’

    ‘A wonderful and entertaining tour through the evolution, biology and cultural aspects of the organ that defines us as mammals!’

    ‘I certainly didn’t think I could appreciate breasts more than I already did. This is a truly outstanding book! Written with humour and humanity, it is essential reading for anyone wishing to understand the fascinating intersections between personal health, toxic chemicals, western culture and the medical profession. I couldn’t put it down.’ 

    Breasts is less a primer on anatomy than a catalog of environmental devastation akin to Rachel Carson’s 1962 classic Silent Spring, which detailed the impact of industrial chemicals—notably, the pesticide DDT—on animal life. But Williams, who cites Carson as an inspiration, has written a far scarier book. Carson examined birds and fish. Williams looks at us.’

    ‘Traversing anatomy, breast cancer in male US Marines, and implants (materials trialled before silicone include glass balls, ivory and wood chips), Williams brings boobs and boffins to life. A must-read for owners and admirers alike.’

    ‘…exceptional history… with smarts, sass, and intent…. Meant to nurture the next generation for life on planet Earth, breasts are also humanity’s first responders to environmental changes. And what have modern-day chemical exposures wrought? The answers to this question and many more are found in Williams’ remarkably informative and compelling work of discovery.’ Starred Review.

    ‘In her comprehensive ‘environmental history’ of the only human body part without its own medical specialty,…Williams focuses on the importance of understanding breasts as more than sex objects…Williams puts hard data and personal history together with humor, creating an evenhanded cautionary tale that will both amuse and appall.’

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