Breasts have become iconic cultural and sexual symbols in the United States—lovely lady lumps, as Fergie once sang. They are nourishers of life, they are muses and they are proverbial balls of clay that have been molded, enlarged, minimized, restrained and exposed.
But for Florence Williams, breasts are the canary in the mine.
“They are a powerful symbol in our bodies,” she said. “What is happening in breasts is happening in the rest of the body.”
Williams is the author of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History. She penned the book while living in Boulder but recently moved to Washington, D.C., for her husband’s work. Williams is a contributing editor for Outside and has written numerous articles and books on environmental issues. And within Breasts, she set out to write “an environmental history of a body part.”
“I was curious to learn about how breasts evolved and how they are unique in humans and how modern life has changed them,” she said. “I look at everything from industrial pollutants in breast milk to the changing age of puberty to breast implants to breast cancer.”
She calls breasts a “mixed blessing.” They are the organ that most commonly gets cancer, and they are the No. 1 killer of women globally. Breasts get more tumors than any body part—with the exception of the skin.
“A lot of women are understandably concerned about breast health,” she said. “And it turns out that our breasts are sensitive to the world around us, in terms of picking up pollutants and hormone (exposure).”
Her inspiration for the book came when she was having her own breast milk tested for toxins while working on a New York Times article.
“It was confusing and sort of upsetting. It had things like jet fuel and flame retardants in it,” she said. “It did make me concerned about how our bodies pick up pollutants.”
Williams found it both interesting and horrifying how the world—and our treatment of the world—ends up impacting our bodies. Breasts are a microcosm for that: We pollute, we see pollutants in breast milk; we pump food full of hormones, we see hormones influencing breast health. Thus her hypothesis that breasts are much like the canary in the coal mine.
“That’s another reason to be good stewards to the planet. When we pollute, those pollutants end up back in our bodies,” Williams said. “And we are just starting to learn about what that means for our health.”
She says breasts could be the polar bear of the public health movement: A lovable, charismatic model of how the polluted environment can hurt our own bodies.
“Because everyone loves breasts, and we would all love them to stay around and keep them healthy,” Williams said with a laugh.
Lovable indeed. Breasts does touch on the cultural and sexual aspects of the chest. Williams visited a Texas plastic surgery suite to talk to patients and doctors about breast augmentation.
“I find it fascinating that breast augmentation is the No. 1 augmentation surgery in the country. About 300,000 women a year get implants,” she said. “For every three implant surgeries there is one reduction surgery. They are an organ on which we play out our insecurities.”
She says Hollywood and the Internet influence how women see their bosoms.
“There is a lot of peer pressure, especially in some communities to stay youthful and sexy for ever…and for breasts to defy gravity,” she said.
However, Williams asserted, studies show men do not necessarily prefer big breasts. Some men like small breasts, some men like medium breasts, and so on.
“We have a challenge to convince girls what is real and what is not and to celebrate their bodies,” she said.
That’s one among many lessons Williams takes from the book into her own life. As a mother to a little girl, Williams is conscious of how she talks to her daughter about her body.
“I think I will try hard to find avenues toward self esteem—not just about how her body looks. I’ll urge her to be athletic and be proud of her body,” she said. “I’ll also try to avoid exposure to chemicals that act like hormones.”
To that end, Williams suggests all women reduce exposure to heavily fragranced products, such as shampoos and body lotions. Buy unscented products, and steer clear of processed and canned food that has Bisphenol A (BPA). Eat fresh natural foods. Air out your car before you and your family get in.
But she admitted these efforts are not silver bullets. It’s difficult to avoid pollutants and chemicals.
“We need to appreciate how our bodies are connected to the environment,” she said. “If we want to take care of our health, we need to take care of the planet. We are interconnected. We must appreciate those connections. Breasts help us do that.”
Florence Williams on Boulder’s Breasts:
“I just love that Colorado is one of the most athletic states in the country. Women in Colorado have a healthy sense of themselves. They can be great models for women elsewhere. …Boulder has a great school lunch program, which is a great model for what we feed kids, keeping them healthy. That will hopefully stave off early puberty. I’m a big fan of what Boulder is doing. It’s what the whole food scene is doing: eating local and organic.”