Emily Maguire July 14, 2012
BREASTS: A NATURAL AND UNNATURAL HISTORY
By Florence Williams
''BREASTS are a scandal,'' wrote the feminist philosopher Iris Marion Young, ''because they shatter the border between motherhood and sexuality.'' If Florence Williams' Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History is read as widely as it deserves to be, then breasts will soon be a scandal because of all the nasty, toxic, cancer-causing crap bouncing around inside them.
Breasts might seem, at first, like an odd subject to investigate at book length but, as Williams points out, despite their central role in the survival of the human species and the fact they're attached to half of the world's adult population, we actually know very little about their basic biology. For several centuries the ''men-really-love-boobs'' angle of scientific inquiry has meant that ''the dominant story has all been about the visuals'', giving us very little information on what's happening on the inside.
Thankfully, as more women enter medical research, the bias is changing. What's becoming clear is that breasts themselves are changing, too. For a start, they're getting bigger, with the average bra size moving from a B to C cup in the past decade. Some of that is due to the popularity of breast augmentation, which Williams investigates by travelling to the boob-job capital of the world, Houston. There she has her own natural, perfectly fine breasts assessed as in need of ''work'' and speaks to happy and unhappy patients - including the first woman to have had silicone implants, in 1962.
But even without surgical intervention breasts are getting bigger. They're growing sooner, too: in the US, a sizeable minority (between 4 per cent and 33 per cent, depending on racial background) of girls aged six to eight are already budding (the correct medical term) breasts. There are many social and health issues arising from earlier puberty, but arguably the most urgent is the increased risk of developing breast cancer. Girls who menstruate before the age of 12 have a 50 per cent higher risk than those who don't get their period until they're 16. Williams delves into the research concerning the early puberty/breast cancer link, which leads her into the broader field of breast cancer research. What she finds is disturbing. For a start, the incidence of breast cancer has doubled since the 1940s and is still rising.
There are plenty of theories and an increasing body of research into why this is so and Williams examines it all, eventually ending up at a North Carolina Marine Corps base, the centre of the largest cluster of male breast cancers ever recorded. The base also ''enjoys distinction as having had the most contaminated public drinking water supply ever discovered in the United States''.
The link between the two is not, Williams and experts believe, coincidental. As men do not have many of the other breast-cancer risk factors found in women (early breast budding, childlessness, dense breast tissue), the evidence for a relationship between the toxins to which the marines have been exposed and their cancers is compelling.
Although Williams is careful to point out that such relationships have not been proven to be causal, over the course of the book she makes a convincing case for the fact that the modern world is doing some weird and harmful stuff to our breasts. Indeed, it was the realisation that her own breasts may be polluted that sparked Williams' interest in the subject. While breastfeeding her second child she read a report about industrial chemicals found in breast milk and promptly sent her own milk off for testing. She was horrified to find it contained, among other unexpected ingredients, flame-retardants and perchlorate (usually found in jet-fuel). ''Breastfeeding, it turns out, is a very efficient way to transfer our society's industrial flotsam to the next generation,'' Williams explains. ''Our breasts soak up pollution … [and] carry the burden of the mistakes we have made.''
The personal spur for Williams' investigative journey gives the book an intimate, almost chatty tone. That's not to say it's light on data, only that the science is written with the lay reader in mind. Williams differentiates clearly between what is known, what is theorised and what some people believe regardless of evidence. She is also even-handed in her treatment of the major controversies over breast cancer detection, breastfeeding and the evolutionary drivers of breast development.
Although filled with grim discoveries and alarming statistics, this is a positive book. It's true that if, as Williams says, ''breasts are bellwethers for the changing health of people'' then we're all in deep trouble, but it's equally true that a bunch of dedicated, determined scientists and researchers are out there working to save our boobs and our lives.
■Emily Maguire's new novel, Fishing for Tigers, will be published by Picador in September.