Breasts by Florence Williams

Breasts by Florence Williams
May 2012
Hardcover ISBN: 9780393063189
W.W. Norton & Company

Breasts. They are really important. In fact, they are more important than you think. We are "mammals" because of them. Breasts (mammaries) and the ability to give milk to our young is what sets us apart from the rest of the Animal Kingdom. And even though they are incredibly crucial to human life as we know it, as author Florence Williams points out, they are misunderstood.

Are breasts for men? Are they for babies? What's their purpose? Why are human breasts so big and pendulous? Williams explores the neglected science of breasts. How they function, how ours compare with other animals, how women use them to breastfeed and how they can make us sick.

I was initially drawn to this book when I saw the below trailer linked to in a Shelf Awareness newsletter. The book trailer hooked me in straight away.

The trailer is funny, intriguing and made me curious about the subject. Enough so that I immediately ordered the book online and took it with me on my honeymoon.

I saw that the publisher compare Florence Williams to Mary Roach. I hate comparisons like that but since I really enjoyed Mary Roach's Bonk so I decided to overlook it. In fact, I really should have paid more attention to that comparison.

Let's just say, this book strictly sticks to the subject of breasts and their science. There is little to no social or historical context given. I was hoping this book would be a mixture of science, history and social studies in relation to breasts but that's not what it was. And that's fine. As long as you know going in, that this book is about the science of breasts then you are in for a very informative and illuminating read.

The book is very well-written and insightful. Each chapter takes a look at a different issue or topic related to breasts. Breast cancer, breast feeding, breasts in the animal world, breast augmentation, chemicals and how they affect breasts, etc. While Williams' tone is friendly and inviting, this book is not as amusing as the trailer would have you believe. In fact, parts of it are quite scary.

Coming away from this book, I'm a little worried that my breasts are nothing more than two ticking time bombs. A woman's breasts are highly sensitive to multiple factors including genetic predisposition to cancer, environmental toxicity and the age in which a woman gives birth. While I don't have a family history of breast cancer, the latter two situations give me pause. Have I used too much plastic in my life and exposed my breasts to too much BPA? Have I waited too long to have a baby? Will I ruin my breasts once I do have a baby? Should I breastfeed?

Williams might find some opponents amongst breastfeeding enthusiasts. While she describes how beneficial breastfeeding is to babies, she also makes note several times that breastfeeding is one way a woman can pass off toxins to her child. Remember when I got freaked out about Shark meat after reading Marion Nestle's What to Eat? A similar situation happened when I read Breasts. In the same way the food chain can multiply toxins in sharks (which carry the toxins from their environment and the fish and mammals they eat and the fish that those fish and mammals ate, multiplying the toxicity to higher levels), a mother can pass off the toxins of her environment and all the animals and plants she ate. Yikes! Williams makes no claim that formula is the solution. But countries such as Norway, who have been adamant about 100% rates of breastfeeding, are now taking a step back. What does this mean for the future of breastfeeding?

I think the saddest part of the book is the exploration of breast cancer, especially the chapter about men who have had breast cancer. Don't skip it though. It's really important to read.

If you are concerned about women's health and have an interest in learning more about the science of breasts, read this book! However, if you are more interested in breasts and how they function in society, how they are important sexually and/or the history of their objectification and repression, then skip this one.


  1. This is really interesting. I'm curious what if anything it says about what reasons there are when they can't breastfeed. I tried everything, including attempting to breastfeed while so anemic that I passed out with my daughter because I had been so inundated with info that said I absolutely needed to. With my son I simply produced no milk, zero. After reading your info about passing things on to our children I feel a little relieved in a way. Overall though I feel like it should definitely be a personal decision. My experience with being unable to caused many long nights of depression and sadness at feeling unqualified to be a mom because I couldn't do one of the most basic of functions a mother should do. I don't feel that way anymore, so not worry. :o)

    Anywho, I'm going on for far too long! Love this review though. I'm really curious about the book now! I'll have to look for it while I'm out!

    1. @the1stdaughter - The author does talk about women who cannot breastfeed but not to any major extent that I would recommend picking up the book for just that. I agree that it should be a personal decision. My mother was unable to breastfeed me so I was bottlefed on formula. One thing that was interesting about this book was finding out that milk is really a product that comes from blood and fat. Wow! I didn't know that. So if you were anemic, your system would have been very taxed to create milk and breastfeed so I can understand why you passed out. :-(

      However, breastfeeding is a big subject in the book so if that's something that interests you, you may just want to borrow the book from the library and read those few chapters. :-)


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