Book Review of “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History”

Listening to an interview with Florence Wiliams, author of the book Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, I was intrigued. So I read the book.

Florence Williams covers a lot of territory in her investigation of breasts in our culture and for our health. The most important topic to me concerned alterations in breast development. At all stages in our lives, chemical pollutants affect our hormonal balance and thus, the intricate balance that prompts mammary growth and our general well being.

To understand the influence of chemicals in our daily lives, Ms. Williams had her blood tested before and after a ‘chemical fast’. Reducing her exposure required eating certified organic produce, of course. She also avoided shampoo, make up, plastic bags, riding in cars, handling store receipts and myriad unnoticed chemical events. It was surprising to learn how pervasive the BPA and phthalates are. Some changes in habits can make a difference. You need to balance this by reviewing practical steps from the Environmental Working Group.

Environmental pollutants affect the female and male breast. Anyone who lived on base at Camp LeJeune from the mid 1950’s to the mid1980’s was breathing and absorbing TCE (trichloroethylene) and PCE (perchlorethylene) from leaking storage tanks. Many of the wells for drinking water were contaminated with these chemicals. Camp LeJeune has the “largest cluster of male breast cancers ever identified” (pg.239). It is these men and their families who are taking action to address this.

Because babies absorb pollutants from their mothers milk, is it even safe to breastfeed? A good question that becomes surreal when it’s suggested we mammals should stop nursing.

The alternative to tainted breast milk? Artificial infant food is not pure; the powdered form is not even sterile. Ironically, the Environmental Working Group notes that infant formula is stored in cans with plastic liners that contain…. BPA. Argh. The obvious and wiser alternative is to improve conditions for all mothers’ health and improve donor milk bank networks.

Of course, we can avoid passing chemical pollutants to our babies by never getting pregnant. Or we can clean up the environment: Every body wins. 

Florence Williams’ research is thorough, interesting and disturbing. Her style is easy to read with some slightly irreverent humor at times. It’s to her credit that worrying, technical discussions of endocrine disrupters were engaging and informative.

However, I was disappointed (and annoyed) when I read “Today some breast-feeding advocates, the lactivists or nutricionistas, as they’re sometimes called- make you out to be a freak of nature if you don’t breast-feed.”  Groan. Reading further, she refers again to Lechistas with no distinction as to who that includes.

Are all scientists who research breast tissue Mammogeeks or LactoNerds?

Ms. Williams does credit “lactavists’ with influencing positive changes in hospital policies. She had her own positive experience with a lactation consultant. It would have been appropriate for this research book to offer more clarification about breastfeeding support.

In the history of the breast, the IBCLC credential is important. It was created, in part, to assure that women were receiving accurate, evidence based, quality information. Women helping women is an important part of women’s health.

Thank you for the informative book about breast health, Ms. Williams. I learned a lot. My two tasks are to reduce phlalates and plastics in my life. And clear the confusion about lactation support.

Breasts A Natural and Unnatural History

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