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An Interview with Florence Williams—Author of BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History

121215_Breasts_front_coverHer Circle Ezine talks to Florence Williams, author of BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History, a thorough and revealing exploration of the human breast. Williams’ deep delving into history and science draws a full-circle illustration of breasts, from our origins as a species to the multimillion dollar annual expenditure on breast augmentation.

Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo: Determining the primary function of breasts is more convoluted—an entangled myriad of ideas and influences—than I would have imagined before reading your book. The concept that human breasts (the only among all mammals to remain permanent fixtures of the female body before and after childbirth and weaning and in spite of lack of motherhood) developed not necessarily as sexual markers, but as a means of ensuring survival for the female and her nursing offspring, is very interesting and, as you put it, the “women-centered theories” (32) might tell us more about our origins and how the organ functions better than the “boobs-for-men theories” do. What do you think might be the sociological or political implications of this forward movement in origins theories of the breast for women?

Florence Williams: As I say in my book, I do think the “origin theories” matter because they color how we view and treat breasts. If we say, as many anthropologists do, that breasts evolved as sexual signals for men, then to some extent we buy into the notion that breasts are still for men. This perhaps justifies western culture’s deep discomfort with breastfeeding, for example, and it helps fuel the blockbuster implants market. Implants actually jeopardize breastfeeding and sexual functioning of the breast for some women, because about 14 percent of women (according to one study) lose sensation in their nipples. If, on the other hand, we believe that breasts evolved for women, because the fatty and pendulous tissue helped women survive in nutrient-stressed environments—or helped her infants survive—then we can have a radically different notion of normalized breast appearance and functional breast health. Once we’re there intellectually, it’s easy to embrace or at least accept breastfeeding, perhaps to the point where we stop arresting or harassing women who breastfeed in public. That would be nice, wouldn’t it? Also, scholars in some breast-related fields (anthropology and lactation) have told me there’s an academic and social stigma surrounding their work, because people snigger and make jokes about it. So we are not putting enough resources, human and financial, toward a deeper understanding of how breasts work and how to keep them healthy.

MCD: I live in Massachusetts, and our governor, Deval Patrick, recently signed a bill designating the third week of October as Male Breast Cancer Awareness Week. You devote a chapter in BREASTS to the incidence of male breast cancer and its links to environmental toxins—studying breast cancer in males may shed a great deal of light on the disease in women since the other factors that influence it in women (breastfeeding, age at the onset of puberty, age of women when first child is born, weight, genetic predisposition, among other influences) are not present in men, as you point out. Do you think the attention on the disease in men will benefit women? Do you think this is overtly political? Does it matter?

FW: I can understand that it’s tempting to be disappointed that it takes men to get ill before we take a disease seriously. This has certainly been the case with many diseases such as heart disease, which has been much less studied in women. But I think in the case of breast cancer, you can’t really argue that it’s a neglected disease. It was a shameful disease for my grandmother’s generation, but that’s no longer the case. The reason the men can help us out here is that they are actually easier to study. Their lives, as you point out, aren’t complicated by so many of the risk factors that affect women, so if there are clear environmental causes of breast cancer, it will be easier to see this in men. It’s still a very rare disease in men, too, so from an epidemiological stand-point, when you see a cluster of male breast cancers—such as around the contaminated Camp Lejeune base—it has more potential to pop out statistically. I do think the men affected by Camp Lejeune are particularly compelling and articulate, and that helps too. People are interested when marines get sick, and when tough guys get breast cancer, people notice. That helps.

MCD: The chapter on breast augmentation distills the history as well as the sociological and psychological implications of enlarging the breast. It was fascinating to learn that implants were part of what led to the growth of what has become such prominent cultural entities such as strip clubs and pornography, all while “doctors and manufacturers profited by introducing a poorly understood substance into women’s bodies.” (77) And even as they have made safety improvements to breast implants, the entire concept has skewed our vision of the natural breast, contributing to body image issues most women experience and, more seriously, body dimorphic disorder in more extreme cases. As you write, “Big, fake breasts have so thoroughly saturated mainstream entertainment and media that they’ve created a new standard by which boys judge girls and girls judge themselves.” (82) The natural image of the breast has actually been contorted. What work do you think needs to be done to combat this? Is there any answer you can decipher, even as you point out the the annual worldwide market for breast augmentation is $820 million and growing at 8% every year?

FW: This is a difficult and challenging problem. Kids learn about their bodies today from the Internet, and the images are even available on their smart phones. Kids will see thousands of pictures of breasts—many, many of them fake or digitally enhanced—by the time they actually have their first sexual experience. I think it’s really important for parents and educators to open dialogues about real bodies and doctored images. Kids need to know these images aren’t representative of most women, and it’s a great opportunity for discussion. I would recommend starting young, with girls especially, about how media images in general are airbrushed and enhanced, and about how “real” is more beautiful than “fake.” I think it’s a tragedy—and sometimes it does have tragic consequences—that girls’ self-esteem is so tightly tied to appearance. This is yet another of many reasons we why should all be supporting girls in athleticism, strength, speed and health. This needs to happen on many levels: at home, in school, on the playground, in the media, and so on.

MCD: The information about the environmental toxins and influences as potential contributors to breast cancer is both terrifying and—for me at least—infuriating. Breasts are more sensitive hormone receptors than other organs, and, as such, more vulnerable to endocrine-disrupting plastics prevalent in our homes, our vehicles, our workplaces and schools, the packaging of our foods, the air we breathe and the water we drink. How much good do you think making personal changes in the products and foods we bring into our homes make towards preventing breast cancer (and, I would add, other cancers and illnesses)? In light of your research, what changes have you made in your own life?

FW: First of all, we should be measured in our anxiety, because the jury is still out on human health effects. The people who should be the most vigilant are women who want to become pregnant, women who are pregnant, and families of young children. They should avoid exposures to the chemicals I discuss in my book, and there are a variety of small ways to do that, from eating less beef and dairy to avoiding plastic bottles and food containers and scented personal care products to the extent possible. Soon there will be more furniture available to buy that is free of flame-retardants. For the rest of us, the “critical” times of exposure to endocrine disrupting chemicals has probably passed. But just because we can relax a little doesn’t mean we should be complacent. We should all be demanding that the industrial chemicals in our lives be tested and adequately regulated, which they’re not. Beyond that, I really think we have a limited ability to control our exposures to potentially harmful substances. We live in a world that is filled with endocrine-disrupting industrial chemicals, from our food supply to our homes to our cars. If we really care about these exposures, we have to stop manufacturers from using potentially harmful substances in the first place. Our government is simply not doing its job right now, and that needs to change.

MCD: Given the myriad influences that lead to breast cancer, it is very difficult to create a risk profile for any individual woman. “As we learn more about DNA expression, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that human biological systems depend as much on external cues as on the code itself.” (133) But those internal and external cues are so varied—all the data and its application to the individual makes the individual big picture clear as mud! From your research and conclusions, what advice do you have for women in terms of protecting themselves and attempting to frame a filter through which to deduce their risk?

FW: About ninety percent of women with breast cancer have no family history of the disease, so we know there are factors other than genetics at play. Those factors we know about confer relatively small risks, but the ones we can control are probably worth doing. This includes things like encouraging breastfeeding, not smoking, drinking only moderate and small amounts alcohol, avoiding obesity after menopause, eating a healthy diet, exercising, avoiding unnecessary medical radiation, avoiding exposures to carcinogens if possible and avoiding hormone replacement therapy unless it’s absolutely necessary. If you do all these things, it’s still no guarantee, but these are good for your health anyway.

MCD: The chapter on breast milk and breastfeeding was incredibly eye-opening. As a mother of three who breastfed all for an extended amount of time (my twins were exclusively breastfed for their first seven months!), I understood the benefits—nutritional, immunological, mother-child bonding—but the effects on breast milk from the chemical cocktail in which we live are alarming. “We are the sum of our chemicals,” (208) as you state. You mention the rising prevalence of thyroid disorders, infertility, learning and behavior problems, problems with healthy brain development and hormone function. Do you think a time will come when breastfeeding will become more dangerous than beneficial for infants? “Breast milk is both a real reflection of our body [chemical] burdens and a powerful symbol of contamination.” (210) As such, do you think breast milk could become a political pawn in the battle for chemical production changes and limitations?

FW: I think breast milk could become an important player in the political debate over chemicals testing and regulation. It has the power to mobilize and politicize a much broader and more bipartisan spectrum than often gets involved in policy debates. All moms care about child health and women’s health. It was after DDT was found in human milk in Europe and the U.S. that enough momentum eventually built to ban it. As to whether breast milk will ever become so polluted that it would become a worse health choice than formula, that’s a scary thought. I would hope that the science and the political will gain enough momentum to reverse course before we get to that end point. One thing that’s really changed is the ability to measure industrial chemicals in blood, urine and milk reliably and inexpensively. I expect we’ll see more state and federal programs (like California’s) to monitor citizens for substances of concern. Many mothers have contacted me wanting to do it. This is a scientific and social trend that’s not going away.

MCD: What are the greatest feminist implications your work with BREASTS?

FW: One thing I try to do is challenge readers and commentators not to just view breasts sexually. It’s a real challenge, though, even in sophisticated media markets. But that can be useful, too. People like to talk about breasts, and they like to think about breasts. We just need to encourage them to think more broadly about the health and social implications of breasts that are changing in the modern world. When women and girls “take back” their breasts and steer the conversation, I believe it can have profound effects in everything from the allocation of resources for cancer research to the demand for cosmetic surgery to maternal and breastfeeding policies to the conveyance of media images. I’d love to see the conversations surrounding this book continue. Let’s keep this momentum going!

Photo credit Corrynn Cochran

Photo credit Corrynn Cochran

Florence Williams is a contributing editor at Outside Magazine and a freelance writer for the New York Times, New York Times Magazine, Slate, Mother Jones, High Country News, O-Oprah, W., Bicycling and numerous other publications. Recently she was a visiting scholar at the University of Colorado’s Journalism School.

Her work often focuses on the environment, health and science.

In 2007-2008, she was a Scripps Fellow at the Center of Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. She has received many awards, including six magazine awards from the American Society of Journalists and Authors and the John Hersey Prize at Yale. Her work has been anthologized in numerous books, including Outside 25, the New Montana Story, How the West Was Warmed and Best American Science and Nature Writing 2008. She was named “Author of the week” by The Week in May, 2012. The Wall Street Journal calls her writing “droll and crisp,” which makes her feel like a pastry.

Her first book, BREASTS: A Natural and Unnatural History, was recently published by W.W. Norton. The manuscript was named a finalist for the 2011 Columbia/Nieman Lukas Work-in-Progress Award. She serves on the board of her favorite non-profit, High Country News, and lives with her family in Washington, D.C.


Melissa Corliss Delorenzo
Melissa Corliss DeLorenzo is a writer, reader, yogini, mom, homemaker and the Associate Editor for Her Circle Ezine. She loves to cook and take long walks with her kids and is a woman who wants to meaningfully exchange and intersect with other women writers. She holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English Literature from the University of Massachusetts and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado. She is at work on several novels. Melissa lives in North Central Massachusetts with her family.
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