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Review: Florence Williams’ book is a good place to start learning about breasts

After doing 50 or so radio interviews, author Florence Williams has become a pro at saying “breast.” It requires more technique than you’d think, in making sure that the “st” sound is articulated extra sharply and not glossed over in a rushed performance.

“I’ve had to learn how to really enunciate the word so that it doesn’t sound like ‘breath,’” Williams explains. “I’ve said it a lot more times than I’ve ever thought. All I can say is, I’m really glad I didn’t write a book about other body parts.”

Of course, the eponymous subject of her first book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, has its countless share of synonyms. If Williams is afraid of causing confusion, there’s always funbags, dingle bobbers, dairy pillows and jellybonkers — all of which make the very first page of the publication. And let’s not forget the more common and simplistic terms. Boobs. Boobies. Tits. And so on.

“There’s this hilarious song on the Internet called ‘99 Words for Boobs,’ and it even has a great video that goes with it,” Williams adds. “I recommend checking it out.”

Despite Breasts’ mostly blue cover and its possibly blue subject matter, the book is actually Williams’ in-depth look at the anthropology and biology of bosoms. Williams is a science reporter and a contributing editor at Outside magazine who’s contributed to Mother Jones, Slate and more, and in 2007-’08 she was a Scripps Fellow at the Center of Environmental Journalism at the University of Colorado. Her earliest years as an environmental journalist were spent writing about the Forest Service and the Clean Air Act, but Williams realized she’d rather do more writing about people. Environmental health seemed like a sensible compromise. “It’s also a field that I think is really fascinating, because it’s new and it’s emerging,” she says. “The science is a little bit daunting sometimes, but I feel like I’ve learned a lot.”

Breasts is Williams’ first book. “It was such a pleasure to be able to spend a lot of time on a topic and go deep,” she says of the writing process. “As a journalist, we have to sort of move quickly from one project to the next, and I think like all journalists I have kind of a short attention span, but I was never bored writing this book. It just fascinated me from beginning to end.”

Williams first became interested in the topic of ta-tas when she was nursing her daughter, and learned that breast milk often contains toxic chemicals. Both she and the New York Times Magazine thought that fact would make both a fascinating and disturbing story, leading Williams to have her own breast milk tested. “What we do to the environment ends up mirroring in our tissue,” she says, “and it’s just fascinating to learn how that works and to learn about what its implications are. And it’s something that we really never thought about until it kind of came back to bite us, in a way.”

Though Williams has been personally well-versed in the world of wahwahs since she reached puberty, writing Breasts was still a learning experience for her, as it must be for most of the people who read it. For example, the author learned that humans are the only mammals that have breasts, which, as Williams points out, is a funny thing to think about. “Other primates only have sort of swelling while they’re lactating, and we have them from the age of puberty onwards, our whole lives,” she says. “Our breasts are actually incredibly unique, and it raises a lot of questions about why. As I ask in my book: How did we get so lucky?” It’s possible, Williams points out, that the female human’s peaks evolved as a signal for men looking for potential mates, but they could also be a key to survival for a woman and her infant — and maybe the fanatical interest of heterosexual men is only a coincidence. Still, the choices that women make, from their diets to toxin exposure to when they choose to have children, have changed breasts over the eons. In hindsight, those chest X-rays Williams says she got as a preteen for minor scoliosis? Maybe not such a great idea.

She hopes Breasts gives its readers a greater understanding for how complex our mammaries are, and for how they are connected to the world around us. “Breasts themselves are an unusually vulnerable organ,” she says, pointing out that it’s the most common site on the body for tumors (after the skin). “But … I think it’s an interesting metaphor for how other parts of our bodies are affected by modern life. It’s both an example and a metaphor, and it’s really interesting to me that no one has really bothered to look at it that way before.”

And it’s a topic that both men and women may find compelling — naturally, for different reasons. Often, Williams’ female fans are concerned with the health facts presented in her book, especially the information related to breast cancer. Men, meanwhile, are more interested in the evolution of the shape of the breast. Not surprisingly.

“I think that everybody loves breasts, and I think they’re a fascinating organ, and they also have profound implications for our health,” Williams says. “We’ve all lost loved ones to breast cancer … and I just think it’s interesting or it’s necessary to talk about what the risk factors are, and I think it’s important to get to know the breast a little better and not just from this dominant cultural way we have of looking at breasts, which tends to be just about sexuality. But, in fact, breasts have a lot to teach us.”

BREASTS: A NATURAL AND UNNATURAL HISTORY Florence Williams, Norton, 352 pages