Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History by Florence Williams - review by Charlotte Faircloth

Charlotte Faircloth

A Well-Rounded Account

Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History


W W Norton 338pp £16.99

‘At its heart,’ writes Florence Williams, ‘Breasts is an environmental history of a body part. It is the story of how our breasts went from being honed by the environment to being harmed by it. It is part biology, part anthropology, and part medical journalism.’

This is certainly true, but as well as being academic and journalistic, the book also draws on Williams’s own experiences, as a woman and as a mother in contemporary America. While breastfeeding her second child, she read a news report about industrial chemicals found in human milk, prompting her to question the idea that breastmilk was either ‘natural’ or ‘best’ for her children. Breasts is the story of her investigation into what she terms the ‘lifecycle of the breast’. It covers everything from the evolutionary origins of breasts to increasingly early puberty in girls; from sexual imagery around breasts in American culture to rising rates of (male and female) breast cancer; from zealous lactation politics to menopause and hormone replacement therapy. 

It is certainly a witty, well-researched and eminently readable book. Williams starts her story with the origin of breasts. She posits two possible explanations in opposition: natural selection and sexual selection. That is, were breasts selected because of their benefits for successful sustenance of young, or because women with breasts

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