Breasts: An environmental history

Women breastfeed their babies at the Hirshhorn Museum in Washington during a "nurse-in"' organized after a woman was stopped from nursing in public at the museum by security guards two weeks ago.

Image of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
Author: Florence Williams
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 352 pages

Kai Ryssdal: This is -- almost all the time -- a family radio program. And the next four or so minutes aren't gonna stray from that.

But on the theory that forewarned is forearmed, here goes: We have a certain cultural obsession with breasts. Psychologically, socially, sexually -- you name it.

And people might giggle, but Florence Williams is dead serious. Her new book is called "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History." Florence Williams, welcome to the program.

Florence Williams: Thanks for having me.

Ryssdal: I say this literally with a straight face, but I think it's the right place to start: Breasts in this country aren't what they used to be, right? They're bigger, they're more engineered, women are getting them younger. It's not the way it was when we were kids.

Williams: It's true. Breasts are one of our organs that have really changed over the generations. I talked to someone at Maidenform who said that the average breast size used to be a 34B. And now it's closer to a 34C, and pushing upwards toward a D. And this is new.

Ryssdal: The subtitle is "a natural and unnatural history," but it's really, you say in the book, an environmental history of breasts. Explain what that means, would ya?

Williams: Breasts are very environmentally sensitive. For example, breasts are filled with estrogen receptors. And so, breast cells are really attuned to estrogen and they're designed to really pick them up. And that's how breasts know, for example, when to grow in puberty, through these environmental cues.

And now, in our modern life, we are really surrounded by industrial chemicals that mimic estrogen. And so, breasts are arriving earlier. The average age for breast budding now is about nine or 10, and even younger. This is something that a lot of parents are concerned about, because when young girls get big breasts earlier, it really changes the way their peers treat them and it's also a risk for breast cancer later on.

Ryssdal: You actually were breastfeeding your children, right, one of your children when you were reading some article about the toxins you find in breast milk?

Williams: I was. And I actually nursed out a sample of my breast milk and I sent it to a lab in Germany. And it turns out I had pretty high levels of flame retardants and I also had some pesticides in my breast milk. We actually have no idea where these chemicals are coming from. Are they in my office equipment? Are they in my roofing tiles? We just really don't know. And that's because products in the marketplace that we buy are not required to be labeled. As a parent, it's really frustrating, because I realize that we really can't control our exposure very much.

Ryssdal: Did you -- asking delicately, as you can -- did you think much about your breasts before you became a mother, before they actually had this utilitarian purpose?

Williams: You know, it's funny, I really didn't think that much about them. It wasn't until I started breastfeeding that I became aware of how complicated breasts are.

One problem, of course, is that women often are ashamed of breastfeeding. And in our culture, anyway, we're not really supposed to breastfeed in public; when we do, we run into all sorts of problems. And that's, of course, such a huge change from how we evolved, where breasts were literally just hanging out all over the place and were used to feed infants during a woman's reproductive life span. And so we don't really support breastfeeding enough as a culture, we don't support it enough in the workplace. For a lot of women, it's just too much to handle and I totally respect that.

Ryssdal: Florence Williams, her book is called "Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History." Thanks a lot.

Williams: Thanks for having me.

About the author

Kai Ryssdal is the host and senior editor of Marketplace, public radio’s program on business and the economy.
Image of Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History
Author: Florence Williams
Publisher: W. W. Norton & Company (2012)
Binding: Hardcover, 352 pages
Log in to post5 Comments

I'm happy to say this sparked a lively discussion about breasts over dinner at a nice restaurant last night. Those involved readily accepted environmental stresses as a potential cause for earlier development, but as to the increase in average size, apart from deliberate enhancement as another poster has suggested, one possible source the interview did not address is a concurrent rise in obesity.

Now when Ms. Williams says, "We actually have no idea where these chemicals are coming from," I assume she is speaking on behalf of the average American. Those who look, as demonstrated by another commenter, can find plenty of evidence suggesting common household items as sources of carcinogens and neurotoxins. (Ms. Williams probably has a pretty good idea, herself.) The EPA is a good place for starters: http://www.epa.gov/iaq/pubs/insidestory.html#Intro1

I speak on behalf of WorkingWondersUS, because we think it's important to take the next step and connect these kinds of environmental health concerns to the retail economy. Many people go directly to food with this line of reasoning, but it's worth pointing out that the gestation period for healthier grocery stores took the better part of 40 years to become a mainstream option in this country. Without some kind of disruptive advocacy for the same connection between our homes and our health, we're looking at another few decades before we can really start to purge the American lifestyle of significant everyday health threats. Our company was, in fact, started by a childbirth educator who made these connections twenty years ago, yet, here we are, marveling at the unsavory results of the considerably toxic lifestyles we've engineered for ourselves.

Dear apologies for the rant'ish tone, but we're trying to bring a market solution to the table, and hearing story after story like this inevitably leads to those classic bang-your-head-against-the-steering-wheel moments. Ah well. Good show as always.

Williams: " We actually have no idea where these chemicals are coming from. Are they in my office equipment? Are they in my roofing tiles? We just really don't know."

There's a fascinating investigative report by the Chicago Tribune that looks at flame retardants and why they are so prevalent in our homes (http://media.apps.chicagotribune.com/flames/index.html). The major takeaways: flame retardants are very lucrative for the chemical industry; the safety and benefits of flame retardants are in doubt; many furniture and electronics manufacturers incorporate flame retardants in most of their products due to an obscure regulation adopted in California in the 70's.

I have worked with breastfeeding mothers and families and been a health educator on breasts and breastfeeding for over 25 years. Great article -- here are some more sobering facts! Why is it that breast augmentation has been the #1 cosmetic surgery for women for the past decade (over 300,000 per year, with nearly 9000 to women 19 and under). Because we as a society place a lot of value on the appearance of chests and what that indicates about character. For some fascinating (and depressing?) details, visit www.plasticsurgery.org. Please note that breast surgeries are also increasing among men -- the 4th most common surgery is breast reduction, with 2/3 of these surgeries being done to boys 19 and under. So, when we talk about environmental contaminants and estrogens (synthetic and naturally occurring) causing problems for children, it's girls AND boys who are being teased. This increase in gland also increases men's risk for breast cancer (Kai, do you do your monthly chest exam?). Also, remember that cows and other milk animals are not only voluntarily given hormones and chemicals to increase milk supply, they also ingest many of the same environmental chemicals that humans do. However, their milks are not tested for these environmental contaminants. So, human consumers of dairy products have a far greater risk of ingesting (and concentrating) such chemicals across the lifespan than the infant has during their relatively brief breastfeeding careers. Unfortunately, we test for human contamination through sampling breastmilk (a far easier means to recover fat than liposuction). The reporting of these results, without also reporting results for dairy or other mammals in the environment, undermine women's confidence in the quality of their milk and encourage them to turn to expensive manufactured products to feed their babies that are not tested and are not safer. So, as we prepare to celebrate the 20th anniversary of World Breastfeeding Week, August 1-7 (www.worldbreastfeedingweek.org) I encourage Marketplace to do some investigative reporting on the cost of NOT BREASTFEEDING to families. I'm happy to help!

Kai, why did you say it was a family radio show and make a disclaimer because you discuss breasts? Florence commented that we aren't really supposed to be breastfeeding in public.Why? Of course we are supposed to be feeding in public. By making a comment that breasts are not a family topic you add to the shame that American women endure. When we as a culture embrace breastfeeding as normal - not special or something to be hidden away - then we will have more breastfeeding. We do want more breastfeeding despite the contaminants because our world is contaminated and human milk can protect babies in a way that no other food can.

It is important to mention the hormones in dairy products, a big source of estrogen. Milk is a key food for children and it is full of hormones. Just mentioning industrial chemicals as a source of hormones did a diservice to listeners.

With Generous Support From...