Five Questions for Florence Williams

In Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, journalist Florence Williams delves into the biology, culture, and evolutionary history of this life-giving organ. In her witty and wide-ranging account, she explores where breasts come from, why we see them the way we do, and what they reveal as bellwethers for human health in a compromised environment.


Why is it important to change the way we understand, talk about, and research breasts, and why has it taken so long for people to actually begin doing so?

Breasts get a lot of attention, of course, but it’s very limited. It’s fair to say Western cultures are obsessed with breasts—generally big breasts—as sexual objects. Because of that, it’s been hard to take them seriously. When breasts are oversexualized, it becomes that much more challenging to support and encourage breastfeeding in a meaningful way. Beyond that, there’s not a lot of money to be made in researching breast milk, as opposed to, say, red wine or cow’s milk, so there hasn’t been a lot of incentive. Now, though, some companies are trying to mimic human milk substances and find markets in populations that are immune-compromised. It’s likely we’ll see more of this.

Your book brings together cultural studies and science—could you talk about the process of working in both worlds? Which came first—the scientific facts or the cultural criticism? Or did they come together?

For me, the science came first. There were other books out there about the cultural and social history of the breast, but I’d never before seen a history of a body part told through the lens of environmental history. That said, when you talk about the breast, culture comes into play pretty fast, for example with implants, and in how the debate over breast evolution drives our attitudes toward them. Were they sexually selected or naturally selected? Were breasts put on earth for men? That debate matters.

In the book you describe being inspired to start your research after learning about toxins that have made their way into breast milk. What do you make of the fact that neither formula nor breast milk are fully safe for consumption?

I think I better clarify that both formula and human milk are safe for consumption, especially in the developed world. When formula is a killer, it’s because of the unsafe water it’s mixed with, not the formula itself. Overall, the evidence is still very strong that the benefits of breast milk outweigh its risks. But these infant foods are contaminated in ways we don’t fully understand, and it’s enough to make us concerned. When I learned my breast milk had industrial pollutants and endocrine disruptors in it, it made me think of the human body in a new and profound way, as a permeable and interconnected system, and as a catchment for our environmental trespasses.

Are you familiar with Elisabeth Badinter? In her new book The Conflict, she makes the argument that liberal motherhood, with its focus on all that is “natural,” in particular breast-feeding, has limited women’s choices by tethering them to the home, and in many ways has been a step backwards for women, labeling them as bad mothers if they choose not to breastfeed. How does this fit into the cultural history of breasts?

I am familiar with Badinter, and I think she makes great points. The pressure on women to “mother” a certain way is certainly limiting and painful. When it comes to breastfeeding, though, the science of lactation is largely absent from the conversation. Badinter waves away the science and proposes ditching breastfeeding, but human milk is the only substance we have that is truly designed to be digested by infants. It’s evolved just for us over millions of years, and we’re only beginning to understand all its benefits. I would propose better supporting mothers and their feeding choices through workplace and social policies like on-site daycare, reduced hour options, flextime and longer parental leaves. It’s important to point out that for many mothers, breastfeeding is actually cheaper and more convenient than formula feeding. Breastfeeding can be a bit tyrannical, but so is parenthood. We all have to figure out how to make it work without losing ourselves.

How can we “save” breasts? How do you think your book speaks within the context of current events and rhetoric surrounding women’s health?

I think if we understand better how breasts—and our bodies—are intimately connected to the world around us, then we have a strong motivation for better stewarding our environment. Women become very powerful actors in environmental policy debates. For example, as I note in the book, when pollutants like DDT and PCBs were found in breastmilk, it became easier to ban them. In some sense, women need to wrest back control over the conversation about breasts, and that includes appreciating how they really work and their amazing life-giving capacity. It also means celebrating the great variety of natural breasts out there and helping our daughters find self-esteem in their bodies, for example, through athleticism.

Kristen Hewitt is editorial assistant at Orion.