Breasts: A natural and unnatural history review

Florence Williams’ timely study on the ‘evolutionary masterpiece’ that is the human breast is a very special book. Lauded by The Guardian (‘every woman [and men too!] should read this book’), Wall Street Journal (‘exceptional’), Scientific American (‘fun and engaging’) and Elle (‘highly informative and remarkably entertaining’) it was also commended by the New York Times for its unnerving ‘catalogue of environmental devastation’ that ‘threaten[s] our entire species.’

High praise indeed for a book on boobs. Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History is many things: a personal history from the science journalist author, whose B cup bust and its milk has suffered on-going examination including numerous scans, probes and tests for carcinogens; an environmental history of a body part that no other mammal exhibits to the same degree; and a far-reaching analysis of our changing attitudes towards beauty, as defined by our Double Ds.

Florence Williams’ writing is indeed a rare treat, as her eloquent and often amusing prose transforms what is essentially a scientific study into a highly accessible book for anyone interested in evolution, genetic modification, human behaviour and the disturbing effects of toxins on breast milk. She’s refreshingly honest about her own physical and sexual development, and the inherent difficulties of breastfeeding. She writes emotively on breast cancer and its various chemical causes, many of which are little publicised. Throughout much of the book I found myself encountering new facts for the first time, which made me wonder why, as a species, we aren’t more highly educated in this topic.

While never straying too far from her witty, confessional style, Williams serves up a plethora of scientific facts, backed up by plentiful research, some of which is quite disturbing. It’s fascinating to learn that early breast implants contained wood chips and paraffin, and that breast milk contains a substance remarkably similar to cannabis, yet it comes as no surprise to learn that Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History received the Los Angeles Times Book Prize in science and technology and the 2013 Audie in general nonfiction.

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