Everything You Need to Know About Breasts
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It’s hard to be boobs. Sure, breasts are cherished as givers of milk and the pinnacle of sex appeal, but the modern world hasn’t been good to mammaries.
As Florence Williams writes in “Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History,” they’re the most tumor-prone organ in the human body. They “soak up pollution like a pair of soft sponges,” and transmit environmental toxins to babies through breast milk. “Breasts are bellwethers for the changing health of people,” she says. While we’ve “genetically modified our crops to be able to protect them from the ill effects of pesticides,” Williams writes, “we haven’t yet figured out how to modify our breasts.” Aside from using saline and silicone, of course.
Speaking of, breast implants are more popular than ever: It’s the most common form of plastic surgery, above even nose jobs and liposuction. Even cosmetic enhancement notwithstanding, breasts are bigger than ever, and girls are getting them at increasingly younger ages. These recent dramatic changes are the heft of Williams’ book, although she also covers evolutionary basics, like why we have them, what they’re made of and how they work. It’s an interesting and engaging read peppered with factoids the kid from “Jerry Maguire” would no doubt appreciate (e.g., “the average breast weighs just over a pound”). Occasionally, it veers into technical territory that will put some readers to sleep, but overall it’s a much-needed look at why breasts matter more than we realize, even in our boob-obsessed society.
I spoke with Williams by phone about the myth of the perfect pair, growing bra sizes and toxic breast milk.
One of the trickiest questions posed by the book is the simple one of why breasts exist. After all of your research, where do you stand on that question?
It’s a pretty contentious debate and surprisingly so. I think both sides have some biases and also some logic behind them, but where I see it coming down is between natural selection — like, “Are these breasts for women and their babies?” — or sexual selection, as in, “Are they signals for men?” Ultimately, I really fall down on “Let’s look at how breasts work and what they’re made out of.”
So, for me, it made sense that these are naturally selected organs, which is true for mammary glands in every other mammal that we know of. There are no other mammals in which breasts are sexually selected. It just makes sense that in our deep evolutionary past we really needed those extra few percentages of fat, and breasts gave us a place to put that, and really helped gestate and lactate the human infant, which has these unique fat requirements. The mammary gland in the breast in humans is filled with estrogen receptors and those actually make fat. There’s this relationship between fat and estrogen, and where there’s estrogen, that’s going to tell cells to start storing fat, and as there’s more fat, that’s going to help make more estrogen.
So it’s possible that breasts are the result of natural selection but they also play their part in sexual selection?
Yeah, absolutely. There’s no doubt at all that a lot of men are really, really attracted to breasts! But it could be that that attraction came later or was secondary, and it’s never really been satisfactorily proven that all men in all cultures across all times are obsessed with breasts.
It so totally goes again common wisdom, but it’s common wisdom that hasn’t been proven?
It hasn’t been proven. In fact we have such strong cultural biases about breasts that it’s easy to see how some of these anthropologists may just be projecting their own beliefs back into evolutionary times, and that’s just a classic no-no. We don’t really have fossil evidence of when breasts evolved because you can’t dig up a fossil of an early human and know what her cup size was.