Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, a Conversation with Florence Williams
“Breasts are a mirror of our industrial lives,” Florence Williams writes in her new book, Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History recently published by Norton. As she goes on to say,
“Twentieth century medicine taught us that germs make us sick, but human health, I came to realize, is far more complex than this model. It is also governed by the very places we live and the small-print ingredients in the water we drink, by the molecules we touch and breathe and ingest every day.”
Florence’s book is funny, smart, and incredibly important - I’m so grateful she took the time to share some of her thoughts below.
Ann: I absolutely love your book. You take on two pretty provocative topics: breasts and environmental toxins – each provocative for very different reasons and in very different ways. How did you pick this as a topic to write about?
Florence: I first became interested in how modern life is changing breasts when I learned that breast milk now contains industrial chemicals. That started me down a path of learning about health and the environment, and I pretty much didn’t look up for 5 years.
Ann: I also first learned about what was in breast milk as I nursed my daughter who is now 13. I felt such a mix of anger and betrayal: that to me what was one of the most sacred things I had ever done, was also potentially filling my daughter with, as you say, “society’s industrial flotsam”, more toxins than a body should bear in a lifetime. And not only that, that in nursing her, I was downloading those toxins from my body into hers, essentially passing my lifetime of exposure on to her. The anger and betrayal quickly led to despair and paralysis. And yet that doesn’t come through in your writing. How have you managed to not get crushed under the information about environmental toxins and their impact on human health you have gathered in writing this book?
Florence: Right, those feelings of guilt and despair can happen. I think it’s important to remember, though, that breast milk is superior to formula from a health standpoint, and it still contains precious long-evolved substances that confer protection and immune-boosters to your baby. Generally, the levels of chemicals in breast milk are still very small, and we don’t know enough about their health effects to throw up our hands in despair. What we do know is that it would be better if breast milk didn’t contain endocrine disruptors and neurological toxicants, or contained less of them. And we know that these chemicals need to be better tested, as soon as possible, so we can learn more about them and make better public policy decisions.
I like writing with humor when I can, but some parts of this book, like those about early puberty and breast cancer, are simply not funny. When you talk about breasts, though, there’s plenty of fodder for humor.
Ann: I think your voice is what makes this book work. I’m not sure I would normally choose to pick up a book about the toxins in my breasts – it hits too close to home and it brings up too much fear and anxiety, both general (about all toxins) and specific (about my children). And yet, you write about this in a way that makes me want to read more. That isn’t often the case in books about environmental toxins.
Florence: I’m so glad the voice worked for you and kept you turning pages. I think it’s important not to get overrun by despair, because it makes it too hard to get up in the morning. I wish more writing about science and the environment would lighten up a little, because those topics need more readers, not fewer. I’ve done a lot of my writing and reporting over the years using the first-person voice. I think it can engage readers, and sometimes, frankly, it keeps me more engaged, because it allows for a little more flexibility and creativity in the narrative.
Ann: You write, “Our bodies, I learned, are not temples. They are more like trees. Our membranes are permeable; they transport both the good and the bad from the world around us.” On so many levels this should be so obvious, and yet it isn’t. We live in a world that assumes our bodies somehow are impermeable. I look at the shampoo and cosmetics that my daughter’s friends use, that my daughter wants to use and the constant juggling act I face trying to balance making her become more aware and not being overbearing. And I live in Montpelier, Vermont of all places, where you would think there would be greater awareness!
What have you learned from your work on this book that has changed how you live and the choices you make? What advice do you have for the parents of teenage girls? What changes need to happen at a cultural/social level? And finally, how can we begin to help make those changes happen?
Florence: Well, I don’t think it’s a lot of fun trying to be a parent who denies her children the experiences of her peers. It’s not fun for them or for us. And I don’t think parents should bear this responsibility all the time, or bear it by themselves. Wouldn’t our jobs be so much easier if consumer products didn’t contain harmful substances in the first place? Perhaps that’s what parents should be spending more of their scolding-energy on: the government, and the regulatory agencies who are not doing their jobs with regard to testing more chemicals for human health effects. Aside from that, I try to reduce my children’s exposures to some things, like perfume-y products that contain phthalates, but I don’t try to do it all the time.
Ann: What are you going to write about next? I have an idea… since your next child is a boy : )
Florence: I think I’m done with body parts for a while. But it was fun while it lasted! I’m sure I’ll keep writing about environmental health, and I’m going to do some science-magazine writing for awhile. I like mixing up the book and magazine work. Thanks so much for your great work and your interest in my book.
For more information about Florence, her book as well as links to buy the book from your favorite independent book sellers check out her website: Book – Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History | Florence Williams.