“For such an enormously popular feature of the human race,” writes Florence Williams in Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, “it’s remarkable how little we know about their basic biology.” Breasts make us mammals, says Williams, but they also seem to make us confused: Our theories about their enduring appeal are muddled, and our understanding of both their strengths and vulnerabilities are incomplete. Williams, a science journalist and contributing editor of Outside, delved into the history, culture, and science of the human mammary gland, and in Breasts, she tells the fascinating—and often very funny—story of our breasts and ourselves.
Here, Williams tells Michelle Nijhuis the story behind her story. (This interview has been edited for length and clarity.)
What drew you to the subject of breasts—other than the obvious, of course?
(Laughs) Yes, I am the owner of a couple. But I never really thought much about my breasts one way or the other until I became a mother. Then I really became awed by how they work, and how brilliantly they work. I suddenly felt like such a mammal—it was a profound and transformative experience for me. But I also began to see the scientific reports about industrial pollutants showing up in breast milk, and I wanted to tell that story. I was breastfeeding at the time, and I did a story for The New York Times Magazine in which I tested my own breast milk.
I FedExed a sample of my breast milk to a lab in Germany, and it came back with some slightly higher than above-average U.S. levels for flame retardants. But American levels in general, I learned, are 10 to 100 times higher than anywhere else in the world. The experience brought home to me, in this very dramatic way, how our bodies respond to environmental change. Our bodies are permeable in ways that we just don’t think about, or haven’t been taught to think about in the age of modern medicine.
I’m curious when and how you made the decision to put breasts—instead of the forces affecting them, such as endocrine disruptors and cancer—at the center of your book. When did you decide to make the book an environmental history of a body part?
As I was learning about how the environment changes the lactating process, I also started learning more about early puberty. And there’s a fair amount of breast cancer in my family—that’s always been big elephant in the room in terms of my family’s health. I realized that at every life stage of the breast, there’s a vulnerable period during which the environment acts upon it.
I thought it would be interesting to examine and explore all those different stages, from the earliest development of the mammary glands in utero, to puberty, then to pregnancy and lactation, and all the way through menopause.
At the same time, I also became aware of how diet and modern lifestyle choices are changing breasts. Breasts are actually bigger than ever, which is a natural consequence of our being fatter than ever. But that has enormous implications for breast cancer, because we know that obesity after menopause is a risk factor for breast cancer. Then, of course, we’re having children so much later than our earliest ancestors, and we’re having fewer. So that also has dramatic implications for breast-cancer risk.
So that breasts are living a different life than they ever have before, and I wanted to use them as a lens to focus on environmental change.
The really surprising thing about your book is that, unlike a lot of books about environmental subjects, it’s often very funny. When did you realize that it could be funny even though you’re covering some subjects that are—literally—deadly serious?
Well, breasts are funny anyway. If you look at the words we’ve used for breasts throughout history, they are often these sort of crazy, goofy words. And I think that points to our cultural discomfort with breasts. So I did want to point that out, but I also understand that they do make us laugh, and that there is a lot of potential for humor there—even while there’s potential to talk about why that humor exists in the first place.
There’s a serious aspect to the humor about breasts.
Exactly. If you pick it apart, it’s very interesting. There were two chapters I wrote that were particularly sort of funny and absurd. One was the chapter on evolution. I interviewed anthropologists who had these very old-school opinions about breasts and their effect on men. And there’s a father-and-son team of breast experts! The comic potential was impossible to ignore.
The other chapter that really got me going was the implant chapter. Again, it was an absurdist romp through history, filled with these sort of gruesome and grotesque details that were both disturbing and funny. The chapter asks how we got to this point, and what we’re willing to do to ourselves. But there’s also a lot of lightness in the topic—some women are so happy to embrace this kind of augmentation, and they care so much about celebrating their breasts that they want them bigger and bigger, almost to a cartoonish extent. The average size of implants just keeps increasing.
And the whole culture of breast augmentation that I explored in Texas is fascinating and sort of strange, and some of it’s very funny. One of the surgeons even had a breast-shaped swimming pool.
Were there any interviewing techniques or research techniques you used to draw out some of those details, or was the comic potential just lying on the ground for you to pick up?
No, I actually think compelling details require a ton of work, whether they’re funny details or whether they’re other kinds of subtle, important details. I think they require just a lot of research because it’s sometimes the unexpected detail, the one that goes against stereotype, that is funny or interesting. And those aren’t the kind of details that you’re going to get in a quick visit or a press release.
So in interviews, I try to capture gestures, and I try to capture, again, all the unexpected details. I do a ton of note taking, and a lot of background research. But that’s part of what I really enjoy about the process. I am not a fast writer. I like to dive in and read everything I can get my hands on.
Some of the humor comes from these great historical anecdotes—often about men’s cluelessness about breasts through the ages. Was there a note taking or search technique you used to turn those things up?
I see a lot of benefit in reading books. So many journalists these days do most of their research on the Internet, and I think you really miss out on these more obscure details. I did the old-fashioned thing and went to the library and got a lot of books, and I think that was really helpful in finding historical details.
That said, there are a lot of useful digital resources out there, such as digital libraries of scanned historical texts — that’s where I found Astley Cooper’s 1840 treatise on the anatomy of the breast.
Were there any points where you held back on the humor because of the gravity of the subject?
Oh, yeah, there are certainly some topics that aren’t funny at all, and shouldn’t try to be. There’s really just nothing funny about early puberty, for instance. And the book isn’t slapstick-y. The humor is more about tone, about giving the reader a smirk or a half-smile in a few places.
I wanted the book to be engaging, and humor is one way to be engaging. But you can be engaging by just being interesting, or suspenseful, or whatever. Humor is just a tool, and there’s a time and place for it.
Did you run into any sources or readers who were miffed by your tone?
I’m sure some were, because it’s not for everybody. I think there was one book reviewer who didn’t really appreciate having me in the book very much, who was a little put off by my presence. I didn’t want this book to be about me, so I do think there’s a fine line to negotiate there—I do want to try to reach new readers, and readers who don’t necessarily read a lot of science. And one way to do that stylistically is to be a guide through the material.
So you’re not just a character in your book—your breasts are characters in the book. How did you make that decision? And how did you navigate that line between revealing enough so that it would be helpful to the lay reader and not revealing too much?
Well, my agent and my editor were actually very helpful there—they encouraged me to do it more. But I think that it also helped that the original article that inspired the book was told in the first person. So in some ways I set the tone there—my breasts had already been offered up as guinea pigs! It made some sense to just keep using them at times, for instance to put my breasts in this new 3D ultrasound imaging device [used to scan for cancer]. I think when you do things like that you get some insights into how these technologies work, and I think those experiences trigger new questions. You can literally put yourself in someone else’s shoes—or someone else’s breasts—for a moment.
One of the most powerful chapters is about a cluster of men, mostly Marines, all of whom at one point lived on Camp Lejeune in North Carolina and all of whom have breast cancer. How did you come across that story, and how did you report it?
I originally came across it through the breast cancer activist network. One of these breast cancer groups published an interview with one of these guys—a lot of people in the breast-cancer movement are watching the epidemiology of this case pretty closely. And then I found a character who was articulate and passionate about the issue, and had his own compelling story. But he didn’t live near the Marine base, and I wanted him to walk me through the place. So then it was a question of figuring out when and how I could meet him there.
Was it difficult to convince him or the other Marines to participate?
No, it wasn’t at all. He in particular had been very public about his disease. But there were some other men I talked to who hadn’t talked to the press before, and I think they were ultimately pleased to do it. I didn’t have to twist any arms.
You talked to a lot of female breast cancer patients and a lot of women who were suffering in different ways for the book. Were there different considerations when you were interviewing male patients?
I was interested in the gender politics for them. What was it like for a former Marine to have a woman’s disease? It can be pretty emasculating, and I was interested in how they had negotiated that. I think I got some interesting quotes out of that question.
I was very moved by the guy who talked about how he had mistreated women in the past, and how his experience with a woman’s disease, of sitting in support groups with women, had changed his whole attitude toward women.
Yeah. I think illness can really change people profoundly. So I was glad some of them were willing to share that.
Is there a decision or a couple of decisions that you made, either during the research or the writing of the book, that you now see as particularly important?
I wasn’t going to have an implant chapter originally. My agent talked me into that. She said, “You can’t write about modern breasts without talking about implants.” I was interested in the life stages of the breast, and because women can have boob jobs at any stage, implants didn’t seem that relevant to me at first. But of course it makes total sense to examine it—this is a modern lifestyle, a decision people make, that affects breasts. And that chapter turned out to be one of my favorites.
Also, looking back I realize it was very important to have friends you trust who can help you, and an editor or agent who is involved. One of the weird things about writing a book is that you don’t really get a lot of input—there isn’t an editor reading every draft like there is when you write an article. You can work for a year on something before anyone really sees it. And for humor and tone especially, it’s good to have readers—sometimes when you write a joke, you don’t know if it’s funny to anyone else. My editor at Norton was good about toning down some of the humor that didn’t work, and that was really helpful. She kept me from spinning off the rails.
Michelle Nijhuis is a science journalist based in Colorado. Her writing has appeared in Smithsonian, The New York Times, Scientific American, and Nature, and she is a contributing editor of High Country News. She also blogs with clever colleagues at The Last Word on Nothing. Follow Michelle on Twitter @nijhuism.