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Thursday, August 30, 2012

Review: Breasts

As an Asian immigrant, I don't share American men's obsession with breast size, but when I read an excerpt from Florence William's Breasts, I immediately placed a hold on it from the library. It's a good book and a fun read.

Fundamentally, despite male obsession with breasts, there's actually been relatively little non-cancer research on how they work, what susceptibilities they have, and how they evolved. For instance, other primates do not have permanently rounded breasts: the female of those species tend to enlarge their breasts just in time for breast feeding and then the breasts fade back afterwards. Williams discusses the various hypotheses for why humans are special in this regard (and yes, sexual selection is one of the hypotheses), and why and how they evolved.

The rest of book, however, throws out information that I'd never seen anywhere else, and hence I found myself sucked into reading more and more. For instance, breasts as fatty tissues, essentially hold on to many of the man made chemicals around us. Which means that if you test the breast milk of a typical American woman, you might find PCBs, and various other environmental toxins. What's even more interesting is that the toxins get loaded into the breast milk fed into infants. Williams points out that humans are on top of a very long food chain, and the baby's on top of even where mom is. There's apparently already evidence that among certain species of dolphins, the first-born has a mortality rate 40% higher than its siblings because of the dumping of environmental toxins into its body. Birth order might become more and more important in the future for humans. (Don't tell the La Leche League about this) In fact, even amongst humans, Williams makes the provocative statement in the book that breast milk from the Inuit Eskimos (with their heavy seafood diet) could be classified as industrial waste, and that Sweden is currently considering recommending that breast feeding lasts only for 6 months. That sounds incredibly disturbing.

Other chapters explore silicone implants, how milk is produced, what happens during pregnancy, the impact of the pill and hormone replacement therapy. One particularly fun one to read is the one describing how men can actually get breast cancer. (Don't worry guys, you only have 1/100th the chance of getting breast cancer that women do --- not that it's any consolation if you happen to get "lucky")

Speaking of breast cancer. One thing the book raises is that women who get their first pregnancy before their twenties are much more protected from breast cancer than women who get their first pregnancy after 30. I'm very surprised the conservatives haven't made this a big deal yet, if true. In any case, Williams explains why this comes about, and what the mechanism for this protective effect is.

In any case, I found this book a great read. I do have to wonder about the author's sources and how much of what she writes is actually accurate, but there's a fairly complete bibliography at the back of the book so you can check out her sources and references for yourself if you're inclined to. And unlike most other non-fiction books nowadays, the references don't take up half the book.



Doug Orleans said...

Do women have to carry the pregnancy to term to get the cancer protection? If not, I see implications that Republicans won't like...

Piaw Na said...

Yes. You have to get to the point where milk production happens, and of course if you have an abortion that doesn't happen.