“The mandate to nurse and the mandate to titillate are competing claims that continue to shape women’s fate. Since the beginning of the Judeo-Christian era, churchmen and secular males, not to mention babies, have considered the breast their property, to be disposed of with or without women’s consent.”
~ Marilyn Yalom,
History of the Breast
My latest reading includes science writer Florence Williams’s
Breasts: A Natural and Unnatural History, which begins with the observation that breasts “can turn both babies and grown men into lunkheads.” Her history of this “evolutionary masterpiece” repeatedly juxtaposes the maternal and erotic role of breasts in contemporary, predominantly Western, culture. Williams situates her own lactating breasts squarely at the center of the toxic stew produced by modern, industrial economies developed to satisfy human desire, as opposed to ensuring its survival.
The list of ingredients in human breast milk? 4% fat, vitamins A, C, E, and K, sugars, essential minerals, proteins, enzymes, and antibodies – amounting to 100% of the recommended daily allowance of everything a baby needs to grow. In addition, there’s a proprietary mix of bonus ingredients evolved to moderate the nursling’s appetite, and thwart everything from the flu to cancer for her entire lifetime. The stuff is valued at 262 times the price of oil! Unfortunately, it also includes some geographically specific blend of DDT, PCBs, trichloroethylene, perchlorate, dibenzofurans, mercury, lead, benzene, and arsenic. No wonder, Williams’s agenda includes a call to
"Save the Boobies."
What makes breasts so mercurial—and so vulnerable? The short answer is that they evolved to provide human infants with all the nutrition necessary to survive long enough to learn to carry themselves and to contribute to the family’s dinner table. (I continue to find this evolutionary tale far more persuasive than the alternative: female breasts grew large and round primarily to attract eligible mates.) They are particularly susceptible to disease – cancer, in particular – because they grow and change over the course of a woman’s lifetime, providing multiple points of exposure to our increasingly contaminated environment.
I’d like to believe that the research Williams marshals in the interest of saving women’s breasts (as opposed to preventing their deaths from breast cancer) will do the trick. Unfortunately, in the absence of resistance to market-based approach to breast cancer research, I think Williams herself might strike closer to the truth with her cynical comment that there is simply far less money to be made preventing breast cancer relative to treating it.
Ladies, are you willing to fight?