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2001 to Now

Breast Views Blog

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Calendar and play artfully educate women about their bodies

Issue # 1 Volume 7 | For the week of October 2—8, 2003
By Vish Khanna

Augmented breasts and assault weapons; do you see the difference?

For a while there a few years ago, it seemed like statistics about the number of violent acts children were exposed to in their lifetime could not be avoided in the media. It was a full-fledged (mostly U.S.-led) government condemnation of the irresponsibility of the entertainment industry for not considering the negative impact of their films, music, and video games on impressionable eyes and ears. It was also an election year but, really, that’s beside the point.

While the prevalence of guns and gun violence in popular culture raised the ire of many public officials, few voiced their concern for how people might be adversely affected by what is, arguably an even more over-saturated image: the distorted, unnatural female form.

The lionization of women’s bodies — particularly their breasts — on magazine covers and in advertisements has become so commonplace, seeing such air-brushed images of surgically-enhanced women has, sadly, become part of filing through a checkout lane at a grocery store; there’s chewing gum on the left and a how-to guide to showing off cleavage on the right.

Troubled by marketing trends and the idea that women were being pressured to give in to external perceptions as to how they should look, Guelph artist and entrepreneur Sue Richards sought to provide women with a resource that would enable them to feel more comfortable with their bodies and subsequently be more proactive about caring for them. In 2001, Richards launched the premiere edition of the Breast of Canada calendar, which has gone on to become a conversation starter across the globe. The 2004 calendar receives a seven-day launch beginning tonight, featuring the one-act play, *The Strong Breast Revolution,* written and performed by four students from the University of Guelph.

Richards is very pleased with the progress Breast of Canada has made since she ventured into the calendar publishing industry three years ago with a desire to create a practical, affordable, and regularly available product that would communicate a breast health message for women everywhere.

“My friends and I had just started thinking about breast health,” Richards recalls. “For me, it wasn’t triggered by any particular incident of breast cancer, it was triggered by a friend of mine who had gone for a medical check-up prior to getting pregnant. The nurse-practitioner did a breast self-examination for her — which she’d never had before — and it took her 45 minutes to do it. It’d never taken more than 45 seconds for my doctor to do one. So, it was quite shocking to think that doctors weren’t actually performing breast self-examinations.”

Richards’ own research has led her to discover that, while there is plenty of information about breast cancer accessible to the general public, there is next to none regarding breast health in general. Though the results of her investigation don’t surprise her exactly, in a world where so much attention is paid to women’s breasts for crass or commercial reasons, Richards believes strongly that the marketplace is in sore need of an educational tool for women.

“What I’ve learned from this is, not so much that there’s a lack of information about breast health for women, but that the more fundamental issue that women are facing is that there are negative societal attitudes about their bodies and breasts and, in turn, women have negative attitudes about them as well,” she says. “So, the calendar now seems to be providing yet another function and that is to help women become more comfortable with their bodies and breasts because the more comfortable they are with them, the more likely they’re going to take care of them. The basic premise of breast health is that you have to look at and touch your breast; that’s part of it and if you’re uncomfortable with your body and breasts, the chances of you doing a proper test are unlikely.

By providing the images that we do, we’re offering an opportunity for women of all different sizes and shapes and skin tones to see themselves reflected on the pages of this calendar and to possibly see that they’re more normal than they thought they were.”

The notion of normalizing the taboo subject of female breasts is also a central point of the play, *The Strong Breast Revolution.* Richards saw a production of the play last March and personally requested that it be re-mounted as part of the celebrations for the 2004 calendar launch.

“It surrounds themes and the main ones are the sexualization of women’s breasts and top-freedom,” explains the play’s director, Vicky Hambley. “It’s really a celebration of re-claiming your breasts for yourself and not as something that is for someone else’s pleasure; it’s your own body and you should know it. We’re hoping to get women to increase their self-confidence about themselves. Really, the only female bodies that we see are in the media and they’re so obviously not average at all. How great would it be if we saw different women’s breasts, different sizes, different everything!

I know so many women have embarrassment and shame because you don’t know what your breasts look like compared to other women’s. I think it’s important to get women talking and get them close to other women. So much media attempts to divide women and I think it’s important for them join together and learn to have good relationships with one another.”

Both Richards and Hambley also emphasize that, in spite of their work on behalf of women’s health, men should certainly not feel excluded by this subject matter. In fact, both the play and the calendar have generated positive feedback from men in their past incarnations.

“We’re definitely creating a female-positive environment but in no way is it a male-negative environment,” Hambley asserts. “Not at all! I don’t think we do in anyway. I think it’s important for men to see it too because I think it’s important for everyone to be knowledgeable about these issues and to address those things because it affects all of us. The men I know who saw it thought it was eye-opening and very important.”

Similarly, Richards has received a great deal of support from the men that she has met who have expressed their gratitude for producing such a useful, and health-conscious item.

“Men buy the calendar for a variety of reasons,” she explains. “I’ve had men buy the calendar and ask me to address them to their wives as gifts. I’ve had men buy it for nieces, sisters — all sorts of women in their lives — out of pure sensitivity and love. They see it as a valuable tool and they love their women and want them to be healthy. I know one young man who was 18 when he bought it for his mother and she was incredibly touched to get it from him. He didn’t know if it would be okay, but he loved his mother and that’s why he wanted to do that.”

Richards is pleased that two of the calendar’s three goals — providing women with an educational tool, and raising awareness about breast health and breast cancer prevention — continue to be achieved on a global scale with each subsequent calendar. After initially stumbling out of the gates with an overly ambitious publishing run (there were 20,000 copies of the first calendar printed compared to, the more modest, 4,000 copies this year), the third goal — raising money for a breast health related charity — has yet to be achieved. Having already sold 2300 copies of the 2004 calendar prior to this week’s launch encourages Richards to say the least.

“The Canadian Breast Cancer Network has gotten a lot of profile from the project as well, so they’re still winning even if they’ve yet to get the cold, hard cash,” she says happily. “I would say that these continue to be the goals. The calendar’s being purchased by people all over the world, so that’s pretty cool. I didn’t anticipate that and I like the fact that it can be a world product.”

If the launch is half as successful as anticipatory sales indicate, then is it not entirely possible that the calendar might expand its parameters and become a celebration of breasts of the world?

“Yeah, or we could just keep flaunting the Canadian ones,” Richards laughs. “There’s nothing wrong with that, I mean we’ve got Adrienne Clarkson all over the place with artists and we’ve got hockey and good beer. Why not breasts? We could be known for worse things!”