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The Breast of Times

By Kristy Chesworth

It's a frigid February morning in Guelph, Ontario. In the art centre by the river, with sunlight streaming in through the skylights - and the thermostat tweaked a few degrees to make toplessness more comfortable, sixteen women have just become pin-up girls. But not in the classic sense. It's doubtful that these women will become fodder for service station walls or university dorms. Theirs is a different mission; to advocate women's health and to promote an aesthetic different than the glossy pop-culture boob that dominates mainstream media. How? With a calendar. The Breast of Canada calendar, to be exact.

"The idea for the calendar came to me in one fell swoop," says creator Sue Richards. "It was just a ball of heat. That's the only way I can describe it. It was a big ball of heat."

In 2001 Richards had a conversation with a friend about breast self-examinations. Together they determined that they knew nothing about the process and found this extremely disconcerting, not to mention kind of shocking. Richards was shocked again when she typed the term 'breast health' into an Internet search engine and nothing came up. "It said 'Do you mean breast cancer?' And I thought, oh my God, no I don't mean breast cancer I mean breast health. I don't have breast cancer." Concerned with the lack of readily available information she decided to do something about it; and the calendar was born.

Richards realized the power of a calendar both to project gripping images and to create new attitudes toward breasts. What began as a straightforward health-based project became a movement to take perceptions about breasts out of the exclusively sexual realm and liberate the female breast into its full range of expression.

The mission can be boiled down to three simple words: realism versus idealism. Once the image of the breast is liberated or redefined, the women who have been confined by this image are freed as well. Feminist theorist Naomi Wolf refers to the culturally imposed physical standard that women are expected to achieve as the Iron Maiden. The original device was a German instrument of torture 'a body-shaped casket' painted with the image of a beautiful young woman. Placed inside, a real woman would have the lid closed on her and die either from starvation or from the metal spikes on the casket's interior. Notes Wolf, "The modern hallucination in which women are trapped or trap themselves is similarly rigid, cruel, and euphemistically painted." Contemporary society directs its attention to the painting on the outside, and women's real faces and bodies are censored in favour of unrealistic images.

Self-censorship is a common problem. "I've often thought that women spend a ton of time being anxious about how they look. I personally have spent a great deal of my youth squandered on whether or not I was attractive," says Richards.

Television programs, commercials, billboards, and fashion magazines present a fairly homogenous prescription of how women should look. Tanned. Youthful. Lithe. Voluptuous. Carefree. This is rarely the reflection normal women see in the mirror.

Fashion and advertising photographer Struan responds to the statement that most media images of women look too good to be true. "They won't represent the women on the street. They've tried that before. That's just gonna backfire as advertising. If they were to suddenly put anybody in their lingerie, it'll probably have a terrible year. And you know what, deep down I think the public will think 'What the hell are they doing?'"

Photography featuring ordinary women's bodies might not sell any underwear, but has it sold calendars? Richards researched the idea quite thoroughly before she ventured forth. It was a business enterprise as well as an artistic endeavour, after all. When the calendar was ready to debut, she presented it to the breast cancer world for feedback. For the first time, Sue discovered the 'boo' in boobs.

"There was quite a knee-jerk reaction to the images because I was showing pictures of breasts. All of the breast. Including the nipple. I think I shocked that particular world. They weren't interested in seeing art or women's breasts at all. I had no idea that would be the reaction I would get."

To what, exactly, are people reacting? The Breast of Canada calendar features thoughtfully composed black and white or sepia-toned images of topless women. There are no nudes. "I'm already having a hard enough time above the waist," Richards jokes. "I'm not going below the waist." Models are not identifiable by their faces. Each month has a few pieces of 'breast lore', breast health facts, amusing or inspiring quotations, mini-biographies of pioneering Canadian women. Each calendar has a theme. 2003 was sports, 2004 was the arts and 2005 will be the four seasons in Canada. If magazines like Maxim and FHM are the Las Vegas of women's bodies, in-your-face, glitzy, air-brushed beyond recognition and slightly intimidating - then the Breast of Canada is that charming small town off the highway that is sedate and welcoming.

April and May 2004 each showcase an image typical of the calendar's aesthetic. Miss April is late into her pregnancy. She stands facing the camera. With her left hand she is supporting her belly just below her navel and with her right she is touching her belly just below her breast. There's a scar on the other breast. She had cancer and it was reconstructed. It is visibly different from its mate in both size and shape, but the viewer notices this less than the sense of calm and comfort that permeates the image.

There are two women featured in May. They stand back to back, in profile to the camera, their lower bodies draped in swaths of fabric. The woman on the left is taller and fit looking. The woman on the right is heavyset. Their arms are touching and it looks like they might be about to hold hands. Both women are painted with delicate henna designs on their arms or torsos. Again, there is a sense of peace.

Gillian Long heads the youth chapter of Campaign Coalition Life, a pro-life organization with offices in Toronto. She acknowledges that the media feed women dishonest images, but believes the onus is on women to recognize the visual chicanery and have the self-confidence to ignore it. "We've a responsibility to have enough self-confidence to realize they don't matter to our own perception of ourselves. I think women are capable of doing that, they don't need that spoon fed to them."

There is certainly no argument about whether or not women recognize that pop cultures images and the bodies they portray are manipulated. No-one would mistake Pamela Anderson's chest as real. What Long fails to address is that once women reject the images pop culture offers, there are scarcely any alternatives that offer real images.

Adrienne Winslow and her daughters are intimately familiar with breast-related imagery and the myriad emotions it can arouse. Adrienne lost her breast to cancer five years ago. Her daughter Allison didn't realize how many times women's breasts were shown on magazines and in other media until after her mother's surgery.

"Until it hits your family you don't realize what the impact is on a woman who has just had a breast removed. It seems like everything would revolve around breasts at some point." Adrienne agrees. "All of a sudden you're watching t.v. and everything's breasts. And there is more to a woman than her breasts." Adrienne and her daughters appeared in the 2003 calendar. Adrienne is in the middle, flanked by Allison and Samantha, who have placed their hands over the scar where her breast used to be.

For a woman who has had a mastectomy, a woman's whose breasts are quite small, or quite large, or any woman whose breasts don't conform to idealized images, self-esteem and a sense of femininity can suffer. Until women see themselves reflected in the media, these feelings won't simply disappear. It's up to normal women like Sue Richards to create a normalized aesthetic, regardless of its failure to achieve mass appeal.

"Women are more than a breast," says Long. Her objection highlights the thin line the Breast of Canada calendars walks: it resists pop culture's commodification of the breast, yet it is still using images of breasts as its selling point.

Judith Taylor teaches sociology and women's studies at the University of Toronto. "It's very intelligent that it's a calendar because it's a play on pornography but it's absolutely not [pornography.] You expect it's going to be titillating, it's going to be something you see in locker rooms but when you look at it, it's not." Taylor says one of the things that may shock people about the calendar is the diversity of breast shape. "There is generally a sense that the nipple should be a certain shape, diameter, or colour. Most images are so airbrushed that to see a real breast is shocking. For many women who view this calendar it will be the first time they ever see a photographic image they can relate to."

Is there something that is distasteful to the public about women taking voyeurism into their own hands not to sell jeans or attract people to buy cars, but to be exhibitionists in their own right and to work on a public health project?

"When you have normal women who are working on a project in this intensity and with this kind of bodily diversity it can sometimes scare people because it's three-dimensional," says Professor Taylor. "It could be their sister, their aunt, their mother ; suddenly it's not so dismissable anymore and suddenly it's not something titillating they're looking at. It's something that hits much closer to home and therefore seems much more objectionable."

Traditionally, images of women are offered up for male consumption. In art and portraiture women are often looking away from the viewer. They are not the subject, but the object. The Breast of Canada calendar is an interesting departure because the women are posing themselves, not offering themselves, and the pictures are realistic in a way that prevents men from eroticizing them.

"We don't Photoshop anything," says Richards. "We don't put any make-up on anyone. The only thing that is being used is light. Otherwise it is as the woman looks. It's the impact of the normal, ordinary, average woman's body."

Back to that February photo-shoot in Guelph. Richards was able to use sixteen women in just one image. When she started the calendar, getting models was a chore. The project might as well have been called Breasts of Sue's Friends, she laughs. Now she gets inundated with more offers for models than she can possibly use. There is a tremendous amount of willingness on a particular body type and age bracket. White women in their twenties and thirties who are medium to large-breasted comprise the bulk of willing models. "I could fill calendars and calendars and calendars and that's wonderful," she says. "Where the problem comes in is to find very small-breasted, very large-breasted and older models. "I want to represent them as well because we never see those women in any of the images we see in our world and yet we exist. We exist. I want the calendar to reflect what really is."

For models the photo shoot represents not the end of the adventure, but the beginning. The adventure lasts up to a year as they anticipate their image going up on the wall and realize that there will be people looking at their image for an entire month. "Just showing up [to the photo shoot] is incredible courage," says Richards.

The feedback she receives from models also hints at the calendar's success. "[They] feel liberated. I mean, that's a very old-fashioned feminist word to be using, but they feel liberated and they didn't even know they weren't liberated until they had the experience of being a model. It's way bigger than breast health."

Gillian Long dislikes the notion of liberation as it pertains to sex. "That definition is why I wouldn't want to be called a feminist. I think that has done nothing but harm to women. Promiscuity and nudity have only hurt women. So I don’t think it has pushed women forward."

"Is it a revolution?" Richards asks. "I don't know. It's a celebration. There's definitely a celebration. Revolution suggests to me that there's anger involved and I don't personally feel anger. I'm trying another approach. I'm just offering up a perspective. And then I sit quietly and let you have a look at it."

Judith Taylor sums up the ideology behind the calendar quite well: "There's something about real life that compels us more than airbrushed images."

Contact Sue Richards at [email protected]

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