Posts tagged breasts
Posts tagged breasts
I do too. Spectacular Breasts have not perished - they’re just taking a well-deserved rest! I’ve been spending my freelance time writing research applications for the past weeks and haven’t had much time for the blog. More later!
Good news is, I’m currently guest blogging for Tou Camp 2012 - an eclectic multi-media, cross-cultural, intellectually hybrid festival based at Tou Scene, a culture factory in Stavanger, Norway. This year’s theme is identity. Most of my posts are in Norwegian, but I’m also catering for a wider audience from time to time.
You can check it out here: http://toucamp.posterous.com/
I am sad to read the news, that Adrienne Rich is dead at 82.
What a remarkable voice! As a woman, mother, poet, thinker: what intense wisdom, critical ability and imagination reside in her corpus and aura. See the image of this beautiful woman above, and read her work to feel her breath alive again.
To me, her work on articulating the institution and experience of mothering, although published in 1976 (the year before I was born), retains its force and urgency (1):
Many women see any appeal to the physical as a denial of mind. We have been perceived for too many centuries as pure Nature, exploited and raped like the earth and the solar system; small wonder if we now ling to become Culture: pure spirit, mind. Yet it is precisely this culture and its political institutions which have split us off from itself. In so doing it has also split itself off from life, becoming the death-culture of quantification, abstraction, and the will to power. which has reached its most refined destructiveness in this century. It is this culture and politics of abstraction which women are talking of changing, of bringing accountability in human terms.
The repossession by women of our bodies will bring far more essential change to human society than the seizing of the means of production by workers. The female body has been both territory and machine, virgin wilderness to be exploited and assembly-line turning out life. We need to imagine a world in which every woman is the presiding genius of her own body. In such a world women will truly create new life, bringing forth not only children (if and as we choose) but the visions, and the thinking, necessary to sustain, console, and alter human existence - a new relationship to the universe. Sexuality, politics, intelligence, power, motherhood, work, community, intimacy will develop new meanings; thinking itself will be transformed.
This is where we have to begin.
Rich was married to a man for 17 years. They had three children together. Some time after her husband´s death in 1970, she fell in love with another woman. These experiences make for an interesting autobiography, and form the foundation for Rich´s critical feminist discourse, a red thread that runs through all her work.
I have a special relationship with one of her texts, which formed an integral part of my thesis, in a chapter where I tried to generate an alternative poetic of/for breast loss. The poem, ‘A Woman Dead in her Forties’, was written between 1974-1977. Rich’s text, three years in the making, maps a life cycle: the becoming of breasts; of two women as they grow up together; of the other’s early death and the one who is left with the memories. It is a celebration of, and a memorial to, female friendship from girlhood to middle age and beyond. The breast cancer of a childhood-friend provokes a looking back for the poet-friend, a retrospective of both women´s lives. Rich’s writing in itself constitutes an act of solidarity – and it is true, that as a woman, it is hard not to identify with, not to feel the pain of the friend, sister, mother, or daughter with breast cancer. It is hard not to think: what if it were me instead of you? The poet is haunted by the silent inheritance left by the other woman (2):
Your breasts/ sliced off The scars
dimmed as they would have to be
You are every woman I ever loved
a bloody incandescent chord strung out
across years, tracts of space
Of all my dead it’s you
who come to me unfinished
You left me amber beads
strung with turquoise from an Egyptian grave
I wear them wondering
How am I true to you?
In Rich’s text there are no periods – there can be no full stops (stopping is dying). The wide spaces between certain words seem to express distance and rupture (the space between the two). And the slash is cutting the fabric of the poem, whereas / the black dots ● these rounded pausing figures of sadness and mourning - these rounded black breasts, divide the verses, mark the empty white paper spaces.
Women are not born with breasts, they grow and evolve and change throughout life. Why then, is it so hard to come to terms with breast loss, another change in the spectrum of breast experience? The thoughts of lesbian feminist writers like Audre Lorde (1934-1992), Adrienne Rich (1929-2012), and (the “straight”) queer theorist Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick (1950-2009) prove almost liberating in the context of figuring breast loss. They are women who, having been marked by the disease personally or relationally, argue (in their own different ways) explicitly against the hetero-normative grains in breast cancer discourse, discourses on recovery and sexuality. Their thoughts have implications, especially for the contestable notion that one can re-normalize the cancerous woman by reconstructing the lost breast(s): to re-make her femininity and stabilise her desirability as heterosexual object, by reconstituting the form of the breast, when the organ, with all its history, complexities and sensations is gone.
I would have touched my fingers
to where your breasts had been
but we never did such things
The breasts remain in memoriam.
Adrienne Rich - R.I.P.
1. Adrienne Rich. Of Woman Born: Motherhood as Experience and Institution. .New York: W. W. Norton. 1986 : pp. 285-6.
2. Adrienne Rich. ‘A Woman Dead in Her Forties’. The Fact of a Doorframe: Poems Selected and New 1950-1984. New York: W. W. Norton. 1984: pp. 250-255.
Loving this nipple project, mapping artifacts at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. The man behind the work is James Cabot Ewart - and you can check out his tumblr page/nipple display here.
The photos have the effect of de-sexualising the nipple through repetition and framing (circle in a square). Instead the work shifts attention to texture and colour.
Ewart explains the project to the Huffington Post:
I’ve taken all the photographs and am planning on capturing all the nipples at the Met. I had to create a set of ground rules: I’m only photographing exposed human nipples, but am still on the fence about the inclusion of human/animal hybrids (so many fauns…), and there’s no photography allowed for the traveling exhibits which is a shame, but at the same time a relief. I’m still working on the project, but hope to be done photographing by the end of April. So far I’ve photographed 832 nipples, and only have the Greek, Roman, Egyptian and Arms & Armor wings left to do. There will be many more.
@ Natashja Blomberg
La Liberté Guidant le Peuple. 1830. Eugène Delacroix.
“A study has found that women carrying the BRCA1 gene were 32 per cent less likely to develop breast cancer if they breastfed for at least a year compared with women with the gene who did not.”
The findings are particularly interesting because this group of women are often adviced to have their breasts (and ovaries) removed prophylactically, at an age when they are still fertile.
I´m going to have to speak to my favourite breast endocrinologist about this in order to really understand the implications and crunch the numbers.
Prophylactic mastectomy offers a high degree of protection against breast cancer (about 90% according to one source, see bottom) - but it is a heartbreaking choice to make for the individual woman. At best, one possible outcome of this study, could be that it would make sense for young women with the BRCA1 gene to keep their breasts a few more years if they intend to have children and want to breastfeed, as it may sway the odds in their favour and protect from future cancer.
Wait, I have a puppy. I think I can make this work.
“I could potentially save you from cancer.” Is it wrong that I laughed so hard at this? I have seen so many cases where the breast cancer was found by the person’s partner. So, let your lovie touch your boobs. There’s brownies as a reward!
Photo: Frida Marie Grande / Dagbladet
This is a dense post but I hope it is long for the right reasons. I want to add som critical reflections on recent events that have highlighted issues concerning breast cancer, loss of breasts and the increased focus on reconstruction.
Yesterday, women affected by breast cancer, demonstrated in front of the Parliament in Oslo, Norway (photo above). Their uniting slogan was, somewhat bizarrely, “Boob to the people” (Norw. “Pupp til folket”) - what´s not to like? Lifting up their tops, they revealed their mastectomy scars to the public and the media, with the message “These are our scars. What you see, is not our shame” (Norw. “Dette er våre arr. Det du ser, er ikke vår skam”). This demonstration of female defiance is striking, not only because of the spectacular dimension. Baring breasts in protest is part of women´s history, and particularly a feature of political/feminist activism from Sojourner Truth to the outrageous La Cicciolina, and the tabloid favourites Femen, a Ukrainian feminist group (more on this later, I hope).
There is also precedence for showing, not just breasts, but the scars which mark the removal of the breast(s). In 1979 Sheila Metzger was photographed reaching out to the universe and saying yes to life with her one-breasted body. She chose to get a tattoo of a tree branch to “dress” the scar and turn it into something other than the site of a medical trauma.
Sheila Metzger. “Tree”. Photo by Hella Hamid
Another defining moment in the US: the American model Matusckha famously brought much attention to the breast cancer cause when she fronted the cover of the New York Times Magazine in 1993, wearing a long white dress designed to expose the mastectomy scar where her right breast had once been.
In Norway, this year´s Pink Ribbon theme was more efficient time frames for diagnosis, specialist consultation and reconstruction. That reconstruction has now become a political cause, marks a new direction in breast cancer activism. Astonishingly, the diagnostic and curative aspects of this year´s campaign were almost completely drowned out because of the emergence of a new and loud ad hoc group. It was initiated in 2011 by radio presenter Lise Askvik, who had just previously been diagnosed with breast cancer. Media sassy friends of the presenter decided to back up Askvik, demanding reconstructive surgery within one year of a mastectomy.
A Facebook group was set up by this group of resourceful women. It was members within this group, who organised the striking demonstration yesterday. The name of the group expresses a defiant and assertive attitude - “Vi venter fandenmeg ikke på ny pupp etter kreft” (loosely translated as “We´re not bloody well waiting for a new boob after cancer”). Here´s a link to the group: https://www.facebook.com/ventetidpupp
Their argumentation is that it is denigrating to have to wait for anything from 3-5 (in rare cases even 10) years for reconstructive surgery. And the waiting lists are only getting longer, as more and more women are asking to be “reconstructed” and there are not enough plastic surgeons to tackle this mountain of missing breasts in the national health service. The founders, Astrid Gunnestad and Lise Askvik, assert on the group´s FB info sheet that “they take on the fight to heal the traces from the nation´s amputated boobs”. The main message that is being presented is that reconstruction erases the (physical? emotional?) trauma of cancer, a rather simplified, if not dubious claim. (If we take this as truth - what then about the women who turn down reconstruction?) In order to illustrate what they are fighting for, some of the group members post self-portraits, showing their mastectomy scars but not their faces. The breast-less woman becomes the face-less woman. The demonstration in Oslo, does the opposite: it reinstates a sense of subjectivity by giving faces to the bodies that have been marked by cancer.
Facebook subsequently received complaints about the group, apparently from men who felt offended and were worried that children might see the pictures and be traumatised in turn. Somehow, the breast-less women were now categorised as offensive, inserted into the same Facebook censorship protocol as pornography and other sexual/nude/violent content. In 2009, Facebook tried to censor another mastectomy photo, this time posted by a woman in the UK. She complained and finally gained acceptance for her right to show herself, face and torso, bringing breast cancer awareness to the public: http://www.dailymail.co.uk/femail/article-1189143/Facebook-forced-lift-ban-theyd-imposed-breast-cancer-victims-sexual-abusive-mastectomy-scar-photos.html
This new ad hoc campaign signals a significant shift in priority: from a focus on increased research, improved prevention and more effective curative measures - to a consumer-orientated demand for breast-restoration (essentially a cosmetic issue, not one that saves lives). It also meets up with other cultural trends - valuing form over content, body over psyche, the growing intolerance/lack of acceptance for disability, ageing and disease, and an individualistic regime centered on the disciplining and normalisation of the body (conformity through exercise, diet - you can shape your body and ensure your own health through doing all the “right” things). The sentiment is: We do not like to be confronted with other people´s “deficiencies”, because it forces self-reflection upon us, makes us doubt physicality and health as eternal or unchangeable states, makes us face up to our own fragility.
I am in full sympathy with women who have lost one or both breasts to cancer - I realise that the disfigurement and loss is a heavy burden to bear. I also understand that it feels traumatising to be left with scars and an unproportional torso. I understand that one feels the desire to rebuild what has been taken away, to restore a sense of normality. But it also seems to me a bizarre turn of events if reconstruction of the breast is deemed as worthy or more worthy than the fight to beat the disease itself. The main fight is for life, preferably with good medical treatment and medication that doesn´t break down your general health and life quality.
It is paradoxical, I would argue, how this Norwegian Facebook group ends up asserting the offensiveness of mastectomies by implying that life without a breast is such a shocking sight to behold (a terrifying spectacle: “see how horrible I look - no wonder I can´t bear it anymore”). And this, to me, is sad because I think that we could also be fighting for acceptance of this difference, rather than enforcing the view that women who have lost breasts are de facto defective.
It is worth pointing out in this context that it is possible to live a good and full life again and be loved by others with one breast, with even no breasts. Some early feminist breast cancer survivors in fact fought for this cause. Audre Lorde and Sheila Metzger are two prominent figures who argued that the scar could be carried with pride and thought of as a symbol of loss, survival and solidarity with other women who have lost breasts.
And let´s be honest: it is impossible to recreate a breast. The organ is forever lost with a mastectomy. The only thing that plastic surgeons can re-create is the form, the breast shape. The sensitive nipple is more often taken away, replaced by a tattoo. The milk ducts are gone. The nerve connections which contribute to the breast´s erogenous qualities removed. Breast reconstruction, using tissue from the patient´s own body, which is today considered the gold standard, is in itself a serious and invasive surgical procedure which entails risks and pains all of its own. And always present in the life of a breast cancer survivor, with or without new breasts, is the threat of recurrence.
The trauma of losing a breast or having (had) cancer cannot be erased, or replaced by a shape. The scar also reminds the woman that she has sacrificed a part of herself in order to live. It is a painful but existential realisation. It is important that we make room for the woman who has lost a breast, or even both breasts - whether or not she is reconstructed. Her trauma, symbolized by the mastectomy scar, should not be censored. Breast cancer is the most common form of cancer in women. It´s time we found a way to deal with its consequences and show these women some love. And it´s time to talk about loving yourself, to see yourself reflected without feeling shame:
I am no longer afraid of mirrors where I see the sign of the amazon, the one who shoots arrows.
There was a fine red line across my chest where a knife entered,
but now a branch winds about the scar and travels from arm to heart.
Green leaves cover the branch, grapes hang there and a bird appears.
What grows in me now is vital and does not cause me harm. I think the bird is singing.
I have relinquished some of the scars.
I have designed my chest with the care given to an illuminated manuscript.
I am no longer ashamed to make love. Love is a battle I can win.
I have the body of a warrior who does not kill or wound.
On the book of my body, I have permanently inscribed a tree.
by Sheila Metzger
Striking website accompanying a breast cancer awareness and book project, involving portrait photography of young women, whose lives and bodies have been marked by the disease. The photographer, David Jay, explains how women responded to the project:
“For these young women, having their portrait taken seems to represent their personal victory over this terrifying disease. It helps them reclaim their femininity, their sexuality, identity and power after having been robbed of such an important part of it. Through these simple pictures, they seem to gain some acceptance of what has happened to them and the strength to move forward with pride.”
Beautiful birthday gift from my friend, Saffron Tree.