Diversity of the Breast Catwalk Show

 

The ‘Diversity of the Breast Catwalk Show’ yesterday at club Vout O Reenees was a great success. Rachel of Buttress and Snatch organised this unique event, with young, mature, full breasted, small breasted, one breasted bodies doing the catwalk in a range of imaginative lingerie. A hugely inspiring event, with an artificially breasted DJ who kept us dancing all night long…

The Unobra, developed for single breasted women was modelled during the show as well and managed to go viral on social media as soon as the first picture was posted, check it out on www.unibra.co.uk

This was a truly important event, celebrating diversity, empowering all involved and inspiring all supporters and visitors.

An impressive £ 700 was raised for Breast Cancer Haven !

The Unliberated Breast

Breast-feeding Screens  I was at Ikea this week with my 18year old son, who will be flying the nest to move into his student flat. Whilst sampling some of Ikea’s finest gravlax and cinnamon buns, I spotted this curved screen at the end of the restaurant sporting a snazzy logo ‘nursing area’.

I imagined myself 17 years back, breastfeeding this same son who now towers over me;  Would I want to remove myself from the table and hide myself behind a screen to feed him? NO, I would want to sit at that table and talk to my friends whilst nursing. I was shocked to realise that nursing mothers are still asked to remove themselves from the social, public context and make themselves invisible.

It made we think of Black Breastfeeding Week , celebrated for the first time in the UK last month (25th – 31st August) and a post I read on @theunsungheroines about the history of breastfeeding trauma which has passed down through generations. The terror, oppression and gendered dehumanization of black slave women in the past may still be hindering breastfeeding in the black community ;

A lot of slave babies died during slavery because they weren’t breast-fed. Mothers were forced to breast-feed their white oppressors baby’s whilst their own babies were fed on concoctions of dirty water and cows milk. The system of slavery functioned by removing all agency from black bodies.

When will our breasts finally be liberated from oppression and convention?

Anna Versteeg

BBC Listening Project

On Monday this week I was invited to join the wonderful Claire Collison (artist, poet, writer) in conversation, recorded at BBC Cambridgeshire by the brilliant Kerry Devine as part of the Listening Project by BBC Radio4 & the British Library.

Two single breasted women talking about asymmetry, shifting norms, friendship and all things breast…

Claire contacted me at bbookproject  earlier this year as she felt we were kindred spirits. We first met at 5th Feb, which we later realised is the Day of St Agatha , the patron saint of breastcancer patients, who lost her breasts as a torture punishment for refusing to marry this Roman prefect.

Claire and I  haven’t stopped talking since.  Our recorded conversation will  be broadcast early 2020, as Claire noted, a very symmetrical year.

Anna Versteeg

CENSORED

This image was recenly removed from the bbookproject Instagram account. I tried to argue it was a work of art but to no avail.

I was intrigued when I found this piece hanging in the toilet of the headquarters of the fabulous manifestowoman.com

Founder Sally Emslie told me she bought the work of Sigurros Eidsdottir, who found a stack of 70ies lesbian porn and used it as part of her art graduation work at Central St Martin’s London.

For me the diamontied nipples make the image very playful and provide an interesting commentry on the original ‘porn’. I find it disappointing that we can’t have these conversations without being censored.

Paper Porn series 2015. Collages on paper with found imagery and diamonties by Sigurros Eidsdottir
Anna Versteeg

ANNA ANNA

29th July’19  Today it is 10 years ago that I had a mastectomy and started out on my one breasted a-symmetrical life…

Today it is 9 years ago, that my brother had a star registered and named after me, to celebrate one year after BC ; the star is called ANNA ANNA…twice my name…emphasising that with all my imperfections and vulnerabilities,  I still can shine bright.

“How interesting ; ‘Anna Anna’ symmetry, circular-ness and doubleness…like breasts…if words were breasts would they be   ANNA ANNA ?”  Nina Gerada

“You’re a star and a palindrome! Asymmetrical love,xxx”                   Claire Collison ( one breasted too)

“…when my sister died, we named a star after her. It’s called ZORUMA (Zoe Ruth Marks) in the constellation of Cassiopeia. I love it.               Katie Marks

With love and gratitude to Nico, Wilma & Len

 

Nipples United

Whatever gender we are or identify with, a woman (cis/trans), a man (cis/trans), a non-binary individual, we all have Nipples.

In early fetal stages, all embryo’s are equipped with nipples. After an embryo is conceived, it is kitted out to become either sex, male or female. This is called it’s Bipotential State. During the first six weeks, certain pre-organ structures are laid down, including two parallel milk ridges. Born of ancient genes and common to all mammals, these ridges run up and down the length of the torso. If the fetus inherits female XX genes and the process unfolds in the expected way, then oestrogen will turn the primitive plumbing into a female reproductive tract. If the foetus inherits male XY genes, testosterone will inhibit that progression. But the nipples remain. ( from ‘Breasts, a natural and unnatural history’ by Florence Williams)

The nipple is at the center portion of the breast, and in females is linked to the mammary glands where milk is produced during pregnancy. The areola is the darker colored area surrounding the nipple. The little bumps around your nipples are hair follicles, which both men and women have. (I have been plucking nipple hair since my teens).

Nipples can be flat, protruding, inverted or a combination of these nipple types. The size of women’s nipples apparently varies much more greatly between individuals than the size of men’s nipples. (Medical News Today 30June2018 By Maria Cohut).

Also the colour of nipple and areola can differ greatly. Although according to Jane Sharp, a 17th Century midwife who wrote the Midwives Book or the Whole Art of Midwifery, “Nipples are red after Copulation, red as a Strawberry, and that is their Natural colour”. (from ‘Whores of Yore’, a curious history of Sex).

Some people are born with two nipples on one areola, Bifurcated Nipple, and some have Supernumerary Nipples, a condition where further nipples have developed anywhere else on the body. Supernumerary nipples, and less frequently supernumerary breasts, seem to be present in about 1-5 percent of the population. These alterations are more common in women, usually occurring along the embryonic milk line, which extends from the axilla to the groin.

But then I read about a 22 year old woman, who had developed a well formed nipple with areola on the sole of her left foot, with proper breast tissue and all. Such unusual and rare cases of Supernumary breast tissue are also known as Pseudomamma, (from Dermatology Online Journal 2006 www.escholarship.org).

French Artist Claude Cahun seems to use the nipple as a device to question gender in the above image. Born Lucy Schwob in early 20th-century France, she decided to call herself Claude Cahun, in France a name which can refer to either a man or woman. Ambiguity was her tool, her way of exploring gender and sexual norms through her photography and writing. “Masculine? Feminine?” she wrote in one of her books,“It depends on the situation. Neuter is the only gender that always suits me”.

Anna Versteeg

 

Female Nudes

FEMALE NUDES

It was long after I drew a nude self-portrait in front of the mirror that I realised why that drawing felt a bit awkward ; the bust was missing its right breast whilst I lost my left one ; I had been drawing my mirror image.

The female nude is one of the great traditions of western painting. I don’t think that the women in these paintings are typically nude because it makes sense for the narratives in which they’re depicted, but rather that their nudity is arranged by and for the (presumably) male spectator.

In his seminal book ‘Ways of Seeing’, John Berger points out that this entire system of gender relations is founded on a huge instance of hypocrisy: it presumes that the (male) spectator is a subjective individual, while denying the (female) subject any individual agency.

Berger states that from earliest childhood women have been taught and persuaded to survey themselves continually. “Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” “Men act” whilst “Women appear“.

This inequality and pressure on women is tangible all around us, just look at advertising, social media and reality TV. I wonder how we could use our ‘surveying skills’ in a more empowering way then for pleasing others and conforming to expectations.

Standing naked in front of that mirror, I had stopped doing anything else. I had halted my brain from joining the dots and making assumptions. I was surveying the moment and my reflection. With our clothes removed we cannot lie. I had created a space to explore my lopsidedness ; the damage and the wholeness.  I was not doing this for anyone else but myself.

Drawing from life is a subtle, acute and thoughtful engagement with – and understanding of ourselves and the world around us. It makes us focus on the real beauty that is, not what is expected.

Women drawing female nudes, self-portrait or modelled, are addressing the classic duplicity of the old masters and inspire us to observe and focus on real beauty. Stop, look and listen…

Anna Versteeg

Female Figureheads & Bare Breasts

Every profession has it’s customs and superstitions, but mariners seem to have more than their fair share.

An old sailing superstition was that women on board ships were considered bad luck. However if the women were naked, they were considered good luck ; Mariners believed that a naked women before the ship had the power to calm gales and high winds and for this reason many a ship’s figurehead took the shape of a woman with one or two bare breasts.

Images of women have always played an important role in sailors lives. The Phoenicians, Egyptians and Romans already carved and painted female symbols on their vessels to protect them at sea.

The practice of figurehead carving reached it’s height during the 19th century. Images of Greek and Roman goddesses and other women became popular subjects for ship carvers. To the end of the century, it became common practice for a ship owner to commission a figurehead with the likeness of his wife or daughter.

Beginning of this year (2019), the restored wooden figurehead from the Royal Navy ship HMS Arethusa (1849) has been Grade II listed on the advice of Historic England. This figurehead is a rare survivor of the Crimean War and seen as an important symbol of Britain’s maritime heritage.

HMS Arethusa was named after a sea nymph from Greek mythology who fled her home in Arcadia under the sea and came up as a fresh water fountain in Sicily.

This wooden figurehead was carved by James Hellyer and Sons of London and Portsmouth, who had a long tradition as ships’ carvers. The  3.5 metre high painted female bust, wearing an early Victorian period dress,  has her right breast exposed, ready to calm any storm at sea…

Anna Versteeg

Breasts & Beards

Whilst in Wales for Easter last weekend, I couldn’t resist revisiting Plas Newydd, the home of the celebrated Ladies of Llangollen.

In 1778, Sarah Ponsonby ( 1755-1831) and Lady Eleanor Butler ( 1739-1829) finally managed, after a few unsuccessful attempts, to escape (dressed as men) from their ‘miserable’ domestic (upper class conservative) circumstances. They left Ireland and after some touring settled in the scenic Llangollen area. Their aim was to live in retirement from society, a fashionable ideal promoted by Rousseau and other French natural philosophers in the time. The couple became an added curiosity to the attractions of the area and regularly received celebrity visitors including royalty, artists, writers, politicians and rich industrialists.

Inspired by the romantic and picturesque landscape in which they lived, and taking delight in things more obscure and folkloric, the Ladies set out to ‘gothicize’ their house. Whilst many of their contemporaries replaced the heavily carved oak of past times with more delicate designs, reflecting the elegance of the new Georgian and Regency style, the Ladies gratefully received  the discarded woodwork, which arrived by cartloads at their home.

This mass of architectural salvage and dismantled furniture was assembled into a glorious patchwork of richly carved oak, surrounding windows, doorways and fireplaces and enveloping hallway and stairs to an overwhelming sculptural effect.

It was in this wood panelling that I noticed some of the figures simultaneously sporting a moustache and pronounced breasts…the clear sexual identification of the female Caryatides and the male Atlantes, adaptations of classical architectural features popular in 16thcentury woodwork, seemed to have unravelled and fused here.

This reminded me of the painting by Neapolitan artist Jusepe de Ribera, depicting local celebrity Magdalena Ventura, also known as La mujer Barbuda (the bearded woman), breastfeeding her baby (1631).

Ventura crossed gender boundaries and defied norms. We might hail her as an advocate of gender fluidity, but in those days she must have been more of a freak, judged and ridiculed, at best a curious anomaly at odds with the idealized image of the lactating Virgin. But instead of being depicted as a monstrosity, like the bearded ladies in Victorian freak shows, Ribera paints her as a strong human being and gives her a tender dignity. The artist paints what he sees without judgement ; a mother who happens to have a beard. She is unique, aren’t we all?

Harmaan Kaur is a modern day Ventura, holding the world record as the youngest woman to have a full beard.After enduring years of bullying, Kaur has turned herself into a body confidence advocate, model and Instagram star, upending gender norms and beauty standards as she goes. At 12 she had been diagnosed with polycystic ovaries, causing thick facial hair. After years of torturous waxing and threading in beauty parlours, she decided at 16 and at her lowest point, to embrace her facial hair.

Amongst the abundance of stereotypical female breasts in the Ladies’ woodcarvings, which come in all kind of curious shapes and forms, I most enjoyed the ones where convention was challenged, where liberated from gendered expectations, I could just enjoy what was there.

The Ladies themselves challenged convention and left everyone guessing regarding the nature of their ‘friendship’, was it platonic or were they lovers? Does it matter? What matters is that they followed their own dreams and determined their own lives!

Anna Versteeg

JEWELLERY

I was very fortunate to be introduced to the anthropologist  Caitlin Samsworth  and her brilliant  dissertation on ‘Breast Milk Jewellery’. (caitlinsamsworth@hotmail.com)

Jewellery is a common accessory which people have used globally and throughout history to mark and symbolise aspects of their lives; “ engagement rings symbolise love, weddings bands signify commitment and medals represent courage”.

Breastmilk jewellery is made bespoke from a small amount of the client’s freeze dried breast milk, set in clear resin and shaped into beads or ‘stones’ which form the base of the piece of jewellery.

By commissioning such a piece of jewellery, women mark the transition from the pregnant body, via breastfeeding back to ‘normal’. These objects can also help to deal with the loss experienced when breastfeeding has finished. “The liquid is made into solid, the process into tangibility, the finite into infinite and the experience into memory”.

Samsworth notes that breastfeeding represents a liminal stage and that  breastmilk jewellery makes memories of that period tangible, not only giving them some kind of permanence but also providing recognition for the mother’s efforts ; there is a general lack of recognition that breast feeding is heavily affected by the social environment. It’s not a simple action existing independently from any wider context; it requires a lot of personal effort and navigation around obstacles.

It was not only the fascinating concept of breast milk jewellery that intrigued me, Samsworth’s work also sheds some light on the roots of the negative perception around breast-feeding in the public realm. When breast milk crosses the boundary between domestic (female) and public (male) space it challenges social order and expectations regarding the female body.

She argues that in the phallocentric West the breast has become one of the ultimate signs of femininity (fetishized and objectified). Whilst the ideal maternal identity (Virgin mother with Jesus at her breast) is associated with breast-feeding, the breast itself is a highly sexualised body part. The lactating breast therefore challenges notions of ‘sexiness’and creates a paradox.

In the same way breastmilk jewellery marks the act of breast-feeding, the beautiful silver jewellery Vladislavna Jewellery recently designed for the BBookproject, marks the loss of a breast and celebrates the remaining one.

Anna Vladislavna, St-Petersburg,   Instagram ; vladislavna_jewellery       www.vladislavna.com  

Photography @milesleydude & Art Direction @studiomacki