False Breasts

‘False Breasts, Mwinya’, collected by Cambridge anthropologist Gregory Bateson (1932) and exhibited in the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge.

They belonged to the Iatmul people, a large ethnic group of about 10,000 people inhabiting some two-dozen politically autonomous villages along the middle Sepik River in Papua New Guinea

These two gourds are carved and painted to resemble female breasts. They were worn by men who assume female attributes during a naven ritual, when gender roles are temporarily reversed.

Bates developed the concept of schismogenesis, ‘creation of division’, in the 1930s, to account for certain forms of social behavior between groups among the Iatmul people.

He observed how people interacted through competitive relationships (rivalry) and through dominance and submission (men & women). Men would act dominant, leading women to act submissive, to which men responded with more dominance, and so forth.

Bateson realised that when left unchecked, schismogensis would cause Iatmul society simply to break apart. Some social or cultural mechanism was needed by society to maintain social integration. That mechanism among the Iatmul was the naven rite.

During these naven rituals, groups of women and groups of men seemingly inverted their everyday, gendered-norms for dress, behavior, and emotional expression. These temporary role reversals served to correct schismogenesis, enabling the society to endure.


Breasts, Asymmetry & Fashion

Many thanks for all who joined our Breast, Asymmetry & Fashion event (Thursday 24th Oct’19) and our inspiring speakers ; Nina Gerada @ninagerada, Claire Collison @adalodge and  Katy Marks@citizensdesignbureau  A wonderful evening, raising funds for @breastcancerhaven, talking breast and connecting amazing people.
There is an increase in women with an asymmetrical chest after a lumpectomy or a mastectomy without reconstruction. Instead of hiding the scars and asymmetry behind a prosthesis, this event will explore how we could express our asymmetry and embrace the beauty of our new bodies, through an exhibition and a series of short talks.

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


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


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


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