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

ABSENCE

Absence   /ˈabs(ə)ns/

Since losing a breast I have been regularly contemplating the concept of Absence. Something that was but no longer is, does not just vanish, itstays present in our mind and being. It confronts us with a sense of having to do without, a feeling of incompleteness and an itchy inkling that something is missing. And although I’ve come to love my new asymmetry, a sense of absence remains, an ever present nostalgic kind of notion.

Whilst exploring the idea of absence, I found out about Amastia, a rare medical condition wherein the normal growth of the breast never takes place. They are congenitally absent. There is no sign whatsoever of the breast tissue, areola or nipple. Images of these breast-less chests reminded me of fields covered in fresh snow and conjured up an overwhelming sense of innocence and peace… An intuitive reaction illustrating once again the complexity connected to breasts and nipples.

Amastia can appear unilateral (one sided) and bilateral (both sides).

Amazia is a similar condition, wherein breast tissue is absent but here the nipples are present.

A rather poetic early description of Amastia can be found in the bible : “We have a little sister, and she hath no breasts

(Song of Solomon VIII:8).

Anna Versteeg

Mothers Day

As I, the Mother, have an ‘obsession’ with Breasts, and my son Finn an obsession with good Food, we decided to combine the two for some mothers day action;

I retrieved an ‘anatomical-breast-section-cookie-cutter’ from my Curious Breast Collection and Finn set out to produce some gluten and dairy free specimens. The cutter posed some serious challenges but as ‘ never give up’ is our family motto, he produced some beautiful biscuits with a ‘hint of citrus and whiff of vanilla’.

Whilst visiting our artist friends Tszman @zimachan and Antonio @antonionodar in Galicia (Spain) a few weeks ago, we spotted a white & blue ceramic beer pump in an old café in Santiago de Compostela; a female bust in a deep blue and brilliant white, both her breasts emphasized by a typical Galician pattern (reminding us of radiation warning signs). A beautiful example of  Galician Sargadelos Ceramics (since 1806).

As many of our friends are bemused by my interest in breasts, Tszman and Antonio were keen for us to sample another typical Galician product, the Tetilla cheese. Made from local cows milk, it’s flavour is creamy and slightly salty, with a fine texture and a yellowish ivory colour, but undoubtedly its greatest characteristic is the peculiar breast-like shape that gives it its name (small breast).

And Miki @mikithlowe, who was recently working in Madrid, introduced me to Tetilles de Monja, petite breast shaped biscuits, apparently resembling ‘ nuns breasts’.

Whilst on the other side of the globe, Australian ice cream company Gelato Messina has designed breast shaped ice creams to accompany a short film titled Lick Lick Blink by Australian artist Willoh S.Weiland. The performance hopes to explore cinema as a social space, and wants to leave you with lingering questions about gender and representation. The ice creams themselves aim to encourage viewers to consider how they consume women’s bodies on screen – in this case via a very literal consumption. Lick Lick Blink will be screened at the Museum of Contemporary Art, Sidney until June’19.

Anna Versteeg

Breast Academic Event

Thank you to King George Hospital, BHR University Hospitals, for inviting us to their Breast Academic Away Day this week. An enlightening event with an array of speakers providing us with insights into the world of breast cancer, surgery, pathology, radiology, nursing and more.

When I presented the BBookproject, I felt like a ‘velvet berry’ amongst the ‘white coats’; illustrating, with an eclectic series of references, how Science and Medicine as well as Art and Culture play a pivotal role in our perception and experience of Body, Health and Wellbeing.

With BBookproject’s interdisciplinary and inclusive approach we intend to trigger people’s curiosity and inspire them to see beyond debilitating standards of visual perfection and medical fear.

The presentation was well received and we were even rewarded with the Certificate for Winner of the Best Presentation…!!!

Apart from great Talks and a delicious Lunch, it was the Quiz that brought out the competitive spirit. Although I was obviously not able to shed any light on the pathology and MRI imaging questions, when it came to naming all the women pictured on the front of the programme I felt more in my element; from Mary Anning (English fossil collector and palaeontologist, Dorset, England 1799-1847) to Sheryl Crow ( American musician, singer-songwriter), from Frances Burney ( English novelist, first to describe first hand her mastectomy, 1812, without anaesthetic !) to Angelina Jolie (American actress, filmmaker, and humanitarian), all these women have been affected by breast cancer.

A big thank you again to all at St George Hospital, for tirelessly helping women and men with Breast related issues, and their commitment to continued improvement of procedures, prevention and care, even in the current climate of debilitating cuts and savings.

Anna Versteeg

TITS UP

 

 

Indu Harikumar, Mumbai based Indian artist and story teller, has been working on a breast related art project called “IDENTITTY” since Jan’19. The artist, who has already instigated several projects exploring sexuality, gender and body image issues, developed this idea from an Instagram conversation she had with a large breasted woman who complained about how men only seem to see her big boobs whilst the artist herself has always felt inadequate because of her flat chest.

Harikumar posted on Instagram asking women to proudly share their breast stories and send a colour image of their bust for her to turn into paintings. They could choose whether to be painted naked or dressed in “a bra, lace, fabric, sheer, flowers, henna…” and whether to appear with their faces visible or concealed. The responses from across India have been overwhelming.

She is not only changing the narrative around breasts with her paintings  but also starting significant conversations by putting social media to its best use. All within a still largely conservative society where women are expected to dress modestly, only the very daring might show some cleavage, which makes the project even more exciting and provocative.

So it’s hard to believe that until 1924 a Breast Tax (Mulakkaram) was imposed on lower caste Indian women in Travancore ( Kerala) if they wanted to cover their breasts ! I first heard about this tax during one of Claire Collison’s wonderful “Intimate Breast Tours”. These women were not allowed to wear clothes covering their upper body in public. The law stemmed from Travancore’s tradition of baring the breast as a symbol of respect to higher-status women who would cover their chest. It has been claimed that a woman called Nangeli cut off her breasts when the tax collector came, instead of giving him the money, in an effort to protest the caste-based breast tax. Although Nangeli died the same day, the breast tax was abolished soon after.

From small to big, veiny to hairy, fake to pierced, lets rejoice in our boobs, free from shame and stigma, objectification, harassment or censorship.

So here’s to a Tits Up for all boobs.

Anna Versteeg

Knitted Knockers

This week I received the most delightful pair of ‘knitted knockers’ in the post. As a one-breasted woman I like to wear a prosthesis every now and then, but the silicon ones the hospital provided me with irritate my skin. It was only recently put to my attention that the charity www.knittedknockersuk.com provide bespoke soft cotton ones free of charge to women who have had mastectomies or lumpectomies,“made with love and filled with hope”.

I put in an order and within 3 weeks received these beautiful boobs, knitted specially for me by another woman. The connection between women over boobs is very powerful. These knitted specimen say so much more than pages of words could do. I’m very moved and grateful.

Like many creative processes, knitting not only requires us to learn and repeat basic skills, but also to be curious and explore variations on those `stitches’. “There are two kinds of women: those who knit and those who unravel…” (Stephanie Danler – the Paris Review Sept 8, 2015). Knitting becomes a metaphor for life itself ; We can live to connect to the other, or to unravel. Sometimes the unravelled is fixable. Sometimes not. “I knit socks because in each and every stitch, every pattern, every turn there is a lesson. Or a memory. Just like life”.(mary-mann.blogspot.com/2013/04)

And according to the Mayo Clinic, seniors who engage in knitting seem 30-50% less likely to have a ‘mild cognitive impairment’ than those who don’t.

Many lactation consultants still use knitted breasts as visual aids. In 2010 the Somerset Mothers’ Union was commissioned by the NHS to knit fake breasts to be handed to health visitors and community nurses, to help new mums learn techniques and how to cope with breast feeding complaints. The Lactation Consultants of Great Britain https://www.lcgb.org have ‘Knitted Breast The Pattern’ available on their website for downloading.

The ladies volunteering for  “Life For African Mothers” (Making Birth safer in sub-saharan Africa) make midwifery training sets which comprise not only of knitted breasts but also knitted placentas and wombs… !  Patterns anyone ? (www.lifeforafricanmothers.org)

Anna Versteeg

Nippled Collection memoir2

I grew up in Holland in the sixties without central heating, when on early winter mornings frosty lacework would grace the single glazed windows. Me and my siblings had to entertain ourselves in the downstairs living room until my mother would wake up and light the coal fire.

On one such crisp cold morning, I left the younger ones playing their games and decided to make a collage. I loved making things. Wrapped in a thick terry cloth bathrobe and armed with scissors and a large pot of glue I attacked a pile of old magazines. Before long this eight-year-old girl becamemesmerized by the bare breasts she found in one of them. I still don’t really understand why my strictly protestant parents who had zero tolerance towards sex before marriage allowed such a magazine within reach of their kids, but I cut out any breast I could find and started organizing my nippled collection into a beautiful spiral.

So engrossed in my quest, I hadn’t heard my mum coming down… A red glow took hold of my cheeks when she asked “What are YOU doing…?” I sensed a mix of curiosity and disapproval in her voice. “SILLY girl….”. While she was rakingthe ashes from the fire, I slipped behind her, scrunching up the unfinished and suddenly so highly embarrassing piece of work with my cold fingers. I stuffed the crumpled remains deep down in the small bin next to the harmonium, safely hidden under the rubbish of previous days.

I didn’t dare look my mum in the eyes at breakfast that morning and prayed she wouldn’t tell my dad. I was relieved when the clock’s big arm reached quarter past eight, time to get my coat and escape to school. On my way out it was with sadness I noticed that the accumulating heat of the coal fire was melting away the last ‘ice flowers’ on the windows.

Anna Versteeg

FOOD

Unlike any other organ, the breast does most of its development well after birth, having to fully build itself from scratch during puberty. And then, if a woman is pregnant, the breast constructs and deconstructs again under the influence of pregnancy hormones, when the glands grow milk-producing structures.

Due to this sensitivity to hormonal change, breasts are an easy ‘target’ for environmental toxins and chemical compounds, which often imitate hormones such as oestrogen.

After I was diagnosed with an oestrogen receptive breast cancer and had a mastectomy, I wanted to make a positive change to my lifestyle and started looking into preventative health. I realised that a healthy diet would be a good first step. But nutritional information is a minefield of contradictions and it took me a lot of research and confidence to decide what works for me.

Reports on possible links between dairy consumption and breast cancer contradict each other, but I understood that hormones found in full milk fat could be connected with the role that oestrogen can play in the development and reoccurrence of breast cancer.

I also learnt that although milk is the ideal food for infants, as people get older many lose their ability to digest it fully and dairy can cause our bodies to become acidified.

Nobel Laureate Otto Warburg already demonstrated in the 1930s that alkalised bodies are healthy oxygenated bodies, opposed to acidic bodies, which are prone to degeneration and oxygen deprivation (which can contribute to the promotion of diseases such as cancer).

To achieve an optimal, more alkaline environment, I decided to cut out dairy and wheat and stick to a mainly plant based diet with some fish. I prefer to take my dietary fat from sources like avocados and olive oil rather than from milk.

The Thai artist Pinaree Sanpitak’s approach to food is much more poetic and light hearted than mine though; With her Breast Stupa Cookery project (2005-ongoing) Sanpitak simply asks people all over the world to use the breast stupa shaped cooking moulds made in cast aluminium and glazed terracotta to produce edible creations. ‘Food becomes the medium of connection and hopefully can mend and blur all boundaries’. (see photos above)

I learnt a lot about food at the Breast Cancer Haven, which provides free complementary therapies including Nutritional Therapy for anyone affected by breast cancer and runs Healthy Fast Food Workshops. www.breastcancerhaven.org.uk

The Hello Beautiful Foundation is a UK based Cancer prevention charity which highlights the benefits of living a healthy Non-Toxic Lifestyle, an experience that starts with mindfulness and extends into nutrition and social responsibility. www.hellobeautiful.org

 

 

 

 

 

 

Body Image

 

Doctor Henri de Mondeville wrote in his Cyrurgia (1306-1320) ; “Some women, unable or unwilling to resort to a surgeon, or not wanting to reveal their indecency, make in their chemises two sacks proportioned to their breasts, but shallow, and they put them on every morning, and compress them as much as they can with a suitable bandage. Others, like the women of Montpellier, compress them with tight tunics and laces…”

As the common medieval ideal of female beauty was pert, modestly sized breasts, (a slim body and a rounded belly), some women with larger breasts would bind them to reduce their size as not to be judged as ‘indecent’ as de Mondeville puts it… So already 700 years ago women felt pressurised into altering their body to conform to an idealised image.

And of course perceptions regarding the ideal female body and breast keep changing as well ;

The pert, apple shaped breast ideal of the late Medieval – Renaissance times (1300-1600 AD) changed into a more rounded and voluptuous one in Baroque times (1600-1750 AD), expressing wealth and status.

The Venus of Willendorf, a small limestone female figurine ( 25,000BC) found in 1908 in  Austria, depicts a voluptuous body with curved hips and large breasts, idealising the female figure and suggesting a strong connection to fertility.  In contrast,  but following in this Neolithic tradition, the later marble figurines from the Cyclades, Greece (3300-1100 BC) are much more elongated and angular, with small sculpted undulations for breasts.

I was intrigued when I found the above photo ; Black Rapport Day by The Neo-Naturists. This performance art group, founded in 1981, sat outside mainstream culture  and used the body as their canvas. The Neo-Naturists performances were very much body positive ; the body was celebrated instead of shaped to conform. (Studio Voltaire, London, Neo-Naturists exhibition 2016)

Anna Versteeg