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Baring it Our Way

Women reclaim their bodies in breast calendar

story by Rebecca Kendall
Ontarion, April 4, 2002

Sue Richards had no idea how much controversy she would stir up by attempting to raise breast health awareness. After discovering that neither she, nor her doctor knew how to properly administer a proper breast examination, and the fact that one in nine Canadian women will be affected by breast cancer, her ultimate aim was to teach women about the importance of proper self- examination in a whimsical and non- threatening manner. What she produced was a wall calendar titled 'Breast of Canada' that contains artistic nude photos of natural unenhanced female breasts, bits of breast trivia, pertinent medical information, poetry, and poignant quotes. This in turn produced a wider controversy and Richards soon learned that not everyone understands her vision or intent.

"It didn't cross my mind that I was going to be challenged by this calendar," says Richards. "I thought people own them or like them, or both, so this should be really easy." Her journey has been anything but easy. After spending eight months putting the 28-page calendar together, running up a $70,000 debt to independently finance the project, and taking on the difficult task of finding a charitable breast health organization who would agree to accept profits from the calendar, she was faced with outrage from certain sections of society. "It was absolutely shocking to me when I started to get responses like 'It's pornographic', 'It's controversial', or 'Where would I hang it'," says Richards. "When I would send the calendar for review or as part of my application to sell and retail at [breast cancer awareness] events that 's when I would get the return call saying 'Sorry you can't sell it here'."

Ironically Guelph is the same city where Gwen Jacob pushed the envelope and convinced the Ontario Appeal Court that it is not a criminal offense for women to go topless on Ontario beaches, streets and in public parks. Over five years later, Richards' calendar has people thinking about the appropriateness of bare breasts once again. The volume of hits on her website is proof positive that people are talking. In a society where sexualized images of women are easy to come by, why do some people find non-sexualized images of breasts offensive? "Part of the problem has a great deal to do with the way in which women's bodies are seen," offers U of G's Women's Resource Centre volunteer co-ordinator Barbara Mioly. "We're either being displayed as objects of desire and/or ownership, or in connection with reproduction and production." In order to grow as an informed society, Mioly suggests we make efforts to deconstruct the notions of nakedness equaling provacativeness and realize this calendar is a rare example of women taking ownership over how their bodies are displayed. "My perception is that people have not stopped to deconstruct what we have been fed, we have become a group of lazy citizens who will not stand up and say this is art. This is not pornography. How many people actually stop to inform themselves of the difference between pornography and art?" asks Mioly. "Artistic expression comes from within the individual or individuals who wish to express something to the world of life, of art, of things beyond the mundane. So they cause us to think, perhaps to look critically, which I feel this calendar does." Richards, along with photographer Melanie Gillis and graphic designer Gareth Lind, published 13 fine art photos of females aged 18 to 58 shot from neck to navel in various poses ranging from a mother breast-feeding her son, to a woman standing next to a bust of her bust, and three women paddling. "In the moments when women choose to present their bodies and produce images of our choosing, that are our way of seeing ourselves, rather than being the object of someone's gaze is at this point still, and I have to say I find it horrifying that it is still, inconceivable," explains Mioly. Dealing with different responses has become a study of human behaviour and psychology of sorts for Richards. She finds it interesting that the range of emotions has been expressed in such opposing extremes. "It's got to be what that person brings into that notion of what they're seeing," explains Richards. "So what are their parents' attitudes, what kinds of cultural attitudes are they bringing to the picture, what kind of gender attitudes are they bringing to the picture, what happened to them, what's their life story and why is it that they look at it and go 'That's pornographic', and somebody else bursts into tears and tells me that this is the most amazing piece of art that they've ever seen in their life."

Although sales of the calendar have been low, with only 4,000 of a possible 20,000 have been sold, Richards still feels that this project has been a success, at least from an artistic standpoint. "As an artist, what it tells me is 'Bingo you've hit the nail on the head', because it's implied that good art will arouse emotional action and response so I'm definitely getting an emotional action and response, and because I'm getting it very extreme on both sides of the coin. I'm quite delighted by that as the artist. As the entrepreneur there's a bit of a problem here," admits Richards. "Artist Sue had a lot of say in this calendar and decisions made on artistic merit were not excellent business decisions," although her practical side will take the lead in the next offering. The Canadian Breast Cancer Network has already agreed to accept net proceeds from a 2003 version, however in order for Richards to go ahead with the task, she needs to pre-sell 2000 copies. No transactions will be processed until its completion, but she will at least have an idea of public interest in her work. For the next edition, which will promote the theme of increased physical activity to decrease chances of getting breast cancer, she plans to reduce the size of the calendar from 12" X 14" to the standard 12" X 12" to lower overhead cost, as well as reduce the retail price to $19.95 to appeal to a wider consumer base. Gillis will also be pulling the camera back to create shots that are less breast heavy and more activity based. "We're hoping that the inclusion of a basketball or swimming fins or whatever we are photographing on the model will help to soften the effect a little bit for the individual so it's not so 'in your face'." She won't pull back too far however because ultimately this is an educational tool and she doesn't want to create a completely new product. "How are we going to learn about them if we can't look at them?" asks Richards. "Part of breast health is the detailed examination both physically and visually of your breasts. So once again if you can't look at them how can you take care of them?"

-- Ontarion Student Newspaper Room 264, University Centre University of Guelph N1G 2W1 Ph: (519) 824-4120 x8265 Fax: (519) 824-7838