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September 23, 2004

Breast of Canada calendar gets popular

AMY BROWN-BOWERS
GUELPH MERCURY

Sue Richards is astounded by the number of people willing to take their clothes off for a cause.

There were 17 models in her first controversial calendar featuring topless women, published to raise awareness for breast health.

But there are 70 models in the 2005 edition.

"We seem to be getting more models than we can use now," Richards said.

Support has changed drastically from the first edition when Richards experienced a backlash from people who considered it pornographic. She had trouble giving copies away.

The first Breast of Canada calendar, in 2002, also left her $50,000 in debt.

The 2002 freebies, however, eventually garnered enough interest that people started pre-paying for the 2003 edition.

Richards also hooked up with the Canadian Breast Cancer Network, which helps promote the project and receives any proceeds in return.

The network acts as a national link between groups and individuals concerned about breast cancer.

The 2005 Breast of Canada calendar depicts topless woman and men, along with their children, including breast-feeding babies.

The main aim of the calendar is to make people breast aware and to challenge people's notions of what is normal, natural and healthy about breasts and breast health.

Local fine art photographer Melanie Gillis takes most of the photos.

Aimée Charbonneau, 24, is one of the 2005 models. Her desire to be part of the project had nothing to do with breast cancer and everything to do with self-affirmation.

"It was a really amazing experience," she said.

"It was totally nerve-racking," she said. "We were all sitting there . . . It's a bit of an awkward thing."

Charbonneau said Gillis was amazing, ensuring her subjects felt comfortable. When she was ready to start taking pictures she said to the women, "OK! I think we need to see some boobs."

Gillis said it's important when shooting nudes to allay the subject's nervousness and turn it into excitement about the experience.

"All of a sudden I was in a room with 32 breasts of all sizes," Gillis said, who found it "a little overwhelming in quite a nice way."

While no one walked in and whipped their shirt off at the beginning, no one rushed to cover up at the end. "How do you put that in words . . . it's a really awkward thing . . . but you realize how completely natural it is," Charbonneau said. "I felt very empowered by it."

Richards has also been empowered by being around so much toplessness. It made her feel more comfortable in her own skin.

"I didn't realize how hung-up I was about myself until I realized how un- hung-up I am now," she said.

While she doesn't go around thinking she's the most marvelous creature on the face of the earth, Richards does feel happy as she is. "I'm fine, I'm doing just fine, I look just fine," she said.

Richards stopped wearing a bra about a year ago as an extension of her relaxed self-confidence.

She said breast health is about way more than self-examinations in the shower. It's about "our sense of our breasts, our shame or lack of shame about our bodies."

Gillis said there's a big difference between acceptance of your body and appreciation for it. Part of her job as a photographer is to make her subjects feel good about their bodies because it comes through in the prints.

"You have to keep them feeling beautiful the whole time," she said.

Richards likes to think that her calendar is communicating the message: love your breasts, love what you've got, or what you've not got.

This is the third year that women have appeared in the calendar who have had mastectomies, but October 2005 is the most startling shot they've ever used. There is a full frontal photograph of a woman with deep lateral scars where her breasts used to be.

This is also the first year that Richards has included so many different artists' work. She held a photo contest and has included nine of the 100 submissions in the 2005 calendar, either as main art for the months or secondary photographs.

February is one of the photo contest winners. Olivia Brown's work shows a woman lying on her back in the snow making an angel. The subject has an exuberant look of pleasure -- or possibly pain -- on her face, perhaps because she's topless in -20 C weather.

Richards is aware of the controversial nature of her calendar. "Good art is when people hate it and love it," she said. Richards never expected people to have kind and gentle things to say. That has never been the point.

If people are offended by it, at least she's got their attention.

"More conversation means less silence," Richards said. "This alone will save lives."

Richard isn't about to stop.

She already has about five months completed for the 2006 calendar and is hoping to have it in her hands by the end of March 2005. This gives her enough time to ship them to the distributors around the world that sell her calendar.

The calendar, which is now in stores, sells for $19.95. The annual calendar launch is Oct. 1, 7 p.m., at the Guelph Youth Music Centre. Tickets are five dollars. For information or to purchase a calendar contact Sue Richards at (519)767-0142.