A vast majority – 90% to be precise – are likely to fall into the category of not being very happy with their breasts.
Clearly, this is a problem. It’s one that filmmaker Meagan Murphy set out to explore – the relationship we have with our boobs, and why we don't love them as much as we should. Her motto is: 'activating inner wisdom through storytelling'.
Her film, The Breast Archives, comes out in Autumn. It's an hour-long film featuring nine interviews with women ranging from all walks of life from a minister to a sex therapist.
Here, she answers questions around the project as part of our Conversation Changers campaign.
What inspired you to take on the project, and what was your aim with it?
Like most women, I grew up lamenting my physical imperfections. When it came to my breasts, my self-judgement was especially critical, perhaps because I developed early and was larger than my sisters or peers.
A few years ago a doctor friend mentioned to me that 90% of all women are unhappy with their breasts. Although I knew I was part of that percentage, the magnitude of the number stunned me.
Then one day a small jar of “breast balm” came by mail from an herbalist friend. Her note simply read, “Apply to breasts.” I initially dismissed it, but when I finally gave it a try, a surprising tenderness washed through me. This simple act of gentle self-care seemed to open a channel for self-love. Every woman should have this balm, I thought.
Soon after I went to Egypt and saw towering, topless figures of goddesses and ancient matriarchs. Obviously, the this ancient civilization felt very differently about breasts than western women do today, and I felt a strong gut feeling that there is real wisdom to be gained from a deeper inquiry into the breasts.
I returned home to New England utterly convinced of this, and soon launched The Breast Archives documentary as an examination the competing aspects of women’s wisdom and culturally-learned body shame surrounding the breast.
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What were the surprising things you learned?
One of the biggest surprises was the degree to which the women’s relationships with their breasts influenced their attitudes toward their bodies in general. Yet this aspect of women’s lives is profoundly unexplored.
Despite the central role the breasts play in puberty, sex, motherhood, health, and aging, many of the women had never discussed them.
The women in the documentary range widely in ethnicity, age (32-68), socio-economic background, and breast size. Their stories are hilarious, tragic, rich in detail and sensation, and never dull. They are all so different, so it surprised me that the contexts always felt familiar; perhaps because their stories are part of our collective experience as women living in a patriarchal paradigm.
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Were there any interviewees who stuck out in particular?
Two interviewees in particular. Both were raised Catholic, married early, and were threatened by breast cancer. Yet the ideas they were taught about their breasts in adolescence made all the difference in how well they coped with the threat of cancer.
One was told to hide her breasts, and “stop them from moving” so she wouldn’t be seen as promiscuous. This caused her to see breasts as bad, and not only breasts, but women and womanhood in general.
She lost the sense of trust in her body that had been natural to her as a child, and struggled to feel erotic pleasure from her breasts. When a family member died of breast cancer, she started doing regular breast self-examinations, but was cripplingly afraid every time that she would discover a lump. The limiting original relationship she’d had with her breasts led her to experience them not only as outside of herself, but as a threat to her life.
In contrast, the second woman was raised to see the body as “of the living earth”, and her changes in puberty were acknowledged warmly by her family. Diagnosed with cancer in her lymph nodes, she underwent radiation and chemotherapy. She drew strength from her experiences in nature and felt spiritually supported.
I was amazed by how the ideas planted in these women as girls had dictated their paths through the threat of breast cancer in adulthood. The difference between their stories highlights both the problem and the solution in our society.
Why do you think some women have such a dysfunctional relationship with their breasts?
Because girls’ bodies are judged and sexualised from a very early age, it is rare for a woman to be able to define her breasts on her own terms.
As girls approach the age when breasts begin to develop, most are taught to see their breasts as inappropriate and to carefully hide them. The media message then flips and begins demanding that teens teasingly display unrealistically perfect breasts.
How long did it take you to shoot the film and what has been the reaction so far?
I shot the interviews over a couple of days in 2011 and 2012. It was clear that I had captured a conversation that deserved my full attention, so soon afterward I quit my job at a television station to devote myself full time to The Breast Archives.
When I tell people that I am working on a documentary about women’s breasts, there is either an awkward silence or an immediate fascination; the latter is most common. Both reactions reveal how trapped women and men feel in their learned relationships with breasts. Just mentioning my project uncovers strong curiosity and a desire to share. Everyone has a breast story!
People also confided their grave concerns about breast cancer and other trends, such as new statistics that show teen girls to be the fastest growing demographic opting for cosmetic breast surgery in the United States. Many are deeply disturbed by how beleaguered breasts are today, and I see a growing recognition that the time has come for change in how we think about them.
How hard was it for the women to go topless while they spoke?
The participants felt empowered to take part in what they believed to be a new and necessary conversation, and understood that baring their breasts would contribute. There was fleeting nervousness as they removed their clothing, but it was quickly replaced with generosity, authenticity, dignity, and courage.
Once the breasts were revealed, the interviews shifted dramatically, becoming more profound and openhanded. Being topless gave the women a heightened awareness.
Why did you want them to be topless?
It seemed absurd to talk with women about their breast experiences and not see their breasts, or to dive into the influence of breast shame and not do something to confront and counteract it.
My objective was to invoke women’s wisdom regarding their breasts, to invite it out of hiding. It was therefore essential that the women feel they had nothing to hide, and that they feel connected to their bodies.
I also believe that seeing bare-breasted women talk about their breasts’ complexity will help to demystify the body part, and help viewers to stop seeing it as exclusively sexual. I needed the women to candidly reveal both their lives and the breasts that had shaped those lives. I believe that this will open vulnerable places in viewers, inspiring them to seek their own healing.
Do you think men have anything to do with our relationships with our breasts or does it comes from our mothers?
In my view, men have a greater influence than mothers, other women, or even the media. Men’s fascination with women’s breasts is seen as natural and non-threatening, because in its roots it was, but the media teaches men to transform their breast wonder into aggressive objectification and sexualisation.
Yet it is often a man who first introduces a woman to her breasts, and men whose gaze and touch maintains that relationship, whether or not this is done with tenderness and compassion.
The Breast Archives is currently in post-production, expecting a fall release. To see excerpts and updates, please visit www.thebreastarchives.org.