Table of Con­tents | Arti­cle doi: 10.17742/IMAGE.BR.11.1.1 | PDF

Erotic. Maternal. Cultural. Symbolic. Medical. What are breasts? How are they imagined? And who gets to decide?

Reisa Klein, Gabrielle M. Siegers and Dorothy Wood­man

The three of us, each in our own way, have var­ied and long term rela­tion­ships with breasts. Grow­ing up, we have expe­ri­enced years of watch­ing our own bod­ies change before our very eyes, often medi­at­ed through the male gaze. And that chang­ing ter­rain that we call our body-self con­tin­ues to shift and alter, as repro­duc­tion, aging, and—for one of us—breast can­cer leave their marks. Through their pres­ence or absence, breasts are large­ly visu­al, even more so through their objec­ti­fi­ca­tion and frag­men­ta­tion in media rep­re­sen­ta­tions and adver­tise­ments as well as med­ical imagery and cos­met­ic pro­ce­dures, recon­struc­tions, and pros­the­ses. These visu­al “imag­ings” of our ever-chang­ing breasts, along with their inher­ent flu­id­i­ty and tex­tures, prompt­ed us to begin ongo­ing con­ver­sa­tions that are occur­ring across a num­ber of dis­ci­plines, includ­ing human­i­ties, social sci­ences, and the arts, but also biol­o­gy, oncol­o­gy and med­i­cine.

Breast imag­ing in med­i­cine has shaped how we under­stand these mate­r­i­al objects as self-evi­dent. At the micro­scop­ic lev­el, the med­ical gaze con­cen­trates on breast tis­sue as a form of synec­doche. Such med­ical imag­ing informs sur­geons as to the loca­tion of breast tumour tis­sues to be removed, and radi­ol­o­gists as to where to direct radio­ther­a­py, either to debulk tumours pri­or to surgery, or to erad­i­cate poten­tial remain­ing malig­nant cells after removal of the pri­ma­ry tumour. These pro­ce­dures sug­gest that breasts are con­tin­gent upon how they are framed through med­ical tech­niques. Biop­sies, small pieces of tumour removed with a nee­dle, pri­or to surgery and/or tumour tis­sue removed dur­ing surgery are sent to the pathol­o­gy lab, where they are processed, stained, and under­go assess­ment by a pathol­o­gist to deter­mine char­ac­ter­is­tics of the tumour, such as stage and type, that inform fur­ther patient treat­ment. The whole is con­tained with­in the part; the breast’s nar­ra­tive is relayed through its cells.

From a sci­en­tif­ic per­spec­tive, imag­ing pro­vides an invalu­able tool to mon­i­tor breasts over time and detect patho­log­i­cal changes that could lead to a can­cer diag­no­sis. Mam­mog­ra­phy (low-dose x-ray) is a stan­dard imag­ing tech­nique used for rou­tine screen­ing, which is some­what con­tro­ver­sial (Bley­er et al.; Cold­man et al.; Helvie and Bev­ers; Nagler et al.). Ultra­sound, com­put­er­ized axi­al tomog­ra­phy (CT or CAT), mag­net­ic res­o­nance imag­ing (MRI), or Positron Emis­sion Tomog­ra­phy (PET) may also be employed to sup­port diag­nos­tic and treat­ment deci­sions. If breast can­cer is diag­nosed at a lat­er stage, bone scans, X-rays, CT, or PET imag­ing may be used to detect metas­tases, tumours that may have formed in oth­er areas of the body, such as bones, brain, lungs, and liv­er. Thus, mul­ti­ple imag­ing modal­i­ties are used togeth­er in the diag­no­sis, treat­ment, and fol­low-up mon­i­tor­ing of breast can­cer patients.

While these visu­al tools are wide­ly employed as per guide­lines set out by provin­cial and nation­al orga­ni­za­tions, their use is not with­out con­tro­ver­sy and dis­cus­sion, as ben­e­fits and risks should be con­sid­ered in each indi­vid­ual case. For exam­ple, some research sug­gests that wide­spread mam­mog­ra­phy screen­ing has no impact on breast can­cer patient mor­tal­i­ty (Bley­er et al.), where­as oth­er research shows that ear­ly detec­tion enabled by mam­mog­ra­phy is sav­ing women’s lives (Cold­man et al.; Helvie and Bev­ers). Of course, the poten­tial harm due to radi­a­tion expo­sure must be weighed against the ben­e­fits of ear­ly detec­tion. False pos­i­tive and false neg­a­tive inter­pre­ta­tions of imag­ing bring their own lay­ers of anx­i­ety that are detri­men­tal to health. Yet, by and large, the ben­e­fits of these med­ical imag­ing tech­niques are thought to far out­weigh any asso­ci­at­ed risks. As such, even med­ical imag­ing does not nec­es­sar­i­ly pro­vide a val­ue-free or neu­tral under­stand­ing of the breast, but is co-con­sti­tut­ed by social, cul­tur­al, eco­nom­ic, and polit­i­cal influ­ences. The process is thus both diag­nos­tic and aes­thet­ic; breasts are there­by reim­aged. From local biop­sies, we then turn to cross-species exper­i­men­ta­tion. The lat­ter process is explained, with exam­ples of his­to­log­i­cal analy­sis, in the arti­cle “Imag­ing Human Breast Tumours in Dif­fer­ent Species: How Human are They?” by Gabrielle M. Siegers et al. in this issue.

Turn­ing from the microscopy of the med­ical gaze to the macroscopy of cul­tur­al analy­sis, we find dis­cus­sions about breasts as sym­bols and sites of asym­met­ri­cal pow­er. A rep­re­sen­ta­tive sur­vey of this field includes his­tor­i­cal stud­ies, cul­tur­al cri­tique, and inter­sec­tion­al fem­i­nist and queer inter­ven­tions. Mar­i­lyn Yalom, in her sur­vey of West­ern Europe and North America’s his­to­ry of breasts, has sit­u­at­ed the vari­eties of invest­ments in the rep­re­sen­ta­tion of breasts and their func­tions as means for the sur­veil­lance and dis­ci­pline of women’s bod­ies for large scale polit­i­cal, reli­gious, and sex­ist pur­pos­es (Yalom). Bar­bara Ehren­re­ich has engaged with her expe­ri­ences of breast can­cer to inves­ti­gate and expose the cor­po­rate, polit­i­cal, bio­med­ical, and gen­dered agen­das with which breast can­cer patients and “sur­vivors” are bur­dened (“Smile or Die”; “Wel­come to Can­cer­land”). And oth­ers, such as Audre Lorde, have pro­vid­ed ground­break­ing reflec­tions, often through their own expe­ri­ences of breast can­cer, on the inter­sec­tion­al forces that oper­ate to oppress queer women of col­or and pres­sure “sur­vivors” to con­form to nor­ma­tive fem­i­nine and healthy bod­ies (Lorde).

The field of dis­cus­sion is by no means homo­ge­neous. Diane Herndl revis­its Lorde’s argu­ments and pro­pos­es a some­what dif­fer­ent, post-human­ist approach for deter­min­ing whether to recon­struct (or reim­age) the breast (Herndl). Con­sid­er­ing cul­tur­al forces more gen­er­al­ly that influ­ence women’s under­stand­ings about their breasts and expe­ri­ences of breast can­cer, Saman­tha King takes a panoram­ic view of the pink cul­ture dri­ving phil­an­thropic inter­ests close­ly tied to cor­po­rate inter­ests (King). Queer the­o­ry also informs new con­cep­tu­al­iza­tions about breasts. Kim Hall asks us to con­sid­er the assump­tions under­ly­ing claims that a breast is tru­ly female and how queer-breast­ed expe­ri­ences offer impor­tant counter-imag­in­ings (Hall). Trevor Mac­Don­ald pro­vides impor­tant reflec­tions and reimag­ings of breasts/chests by trans­men who have giv­en birth and how they make deci­sions about lac­ta­tion (Mac­Don­ald).

As we met togeth­er to con­cep­tu­alise this project, we want­ed to build on these pro­duc­tive and some­times com­pet­ing per­spec­tives by bring­ing new under­stand­ings and visu­al imag­in­ings to the table. We were look­ing for new ways for­ward that could not only break through the con­ven­tion­al bina­ries of gen­dered, racist, het­ero­nor­ma­tive, colo­nial, and neolib­er­al tropes, but would also exper­i­ment with con­cep­tu­al inno­va­tions. In short, in reimag­ing breasts, we want to explore resis­tant and sub­ver­sive voic­es and images where breasts are not just enclosed bio­log­i­cal body parts, but where they are com­plex “assem­blages” that are co-con­sti­tut­ed by mate­ri­al­i­ties and dis­cours­es (on assem­blage, see Braidot­ti; Grosz; Deleuze and Guat­tari; Puar). These diverse bio­log­i­cal, bio­med­ical, socio-cul­tur­al, and politi­co-eco­nom­ic inter­ac­tions refig­ure the bound­aried imag­ings of the breast, one exam­ple being the use of breast tis­sue for penile recon­struc­tion (Safak), anoth­er the use of abdom­i­nal tis­sue in TRAM flap breast recon­struc­tion (“TRAM Flap Recon­struc­tion”). Rep­re­sen­ta­tions of breasts as land­scapes, for exam­ple, in Lorde’s can­cer jour­nals, Sal­ly Loughridge’s piece in this issue, or the imag­ing of breasts through their haunt­ing absence in Hol­lis Sigler’s art, are only a few exam­ples of how breasts are being reim­aged (Lorde; Sigler). By engag­ing with the tis­sued, leaky, and plas­tic (Shildrick), our approach con­sid­ers new impli­ca­tions for the breast as rhi­zomat­ic, empha­siz­ing rela­tions and move­ments, rather than sta­bi­liz­ing tropes of gen­der, sex, body, and iden­ti­ty. Unlike the lega­cy of the phal­lus, where its essen­tial­ist sig­ni­fi­ca­tion, log­ics, and gram­mars con­strain by their nec­es­sary cre­ation of the “Oth­er,” the breast’s capa­cious­ness offers mul­ti­ple absences and pres­ences that mobi­lize bod­ies, dis­cours­es, and spaces as assem­blages and tac­tics.

In con­tem­po­rary cul­tures, across bor­ders and ter­ri­to­ries, breasts are increas­ing­ly “pop­ping up” phys­i­cal­ly and cul­tur­al­ly in new places: as inflat­a­bles atop build­ings (“Giant Breast”) and bob­bing in canals (Stake), as archi­tec­tur­al inno­va­tions (Ver­steeg) and mis-ren­der­ings in anatom­i­cal rep­re­sen­ta­tions (e.g., images of milk ducts; see Dean), images cir­cu­lat­ing on social media (Hock­ing), and art cre­at­ed with/by “boobs” (Kirko­va). We look to pop­u­lar culture’s emer­gent “play” with breasts as new bod­i­ly dis­plays of protest. Build­ing on these new re-imag­in­ings, this spe­cial issue ini­ti­ates a flu­id and re-pro­duc­tive space for reimag­ing and milky writ­ing (Cixous) in which those who read some or all of this jour­nal could tra­verse and gen­er­ate new con­ver­sa­tions. Like milk-ducts and the expan­sive unbor­dered ter­ri­to­ry of the breast, this jour­nal was envi­sioned as a rhizome—a pro­lif­er­at­ing, non-lin­ear assem­blage that, in its best form, would extend its life-force beyond even the infini­ties of the web. We are thrilled to use the elec­tron­ic jour­nal plat­form for this—its rhi­zomat­ic rela­tion­ship to oth­er diverse con­ver­sa­tions and its acces­si­bil­i­ty to diverse read­ers cre­ate an ide­al envi­ron­ment for this project.

In this edi­tion, you will find paint­ings, pho­tographs, med­ical imag­ing, poet­ry, per­son­al and ana­lyt­i­cal essays, and even pod­casts. They are all, in the spir­it of the rhi­zome, con­nect­ed with­in the perime­ters of the jour­nal genre, and free-float­ing enough to reach beyond it. They invite mul­ti-sen­so­ry expe­ri­ences as vital com­po­nents of crit­i­cal think­ing and reflec­tion. We wel­come you to dip into the jour­nal, in whole or in parts, and to let these con­trib­u­tors take you back into your own bod­ies, expe­ri­ences, and selves, and con­sid­er how the archive of bod­i­ly expe­ri­ences, dreams, affects, intel­lects and tech­nolo­gies can restruc­ture the very par­a­dig­mat­ic foun­da­tion upon which these are under­stood and processed over time. This work may extend into the larg­er con­texts in which you labour, repro­duce, cre­ate, and engage as cit­i­zens dur­ing this time of cri­sis, call­ing us to reim­age our place with­in and among all that are part of a glob­al com­mu­ni­ty.

Con­trib­u­tors have brought cre­ativ­i­ty to this dis­cus­sion in diverse ways. In the abstract for “Sea­wa­ter/C-cup: Fishy Trans Embod­i­ments and Geo­gra­phies of Sex Work in New­found­land,” Daze Jef­feries elo­quent­ly writes:

I think with my aug­ment­ed breasts—beyond the med­ical archive and away from the clinic—as an embod­ied inquiry into trans geo­gra­phies of sex work in the island world of Ktaqamkuk/Newfoundland, Cana­da. Employ­ing the felt knowl­edges of my breasts in visu­als and poet­ics, I illus­trate fishy entan­gle­ments shared between my sex work and breast aug­men­ta­tion that have reframed my social and sex­u­al embod­i­ment. Engag­ing with my breasts as a con­tact zone of embod­ied dis/pleasure, eco­nom­ic promise, and social vio­lence, I sug­gest that pay­ing cre­ative atten­tion to trans women’s breasts might reim­age notions of trans sex-work­ing desire.

These words exem­pli­fy this edition’s larg­er project: to engage diverse expe­ri­ences and rela­tion­ships, images and lan­guage, so as to dis­sem­ble the con­straints of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and reflec­tion (in all their forms) in the neolib­er­al and Carte­sian hege­monies that con­tin­ue to hold us hostage to out­mod­ed, harm­ful, and mori­bund prax­is.

Anique Ellis and Josephine Baker’s col­lab­o­ra­tive poet­ic prose “Reclaim­ing Breast” star­tles us from the out­set. We won­der: why the sin­gu­lar? We take out our red pen to cor­rect. In so doing, we become the audi­tor addressed by the poem—we are impli­cat­ed in the pol­i­tics it names and resists. This dis­rup­tion of gram­marly expec­ta­tions strikes at the heart of the hege­mon­ic modes of rep­re­sen­ta­tion and think­ing about women’s bod­ies. It dis­ables the ide­o­log­i­cal sig­ni­fi­er. Breast must always be pluralized—to say oth­er­wise is to devi­ate from accept­ed prac­tices. The poem con­tin­ues to veer between plur­al and sin­gu­lar, invit­ing the gram­mat­i­cal dis­rup­tions that punc­tu­ate the poem through­out. The strug­gle to speak is to resist the ide­o­log­i­cal gram­mars that coerce rep­re­sen­ta­tion of words and ideas, of breast itself, and in so doing, to dis­rupt oppres­sive cul­tur­al and social gram­mars that dis­ci­pline the body: “My breast does not define me, so don’t define my val­ue, fem­i­nin­i­ty, or worth with my breast.”

In “Going Flat: Breast Can­cer, Mas­tec­to­my and the Pol­i­tics of Choice,” Abi­gail Bakan exam­ines her own per­son­al jour­ney of “going flat” as an alter­na­tive to breast recon­struc­tion. She chal­lenges the pater­nal­is­tic bio­med­ical push for breast con­ser­va­tion where breast can­cer is (re)affirmed as a loss, a lack and an absence. Through a new col­lec­tiv­i­ty of women choos­ing to “go flat” Bakan advo­cates for a pol­i­tics of choice and a reimag­in­ing of sur­gi­cal options fol­low­ing sur­gi­cal treat­ments for breast can­cer that fore­grounds women’s rights and bod­i­ly auton­o­my.

In “Reveal­ing Nar­ra­tives in Before and After Pho­tographs of Cos­met­ic Breast Surg­eries,” Rachel Hurst breathes life into oth­er­wise “unre­mark­able” images of pre- and post-sur­gi­cal cas­es, deriv­ing unex­pect­ed lay­ers of mean­ing from the pho­tographs by bind­ing them to real-life sto­ries of women who have under­gone plas­tic surg­eries. In short, Hurst reim­ages these images and recon­nects the de-indi­vid­u­al­ized tor­sos to women who have been in their place, fill­ing in some of the gaps by shed­ding light on what is—by design—hidden from the intend­ed nar­ra­tive embod­ied by such pho­tographs.

Vanes­sa Greaves’s stun­ning tor­so sculp­ture “Bro­ken” chal­lenges us to con­tem­plate the impli­ca­tions sur­round­ing a miss­ing breast. Defi­ant in its beau­ty and solid­i­ty, this piece encour­ages us to focus on and appre­ci­ate what is present as opposed to what is absent, yet acknowl­edges the inner strug­gle women face when com­ing to terms with their altered self after mas­tec­to­my.

Sal­ly Loughridge’s art­work and reflec­tions in “Rad Art: A Jour­ney Through Radi­a­tion Treat­ment” offer remark­able paint­ings of breasts as land­scapes accom­pa­nied by brief reflec­tive state­ments as she con­tem­plates her expe­ri­ences of breast can­cer through image and text. She writes in her open­ing reflec­tion: “I had always thought of my breasts as a matched pair. But since I received a diag­no­sis of breast can­cer, they have become dis­tinct­ly indi­vid­ual. I am anx­ious about start­ing radi­a­tion, and I feel pro­tec­tive of my right breast—in a famil­iar, moth­er­ly way.” Play­ing with old tropes in new ways, Loughridge express­es the incom­men­su­ra­bil­i­ty of her expe­ri­ences, open­ing up vis­tas for expan­sive reimag­ings.

In “Run­ning for the Future,” Rachael Pack con­sid­ers images used for the Cana­di­an Breast Can­cer Foundation’s 2013 Run for the Future fundrais­ing cam­paign, reveal­ing unex­pect­ed mes­sag­ing pro­ject­ed from images of chil­dren tak­ing steps to cre­ate a bet­ter future with­out breast can­cer. Pack is com­pelling and artic­u­late, argu­ing that the “queer­ing of time” employed by the fundrais­ing cam­paign con­veys a sense of duty on Cana­di­ans to take steps to pro­tect het­ero­sex­u­al nuclear fam­i­lies of the future. Pack’s sur­pris­ing analy­sis will cer­tain­ly stim­u­late inter­est­ing dis­cus­sions with respect to ethics, com­mu­ni­ca­tion, fem­i­nism, pol­i­tics, and inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty.

In “Imag­ing Human Breast Tumours in Dif­fer­ent Species: How Human are They?,” Siegers et al. con­sid­er in a gedanken­ex­per­i­ment the philo­soph­i­cal ques­tion of whether implant­ed human breast tis­sue can still be con­sid­ered human once it is grow­ing with­in anoth­er species, and show strik­ing images of such hybrid enti­ties. While enlight­en­ing read­ers about aspects of sci­en­tif­ic research, this piece dis­cussing implan­ta­tion of human tis­sue into oth­er liv­ing species rais­es ques­tions about bor­ders and cat­e­gories in numer­ous ways, most impor­tant­ly for this issue, con­cern­ing where breasts begin and end, or if they do at all.

Dorothy Wood­man and Aloys Fleischmann’s haunt­ing “Still Life” also asks the audi­ence to con­sid­er where the body begins and ends. Their unique col­lab­o­ra­tion results in art that incor­po­rates mul­ti­ple per­spec­tives simul­ta­ne­ous­ly. The public/private move­ment and dis­play of the pros­the­sis invites oppor­tu­ni­ties for his, as well as her, expe­ri­ence, chal­leng­ing ideas of fixed sub­jects and objects. As the pros­the­sis both stands in for a body part and is incor­po­rat­ed into a painter­ly pho­to­graph and still life, the bina­ries are blurred in ways that cre­ate new arrange­ments and dis­cours­es that set the stage for a new breast pol­i­tics.

Works Cited

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