The Breast Archives explores the Western woman’s relationship with her breasts – a relationship that’s far from simple. In this documentary, nine women offer illuminating perspectives, in a series of provocative conversations, into the contexts and environments that influence the formation of the breast-psyche relationship – including the media, religion, pregnancy, sexual assault, breast cancer and menopause.
In baring these women’s hearts – and breasts – to the camera, the film insightfully (and tastefully) scrutinizes the foundations of the female experience in Western culture, and exposes a reservoir of wisdom that once went uncensored.
The Breast Archives is the brainchild of award-winning director/producer Meagan Murphy. When Meagan started this project, she was working full time at a television station; but she quickly became so fascinated that she quit her job in order to work on The Breast Archives full time.
Catriona Mitchell: Meagan, few subjects are taboo these days, but it strikes me that you’ve hit upon one of them. In your experience, is a taboo in conversation about breasts reflected in a kind of silencing in the body? Are most Western women emotionally, psychologically, and sensually disconnected from their breasts?
Meagan Murphy: I’m afraid it’s true. Most Western women are emotionally, psychologically, physically and also spiritually detached from their breasts. It’s a disconnection that’s learned at a very young age, when girls are in the throes of their pubescent corridor.
Why do you think this is?
The media establishment, departments of education, and the dominant religions have had a commanding influence in crafting the overriding narratives of our society; narratives that are driven by an exclusively male point of view! All too often these narratives neither honor nor accurately reflect the needs, preferences, and realities of women.
It’s indisputable that these institutions determine a standard for womanhood (in America). What’s interesting is that the storylines they employ become so deeply inculturated and internalized, that women are not aware of their impact. Women therefore live in accordance with these social paradigms, or rebel against them.
Director / producer Meagan Murphy
What are some of the measures that women use to avoid calling attention to their breasts?
There is a young woman I know who recently made a decision to remove her breasts. Her reasoning was that if her breasts were eliminated, she would be able to sidestep the hassles, the assumptions, the comments, the ogling and cat calls, the threatening encroachment—everything that is associated with having a woman’s “weaker” body in a patriarchal society. For her, this decision is a form of empowerment. From my point of view, it highlights the extent to which we’ve learned to associate our breasts with expendability, inconvenience, and as superfluous (and disposable) tokens.
Another way that young women avoid calling attention to their breasts is by dressing suggestively. It sounds contradictory, but by flaunting the breasts and the sensual body, they can pre-empt, or deter, a potential threat. By not hiding their breasts in shame and fear, they convey the message: ‘This is my space, my domain,’ and a ‘territory’ that’s ‘unavailable’ for external conquest
What’s your aim in breaking the silence about this subject?
To provide a refreshing new context for discourse, and to help women relinquish the fear of being truly seen.
How much of your documentary investigates shame? Do you believe that shame can be eradicated through open and healthy discussion?
Although I didn’t initially intend to explore women’s stories of being shamed, it was a theme that arose again and again in the interviews. Often it was some form of shame that became a primary reason to stay quiet, to second-guess themselves, or to believe they were, in some way, inadequate. Shame is an astonishing means for controlling people.
How does an embodied woman live her life differently from a disembodied one?
For starters, a disembodied woman is probably not going to be able to achieve the deepest form of orgasmic bliss, or have real leverage over her health. An embodied woman can cultivate an ability to self-heal by listening to her own intuitive messages regarding movement, diet, supplements and other tools that can assist her in making optimal choices regarding health.
One of your interviewees claims, “I’m always aware that my breasts have not been friendly to me, as a woman.” Another refers to hers as “a catalyst for harassment.” How many of the women you talked to have had predominantly negative experiences with their breasts? How have these experiences shaped them into the people they are today?
From what I’ve seen, read and heard, I would estimate that 80% of women (in America) are disengaged from their breasts. This disconnection seems to stem from an inner, self-damning that, having been repeated so often, has been integrated. Does a self-censuring inner-mantra shape the individual a woman becomes? Most definitely. And I believe it increases her susceptibility to breast cancer too.
By contrast, the women I’ve interviewed who’ve had mostly positive experiences and feelings about their breasts tended to have a deeper sense of curiosity about their body, a greater confidence regarding their sensuality, and a sense of faith that they could personally influence their own wellness.
How do attitudes to the breasts vary across cultures and different religions?
There has also been a resurgence of religious conservatism in American culture. And also in the Middle East, where the media tends to stay focused. These influences have fanned the flames of a perpetuating crusade that claims women’s bodies are exclusively sexual, dangerous, and dirty.
Meanwhile, these same bodies are commodified for profit, and used and abused by the same people, sects, corporations and regimes, that shame women into hiding their bodies!
Are many women entirely happy with the shape or size of their breasts? How many women are having their breasts surgically altered in North America / other parts of the world?
A study done by University of California in Los Angeles, called The Barbie Mystique: Satisfaction with Breast Size and Shape Across the Lifespan found that, out of 60,000 women, 85% were “dissatisfied” or “ambivalent” about their breasts.
A 2012 analysis by The American Society for Aesthetic Plastic Surgery found that of the 10 million cosmetic procedures performed, the most common surgical procedure was breast augmentation. It also reported that girls aged 13 to 19 were the fastest growing demographic opting for breast augmentation surgeries.
In your film, nine women go topless. Why did you decide that baring breasts in the film would add value to its message?
It seemed absurd to talk with women about their breast experiences and not see their breasts, or to dive into the influence of breast stigma and not do something to confront and counteract it. My objective was to invoke women’s wisdom regarding their breasts, and to invite it out of hiding. It was therefore essential that the women felt they had nothing to hide, and that they felt connected to their bodies.
I also believe that seeing bare-breasted women talk about their breasts’ complexity will help to demystify that part of the body, 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, and inspire them to seek their own healing. 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 to that process.
It was actually during the taping of the interviews that I discovered that the breasts were a unique cache for suppressed girlhood stories. I had originally planned a different angle for the project, but once they removed their clothing, and the nervousness shifted into generosity, authenticity, dignity, and courage, I began to realize that I had hit upon something unique and precious.
Were your interviewees changed by the emergence of the film into the public eye?
Because the film’s debut event drew a large crowd, and because the film received a standing ovation, I feel confident that The Breast Archives will have a marvelous journey out in the world. How do the film’s participants feel about it all? They’re delighted.
How did the male audience react?
Men tell me the project provides them with a unique and vital injection of radical compassion; a compassion that they say they’ve been thirsting for. Keep in mind that 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). In many respects men are victims of women’s disembodiment too. Because the media claims to represent men’s valuation of women, actual men wield tremendous power in supporting either toxicity or wholesome love in women’s relationships with their breasts and bodies.
What’s your hope for the new conversation the film is breaking open?
Fortunately, I stand among many inspiring artists and activists doing similar work; that is, helping women reconnect and reclaim their bodies. What a privilege it’s been to be inside of this conversation! It’s a movement that’s lively and brave, and that has everything to do with our health, our autonomy and our freedom.
What’s the status of the documentary now?
We have created a video-on-demand platform where viewers can stream The Breast Archives. We are also partnering with non-profits and organizations who can help us build awareness and promote the film among our key, core audiences.
The Breast Archives had its screening debut in Massachusetts in September 2017, and a NYC premiere at the Women’s International Film Festival.