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Meagan Murphy Bares All About Her Documentary 'The Breast Archives'

June 7, 2019

There are many different kinds of breasts in this world, as well as different types of people whom breasts are home to. Looking back at my youth, it was completely expected that our culture as a whole would moderate and control my body- right down to the interruption of my most basic experiences should my body be perceived as interfering with someone else's experience by simply existing. This concept isn't new or old, or outdated in the least- and while it is systemic, it is widely accepted and unquestioned by those it doesn't specifically impact. We see this in laws, socialization, and class distribution; as well as so many other areas that effect all other areas of our society.


Later this month, Meagan Murphy brings her film 'The Breast Archives' to Gateway City Arts. Meagan has done extensive work to explore and question the relationship between a person and their breasts. Through her travels, creations, and questions she has begun to contribute to and ignite extremely important conversations tapping into the most intimate of relationships: that of ours to ourselves- our whole selves.


Recently, Meagan took some time to share her vision and thoughts on the experiences that have brought her here, and what her intention with 'The Breast Archives' has been and continues to be. Join us on June 28th at Gateway City Arts for a screening of her film followed by a panel discussion and opening with live spoken word performances.


Hi Meagan, Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me about your experience and your film, ' The Breast Archives'.


Can you start by telling me about your time in Egypt? I have read a bit about your experience, but I was curious if it was the trip as a whole that lead you to this work, or if there was one moment in your travels that was really the beginning of this whole transformative project?


My journey in making The Breast Archives began when a doctor friend mentioned that 90% of women are dissatisfied with their breasts. The magnitude of that number stunned me. Ninety percent!? My thoughts immediately went to the women in my life who were struggling with body image issues – myself included – along with breastfeeding woes, and cysts or cancer. Several weeks later, I happened to be in Egypt where, at temple after temple, I beheld towering statues of ancient goddesses with fully exposed breasts. Each time I gazed up at these timeless females, I felt a serene wisdom and deeply loving power. The dichotomy of these two viewpoints struck me deeply, and I wondered, ‘Why are women’s breasts so unseen in our culture? And what is the price we’ve paid as a consequence?’


As I flew back to the States I decided I would arrange a series of interviews with women who were willing to sit, topless, for a conversation about their breasts. I am a veteran journalist and television producer, so I’m accustomed to asking probing questions. When I put out the call to my community in search of willing participants, it was with a single, entrancing question: Do your breasts contain an ancient wisdom?  Nine women— Petra, Laura, Marsia, Leslie, Teresa, Eileen, Heather, Carol and Sandy— answered the call.


As soon as the interviews were underway I knew I’d tapped into a unique portal of female perspective. The stories they shared were hilarious, alarming, tragic and filled with details and sensations. The depth of their insights struck me too, particularly as they described the stages of their lives when they had felt disembodied, the ways they had rediscovered and reclaimed themselves, and the perspective they’d gained from the journey.


In your personal story on your website you ask the question, "How are women's bodies the keepers of time?", can you expand on this question and what you mean by it, or maybe what you have discovered in response to it?


In a woman’s lifetime, the breasts will play a crucial role in the experiences of puberty, motherhood, sexuality, health and aging, and the way women feel about their breasts can profoundly impact their lives. But when is the last time you heard a women speaking openly and honestly about what her breasts mean to her?


It’s rare for girls to be taught to understand how magnificent the female body really is, or about the way our menstrual cycles connect us with the rhythms of the tides and the moon. How many women understand the connection between their cycles and their creativity? How many have any idea how wonderful their female body really is? I believe the answer is “not many.” 


Because we rarely see other women’s breasts, we have a distorted view of what normal breasts actually are. For millions of women there has only been a steady diet of picture-perfect breasts to compare to our own. And because we don’t see the stretch marks, the nipple hair, the mastectomies, the lopsided breasts, or the inverted nipples, we think our own breasts don’t – or can’t – measure up. By seeing topless and ordinary women of all ages, shapes, and sizes, we might find a new way to let go of our longing for “normal” breasts.


It's impossible to ignore the emphasis our culture places on the appearance of women’s breasts. From puberty to adulthood, a woman faces idealized norms and must constantly contemplate her ability to measure up. Biases exist against women with large breasts as well as small breasts. A girl or woman with larger breasts may deal with assumptions about her sexuality. A girl or woman with smaller breasts may feel inadequate. Acknowledging that these external and internal pressures exist is an important first step in encouraging girls and women to become comfortable with their own bodies and dispel the myths and biases that have become all too normalized.


If we could hear women talk about their breasts, we might deepen our understanding about what it means to be a woman or a girl going through puberty, what it means to breastfeed, have breast cancer, or grow older. We might better understand our sexuality and how we see our bodies in relation to ourselves and to our partners. Exploring this topic would open the door to a wide-ranging discussion!


When I tell people that I’m working on a documentary about women’s breasts, there’s either an awkward silence or immediate fascination. Both reactions reveal how circumscribed our relationships and attitudes about breasts can be—for men and for women. Just mentioning my project uncovers a deep curiosity and a desire to share. Everyone has a breast story!


What do you think the relationship between our particular culture and breasts means or is a product of? You discuss how in other cultures the statues are displayed proud and topless, what do you think this means about our own culture?


The discontent women feel toward their breasts is strikingly widespread across the western “first” world. Because girls’ bodies are judged and sexualized from a very early age, it is rare for a woman to be able to define her breasts on her own terms. The media plays a real role in shaping our attitude about our bodies—this we know—but The Breast Archives can help to correct some of the misperceptions and fallacies that exist about women’s bodies.


As girls approach the age when breasts begin to develop, most are taught to understand their breasts as an ‘inappropriate’ body part that should be covered or hidden. The media message then flips and begins demanding the teasing display of unrealistically ideal or perfect breasts. This occurs when a young women’s body is transforming rapidly, and when they are particularly susceptible to socially driven messages. Often the reaction by individuals, myself included, will be to disconnect from the body in order to create a protective psychological armor against the threat with which (she) is now being inundated. This further compromised a healthy, normal relationship with the breasts.


Does self-censuring and a socially learned disembodiment affect the individual a woman becomes? Most definitely! And I believe it increases a woman’s susceptibility to breast cancer too. By contrast, the women I’ve interviewed who had positive feelings about their breasts as girls 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.


There have been so many moments where I have found either empowerment or shame within my own breasts, but when I search inward I can acknowledge that the shame is always the prevailing knee-jerk reaction or relationship. This is something I can literally trace back to wearing tank tops in junior high and being sent to the office for it. What is your hope for a younger audience that comes in contact with this film? 


The simple act of genuinely honest conversation among women across a range of ages about women’s bodies can be a powerfully influencing experience for women of any age. Seeing women with exposed breasts serves an important purpose too, because the shame we learn is often layered into and expressed through the clothing we wear.  Girls are bombarded with vague instructions and ambiguous expectations that they “manage” their bodies -- which could mean anything from keeping their bodies healthy to making them appear “appropriate” in public -- rather than interacting with their bodies with wonder and appreciation. 


Another important potential take-away for younger viewers, especially when considering the huge quantities of women who feel anxiety or discontent about their breasts’ shape or size, is to introduce girls, with clarity and openness, to the female breast. This simple exercise can contribute to fundamental ideas about equality and begin to challenge the message that women should feel ashamed or uncomfortable about their breasts and feminine anatomy.


Today, 1 in 3 girls are sexually violated. This alone necessitates the creation of new approaches and new kinds of conversations.


Can you tell us a bit about the different experiences we will come in contact with while watching this film?


Two interviewees in particular stand out for their differing views about breast cancer. Both were raised Catholic, married early, and were threatened by breast cancer in mid-life. 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, as a teen, 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. As she matured, she lost the sense of trust in her body that had been natural to her as a child, and also struggled to feel erotic pleasure from her breasts. When a family member died of breast cancer, she wanted to start 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 her natural, feminine body as “a part of the living earth,” and her family acknowledged her changes during puberty with warmth and kindness. Diagnosed with cancer in her lymph nodes, she drew strength from her experiences in nature and felt spiritually supported as she underwent radiation and chemotherapy.

It’s interesting for audience members to see how the ideas that get planted when women are girls can dictate how they will respond to the threat of breast cancer, or other illnesses, in adulthood. The difference between their stories highlights both the problem and the solution in our society.


You have worked in film for years, how has this work shaped the work that came after? How is it different from your own work prior.


I was always drawn to a daring kind of journalism, and to issues associated with social justice. As a young producer in Boston, I began developing a proficiency in health-related content, which was bolstered by my experience working at Mass General, Brigham & Women’s Hospital, and Children’s Hospital. When I first arrived in Western Mass, it was to produce medical and patient education content for a national network of hospitals. When that business closed, I joined the staff of the local public broadcasting station, which was a strong fit for my wide-ranging interests. Years later, while still at WGBY, I enrolled in a monthly women's group, and began to develop an interest in women's stories, specifically.  I became fascinated by the suppressed experiences they had long-harbored, by their exquisitely contained rage, their profound wisdom, their insights, and the gravitas of their humor. I thought, ‘this is a treasure chest of stories.’ Today, my interest in for working in health and wellness spaces, as a storyteller, facilitator, producer/director and educator, remains impassioned.


Did you learn anything new about yourself during this process? Did you acknowledge truths you maybe had been ignoring? If not, was this something you witnessed with your participants? 


As I began crafting the film my own breast story remained on the periphery. Later I tried to integrate it into the narrative, but it had felt strangely incongruous. Of course I knew that a central reason that I was making this film was because I, too, was suffering from an existential breast shame. I shared my own stories as I interviewed the women, knowing that it might re-kindle forgotten memories, and the exchange was both cathartic and effective.  As the participants opened up and began to remember the lost details of their lives, I witnessed a beautiful synthesis of vulnerability and courage that profoundly transformed me. Since those (fateful) interviews for The Breast Archives, I have felt able to freely share my own story.

I had been an early bloomer and my breasts were significantly larger than my classmates. By the time I was twelve, I was wrapping my breasts daily in an effort to reduce their protruding shape, but this caused my nipples to become inverted, which made me feel deformed, even loathsome. The number of times I pivoted, swiveled and maneuvered so as to obscure a full view of my breasts? The answer is countless! As incredible as it sounds, this tactic was rooted in a simple shame of not measuring up – always my greatest fear. Over time, of course, I grew wiser as gracious lovers and good friends insisted that my breasts were natural and fine. But it never sunk in. The ideas I had about myself in childhood were hard to reason away.  Even as a successful woman with a bright career and lots to look forward to, there was always this lingering, omnipresent belief that my body was strange and abnormal.


One of the many blessings of this documentary project has been bestowed upon me is an understanding of the power of being seen. I shall be forever indebted to the brave woman of my film, whose fleeting nervousness, as they removed their tops, was quickly replaced with generosity, authenticity and dignity. Interestingly, once the breasts were revealed, the interviews shifted dramatically, becoming more profound and openhanded. Being topless seemed to give the women a heightened awareness. Their perspectives of themselves began to shift, and they became able to assimilate experiences that had been compartmentalized. As one said, “There are so many things that I haven’t really thought about concerning my breasts and their ability to open me up.” Being topless wasn’t just about daring or boldness, but about asserting the right to claim and love their bodies and identities, integrating their whole selves. 


Do you feel there are other parts of our bodies that we hold the way you propose we hold our breasts? What do you think is a first step in acknowledging the trauma or pain we keep there?


As the participants of The Breast Archives make clear, confusing and negative messaging received during adolescence correlates directly with an individual’s relationship to her breasts. If we know that a positive relationship with a body part enhances the health and vitality of that body part, then it stands to reason that a negative relationship will increase an individual’s susceptibility to illness. For women, the vagina is particularly important in this way. Like the breast, it isn’t discussed much and we don’t look at it often, yet it is the key to our sexuality and to delivering new life.  And, like the breasts, it endures many disturbances. It also has its own unique power, perspective and voice. Discovering that voice, and honoring its’ energy begins with open conversation.


What I have discovered is that the breasts are a wonderful starting point for opening up and sharing because they’re intrinsically linked and connected with our hearts. I often say, “the breasts are the face of the heart.” This location and unique midpoint gives us access to something deeply profound, even timeless.  


As a woman, our hearts will guide us our whole lives; in love, in friendships, in raising children. Our breasts can guide us, too. Are they not an outward manifestation of our ability to nourish? Are they not an essential element in the global act of a hug? We are mammals, after all, connecting heart to heart and mammary to mammary!


If there is one thing that you would hope your audience is able to take away from this film, what is it? 


The one thing I hope my audience takes away from the film is that women’s bodies, especially the breast, are the link to women’s power, self-esteem, and wisdom, and that we can support women in reaching their full potential when we finally start talking about breasts openly as a society.  


Thank you Meagan, we are so thrilled that you are sharing your work with us at Gateway City Arts on June 28th. 

 The Breast Archives comes to Gateway City Arts on Friday, June 28th
Learn more about Meagan and the film here.

You can purchase tickets for the event here.

RSVP on Facebook here.


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Meagan Murphy Bares All About Her Documentary 'The Breast Archives'

June 7, 2019

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