Festival of the Breast

Last week the ipi bus came to our town.

In the local language, ipi means breast. When I worked in one of the nearby Central Australian Aboriginal communities, the older women in town looked forward to the biannual trip in the ipi bus that would transport them to Alice Springs for their mammograms. Alice Springs also happens to have the nearest Target store, the nearest hardware store, KFC and big supermarkets. Getting the women back on the bus was like herding cats, one of the nurses told me.

Thanks to the hard work of our local midwife, Katie, the bright pink ipi bus – a real one now - stopped over in our town last week. As a doctor, I am jealous of midwives - they get to see women birth naturally, strongly and healthily. Katie’s understanding of women’s bodies is tinted with love and respect.  

Katie works in the remote Aboriginal communities around our desert town. By orchestrating the visit of the transportable mammography service, she and her energetic team - of aboriginal health workers, midwives, a nurse and a student midwife - brought an important screening tool to some of the most under-serviced women in the country. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2014 eight out of ten Australian women were afflicted with breast cancer and three out of four of those cancers are detected in women over fifty.

I find mammography images of healthy breasts beautiful – I see in them patterns of leaves, waves or stars. But the ipi bus visit wasn’t all about beautiful images. It wasn’t even all about finding that elusive cancer and saving a life – although that was no doubt the most important thing going on. What Katie and her team made happen was a rich sharing of cultures, a moment for women in their prime to enjoy themselves.

A bit like a mammogram, but greener. Pic by  Joe Wroten .

A bit like a mammogram, but greener. Pic by Joe Wroten.

Our town’s breast awareness week began last weekend with a sale outside the local grocery shop, which raised funds for an Alice Springs breast cancer support group. Local schoolchildren painted rocks and made other inspiring things to buy. Others made cakes, including ones that looked like breasts. Who can help smiling when offered a piece of cake made in the shape of breasts? “Would you like a bite of nipple?”

You might feel that as a lesbian I have a natural interest in the subject (and you wouldn’t be wrong). But one of the great things about the week was the integration of a well-rounded (ahem!) cultural view of breasts.

In the weeks leading up to the pink bus festival, Katie and one of our talented local artists, who is also an excellent handywoman, made plaster casts of pregnant women’s breasts and bellies. The senior Aboriginal women who came for their mammograms also did some painting, decorating the breasts and bellies with designs from their own cultures. (These made stunning works of art.  The breasts were gifted to other communities and organisations to raise breast awareness and the bellies to raise awareness of healthy pregnancy for the young women.)  

Plaster cast of breasts, ready for painting.

Plaster cast of breasts, ready for painting.

The women who came were offered massages and manicures while they were there. “It’s so important for these older women to have healing touch,” said Katie. Imagine that in a mainstream context – you go to have a colonoscopy and have a pedicure and your hair done to help you recover. I like that.

Post mammogram mani. Pics Claudia Jocher

Post mammogram mani. Pics Claudia Jocher

All women could learn a lot from the attitude of the desert women to their breasts. Their breasts are an important part of their culture. Not only are they nourishing to babies – in an act that must have seemed especially miraculous in nomadic desert life – breasts are an important symbol in Aboriginal culture here—they mean fertility, nourishment and growth. Women’s breasts are painted to denote Dreaming stories when they dance.  Pendulous breasts, almost long like eucalyptus leaves, make a good canvas for ochres. Then there’s the landscape itself. Several mountains between here and Alice Springs are connected with women’s breasts in Aboriginal cultural life, because of their appearance, their place in the landscape, their place along the path of an important story.

Milky Way from the Northern Hemisphere. Pic by  Jeremy Thomas .

Milky Way from the Northern Hemisphere. Pic by Jeremy Thomas.

In the light of such rich, wise cultural thinking, the Western conception of breasts as nothing other than sexual objects,  is shallow and limiting. It reminds me of how the aristocratic Chinese in the pre-revolution era fetishized women’s feet The feet were broken and bound, and their putrid smell considered intoxicating. The poor stumps were wrapped in the most exquisite slippers of embroidered silk. Of course, such feet were not able to function. A truly beautiful lady had to be carried everywhere.

Women’s breasts are not mutilated as Chinese women’s feet once were, unless you consider cosmetic surgery to be mutilation (which generally it is not). But women’s breasts are severely alienated from their function in the way they are portrayed in this society.

When I was in south Viet Nam in 1985 with my baby son and his father, we went to a museum of Cham culture, one of the many cultural minorities in Viet Nam. We saw sculptures of beautiful dancing women and some sculptures featuring rows of breasts, including as pedestal decorations, much as other cultures might use flowers. I have also travelled in India, where people might worship a stone shaped like a lingam. Just as the acknowledgement of spiritual aspects of sexuality and fertility broadened my mind in Indonesia and India, seeing the Cham culture celebrate the breast was exhilarating for a breastfeeding mother. What a change from being shamed out of nursing in public places back home in Australia.

Cham 13th Century Base mouldings, Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City.  Wikimedia .

Cham 13th Century Base mouldings, Museum of Vietnamese History, Ho Chi Minh City. Wikimedia.

Why wouldn’t you want to have your breasts tenderly and thoughtfully painted with ochre for inma (ceremonial dancing)? Why wouldn’t you want to feel a connection between your breasts and the earth around you? Our bodies all come from our mothers’ bodies and breasts and the earth is our continuing mother.

To feel connected to the earth you are born on is surely a wellspring of creativity. On a more prosaic level, women who have grown up decorating their breasts for ceremony have something to teach those of us who have always had to mould our bosoms into bras to be unveiled only by husbands.

My wife Claudia worked with the women at the marquee near the breast screening bus through the week, lending a hand and taking photos. She described a sweet moment when one of the elderly Aboriginal women from a remote community was painting. She was asked to sign a form, perhaps her ‘talent release’ for the photos to be used in health promotion. The forms were placed beside her painting and a shiny new breast awareness pen placed in her hand by one of the nurses. Claudia described with a sparkle in her eye how the lady put her pot of blue paint beside her and dipped the pen carefully in the paint. She used the paint on the pen to fashion her name, slowly and carefully. It took a lot of dipping, since the pen didn’t hold ink very well. In the end she used a special style – making dots of ink and then dragging the pen through the dots to connect them into letters. “You can see she grew up in the time when they used inkwells to write,” commented one of the nurses.

Pen & ink, desert version.  Claudia Jocher pic.

Pen & ink, desert version.  Claudia Jocher pic.

What an interesting life that lady has had. I wonder if she’d ever dreamed of a circus tent by a pink bus, where she could have her nails painted, paint plaster breasts and autograph in the brightest blue. Doesn’t it make you wonder where your life might lead you?

How wonderful too, for the schoolchildren who came to paint with the women and have a tour around the bus. Proudly holding their Aboriginal-style paintings of women’s breasts, these kids were slowly learning to respect women’s bodies. I look forward to seeing where their privileged exposure to Indigenous cultures (and breast-shaped cakes) will lead them.

Thumbnail pic of visiting woman painting by Claudia Jocher.