Raising awareness of breast cancer

To mark Breast Cancer Awareness Month, Julie Myerson bares her soul on her chest and leading British artists explore women's relationship with their bodies. All artworks commissioned by Harpers & Queen
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online

The first time I know I've definitely got them is when they leap out at me in the bathroom mirror. I am 13 and drying myself after my bath, and I throw down my towel and jump up and down, giggling. Normally when I jump, nothing on my hard, skinny boy-body moves, but this time it's different. "Oh look!" shriek my younger sisters, still in the water, half laughing, half disgusted. "Her nipples have gone wobbly! She's getting bosoms!"

I stop jumping. It's a big moment - sudden, embarrassing, exciting. It marks me out. I know I'll never live it down; that from now on, I'm different. I know that tentative, quivery wobble - barely discernible but undeniably there - is only the beginning. I'm going to that smelly, rude and unknown place where grown-ups go. Blood, sweat and hairs in strange places will surely follow. My sisters and I know all about bosoms. We know they are something ladies have - strange, funny appendages to be shrieked at and to run away from. Bosoms are fat and droopy, perky and sexy or maybe all of those things. A joke on a postcard, a round circle with a naughty dot in the middle. Bosoms are always chasing Benny Hill around on television. Daddy likes Benny Hill and he likes bosoms. He has magazines upstairs with pictures of the biggest, barest bosoms you've ever seen. I hate bosoms, they make me shudder - except for my mum's, because she's pretty and hers are breasts. When she gives dinner parties and the doorbell rings and the coats are lying in their perfumed haze on the bed, she wears a long halter-neck dress and passes around Twiglets. Then I can suddenly see the point of it all. I can see that it's possible to grow up and get bosoms and still be beautiful. Something about the line of her cheek, her jaw, her long neck, the dip of her breastbone - it reminds me of Cinderella's swan-like neck and modest cleavage in the picture of her marrying the prince at the end of my Ladybird book. There's nothing silly or strange about Cinderella's or my mum's breasts. If you're a beautiful lady, it makes total sense to have something soft and rounded there.

Maybe I think I'll wake up next morning with a Cinderella décolletage, but I don't. It takes 18 long months before my mum finally concedes that I might need a bra, and by then my breasts are standing up under my T-shirt in a most unsettling way. The bra is a training bra (training for what?) from Mary Quant - two shivery triangles of pink stocking material on a stretchy band with a clip at the back. Putting it on makes me feel odd and grown-up and, I hope, makes my sisters jealous. Every morning, when I do it up in front and swivel it round, I feel like a real lady with a real life ahead of her. I look at myself for a long time in the mirror and I don't jump.

All through my teens and twenties, my breasts cause no trouble. They look OK, they fit in my clothes and they keep me company in lonely beds at night. They aren't big and they aren't small; they're simply there when I hug myself. I'm glad they cause me no trouble or embarrassment at school - unlike the poor fat girls whose breasts flobble ahead of them when they run for the bus. I am a disco girl and a tomboy; I wear glitter and dungarees. Boys seem to like me, they like my breasts, and they don't seem to mind that I have big feet and skinny legs and that I wear washed-out, ill-fitting, hand-me-down bras.

But when, at 27, the seed of my first baby is planted in me, it all changes. Now I'm stunned to find out how immediately and deeply my breasts are involved. No one ever tells you that the zingy, busy warmth of pregnancy is mostly about breasts. Yes, there's the obvious growing shape of the baby, and the wild physical adventure looming ahead, but no other part of me ever quite achieves the state of pure, hypnotic flux that my breasts do.

Every day they change. They heat, they cool, they weigh more, they prickle inside my clothes. As the swimming butterfly of my baby loops the loop inside me, my breasts get ready - fizzing and tingling like lemonade. What's going on? When will it end? Actually, after the birth, I discover exactly where it ends: feeding a baby with your body turns your nipples and breasts into terminally erogenous places - soft, startled and responsive for ever and ever.

It seems impossible now to believe that my three huge, funny, clever, jeans-wearing, foul-mouthed, computer-literate, bass-playing teenagers once relied on these two innocent and unremarkable pieces of me. So my breasts and I now have that kind of relationship - disbelieving, grateful and forgiving. Did it really happen? Did we really go through that? Is it really possible we were ever that young; so hot, hopeful and sturdy and full of milk?

Now I am a real lady with a real life, blessed (finally) with expensive bras. I'm keenly aware that, although I'm glad to have my breasts, they are no more a part of me than my face, my belly or my laugh. The perceived womanliness of my body is a set of responses. It's as much about other people and the sweet vulnerability of flesh and sex, as it is about the inevitability of time.

So I like my breasts, I do, I do. But I don't think I'd be afraid to be without them. My fingers, my nose, the warm feeling when I take a breath, the beat of my heart, the lick of my tongue, the clean wet of my eyes, the curve of my cheek and chin as I cup my head in my hands - all are as much a part of what makes me girl, woman, mother or child as any breast or nipple ever did. I look at the woman in the mirror with steady satisfaction. She's OK. And she doesn't need to jump.

Artists lending their support

GILLIAN WEARING
OLIA (2003)

Wearing won the Turner Prize in 1997 for her video Sixty Minute Silence, a portrait of 26 unspeaking police officers. She works with photography and video, using references from 1970s documentaries, and is known for her interest in masks - she likes the idea of removing the only visual clue we often have about people. Wearing exhibited at the Serpentine Gallery in 2000 and is working on a project for the Bloomberg Space in the City.

What was the idea behind the piece? 'I wanted the model to look like she was clothed in her own body, as if you were looking at a sculpture. I was interested in her figure and the fact that models are a prop for fashion and photography.'

SARAH LUCAS AND OLIVIER GARBAY
BEETON SLAPPED-UP (2005)

Lucas's 1996 Self Portrait with Fried Eggs sold for a record £52,875 to Charles Saatchi. Beeton Slapped-Up pays homage to this early self-portrait, and uses men's shoes over her breasts rather than eggs. Garbay is a London-based French artist who collaborates with Lucas.

What's the idea behind the piece? Olivier Garbay: 'Sarah is a girl and she's playing as if she were a boy. It's about being happy with yourself and smiling in the face of adversity - even if your breasts are old shoes.'

WOLFGANG TILLMANS
STATE (2005)

Tillmans moved to the UK from his native Germany in the Eighties. He won the Turner Prize in 2000 and became known for his photographs, which are concerned with alternative concepts of beauty, sexuality and politics.

What was the idea behind the piece? 'Being gay, breasts are not a sexual turn-on as such for me, but I do find them attractive. This body is almost androgynous, but that's not what I set out to show - I was actually looking for slightly fuller breasts.'

LOUISE BOURGEOIS
THE BAD MOTHER (1997)

The work of the 95-year-old French artist Louise Bourgeois is collected by most major museums. She emigrated to the US in 1938, where she now lives. In the Forties, she turned to sculptural work, influenced by the European surrealists then infiltrating New York. Her work is deeply symbolic and draws on her relationship with her parents and the role of sexuality in early family life.

What was the idea behind the piece? 'The milk comes down the breast and falls on the floor, helping nobody (unless there is a cat). The milk is there, but she is a bad mother because it is spoiled instead of being given to the girl.'

KEITH TYSON
UNTITLED LEFT AND RIGHT (2005)

Tyson won the 2002 Turner Prize, and is known for innovation and wit - he once cast the entire Kentucky Fried Chicken menu in lead. His latest work will be shown at this year's Frieze Art Fair.

What was the idea behind the piece? 'I typed "breasts" into Google; the list of results was extraordinary, and I thought: "That says it all". The associations of the word - from the pathological and misogynistic to the natural and wholesome - embodied the full colourful rubric of what it means to be human.'

All the artworks commissioned by Harpers & Queen to raise money for Breast Cancer Awareness can be seen in the November issue, on sale now. All works will be auctioned in January. To bid, contact Naomi Lyons on 020-7025 2409 or email naomil@breakthrough.org.uk.

Comments