Arts & Entertainment

Best reason to take your top off

To pose for Women Who Partner with Women’s breast-health campaign (or to do a self-breast exam)

A screen divided the room, ostensibly to provide a little privacy for the middle-aged woman standing bare-breasted behind it, creating faint, moist footprints on crisp black paper. She sounded nervous; we could hear her laughter with each surprising blue-yellow flash.

At the other end of the room, I waited with seven or eight other, mostly middle-aged, women, grazing on snacks from a long table set atop the shiny hardwood floor. I poured myself another glass of wine—a bright merlot to match my increasingly rosy cheeks.

I had a while to wait still. Some of the other women were in a hurry, so I let them go ahead. We were at Uptown Studios on J Street, lining up to strip to the waist for Tina Reynolds, a designer and social-marketing guru who was producing a calendar for Women Who Partner With Women’s breast-health campaign.

I was a little nervous. I’d modeled nude before, but that was when I still maintained the muscles I’d built serving in the Navy. This time, I felt out of shape—too soft, too aware of my poor posture and pale skin. And I hadn’t thought about Reynolds taking the photographs. She knew me as a family friend, not a topless model. Would this be uncomfortable?

I reminded myself of the importance of the project: to reduce the rate of breast cancer in women traditional health-care agencies often ignore. For a variety of reasons, gay women have a greater risk of developing breast cancer than straight women do. And most of the breast-cancer materials out there—pamphlets showing pictures of happy hetero women and their families—do not reach lesbians, bisexuals and transgenders. Reynolds wanted to create educational materials for them.

There weren’t very many images that appealed to her, so Reynolds decided she’d have to create them. And she wanted to feature real women. Freckled, wrinkled, dark-skinned, light-skinned, asymmetrical, overweight, short or tall, she wanted to use the women who represented her community. There would be photographs of women conducting self-breast exams, a woman having a mammogram and a woman going to a health-care provider for a checkup. Reynolds also would shoot nonacademic photographs, images she thought the women in her community could relate to: two pregnant lesbians hugging, for instance; a femme-butch couple standing side by side; a woman binding her breasts with an Ace bandage; and the broad smile of a woman who’d clearly had a mastectomy.

I’d volunteered as soon as Reynolds had told me about the project. I was concerned about breast cancer as it was—my aunt Barbara had a mastectomy when she was in her 40s but still died of cancer a couple years later—and as a bisexual woman, I’d become frustrated with an often-conservative medical community. I remembered the small-town doctor in Arizona, for instance, who told me, at 23, that I should learn to live with endometriosis. According to him, my options were either to accept the God-given pains of being a woman or to have a full hysterectomy. And of course I’d be having children, wouldn’t I? I’d cried leaving that man’s office and for most of the 20-minute drive back to work because I knew better. I’d done my homework, and that had made his advice even more insulting.

As I sat in Uptown Studios, sweating and sipping my liquid courage, I shared my stories with the others, as they shared their experiences with me. Each woman had her own reasons for being there. Many had lost someone to cancer.

Finally, it was my turn: I was to pose with a funny blonde I’d met that evening. I also was paired with a metal sculptor and appeared in a couple shots on my own. It only took a few seconds to get past the sense of vulnerability I felt after tossing my shirt down onto a bench. Reynolds made me feel comfortable. She made us all feel comfortable—so much so, in fact, that at some point during my shoot, after a perfectly timed shot involving a spray of champagne, the other models began meandering over toward the set. Everyone wanted to see the shot. Soon, we were all gathered behind the digital camera, oohing and aahing at ourselves and at each other. And then someone suggested a group shot: 10 topless women and a timer.

By the end of the shoot, I felt a connection with the other women. It’s evident in the photos, though our faces have been cropped out. Our body language is spirited, celebratory.

The photos—sharp contrasts and the soft outlines of skin—were so well-received that Reynolds has taken the project a step further. The shots are now in frames, on note cards, on T-shirts and on stickers (with the message “I touch myself: once a month self breast exam”). And all proceeds support the campaign. The Sacramento Monarchs and Sutter Home Winery even named Reynolds a Breast Health Hero and honored her at a home game. And Reynolds since has embarked on a men’s series.

I can’t wait to see the calendar, due out sometime this fall. I hope it makes a difference in some small way or another. But for those of us who’ve been involved, it already has.
Women Who Partner With Women, through Uptown Studios at (916) 446-1082,