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A Private Topic Goes Public : In Her New Book, Filmmaker Explores Feminine View of Breasts--and Opens Emotional Floodgates

November 27, 1998|MARY McNAMARA | TIMES STAFF WRITER

There they sit, front and center on 60% of the population. On a daily basis, all around the world, they are ogled, rated, ranked, worshiped, desired, degraded, caricatured and nursed. Here in Southern California they also spend a lot of time being displayed, lifted, airbrushed, inflated, deflated and generally pushed around.

Breasts--the archetypal objects of obsession. From prehistoric paintings to the pages of Playboy--breasts have occupied human thought since Day One. They are the symbol of femininity, with all its power and frailty, of sex and nurturance, of profanity and comfort.

Americans have more names for them than Eskimos have words for snow. And yet any discussion involving breasts tends to fall into two categories: aesthetic critique (often, but not exclusively, of the male variety) and health issues.

This is exactly what Meema Spadola, a 28-year-old film documentarian, wants to change. Her past several years have, in fact, been spent coaxing hundreds of women to talk about their breasts.

Not a typical career path, perhaps, but it's working for Spadola. Her 1996 hourlong documentary "Breasts," co-directed by partner Thom Powers, aired on HBO's "Reel Life" with so much success that it spawned a follow-up book. "Breasts: Our Most Public Private Parts" (Wildcat Canyon Press) made it to bookstores recently, but not without a bit of controversy along the way.

The premise of the documentary and the book is simple: Round up a bunch of women and have them talk about their breasts. In the documentary, many of the women (24 girls and women were interviewed) did this topless.

"Women are not used to seeing other women's breasts," Spadola explains. "We are surrounded by such unrealistic images. Telling women, 'Oh, you should love your body,' just isn't going to work. You need to see other women so you know what women really look like."

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For the book, Spadola cast her net wider, interviewing hundreds of girls and women all over the country--103 are included. She also photographed the women who represented all ages, ethnicity and physical attributes. As in the documentary, many of them are topless: black-and-white photos, the women looking directly at the camera, very simple.

Except that these are naked breasts we're talking about, and they did not make it into the book.

"I guess some of the bookstores were very uncomfortable with the idea," Spadola says. "My publisher decided to take out the photos. It seems a bit odd since I am sure these bookstores all carry Playboy, but I want women to read the book."

"In the end," she adds, "it may be stronger this way. People may take it a bit more seriously."

Women will take the book seriously; with humor and dignity, Spadola has managed to weave a plethora of voices and experiences into a graceful and telling whole.

The book is broken into subjects--childhood, puberty, sexuality, motherhood--that guide the reader through the chronology of breast maintenance. From the memories of the first time a father told a daughter to "Go put something on, for heaven's sake," to the proprietary skirmishes with partners and children, to the frustration over the effects of age and gravity, "Breasts" is full of anecdotes and emotions that any woman will recognize.

"We have given breasts this tremendous power," Spadola says. "Because we don't see them, we don't talk about them; they're like this great and terrible Oz. When I began interviewing women, they were very uncertain. They felt they didn't really have much to say about their breasts. But when you start asking specific questions," she says, laughing, "well, sometimes it was hard to end the interviews."

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Spadola seems an easy person to talk to--her eyes easy to meet, her manner sympathetic and engaging. It's a skill as much as a talent, and one she has earned.

After falling into film documentary work--"I needed a summer job, and there was this company in my tiny home town in Maine that made film documentaries"--she worked in TV and radio.

She and Powers wanted to work on a project about the children of gay and lesbian couples, but they couldn't get the funding. The breast idea had been lurking for years, and it was an easier sell. Getting a cross-section of women was another story.

"I put together a questionnaire and took it around to doctors' offices and community centers. There was a lot of word of mouth." For the book, she went national. "A lot of the interviews were over the phone, which was harder."

The storybook ending is that she and Powers will begin the children project--after they put the finishing touches on a documentary of men talking about, you guessed it, their penises.

"It was a little weird," she says of the filming, in which about 10 of the 24 dropped out. "With the women, I sent Thom away, had an all-female crew. With the guys, I was there. Complete double standard, but, hey, it's my film."

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The experience was different in other ways as well.

"I've always been the kind of person who thought that men and women are essentially alike. But after talking to these guys, many of whom were really nice, sweet men, I have to admit there is a really sharp difference."

Women, she says, tend to talk about themselves, and their breasts, in relation to others--their mothers, their mates, their children. Men focus on themselves.

"This is what I do with it, this is what I do to other people with it," Spadola says. Men "just want to talk about themselves. It sounds reductive, but that is my experience. And some of the things they said were very troubling. So many of them seemed to have learned about sex through pornography."

Some of the reaction to "Breasts" seems to support this. A natural target for shock jocks, Spadola has gamely refused to expose her breasts or speculate on their numerical rating.

"Everyone has their own agenda," she says. "Mine is just to get people talking."

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