Psychosocial and symbolic dimensions of the breast explored through a Visual Matrix

Haga Gripsrud, Birgitta, Ramvi, Ellen, Froggett, Lynn orcid iconORCID: 0000-0001-8406-6231, Hellstrand, Ingvil and Manley, Julian Y orcid iconORCID: 0000-0003-2548-8033 (2018) Psychosocial and symbolic dimensions of the breast explored through a Visual Matrix. Nordic Journal of Feminist and Gender Research [NORA], 26 (3). pp. 210-229. ISSN 0803-8740

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This article explores knowledge about the breast in the psychosocial interplay of lived experience, addressing a gap in empirical research on this highly gendered cultural trope and embodied organ. We present findings from a study that used a free-associative psychosocial method – the Visual Matrix – in order to stimulate, and capture expressions of, tacit aspects of the breast that have evaded discursive representation, as well as to generate understanding of relations between embodied and enculturated experience. Little research has been conducted on women’s affirmative experience of breasts, possibly because their bio-psycho-sociocultural complexity affords an onto-epistemological and empirical challenge. Our data revealed how an aesthetic of the grotesque in one matrix allowed the mainly female group to use humour as a “creative psychic defence” against culturally normative and idealised aspects of the breast. This was expressed through sensual symbolisations of breasted experience, affectively delivered with exuberance and joy. There was an emphasis on the breast’s potency and its potential for both abundant nurturance and potent “weaponisation”. By establishing this feminine poetic mode, Visual Matrix imagery symbolised life and death as tolerable, inseparable yet ambiguous dimensions of breasts, thereby resisting anxious splitting. The breast’s life-affirming qualities included the sensual, the visceral and the joyful – a materialsemiotic knowing. This was in marked contrast to a second matrix where associations were weighted towards the spectacular breast of an ocular-centric culture that privileges heteromasculine looking. This matrix reflected a more ambivalent and sometimes troubled response among participants. Reasons for the difference between the two matrices are discussed in terms of how they responded to the tension between embodied and enculturated experiences.

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