“Art has often flattered women and adhered to the culturally-desirable aesthetics of the time, from prehistoric fertility goddess statues to Botticelli, but never before has the human image been so altered and controlled.”
These are the words of Laura Dodsworth in her book Bare Reality: 100 Women, Their Breasts, Their Stories. The book is the result of Laura’s year-long project to strip away the media objectification, social and cultural norms, and political constraints that control women’s relationship with their breasts. It shares the stories of 100 women and their relationship with their bodies. Heralding the publication of the book is an exhibition at the Canvas Café.
The Canvas Café is an amazing concept. A social enterprise built around the values of body positivity and happiness, it is a partner of the charity Body Gossip which uses the arts and education to reach teenagers and young people. The café is quite literally a canvas, with visitors invited to write their stories, dreams and confessions on the walls. My favourite was the ambition to “at 40 look back on things I am proud of that I can’t even imagine yet.” Yes, I can remember when 40 seemed a really really old, really really far away milestone too!
Settled on a sofa (also decorated with people’s statements about body image) we watched a slide show of 100 photos. Identically shot against a grey background, in neutral lighting and with no post-production, the only embellishments we see are where women carry tattoos or piercings. Each image is captioned with a quote. Some make you smile – “I’ve got a great pair of melons”, some speak of teenage taunts – “My nickname was Fried Eggs”, some make your heart lurch – “It was wonderful that my son shaved my head for me”, and others reflect the struggle some women have with their breasts being a symbol of their sexuality and of motherhood – “At night, I use the left breast for the babies, and the right one is for sex.”
But because the quotes are short and largely out of context we mainly found ourselves engaging with the physicality of the breasts. You admire some, in the same way you can’t help admiring a really beautiful woman or man, you empathise at mastectomy scars, and you realise there is no normal. The blurb tells you participants are “19 – 101, sized AAA – K, from Buddhist nun to burlesque dancer”. Only some of these are obvious from just looking.
The real power of this project comes when you start to read the stories in the book. The women speak with brutal and disarming honesty that more than once has already filled my eyes with tears, and I have only read about 20 so far. A woman bullied by her grandfather as a child for being overweight, self-harming by 12 and denied a breast reduction at 15, she now feels guilt for hating her breasts because her partner lost both of hers to cancer. An older Jewish woman who speaks of her milk drying up overnight after her husband was taken on Kristallnacht when her baby was just one week old. How these women’s relationships and experiences with their breasts is blended so acutely with the experiences that define them is eye-opening.
And I had my own judgements challenged. Watching the slideshow we’d commented on one quote – “The only thing I see in the mirror which looks like I think it should, are my breasts.” The breasts were perfectly lovely, but I remarked about not being sure they would be the person’s best feature. My friend agreed. It was a passing comment, an observation not bitchiness, but it looks cruel written down. Last night I read that these are the budding breasts of a man in transition and I felt the guilt wash over me. For him they are the glorious outward sign that his body is becoming what it always should have been. I could have left that anecdote out – it doesn’t make me look kind, and I do believe that kindness is the greatest quality – but I think it is important to recognise that as the body positivity movement gains traction even those of us that are trying to live it and preach it can find our initial responses to others, and definitely to ourselves, tainted by what we have, for many years, been taught is beautiful.
Laura’s own essay at the end of the book is moving, honest and inspiring. For me the bit that stood out the most was her comment that since this project her breasts and nipples are “significantly more erogenous”, which she believes is “connected to a greater acceptance of my breasts, my body and myself as a woman”. This intrigues me. I have spoken here before about my ambivalence towards my breasts. Differently sized and with flat nipples, I just don’t think they are very pretty and until recently I have always discouraged men from paying them too much attention. At the exhibition on Sunday I was telling my friend how when lying side-by-side in bed with a new man I always try to lay on the side which means the more responsive nipple is facing upwards!
Recently, I have found my breasts and nipples to be significantly more sensitive, but I had put that down to currently having men in my life who are a bit more clued-up on the subtleties of biting and licking (I did have a boyfriend at University who in bed one night squeezed one boob and went ‘parp parp’ so I started from a low point on that front!), but maybe my physical responses aren’t just about the talents of the tongues and teeth, maybe the shift towards enjoying rather than discouraging the attention has coincided with me becoming more accepting of myself? Who knows but it’s food for thought.
Thank you Laura and all the women who shared their stories. This really is a remarkable piece of work. You can buy the book here and £1 from each sale will go to Breast Cancer UK.