Bare Reality: Talking Breasts With Laura Dodsworth
An Interview with Laura Dodsworth, Creator of ‘Bare Reality’
I first came across Laura Dodsworth’s project through a friend, back when she was still looking for women to share their stories for a new endeavor. The stories were to be specifically all about breasts – do you love them, hate them, why, etc. I was immediately intrigued and definitely wanted to see how things progressed.
After two years of dedicated work, Laura has created a touching, insightful book of 100 photographs and interviews with women about their breasts. I think we absolutely need projects like this right now. Women’s bodies have long been seen as a commodity, as ornaments, playthings and as sexual objects used to capture the male gaze and attention. In regard to breasts, their primary function (breastfeeding) is generally ignored by society and their representation is mostly geared towards men.
Bare Reality presents the voices and stories that have largely been absent from mainstream media and popular culture. Her book is one big important way in which women have taken control of the conversation surrounding their bodies. I for one, hope this becomes a trend!
Laura also made a grand effort to include a very diverse cast of women. She incorporated women of different ages (19 – 101), backgrounds, races and body types. The stories are quite fascinating and honest. They not only talk about breasts, but about many different aspects of womanhood.
I hope all my readers will consider buying this book through her Kickstarter campaign.
Now it’s time to hear from Laura! What follows is my interview with her where we discuss how she got inspired to do this project, insights she gained and more.
How did you come up with the idea of the Bare Reality project? Were you thinking about it for a few years or did you suddenly get inspired?
As a woman and a feminist I’ve always been interested in women’s stories. My last art project was called ‘Marriage’ and I photographed women in their wedding dresses in their homes (sometimes many years after the wedding day) in order to contrast the fairy tale of the wedding day epitomised by the dress with the domestic reality of marriage. I realised I wanted a more intimate window into women’s lives. Over the years many different reasons crystallised and I felt compelled to undertake this project, even though it felt pretty left-field to me. I’ve grown up surrounded by images of objectified women in the media. I’m fascinated by how we feel personally about our bodies compared to how they are represented by the media for consumption. The representation of women seems so two dimensional and boxed-in to me. I find it an uncomfortable feeling. We are more than that. We don’t all conform to a homogenous narrow ideal of beauty, and our lives and experiences are rich and diverse. Media representation would have me believe I should be a passive Barbie doll in order to be happy, fulfilled, womanly. During the course of the project I realised that I was exploring what it means to be a woman. Breasts are interesting in themselves, but they are also catalysts for discussing intimate aspects of women’s lives: growing up, sexuality, relationships, breastfeeding, health, cancer, body image, eating disorders media and ageing, and even more.
I thought about the project for a year before I started – I guess I’m a slow burner ! It took a further two years to get to this stage. Undertaking such an extensive project and doing it properly does take time.
How did you go about finding participants, and was it difficult? Were women eager to participate?
It took me about a year to find all the women. I had a ‘matrix’ of different types of women I wanted to find, broadly representing women in the UK where I live. Different ethnicities, sexualities, locations, shapes and sizes, life experiences and careers. Some women were happy to take part, but not everyone agreed. I only wanted women to participate if they were really comfortable. It’s quite something in our culture to bare your breasts, as well as personal stories about them. I did a lot of asking around, and later on some social media call-outs. The women who had taken part were brilliant about evangelising for me. I had to go to a lap dancing club to ask lap dancers to take part. Finding a nun took a really long time. Eventually I gave up on finding a willing Catholic nun, but could not be happier that I found a Buddhist nun to take part. I love her interview.
I’m curious if the Catholic nuns said it went against their religious beliefs?
Catholic nuns didn’t explain their reasons for not taking part, they just said ‘No’. I wish I knew!
I’m sure the anonymity part helped? Is that why you decided to make it anonymous? And I feel like the revealing of the breasts part wouldn’t be the difficult thing so much as the vulnerability and intimacy of sharing one’s soul and story. However, many do regard their breasts as a “private part.” Did you find that to be true?
Absolutely, baring your soul can feel more exposing than baring your breasts. It was important that participation would be anonymous so that women would feel comfortable and safe doing both. Some women had no qualms at all about taking their tops off in front of the camera. At the other end of the spectrum, one woman was very nervous because the only person who had ever seen her breasts was her husband.
What were some of the reasons, or most common reason, these women chose to participate? Did they feel the need to be heard, to get their stories out? Was it cathartic for them?
I think we like telling stories and we like hearing other people’s stories. It is cathartic. I felt a two way healing process during some of the interviews.
Some of the women who took part did have specific reasons for taking part, such as talking about their experience breastfeeding, or how they felt about the representation of women in the media, or their body image, or about why they chose to have surgery, or about their experience of cancer. One woman who had had breast cancer said this: ‘I was keen to take part in this project. When I saw it, my instant thought was, “It will be one sided, there’ll be all those perfect boobs, I need these mangled things to be in there.” I wanted there to be breasts with scars on.’ Other women just liked the sound of the concept when I explained it and didn’t have specific messages or goals, they were simply open-minded to the process.
We seem to live in a society that’s obsessed with breasts. They’re everywhere and used to sell anything and everything. And in the UK, people seem to be much less strict about showing nipples. (You never see lady nipples in public in America unless they’re on a woman.) But when women try to breastfeed in public or be topfree like men, they’re met with hostility and harassment. What do you make of that?
I think that the fetishisation of breasts in our culture has led to hostility towards public breastfeeding. They are seen in some countries as purely sexual body parts, even though their primary biological function is breastfeeding. Here are three interesting quotes in relation to breastfeeding:
“The sexualisation of breasts in films and the media would put me off breastfeeding if I were to have a child. Breasts have strong sexual connotationsand it would feel ‘wrong’ to have a baby’s mouth suckling on them.”
“After years of feeling bad about my breasts I now love them. I am currently breastfeeding my daughter and I fell powerful and purposeful.”
“I find it extremely hypocritical considering you can walk past shelves of….it doesn’t matter what the magazine it is, it could be the TV Times, and it’s still like this (thrusts breasts out). You can sit there reading The Sun. Most pictures with women advertising something involve quite a lot of cleavage, which seems to be tolerated beautifully. But as soon as breasts are given any airplay for feeding the baby it seems to make people feel uncomfortable. I don’t know whether it’s about power.”
Were there participants who were really dissatisfied with their breasts? What caused them to feel that way?
There was some participants who were dissatisfied with their breasts in different respects.Many women think they are too big, too small, too saggynot symmetrical enough…Another aim for ‘Bare Reality’ is burst the fantasy media bubble of perfect breasts. But women can also experience dissatisfaction with their breasts in other respects, for instance they might find them uncomfortable or have health problems, cancer, some women found breastfeeding diffcult. Other women loved their breasts! There are many different relationships with breasts included within the project.
An article came out in The Daily Beast about how women are finally making their voices heard and are sharing their stories, humor and feelings about their breasts / bodies. Do you think women finally are regaining control over their bodies and representations of them?
I think there are artworks, campaigns and movements around the world which demonstrate a powerful turning of the tide. For instance, I love the ‘Stealthy Freedom’ photographs coming out of Iran.
What surprised you the most in doing this project?
So many aspects of this project surprised me. I never could have anticipated how long it would take, for one thing! I was surprised by the women’s stories. I can honestly say I learned a lot. Breasts are interesting in themselves, but in this project they were also catalysts for talking about very intimate aspects of our lives as women and I interviewed such a diverse range of women. There were so many different types of relationships women had with their breasts. Thinking just about sexuality, for instance, I think men are going to find this interesting and women will find it reassuring. A small number of women found their breasts incredibly erogenous, almost able to climax from their breasts. Some could take it or leave it. Some actively disliked their breasts being touched. You won’t have heard so many women being this frank about what their boobs mean to them.
I also couldn’t have predicted how this artistic journey would affect me. To be honest I grew up believing my breasts fell short, that they didn’t measure up to the perfect media breasts I saw around me. I think that ageing, maturity, and breastfeeding has improved my self-image. But undertaking this project has seen the biggest change. I feel very tender about the female experience now. And I like myself more as a woman and I like my breasts more. So I like to think that this project has the power to move and enlighten people and perhaps transform their relationship with breasts, too.
You launched your Kickstarter and surpassed your targeted goal in less than 35 hours! Which is amazing! Why do you think it so quickly succeeded, especially when so many other kickstarter projects fail?
I think there is an undeniable appetite for honest photographs and personal, powerful stories, and Bare Reality resonated with women and men. The representation of women in the media is two dimensional. Doesn’t this become boring after a while? Sure, sometimes fantasy is lovely, but we need and want a healthy dose of reality. I was told by agents that although they loved this project it would not be commercial enough, that it would only appeal to women, that I’m not famous. I think audiences are constantly under-estimated. They don’t only want ‘safe’, commercial books, TV and films.
I’ve seen similar photo projects focused on body image, where the creators don’t seem to think twice about censoring certain parts in order to make it more “shareable” online and “accessible to everyone.” People have requested censored versions of your work so they can share them on Facebook / social media. Your response was a definite “no.” Why?
This project is all about heart and integrity. I am not going to create content and publicise it around policies with which I fundamentally disagree. I can’t state enough how opposed I would be to censoring these women’s bodies and censoring my owm work. I have been asked to put black bars over the nipples so that other people can share the work. No. Facebook is going to have to change at some point, its policies are outdated and discriminatory.
What do you think of the CoppaFeel breast cancer awareness campaign? It’s a little bit reminiscent of your project? Real photographs, women talking about their breasts.. I was initially turned off by the phrase “cop a feel,” given the connotations, but looks like these women are trying to take it back and use that phrase in a positive way.
Yes, the Coppafeel campaign is very reminiscent of Bare Reality! I’m certainly glad I started my work long before they did and that it was launched before theirs, as I wouldn’t have wanted to follow Rankin! I like the photographs and I like the campaign. There are marked differences though. The interviews are at the heart of my project whereas Coppafeel asked the women to use one word to describe their breasts. Our goals (social/artistic exploration of breasts versus encouraging breast awareness) and the formats (book versus ad campaign) mean that the way people will see and engage with the images are very different. It took me over a year to find the diverse range of women I wanted, whereas the Coppafeel campaign has a very different feel with, so far as I have seen, only young women. Like you, I don’t love the name Coppafeel, it has negative connotations for me, but I presume they have chosen it for their specific audience and it must be working for them.
What are your plans for the book after the Kickstarter is over? Will you ever publish more? Shop it around again to publishers?
I’m researching my options at the moment. At this stage I should be able to print extra copies but until the campaign is over I can’t plan exactly how many or how they will be made available. I’ll keep my website updated though. If anyone wants to own or gift the book the safest option is to pre-order through Kickstarter.