When Laura Dodsworth started taking pictures of women’s breasts for a personal art project two years ago, she wasn’t trying to insert herself into a feminist debate or make a political statement. She was just hoping to understand herself, and her own body, better.
Then people found out about it.
Today, Dodsworth’s project is the subject of Bare Reality, a self-published hardcover book that explores how women feel about their breasts. The book will ship in February but it’s already a runaway success on Kickstarter, raising nearly £30,000 ($48,000 USD) through pre-orders since its unveiling last month.
It’s also stirred up a vigorous public discussion about several overlapping issues: nudity, breastfeeding rights, censorship, airbrushing, sexism, pornography and much more.
Catching most of the attention is Bare Reality‘s cover image — an astonishing grid of thumbnail photos (detail, above) showing the breasts of 100 women aged 19 to 101, with cup sizes from AAA to K. It’s a portrait of human diversity unlike any other, but the photo collage has also constantly run afoul of social media: Facebook has locked the author’s personal account and removed links to Bare Reality from the news feeds of users who share info about the book with their friends.
[NOTE: Because Bare Reality is being self-published based on advance orders, its Kickstarter campaign will likely be the only opportunity to purchase the book. The campaign expires at 7 p.m. Friday GMT.]
Response to the book has “amazed” Dodsworth, a 41-year-old London-based photographer who started the project as a way to reconcile her self-image with the manifestations of femininity in popular culture around her.
“It took me a long time as a woman to understand the disconnect between myself and the mirror around me,” she said in an interview with Lingerie Talk. “I never felt physically that I measure up.
“The way we see women portrayed on the Internet, in movies and on TV is quite two-dimensional and idealized. I felt compelled to burst this fantasy bubble.”
From that starting point, the project took on broader social and political relevance as women — ranging from a nun to a stripper and 98 others from diverse ethnic and economic backgrounds — began telling her about their private relationships with the most primal of human body parts.
“Asking women to talk about their breasts opens up really interesting conversations about key parts of our lives,” Dodsworth said. “It becomes an intimate window into a woman’s world.”
In fact, the most memorable aspect of Bare Reality isn’t the images — each uniquely individual and, in most cases, no more revealing than photos of, say, feet or fingers — but the stories that accompany them. They range from the poignant to the painful and, taken as a whole, capture a wealth of human experience. Some examples:
Breast Cancer UK, which will receive £1 from the sale of each book, sees Bare Reality as an important conversation-starter that will help women feel more comfortable talking openly about their breasts.
“This touching, inspirational book cuts through the sexual objectification of breasts and encapsulates how unique, yet similar, we all are,” the agency said. “Each story provides a beautifully tender insight into the diversity of our emotions about our breasts throughout life’s stages and experiences. We hope this work will become a powerful force for social change.”
Early publicity about Bare Reality implied the book was meant as a call to action against photoshopping and airbrushing in media depictions of women, but that’s just one of many cultural flashpoints that come under scrutiny in this unblinking book. Using women’s breasts — and voices — as a reference, Bare Reality offers context and perspective on subjects as diverse as motherhood, sexuality, health, aging, body image, gender norms and femininity.
“Western culture fetishizes breasts and when people engage with this book, it might change that,” Dodsworth said. “It does deconstruct the fantasy of breasts.”
Other than that broad goal, however, she insists Bare Reality isn’t trying to prove a point. (The book includes a foreword by feminist writer Soraya Chemaly, but Dodsworth deliberately chose to not write a “conclusion” to sum up the project or itemize its many messages.)
“I don’t want to tell people what to take away from it,” she said. “I wanted to move people and inspire them but I don’t want to tell them how to think.”
By coincidence, Bare Reality arrives at time when there is a growing public discussion about how women’s bodies are commodified by marketers and media, and increasing activism by women seeking acceptance and respect for bodies of all descriptions.
Bare Reality echoes the wonderful post-pregnancy photo project 4th Trimester by Chicago photographer Ashlee Wells Jackson, shares some of the anti-censorship bravado of the #FreeTheNipple movement, and even de-sexualizes breast imagery in a manner similar to the provocative breast cancer awareness billboards created by UK charity Coppafeel and photographer Rankin.
“There’s definitely some obvious shared artistic and social goals there,” Dodsworth said. “Women’s bodies are always in the news, but when I started this project there wasn’t much noise about it. Suddenly, there’s a crescendo around women’s bodies and how they are portrayed and body image in general. The time has never been better for something like this.”
Mainstream sensitivity about the issues (and images) involved became clear to her, however, when she tried unsuccessfully to find a commercial publisher for Bare Reality.
“Every (literary) agent I approached told me how much they like it,” she said, “but nobody wanted to touch it.” The enthusiastic response to the project has been “heartening and validating,” she added.
“People relate to different aspects of the stories. Women have told me they now feel okay about their own breasts. I’ve had messages from men saying how important it is because they are worried that boys have unrealistic ideas about women’s bodies from watching porn.
“Some people have said this will transform our relationship with breasts and impact on culture, too. And people are telling me it’s really important for their children to understand these stories. So I hope they will keep it on the coffee table and share with their sons and daughters.”
Not everyone has been as supportive, though, nor as comfortable with the subject.
Before launching her Kickstarter campaign, Dodsworth (above) showed Bare Reality to a close male friend for some honest feedback. He told her the book made him feel “quite sad” and he didn’t want to look at it anymore “because it would destroy the fantasy of breasts.”
“Well, we all need fantasy,” Dodsworth adds, “but we also need a healthy dose of reality.”
[NOTE: Learn more about the book at BareReality.net.]