Laura is a professional photographer and feminist, who is inspired by the human body and relationships. She set up Bare Reality (www.barereality.net), an art and social project to explore how women feel about their breasts. During the project she has photographed the breasts of one hundred women and captured each woman's personal experiences and their relationship with their breasts. The result is the book Bare Reality, to be published early next year.
The mission statement for the project explains the rationale:
"More than simply part of our bodies, breasts represent sexuality, motherhood and femininity. Their primary purpose is to feed our babies. At the same time, in Western culture they are considered a woman’s single most significant sexual attribute. They can be erogenous zones. Yet to others they bring disappointment, inconvenience, and even health problems."
As a feminist, Laura has long had an interest in women's stories and explains "Bare Reality is inspired by my interest in how women see their breasts versus how we see them in the media. They're just part of our bodies, they're not the most important thing about us, but they are central to some personal experiences of being a woman, from body image to breast feeding, to sexuality and health."
Laura points out that the breasts we see in the media are airbrushed images of perfection, so she wanted to find out how women actually felt about their breasts. "Over the years I felt a tension between how breasts are depicted in the media, compared to how I felt about my breasts privately, my own personal experience of them. Right now there is so much public debate about breasts, in fact there's probably never been as much debate as there is now."
She cites the examples of Vogue Creative Director Grace Coddington, whose Instagram account was suspended following the posting of a topless line drawing, and pop star Rihanna, who also suffered the ire of Instagram's censors after topless photos of the star were posted. "We also have the No More Page Three campaign and at the other end we have 'Free the Nipple'. It's like our breasts are our most public 'private parts' and you see them everywhere, in advertising, magazines and films, yet in real life they're hidden away. That dichotomy fascinates me, it intrigues me."
The hope is that the pictures and stories in the forthcoming book are both surprising and moving for readers. "I hope that it will help deconstruct some of the fantasy around breasts" she explains.
Of course, encouraging women to participate in the Bare Reality project was not simply a case of waiting for them to come forward. "I didn't want it to be a project of just my friends" says Laura "I focused on the number of one hundred as I wanted to make it fairly representative of women in the UK, so in order to find women of different ethnicities, different sexual orientations, different sizes, different places round the country, different walks of life, I had to do a lot of asking around."
Laura found that once she had found people to take part, they became quite 'evangelical' about the project and told others, so in fact she ended up with more women wanting to take part than she could accommodate. She also found herself having to go outside of her normal life to find women to bring the rich diversity to the project that is so apparent. "I went to a strip club because I wanted a stripper to take part and I wanted women from all sorts of different careers. There was a lot of asking around, but there were a lot of women who wanted to take part and it snowballed really."
Everybody who took part had their own story and Laura found herself fascinated by the interesting women she encountered. "There was a club night promoter who would often be topless at club nights, a burlesque dancer, a Buddhist nun, a vicar and social workers" says Laura "I met women who chose not to breastfeed, women who couldn't breastfeed and also sustained breastfeeders who breast fed children into toddlerhood." Of course there were elements of great sadness in some of the stories as well and Laura also met women who had suffered breast cancer, though the tales of these survivors were also imbued with inspiration and a courage that touches deeply.
The project was enriched by the diverse range of women represented, adding ethnic, cultural and sexual orientation perspectives. Laura interviewed and photographed women of different ethnicities, straight, lesbian, bisexual, transsexual, all of whom brought their own experiences and journeys to the project. None of this was achieved by chance however. "I wanted to make sure I attracted women from very different walks of life" she explains "for example I knew I wanted to speak to women with a strong faith". This particular aspect of Laura's quest proved challenging though: "Finding a nun was difficult - it took a lot of Tweeting, sharing on Facebook and ringing people up, but eventually I found a Buddhist nun willing to take part and I could never have anticipated the things she had to say."
So, out of all the wide range of women who Laura met, was there a particular story that stood out as particularly inspirational? Says Laura "I knew that I wanted to include a woman who hadn't had a reconstruction following a mastectomy. I'd seen a picture of a woman in the United States who had a beautiful tattoo over a mastectomy scar and managed to find a woman in the UK who had done the same. She was really lovely, she opened up and was honest and you can't help being moved and inspired by hearing life or death stories."
Some of the older women also fascinated Laura with their experiences and their views on breasts, which were from a previous generation. One women of 101 had escaped the Nazis - "I felt she deserved a book on her own!"
As Laura reflected and mulled over the fruits f her project she experienced her own period of change as well. “It's changed how I feel about women in general and I feel more tender about the female experience. It’s changed how I feel about myself as a women too, I've transformed my relationship with my breasts and my own body."
There is no attempt within the project to steer the reader in a particular direction or to get them to feel a certain way and Laura is keen that readers draw their own conclusions and have their own experiences of the project. This neutrality, where the reader is left to reflect and contemplate, is evidenced by a purposely brief introduction. The project sets out to confront, to inform and to enable transformation and, significantly, Laura herself ends the book as the one hundredth woman.
Beyond breasts though, Bare Reality highlights some of the key issues around body image that we see in society, and with which Naturists are only too familiar. "I would say that one of the key issues now is airbrushing" says Laura "When even models are seen as 'not good enough' for advertising unless they are airbrushed to perfection, then what hope is there for the rest of us?"
On seeing the results of the project, some people were surprised by the diversity of the women. Laura explains "If you took one hundred women off the street and asked them to take their tops off, they'd look nothing like these airbrushed fantasy 'media breasts' which is something that Naturists know of course! We're all different, we all have imperfections and we should embrace who we are."
In particular, Laura has found that the younger participants seemed to be under the most pressure to look a certain way. "They're very media savvy, but they're all aware of the barrage of airbrushed perfection they are confronted with."
Laura set out to highlight the apparent double standards that surround the perceptions of women's breasts. She is keen to emphasise that of course people find each other attractive and that breasts are indeed part of that attractiveness for many people. She stresses that "There's nothing wrong with that" but that the issue is around the way that certain presentations of breasts are more acceptable than others in our society."It's become damaging in western culture that breasts are fetishised to the extent they are. It's interesting that you can see breasts on newsagent's shelves, on TV, on films, on the Internet, but as soon as you get your breasts out in public to feed a baby, you know at some point you're going to encounter 'tuts' and disapproving glances, and there is such hypocrisy in that."
She points to other cultures where breasts are not seen purely through the lens of sexual attractiveness. "There is plenty of cross-cultural information to show that breasts are not inherently sexual, we aren't hard wired to find them sexual."
Bare Reality comes at an interesting time. Breasts are in the news at present, with the ongoing debate about 'page three', women's portrayal in the media and of course the wider discourse around body image issues and unrealistic images. So what does the future hold? Says Laura "At the moment there's so much noise about breasts, bodies and women. Look at all the stir about breast feeding 'selfies' on Facebook, look at the reaction to Scout Willis walking topless in New York, the top free movement typified by Free the Nipple. There's a reaction right now - women don't just have adorn front covers or be on page three - it would be nice if women were making the news, not just decorating it! There's some really amazing young activists out there now and campaigns like No More Page Three are bringing greater awareness to the public."
On a personal level, a particular conversation in a swimming pool changing area was particularly significant for Laura when her son noticed the breasts of an older women were, as he described them, 'saggy'. Laura explains "I had to explain the natural aging process to him, that mine would look like that and this what happens."
This led the family to make a (very sensible!) decision. "It was as a result of that conversation, along with encountering Naturists through the Bare Reality project that we decided to try Naturism so the children could be exposed to real bodies."
While not describing herself as a Naturist, Laura has experience of Naturism, having experienced nude beaches when she was younger and never had any problem with it. Working on the Bare Reality project re-kindled this interest. "Through this project I've learned more about Naturism and about the top-free movement and interviewed women who were Naturists. On the back of my son's previous comment about the older woman's 'saggy' breasts, I remembered how much I'd enjoyed being nude on a beach so we tried it as a family. Being naked on the beach on a hot day (at Studland) was lovely."
Laura admits to having 'got the giggles' at first while undressing on the beach, but enjoyed the feeling of liberation and being comfortable that Naturism gave - feelings which of course will be familiar to readers of BN Magazine! The family have also experienced social nudity in Finland and will no doubt experience it again in Austrian spas on this year's holiday. On their holiday, Laura's children were also soon at ease and enjoying the freedom of swimming without costumes. The benefits of a Naturist upbringing were further reinforced by the "refreshing" attitude to body image that Laura saw in the children of a Naturist participant in the Bare Reality project.
Like many of us in the Naturist community, Laura has found it interesting that as a society we are 'programmed' to assume that nudity equals sexuality. "The body can be sexual" she explains "but that doesn't mean that nudity always equals sex. It's interesting how fixed some people's views are - I actually find it offensive for someone to tell me my body is pornographic, because it isn't - it's all about context and intent. For someone to invest a woman's body with a sexual meaning, whether she wants it or not, is actually offensive."
Laura is adamant that the integrity of the project is paramount and for personal and political reasons she will not blur or pixellate any of the images. "The women who have taken part in the project have done so with courage and integrity" she says "This project is all about integrity and heart and the pictures will be shown complete or not all." Sadly, this stance has seen some printers refusing to even quote for printing 'a book about breasts'.
In rounding off our discussion, I ask Laura how, having done her project and experienced Naturism, she thinks Naturists can support people in their self image and relationships with their own bodies. "Oh, hugely" she offers "If people new to Naturism took the plunge and put themselves in an environment where everyone was naked, they would soon realise that we're all the same in that we're not 'perfect'. If people had that much freedom then the companies would have much less power over us because we wouldn't feel this need to spend so much money all the time to make ourselves look really perfect. What would push up bras really be for if we knew what we were really like underneath?"
This highlights a secondary, and wider, benefit from the Bare Reality project: When confronted by one hundred photographs of women's breasts, people will hopefully become more relaxed about their own bodies and more accepting and loving of themselves. These benefits are not intended just for women either - the hope is that men will also gain in that they will learn from the stories in the book and seeing a woman's point of view. "I think some men will be surprised by the diversity of the photographs in the book. Whereas we normally see breasts in a sexual objectification mode, Bare Reality does the opposite. It's a very humanising way of looking at the woman. You read these intimate, surprising and brave stories and I think that if men pick it up they're going to find it fascinating."
Having seen extracts from the book, it is certainly both moving and inspirational, the stories fascinating and full of emotion and some are windows into lives we will never have experienced. As Laura emphasised, it isn't solely a 'woman's book' - men will find the stories profoundly revealing, offering a rarely seen perspective on such an intimate subject, and the stories and photographs are presented with humanity and integrity. It will certainly be a 'must read' book for anyone with an interest in body image issues.
A 'Kickstarter' campaign (go to https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/barereality/bare-reality-100-women-and-their-breasts) has been launched and is proving really successful, with the book estimated for delivery in February 2015. Please donate if you can.
In the meantime, let us end with this quote from one of the participants: "When I bare my breasts I think I am trying to get to my soul, bare my soul. I’m trying to take everything off, and that’s as far as I can get on a physical level. It’s not in a sexual and provocative way, it’s more about feeling liberated.”
For further information see http://www.barereality.net