It’s Saturday, it’s sunny and even better I have a guest post from @jedihamster001. I’ve had my eye on the Shaping the Body exhibition up in York for quite a while now. I’ve been to the city twice in my life; she’s a regular visitor. So when she hopped on the train north recently I added this to her list of things to do. She’s wrong about her “less than perfect” body (*insert Paddington Bear hard stare) and about 99 Red Balloons, but other than that this is an awesome read!
As good and solid a friendship as Exposing 40 and I have, our opinions differ on a lot of things: She’s never seen Star Wars, I’ll never love anyone the way I love Chewbacca. There are entire whatsapp conversations dedicated to which language one should sing 99 Red Balloons in (German, obviously). I once had to pretend it was agave nectar sweetening our watermelon mimosas (sorry about that, E40, but who doesn’t like honey?!).
When it comes to getting our kecks off in front of others, again we’re different: E40 joyfully takes hers off at any given opportunity and invites lusty gazes, whilst I don’t really believe that anyone could, would, or indeed should want to look upon my less-than-perfect form.
So when I found myself on a random weekend in York a few weeks ago, I was really interested to go (at her suggestion) to the Shaping The Body exhibition at the Castle Museum: charting 400 years of fashion, food and life, and how the definition of the ‘perfect’ body has changed over the centuries.
That weekend was almost 20 years to the day since I’d first visited the city before going to college there, 18 years old and with no clue about who or what I wanted to be. As walked through the city on my way I started thinking about how I looked in 1997, what I wore, and how I felt about my body.
I’ve always been a big girl, and as a teen I was painfully aware of my flaws, comparing myself to my thinner friends and batting away any compliments, convinced that I was being at best humoured and at worst, mocked. I had no clue about dressing myself: scruffy student stayed with me far longer after graduating than it should have done and I honestly have no idea why denim shirts were such a big part of my wardrobe. No really. I had THREE.
These days, I use my clothes as my costume. When I need to feel powerful at work, it’s the rock chick look with lots of mascara and big high-heeled boots; to feel demure it’s a flowery dress, sandals and a shit-ton of lip goo that my hair invariably gets stuck in (I said I knew how to dress myself, I never said I was graceful!). My clothes are my armour, making me into the person I need to be at that given moment. Take away that armour and I’m just a wobbly thirtysomething overly concerned about her backrolls.
Shaping the Body works hard to show its visitors that worrying about how we look is by no means a modern phenomenon:
“In today’s selfie generation, it is said that we have become more image conscious than ever before, with the lengths that people will go to in order to achieve the ‘perfect’ look seeming ever more drastic, but the reality is that even before the age of the digital camera, people would go to extremes to conform to fashion, whether through changing diet or clothing which modified the body’s shape,” [taken from the York Castle Museum website]
There’s an interesting trawl through some torturous clothing – a corset that cinched in the waist to mere inches, spiky heels that could easily double as a weapon, and I’m pretty sure I spotted a dress lined with mercury. Century by century and, latterly, decade by decade trends and styles are analysed: I laughed for about a year when I realised that circa 1752, ‘you’re looking thin’ could have been seen as an insult.
All of this was interesting but by no means ground-breaking. What really made me catch my breath was further into the exhibition, exploring body image, how we view our bodies and how we define ourselves with what we wear.
A clothes dummy covered in labels where people were encouraged to write about how they feel about themselves yielded the header image, and the below brought tears to my eyes – the artist had made a plaque to commemorate the moment the first time he tried on a man’s shirt in public after coming out as trans.
A transwoman had donated the outfit she wore when she felt she first ‘passed’ as female; punks described how they were judged not on their personality but on their hairstyles; fashion students created pieces in response to the theme ‘Identity’ with mixed results – some felt more profound maybe than others, but emphasised that it’s unfair to scoff at another’s insecurities.
It gave me a lot to think about as I exited through the gift shop. I’m not sure I learned anything new but as a resource for teens/young people to combat the constant barrage of what constitutes ‘perfection’, it’s invaluable. My 18 year old self would have loved it, I think. 38 year old me is still laughing about the denim shirts.
“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.
I have regressed 20 years. In the best possible way.
1995: Photography students, assessed on our production logs as well as our final images. A tutor presses us to think and write about how the work of others is influencing our own. We try to resist of course, believing it to be a waste of time, distracting us from the importance of our own burgeoning portfolios. The arrogance of youth. I pulled that production log out of a cupboard recently and smiled at crispy ticket stubs, quotes scribbled from commentary on gallery walls, clippings from magazines.
2015: In the middle of life and no real attention has been paid to my own photography in twenty years. Travel photography I am proud of and better-than-average snaps of life events, but no real thought about influence or a bigger narrative. Until now. Suddenly I find myself scouring Pinterest for ideas, popping into the Photographer’s Gallery between work meetings, handwriting ideas as neatly as possible in a beautiful notebook.
And through the lenses of others I start to rethink myself. Those beautiful Brandt nudes? Wonky boobs and flat nipples abound. Breathtakingly beautiful? Hell yes! So many photographers around the world today mounting their own inspiring projects celebrating myriad shapes and sizes. A wealth of ideas informing how I will photograph friends who’ve asked to participate in this project once summer comes and I am working less.
This week’s photo was meant to be a take on the Guy Bourdin shot above, but the hands and I were 40 minutes late checking out of a hotel and I couldn’t find the image online quickly enough! It’s not exactly what I had in mind because the idea was to frame and focus on an aspect of myself I care less about, but actually they ended up being covered up anyway. My body-negative evil twin says I win there! But I think I might prefer it this way anyway: I love the photo and ‘influenced by…’ is so much more thoughtful than ‘a copy of…’