United front: breasts without the airbrush

How do you feel about your breasts? One photographer asked 100 women to bare all.

Laura Dodsworth

The Guardian, Saturday 6 September 2014

The shocking thing about Laura Dodsworth’s pictures of 100 women’s breasts isn’t the flesh on show, or the many shapes and sizes, but the realisation that images of unairbrushed, non-uniform breasts seem to be so rare. “We see images of breasts everywhere,” says the 41-year-old photographer, “but they’re unreal. They create an unflattering comparison but also an unobtainable ideal. I wanted to rehumanise women through honest photography.”

Dodsworth interviewed each woman at length, starting by asking them how they felt about their breasts. The interviews soon became more emotional than she anticipated. “I found that, while breasts are interesting in themselves, they are also catalysts for discussing relationships, body image and ageing. I realised that this had become an exploration of what it means to be a woman.” She is fundraising, via Kickstarter, to make a book of the project.

Her subjects range in age from 19 to 101, and include a priest, a lapdancer, cancer survivors and women who have had surgery. The absolute anonymity she granted her subjects elicited honest interviews, ranging from the beautiful through the mundane to the painful. Many women cried. Dodsworth herself experienced catharsis: “One thing that surprised me was that the way I felt about my breasts changed. I felt more in touch with them and they became more erogenous.”

Dodsworth also took part, but will not be anonymous, which she found difficult. “One male friend said that I couldn’t do it because my husband’s business partners would see, and one asked how my sons would feel when they grow up [they are seven and nine]. But both arguments were about the men in my life, and I thought they weren’t reason enough to stop me as an artist, a woman and a feminist.”

The impact of all 100 images together is quite mesmerising. Indeed, when she showed her husband he was struck dumb. His first words were, “But they just don’t look like the magazines.” For Dodsworth, that underlined the impact of her work: “I feel that just looking at the pictures alone will change how people feel about breasts.” Ruth Lewy

Age: 21. Children: none

‘Conversations with my mum about weight started at a very early age’

breasts: 21-year-old‘I did notice that men looked at me differently after my breasts grew’

I like my breasts; they’re quite big and not too saggy. They’re not the best pair I have ever seen, or the worst. My dad is Turkish and Muslim, and my mum is Jewish. I’m an atheist, but I have this weird ethnic mix. If I am with my Muslim grandparents, I do think about what I am wearing.

Some of my biggest arguments with my mum have been about my weight. She says she has struggled with her weight and the way she looks all her life, and she doesn’t want me to go through that. If she thinks I have potential, she will push me, and I respect that. She just thinks if I looked after my weight more, I would look better.

I think what Page 3 does is very damaging to young women. It’s like: “This is the benchmark; this is what men find attractive. I don’t look like this; therefore I can’t be attractive to men.” It affects our perception of beauty, and makes young women think they are valued for their sexuality, and not for their thoughts and actions.

I did notice that men looked at me differently after my breasts grew. At uni, I found myself having more casual sex than I ever thought I would. It was almost as if I felt grateful that people found me attractive, which is ridiculous.

In my first year I was part of a very laddish sports club, and there was a lot of pressure to conform. I ended up sleeping with half of them. I haven’t had a boyfriend. I sometimes think that’s abnormal. I do want one, but I wouldn’t have achieved the things I’ve achieved if I’d had a relationship. At the end of a night recently, I was kissing a male friend, whom I have slept with a couple of times, but I told him I just wanted to go home. I said, “I know it’s happened before, but I don’t want to.” He basically forced me to give him head. It was pretty horrendous. That was a guy I thought I had a good relationship with. Halfway through, I managed to stop him. We were both horrendously drunk, which doesn’t help. He says he doesn’t remember it. It still upsets me. I never say I was a rape victim. I think a lot of young women accept that sort of behaviour, because our attitudes to consent are blurred. It makes me feel sick thinking about it. It’s affected me more profoundly than I thought it could.

Age: 33. Children: two

‘God gives life and creates, and as a woman you can connect with that’

breasts: 33-year-old‘The church has had a lot to do with women feeling negative about their bodies’

My breasts are smaller than they were a couple of months ago. I stopped breastfeeding my daughter when she turned one. I’m not sad about it, but the clothes I wear have changed. Things that looked nice before are baggy now. In my role as a priest, I have to wear clerical shirts, which come right up to the neck. On maternity leave I quite enjoyed wearing lower-cut tops in conjunction with bigger boobs. It was nice to get a suntan on my chest and feel a bit more feminine.

The way the clergy dress is partly to diminish our individuality. The priest is vulnerable to quite a lot of projections and transference, because we hold a particular emotionally loaded position; we deal with inner worlds and spirituality.

I feel completely comfortable breastfeeding in church and I encourage other mothers to do so. In the Eucharist service, there is a prayer at which the bread and the wine are offered to God and made holy. The words of Jesus are said during that prayer, about the bread: “This is my body, broken for you; do this in remembrance of me.” And the wine, “This is my blood, given for you.” As I was breastfeeding my baby at that time, the image of Jesus feeding his friends at the last supper, and then the church for generations and generations, had a profound resonance for me.

I have found that quite sustaining when I have been trying to work out the spirituality of being both a mum and a priest, and how those significant things fit together in my life. Both roles require availability to the people you care for. I’ve had to work out how to share myself between the two things.

The Christian church has had a lot to do with women feeling negative about their bodies and ashamed of their sexuality. I think men are probably quite afraid of women’s power to bring forth life and feed their babies. That’s probably part of the reason women have been oppressed and made to feel ashamed.

I encourage women to feel comfortable in church, and I’ve led by example. Baring my breasts in my own church [to breastfeed] wasn’t something I imagined I would be doing. It doesn’t sit uncomfortably with me, though: it’s natural and important, not remotely embarrassing.

Age: 19. Children: none

‘Boys seemed angry with me for getting rid of something they admired’

breasts: 19-year-old‘All through school, I was known as “that one with the big breasts” ‘

Before I had my reduction surgery, I felt a mixture of distaste and shame towards my breasts. I had a lot of physical problems, which were the main reasons I had the reduction. They ended up taking 2kg of fat from my breasts.

I feel much better about them now. I used to sweat more, and I was embarrassed because I thought I smelled. I used to get very bad back problems. There would be times it would take ages to get out of bed or, if I’d been sitting for a while, I would get pain in my lower spine. I still have deep grooves on my shoulders from my bras.

I’ve gone down about six cup sizes. I’m now a DD. That was the most I was able to have taken off without it looking disproportionate to my shape. I’ve always had a broader figure than other girls, sadly, much as I’ve always wanted to be petite. If I could choose any body shape, I would be 5ft 3in, very petite, and preferably a lot smaller in the chest. A lot of my friends when I was growing up were smaller, and everyone thought they were pretty and cute. I’m not tall and beautiful, and I’m not small and cute.

I used to get very venomous looks from girls in the changing rooms at school when we had PE. Some girls thought that I must have had surgery to enhance them. I was a 34GG. Occasionally I’d get rude and suggestive comments from boys, but I used to have more problems with them staring. It made me feel extremely uncomfortable. I felt it was how people defined me. All through high school and college, I was known as “that one with the big breasts”. The breasts were all most people saw when they looked at me.

When I first told people I was having a reduction, the reactions from girls and boys were completely different. My very best friend was more excited than I was. She knew how much it affected me and how upset I was about it. She was really supportive. Boys were the ones I had more problems with. They said things like, “How could you do that? That’s like slapping God in the face”, and, “How could you get rid of them? They’re amazing!” It was as if boys were angry with me for getting rid of something they admired.

I’m asexual, and don’t have a partner. I haven’t had intercourse, although there have been times when I’ve got close to foreplay. I’ve had sensations in my breasts when I’ve been with someone, but it hasn’t been arousal. I would say my breasts were sensitive and I get some feeling from them, but it hasn’t encouraged me to go further. Because I had a bilateral reduction, in which the nipple is moved to put it in the right place, I’ve lost nearly all sensitivity.

The surgery lasted for about four hours. They remove a triangular sandwich of fat, bring the parts together, then move the nipple so it’s in proportion to the newly reduced breast. The scarring is fading very quickly. It’s not red or irritated, as it it was. It will probably be almost fully healed in a couple of years.

I used to have to order bras from specialist websites. I couldn’t wear strapless bras or dresses. I look at going clothes-shopping completely differently now. I can buy pretty underwear – it’s wonderful. Though lots of companies make petite ranges, there are only a few that make anything specifically for busty women. My best friend took me shopping for bras after my surgery. She turned around to me and said, “I want you to see this, it will make you really happy.” She had found one of my old size bras and was wearing one of the cups on her head, and she said, “Look how small you are now, compared with this!” I felt so happy seeing that, knowing just how far I had come. It was hard work carrying all that around.

Age: 101. Children: one

‘I would never have gone topless, even in my younger days’

breasts: 101-year-old‘I fell over last week – that’s why I have a bruise’

My daughter was born a week before Hitler marched in, and my milk went. It was the shock. We were Jewish. I intended to breastfeed her, but in the end she grew very well without it.

My husband was taken on Kristallnacht. He had gone out, against my advice. The authorities wanted me out of my flat. I went to the SS headquarters and told them in no uncertain terms what I thought of them: “I’m not going to leave my flat and you can kiss my arse!” Maybe it was foolish, but attack is the best defence. My husband was in Dachau and somehow I had to get him out. My husband’s boss was an ex-Nazi, but he was a very nice man, and fond of us. I asked him what to do, and he said, “Go to the Gestapo.” I thought that was a good idea. My parents said I couldn’t, but I said, “I’m not afraid of the Devil! If it helps, I will do it.” I rang up and made an appointment.

I saw a middle-aged man and we got talking. After half an hour, he had to go, but he said, “I promise I will get your husband out, in three weeks, but I want something from you.” I thought I knew what he wanted, but I said, “Oh, what can I do for you?” “I want you to visit me twice a week. I love talking to you.” I was quite prepared for anything. What’s my little thing, if it means getting him out? It’s unimportant. But the man really did only want to talk. And after three weeks, to the day, my husband came home.

We came to England as refugees with no money, so we had to start from the bottom, with a one-year-old child. I began as a secretary and worked in the rag trade in a showroom in the West End.

When I was 52, I had a lump in my breast. I’d had a hysterectomy four years earlier, but there was nothing there; it was benign. This time I thought it would be cancer. In those days, they did not take a biopsy: if there was a lump, the whole breast was removed – that was standard. It was benign and I didn’t need the radio treatment I’d been about to start.

I said to my husband, “Do you mind having a wife with only one breast?” He said, “Would you mind if I lost a leg?” I said, “Of course not!” “So there you go.” We talked about everything, and that is why we had 52 happy years.

My breasts were erogenous. My husband and I had a very good sexual relationship, as well as the friendship. Nothing changed after the mastectomy – our sex life didn’t change until my husband had an operation for his prostate. I consider I was blessed: 52 years, how many people are blessed with that? Not many.

I fell over last week – that’s why I have a bruise. It hurts. But it’ll go. The last time I fell over was more than a year ago. I don’t use a stick yet.

When my nipple suddenly became inverted about 10 years ago, I went to the clinic to have it examined. I know it is a sign of cancer, but it can also be a sign of old age. It doesn’t bother me.

I was conscious of the mastectomy and wouldn’t have exposed my chest. I would never have gone topless anyway, never, even in my younger days. Don’t forget, I was born in 1912.

My breasts were always small, and I didn’t consider myself very good-looking, but I was vivacious and always had lots of friends and boyfriends. My body didn’t bother me.

I’m very careful with my appearance. I wear a prosthesis. I forgot it once on holiday. I had to use loads and loads of plastic bags! If I go swimming, I have a costume with an insert. I used to swim every day until three years ago. When I was 97, I would swim 20 lengths in one go, but my physiotherapist said it was too much.

Age: 40. Children: one

‘I’ve got a great pair of melons’

breasts: 40-year-old‘You can have great sex regardless of what they look like’

I adore my breasts. I think they’re fantastic. I’ve got a great pair of melons! I like that they are perky, and that one is bigger than the other. Last weekend I realised with horror that they were beginning to sag slightly. I wonder if it’s because I’ve lost weight, or could it just be age-related? Now they’re touching my stomach, and I don’t like that feeling.

I would have liked to breastfeed, but I didn’t produce enough milk. I had to mix bottle and breast. The electric milk extractors in hospital are literally like cow’s milking machines. You attach one to each breast, and it’s painful. One of my most poignant memories is doing that while fireworks went off on New Year’s Eve. I felt devastated.

I’ve been single for three years, and I think, “Shit! What will a partner think of them? They didn’t see them when they were perky and gorgeous.” I had a seven-year relationship with a man, then a seven-year relationship with a woman. I think a lesbian might judge breasts the same way as a man, but it would depend whether or not she’d had children.

A woman I dated had been very big and lost weight so dramatically that her boobs sagged to her belly button. But it didn’t matter, because I fancied the pants off her. Sex is sex, and you can have great sex regardless of what they look like. My boobs are important in a sexual relationship.

I was your average Asian girl in the 70s. I had a strict upbringing and no friends outside the family unit. Then I got a white boyfriend, and started wearing jeans and showing off my figure. I look back at pictures now, and I was stunning. I’ve got brown skin and no wrinkles – Asian skin doesn’t age as much. My breasts are getting looser around the nipples, the skin is thinning and the elasticity’s going. The rest of my body doesn’t seem to have that. I don’t mind ageing.

It wouldn’t be appropriate to wear a low-cut dress to work, but I might wear a well-cut shirt. Sometimes I change at the end of the evening, even for a short walk home. I don’t want men to look, and I don’t want to feel unsafe. I should be able to wear a beautiful dress with my boobs showing, but I won’t. What that says about society is tragic.

• These interviews are edited excerpts from Laura Dodsworth’s project Bare Reality. She is fundraising for a book of the project.