Wednesday, January 23, 2008

Uncovered: Breasts, Feminism, and Photography

From the time we develop them, breasts seem to serve as constant reminders of our sexuality - and not just for men. We worry that our breasts are too small, and might make us unattractive, or that they are too big and constantly call attention to our sexuality at times when we'd rather be noticed for other things. Most conversations about women's fashion focus on how to best keep our breasts covered, or how to most suggestively reveal them. We feel awkward in the presence of another woman's bare chest, and sometimes even in the presence of our own. Perhaps no other body part demands so much of our daily consideration, and most of us have at some point or another been made to feel awkward about this one, seemingly so important, physical feature.

Yet, what if it doesn't have to be this way? What if we didn't feel ashamed or constantly eroticized, and could be as comfortable with our bosoms as we are with the rest of our bodies? What if 'boobies' weren't seen as a separate entities attached to women's chests, but rather as an organic part of our bodies?

It is this question that Uncovered seeks to explore. As photographer Jordan Matter explains:
[Uncovered] is a collection of photographs featuring bare-breasted women in public around New York City, often presented with interviews exploring the issues of body image and sexuality in America today. The informal and humorous nature of these images celebrates women without sexualizing or objectifying them, while creating the illusion of a tolerant world in which shirtless women go casually about their lives. Uncovered represents just one aspect of what America could look like if we were free of shame...
Call me a prude American (is that redundant?), but as I started viewing the photographs, I initially found them oddly jarring. I did find myself focusing on the women's chests, not because the photos are erotic or scandalous, but simply because the sight of other women's breasts was, well, surprising. Yet, after viewing the first few portraits, seeing bare-breasted women lost its shock effect and I began to see the portraits holistically, as portraits of women in different NYC settings rather than as portraits of 'breasts about town.' As Sweetmachine of Shapely Prose notes, "There are bodies of many different shapes and sizes, though fat bodies are in the minority; some of the photos are comic, some are painterly, some are matter of fact." One or two of the portraits are a bit sexualized (the very first photograph, featuring a woman tasting the snow, comes to mind), but the photographs that are most effective are the ones that appear most natural - photos of women playing chess in the park, or climbing metro stairs, or laughing together in open-air markets. All are beautifully shot. Yet, the most interesting part is perhaps reading the women's comments, which range from confessions of body-image issues to affirmations of personal liberation. Taken as a collection, I believe they fulfill the photographer's goal.

Yet, my husband did not share my positive view of the project. "Too many of these women fit the stereotypical beauty standard for the commentary to really be effective," he complains. I would love to know other people's reactions.

(I found Uncovered via Hoyden About Town)


Casmall said...

Yes, I complain about how many of the subjects are models each time I see then.

Anonymous said...

These are beautiful photographs. It is a little disturbing to read some of the comments, ones in which women with gorgeous figures admit to their body issues, but at least it is honest.

Casmall said...

I known. I think a few of them say that talent agents will tell them to lose 4 inches of their waist- is this some sick standard industry line for telling people "no we don't need you"?

La Pobre Habladora said...

One reason that so many of the women have stereotypically beautiful figures and talk about body image issues might be that the photographer works as a headshot photographer, shooting the pictures that aspiring models and actors will send to agents. He therefore works with, well, models and actors who's livelihood often depends on their conforming to (terribly sexist) industry standards. It is also easier to be confident enough to reveal your body when it is a body that is unlikely to be judged harshly, so I particularly admire the guts of the women who revealed their non-stereotypically beautiful figures. And no, I don't think the line about 'losing four inches' is somehow a euphemism for 'go away.' Almost all women portrayed in ads and on television are slimmer than slim, so although it seems ridiculous to ask an already slender woman to loose weight, I believe it happens, as absurd and destructive as it is.