Laura Dodsworth spent two years photographing topless women – aged 19 to 101, from all different walks of life – and asking what their breasts mean to them. The resulting book ‘Bare Reality: 100 Women, Their Breasts, Their Stories’ is out in June. Dodsworth lives in Surrey with her husband and two sons, aged eight and 10. Here, she talks frankly about boobs, sex, men and the media.

Why did you begin this project?
I felt there was a dichotomy between seeing so many breasts packaged up to look sexy, and how we really look. What we see now in the media has never been further from real life; photos are airbrushed. So I decided to design a non-sexual book of women’s breasts that wasn’t fallacious. I wanted it to be honest, to show beauty, while not being forensic.

In real life, breasts are taboo. Page 3 may be gone now but for decades it was around, so you could sit in a café staring at breasts for hours but what would have happened if I’d been sat there topless? The police would have been called. Apparently, breasts are only allowed if it’s for the male gaze.

How do you feel about your own breasts?
When I was younger, I felt my breasts weren’t good enough – they didn’t measure up. Like most young women, I thought they were the most important thing, yet they never really did that much. And then I had a baby. At first, breastfeeding was difficult but I was determined. I’d had miscarriages and various other difficulties but I thought: I can do this. And I did and I loved it. My breasts fed my babies – they’re great and I like them. I’m in the book too.

How did you find the women you photographed?
I spent two years working on Bare Reality. At first, most women said no – even though I told them they would be anonymous. It was the women who had hang-ups with their bodies who were more likely to say no and it was those women I wanted to photograph.

I was desperate for a Catholic nun but I never managed to find one. I got a Buddhist nun, though, and she was great. I wanted flat-chested women, different ethnic backgrounds, a variety of jobs, children – no children. I asked random strangers. I asked someone at the swimming pool. I went into strip clubs. Once they had agreed, and understood the spirit, and knew there was nothing strange or perverted about me, they were really great about encouraging their friends to take part.

One woman was really nervous, she was shaking, and it transpired that the only person who had ever seen her bare breasts was her husband

What was it like, being so intimate with these women?
For me, it was absolutely fine. I’m the type of person who will get undressed in the changing room, not the cubicle; I’m not shy about my body. Women do get changed in front of each other – except when they’re younger and self-conscious.

Most of these women were complete strangers so I told them about the project, took their picture and then I did the interview. It was the talking that was most intimate. By the time they’d bared their breasts they were half way to baring their soul. I loved getting straight to the nitty gritty, as I’m not a small talk person, so I basically had 100 astonishingly frank conversations with women I’d never met.

One woman was really nervous, she was shaking, and it transpired in the interview that the only person who had ever seen her bare breasts was her husband. I didn’t try to encourage her to undress, I said you don’t need to do this – I wouldn’t want to make someone do it if they felt uncomfortable.

Did you have a favourite amongst your models?
They were all amazing. There are some that stand out like the 101-year-old. It was a great honour to photograph her, as she’d lived a long life – in fact, her story deserves a book of its own. She and her husband escaped Nazi Austria, she’d had a hysterectomy. She was quite amazing.

There were some really funny stories and some I tried not to cry through – but they were so moving. There was a woman who’d had breast cancer – you can’t help but be moved – but had such a pragmatic view about her breasts, as they’ve meant life and death to her.

How did the book come to be?
I couldn’t find an agent so I put my project on to Kickstarter last September and raised my target of £10,900 in one day. In total, I raised three times that. And the Kickstarter video was viewed 1.5 million times.

If the book had featured 100 Page 3 models, it wouldn’t have been on anyone’s radar. So when people say it’s controversial, or too niche – it’s not true. People are interested in personal stories, and in the truth. It’s not just me who’s fed up with being told to look and behave a certain way.

But it’s amazing how many times I’ve been in trouble with Facebook. They have rules against showing nipples so there are all these pornographic images with the nipples covered and that’s allowed but my images aren’t. Social media is very mixed up. If it were a series of 100 male torsos it wouldn’t be the same.

Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories, published by Pinter and Martin, is out 4th June, £25. £1 per book sold is donated to Breast Cancer UK. The photographs will be exhibited at The Canvas, 42 Hanbury Street, London E1 5JL from 5-11 June. barereality.net

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