What we talk about when we talk about boobs

We have to admit, when we first heard about Jordan Matter’s book Uncovered — topless portraits of more than 80 normal women (i.e. not models), all shot in public in NYC — we were cynical. First of all, it’s hard to get past the fact that Jordan Matter is a dude, who spent six years photographing topless women. Sure, some of the women are old enough to be his grandmother and there is an impressive range of body types featured. Still, we found it hard to get excited by the whole “embrace your body” message coming from a guy. Plus, while some of the jokes in the photos work, like the woman standing topless in front of a street stall selling knock-off bras, some — like the woman walking home from the office, topless with pearls from the waist up, corporate from the waist down – gave us second-hand embarrassment.

But then we started interviewing the women who participated in this project, and reading their personal statements that accompany their portraits in the book, as well as the awesome forward by Susan Seligson, author of the memoir Stacked: A 32DDD Reports from the Front (who, to her surprise, ended up posing as well). And our cynicism (well, some of it at least) started to crumble. Also, turns out it’s legal to be topless in the city — who knew?! Seligson writes in the foreward:

“For all the lusting, leering and hooting my breasts have attracted, exposing them of my own volition seemed to shift the power base. When I remove my top and bra on a city street, if anyone is the aggressor it’s me alone. How can I be the victim if I stage a pre-emptive strike? The experience left me feeling upbeat and somehow victorious, and the effect lingered for days.”

This from a woman who once, while fully clothed on the streets of Boston, watched a man yell “Nice tits”! and then wrap his car around a lamppost (turns out there is a God, or at least karma). Which is why we decided to feature some of the images and text from this book, as well as excerpts from our interviews with the women. We even decided to include a few of the cheesier images, so you can judge for yourself. Maybe you’re more cynical than we are, or maybe you’ll get the warm fuzzies immediately. Or maybe — and this is a risk that all 80 women took, and you have to admire them for it — you’ll just look at the pictures and think “Nice tits.”

We’ll feature four of the women today, and four more here on Thursday.

Katie: “I had a meeting with a casting director from L.A. Without a glance at my headshot or resume, he looks at me — all 5’2″, 125lb of me — and says ‘You need to lose 20 or gain 30 because where you are right now, we can’t do anything with you.’”

Em & Lo: We have to admit, we totally understand your mom’s reaction to the shoot. [Katie's mom told her that Jordan was "using you to make money, to cater to guys who get off on breasts .... Why couldn't you make that [body image] statement in a bathing suit?”] Has she softened at all now that she’s seen the book?

Katie: Four years down the road, Mom still refuses to see my pictures. We have talked about it a few times, and she has calmed down since that first loud and emotional conversation; initially, she was very harsh about Jordan, calling him a pervert and accusing him of taking advantage of me, but now accepts that it was my choice to participate and that I wanted to do this, though she still doesn’t understand why and says she “never will and doesn’t need to.” I hope she changes her mind one day.

E&L: We found it interesting how Susan Seligson describes in the intro how baring her breasts took the power away from the oglers by making a preemptive strike, she felt that it shifted the power base. Did you experience that?

Katie: Can I say Yes and No to this one? As an individual, yes, I felt tremendously empowered. There was a unique high and sense of invincibility that came from being topless. However, I doubt I would have felt so safe if Jordan (a very tall man with a very big presence) hadn’t been just a few steps away. And I found that not censoring myself meant some onlookers were also much less censored. In particular, one man asked my name and then said, “I like to know who I’m jerking off to later.” Another man grabbed my breast! We did some pictures (not in the book) near the Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, and a man dressed like Santa Claus took a few photos with me. He put his arm around me, as many people do when posing with someone, but went one step further and cupped my breast; I suppose he reasoned that if I was comfortable showing them off, I’d be fine having them touched too. Break one boundary, so you must not have any others.

In the end, Susan’s statement makes me wonder why it’s necessary to make a “preemptive strike” at all? Why is any of that behavior — ogling, gesturing, cat-calling, fondling — deemed acceptable or as commonplace, regardless of whether a woman is topless? It’s like the belief that women wearing short skirts are more likely to be raped; shouldn’t we be able to wear or not wear whatever we want without being objectified or feeling unsafe? I think part of the point of Uncovered is to ask why boobs are such a big deal in the first place.

E&L: By the way, we had no idea it was legal to do this! Do you think most people don’t realize that?

Katie: I don’t think many people give the matter much thought one way or the other until they’re confronted with it. But Jordan has to carry a copy of the law around with him while shooting because more people are inclined to assume that it’s wrong than the alternative.

E&L: Are you still glad you did it? Who have you shown the book to?

Katie: I’m always glad I did it. It was a terribly exhilarating, liberating, thought-provoking, and fun experience. I’m not shy about sharing it with anyone who wants to see. Mom and Dad still pretend it never happened, but I have other family members who were very proud. My best friend in Seattle has my photo framed on her living room wall. I’m a certified Pilates Instructor, which leads to many conversations about body image, so everyone I work with has seen it. I shared it with a client who recently underwent a mastectomy and is going through reconstruction. I hope as many people as possible see Uncovered and engage in conversations about body image, sexuality, and our culture as a whole.

Brooke: “My relationship with my body has always been complicated. The first time I threw up my dinner on purpose, I was 11. … Most of my life, I’ve tried to fit myself into something smaller than I really am: smaller jeans, straighter hair, a smaller nose, a quieter laugh, less vivid behavior. Sometimes — today, at least — I want to stand on the top of a very tall building and celebrate myself as a woman and as an artist and as a size 6.”

Kim: “I love my lips, my hands, my eyes and my feet … and the swell of my belly. I think all women should have that lower swell, I think that is so sexy. I think that’s the most beautiful part of a woman — and men love it! Women try to get rid of it, but men love it. … My grandfather always said to me, ‘We’re not all the same. And you’re not meant to look like Gretchen who lives down the road; you’re meant to look like Kimberly.’ … I was a 34D at age 11. The kids used to tease me and I would cry because I felt like a freak. But he said, ‘Don’t feel that way. You look the way you’re supposed to look.’ … So growing up, I knew this. And I know that no matter how much weight I lose, I will never look like Tyra Banks, so why not be the best Kim I can be?”

Em & Lo: You have such a great perspective on body and body image, and it seems like you’re handing that down to your son, too. For women who didn’t grow up with a family as supportive as you did, do you have any advice on how to love and embrace the body you have?

Kim: You must look in the mirror and say “I am the best me I can be. This is what I am meant to look like.” That does help a lot. And if that doesn’t work, then just let other people’s eyes be your mirrors.

E&L: We found it interesting how Susan Seligson describes in the intro how baring her breasts took the power away from the oglers by making a preemptive strike, she felt that it shifted the power base. Did you experience that?

Kim: Not so much a shift as just it balancing. It felt like it must for a guy to take off his shirt on a hot day: “That feels so much better!”

E&L: Do you think this project worked? Do you think the photo shoots did change people’s view of what it means to see bare breasts? Or is there the chance that guys who like to ogle breasts will just see this book as one more chance to ogle?

Kim: A little bit of both. That being said, it did change how bare breasts are seen, even if it is on a minuet level. When men (or women for that matter) begin to ogle the exposed breasts, their eyes will naturally glance over to the words and that is how the project works. First you ogle, then you’re open.

E&L: Are you still glad you did it?

Kim: I am very proud to have been a part of this project and there is no shame in it at all.  All of my family and friends have seen it. Also, don’t forget to mention that a percentage of the profits from this book will go to the Somaly Mam Foundation, a charity committed to ending sexual slavery in Southeast Asia.

Ivy: “My mother always said, ‘More than a mouthful is wasted.’”

Check back in on Thursday for portraits and stories from three more women featured in Jordan Matter’s Uncovered.