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  • Writer's pictureLeah Jewett

Full disclosure: photographer Laura Dodsworth on what she learned from documenting naked people

Artist/activist Laura Dodsworth confronts inhibitions: for her Bare Reality book series she photographed 300 people’s breasts, penises and vulvas and recorded their relationship to their body in words. No wonder she’s been called a “slayer of taboos”. Her first book – 100 Women, Their Breasts, Their Stories – was published in 2015. Manhood came next. This year the Channel 4 documentary 100 Vaginas showed Dodsworth photographing vulvas for the final volume, Womanhood.

At a Candid Collective event in July, Dodsworth gave a funny, warm, searingly honest talk and described how, despite friends’ misgivings, she included a shot of her own breasts in the first Bare Reality book and did herself proud.

Here is Outspoken’s rendition of Laura Dodsworth’s fascinating take on porn, Photoshopping and pleasure…

My father had a pink satin cushion with a photo of Page 3 model Sam Fox on it, and when I was 10 I’d lie against in it the back seat of the car. It’s hard to believe now, but the Sun did a countdown in the newspaper until the day Sam Fox turned 16 and they could publish a topless picture of her.

That satin cushion made me feel intimidated about growing up to be a woman. It planted in me the idea that women should be pretty and decorative, that men are supposed to look at us in an appreciative way. For me it didn’t measure up – there was a gap between reality and how women were supposed to be. That gap has got bigger since then. With Photoshopping, fantasy is passed off as reality. It’s a lie. As Cindy Crawford once said: “I wish I looked like Cindy Crawford.”

We’re not the most open, nude country. There’s a lot of self-censorship. In photographing and interviewing 300 women and men about taboo parts of their bodies, I learned about the shame people have. But it helps to confront our stories – and artwork like mine can be reassuring.

Many men feel inadequate. Photographing the men opened up a soft, vulnerable conversation with them. I love the way one guy said: “Let’s put sex back on a fucking pedestal.” To that I add: let’s put real bodies and real desires on a pedestal. Real beauty lies in reality.

In a gross parody of gender equality, advertising gives men false ideals – they need to be rich, successful, hench, hung, man enough. Touchingly, one man said to me: “You have to look for the hero within.”

Meanwhile many women feel they are too much. The aspiration and ambition for women is to be attractive, and that brings anxiety, shame and discomfort. Look at Barbies. Look at vulvas in porn – the pink perfect heart, the “porn pussy”. But it’s two dimensional. It’s a tragedy.

Women’s breasts have been stolen from us, packaged and sold back as unattainable fantasy baubles. Thanks, patriarchy. It took me a long time to realise: my breasts aren’t just for men during sex. And to realise that pleasure is about where we are in our head and our body.

There aren’t enough stories of female masturbation. Teen magazines should say: “Have an orgasm before you have sex. In porn you’ll see women faking orgasms – but never fake it. Porn is shaping your sexual responses. Learn about the orgasm gap.” I learned about different orgasms and thought: what have I been doing with my time on earth?!

Photographing vulvas was not like photographing breasts or penises – it was more like looking into the heart or guts of a person; it was interiorised.

Often women talked about not wanting want anyone to look at them, being worried about oral sex because of how they might taste or smell; they felt their vulvas were ugly, abnormal. They’re conditioned by the feminine-hygiene supermarket aisle – I call it the walk of shame. Those products are designed to make you feel bad about yourself so you buy things.

I’m a card-carrying feminist, so I was shocked to hear women’s stories about child grooming and rape. Women experience more sexual trauma and shame than men, and religions make women’s bodies dirty. Shame is used to hold women down and to suppress their anger, because controlling sexuality makes women pliable.

While making the Bare Reality books I found that the intimacy people felt was with themselves, not just with me. There is no better way to bond than through an intimate story. In recording their images and stories I felt connection, tenderness, spark.

I also revealed myself to myself. It’s about the alignment of creative and sexual selves. I’ve come to feel more comfortable as a woman and create more erogenous, sexual feelings. Needing to find my sexiness with other people, I tried some raw, juicy encounters. I love sex, and sexiness, and quite a bit of sexualisation.

Doing the breast book made me feel comfortable in my own skin. Then doing the vulva book transformed me – it made me feel angry, sexy, powerful.

I had always been a “good girl”. I’d switched off my anger and the nerve endings in my vagina. But now I want to keep that anger. I like it. I have more assertive boundaries – assertive in a quiet, deep way. A warrior-like strength.

One of my early projects was about identity – I took pictures of women wearing their wedding dresses in their own homes – and it was then that I realised I wanted stories.

Now I want to help change the conversation around female pleasure.

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