Boobs / Ester Keate
Photography Ester Keate Words Simone Konu-Rae
When was the last time you had a feel? Last week, last month, last year? Maybe never…. And what does “normal” look and feel like for you? Many of us will not know the answer to this question, mainly due to a lack of awareness and conversation about our own bodies and boobs. If you close your eyes and think of boobs, a myriad of mammaries (and emotions) will instantly spring to mind; big, small, scarred, freckled, wrinkled, pert, saggy, young, old…the list goes on. And largely this connection and self-appreciation for our breasts will be formed by how closely or far we fall from societal beauty standards. I understand that this might feel like a touchy subject, but women need to be more hands on when it comes to our bosoms.
Ester Keate’s latest photographic work entitled “Boobs” explores our relationship with our breasts, our beauty standards and our health in conjunction with CoppaFeel!, the charity challenging us to connect with what normal feels like in order to detect early signs of breast cancer. We caught up with Ester to talk more about boobs, the male gaze and shifting the conversation around these controversial body parts.
What was the initial starting point and inspiration behind this series, where did this journey start for you?
I guess it kind of started because I’ve got an app that tracks my periods, but it also reminds me to check my boobs. I realised that it’s not something I had ever done. I started chatting to my friends and realised that none of them had ever checked their boobs either. So I started doing more research and for a lot of women they don’t know what normal is. They don’t know what they’re looking for. They’re not comfortable with their own body or boobs. They just don’t feel comfortable doing it and find the prospect daunting or scary.
I think it’s such a shame that the only boobs we see are Hollywood boobs or those selling lingerie or in porn. If we just were able to see more normal bodies, people would feel a lot more comfortable with their own. Hopefully, that would encourage them to be comfortable enough to check themselves. So I guess that was the spark.
I quite liked the idea of doing something slightly humorous so as to lighten quite a serious subject matter in order to take away that fear. There are a lot of health campaigns that use scare tactics to make an impact which I don’t think is always the right way to get people’s attention, as sometimes it can just build the fear that is stopping people checking themselves in the first place. Really, you just want people to feel comfortable and say to themselves ‘Yeah, I’m just gonna check myself’ so it just becomes a normal thing that you do every month. It’s not this big, scary, daunting thing. Hopefully, having a bit of humour will help with that.
Touching on that point that you raised about what is “normal”, we are flooded with hyper sexualized views of the female form. What was it like photographing such a spectrum of different women?
It was me and my assistant, it was just the two of us. We were shooting during that insane storm and women were arriving hours late because they’d been stuck on the train and their hair was everywhere from the blustery winds. And then they came into our little warm, cosy studio. We all had a lot of fun shooting and hopefully that translates in the images.
One of the women I photographed had the most incredible story and her breast cancer had led to heart failure and infertility. But she is so positive. She has all these kids from surrogacy, and she’s just like superwoman. She’s been really proactive with sharing the images.
What was interesting is that almost every single person who modelled for the project, other than the two people who had breast cancer, and one woman who had had a breast cancer scare, had said this was the first time they had ever checked their breasts. Which is really surprising.
The feedback has been really nice. A friend of mine commented “I thought I was really weird because my nipples were this shape”, but it turns out they are like one of the women photographed, and they are really normal. I like photographing women’s bodies and “real women”, although that is a term that I hate as all women are real…
In the context of the fashion industry what is the perceived reality or the perceived norm is often still very narrow
It’s one of those terms that when you’re talking to advertising agencies or brands, and they want to photograph non models, or perhaps someone with a personal link to the campaign etc, they always call them “real people”. I just think it is a strange term.
So how frequently should we be checking our boobs?
You should do it every month, at about the same time of the month ideally. Your boobs change naturally during the month anyway. Then you just get used to what’s normal, and you don’t have those moments where you are like “Oh, my god, is that…?”. Start getting to know your body. Be comfortable with it. Then you know if there is a change. That’s the main reason to do it monthly.
CoppaFeel! have some great resources for how to check yourself, and also have a service where you can sign up for a monthly reminder.
You’ve had a few issues with sharing this series on Social Media. How do you think this feeds into women’s feelings about their bodies and being comfortable enough to check the boobs regularly?
I mean, there’s so many things wrong with social media. With regards to this campaign, the main thing is that we’re not seeing normal bodies. It’s not good for us mentally to be constantly comparing ourselves to just one body type, rather than the full spectrum. We’re more embarrassed of our bodies.
Also, if the female form and boobs are made into this sexual object, to be censored and hidden away the whole time, then we don’t talk about them. We’re less likely to go to our mates and say I’ve got this thing, what do you think? Or seek medical advice. We need to be able to have open communication. Heavy censoring is just not conducive to that. If we were able to witness the multitude of different boobs out there I think that people would be much happier about getting to know their own boobs, as well as feeling more comfortable talking to others about changes they may have noticed or things they are not sure are normal… and that could be the difference between finding out you have breast cancer at a point when it can be easily treated, or finding out too late.
It’s insane that the Instagram algorithm is focusing purely on female nipples not being okay. It seems to be based on the size of the nipples and the areola. The current algorithm separates people into two defined sexes based on two sets of characteristics… what about if a woman has small breasts or nipples, or a man has breasts or larger nipples, how does the algorithm deal with them, and how will the censorship, or lack there off, make them feel about their bodies? We had a bunch of photos taken down straight away when we put them up. One image was left up as the women photographed had small nipples, the only thing I can think is that the algorithm thought that they were male nipples. Imagine how that would make her feel if she knew… instagram thinks your images are okay to show because the algorithm is identifying you as male. I’ve got some trans friends who actually would probably not have their photos taken down, because they’d be seen as a male chest, and that also would be quite upsetting. It’s just categorising people into narrow binaries, two sexes, one that should be ashamed and hide and because their physicality has been hyper sexualized. I just don’t think it’s healthy for us.
If it’s a health campaign, specifically breast cancer awareness, which this is, Instagram’s community guidelines state you’re allowed to show female nipples. But the images are being removed regardless.
If the world was a more accepting place on all kinds of types of bodies, shapes and sizes, then I think people would feel better talking about themselves and would catch loads of different health issues earlier.
As a female image maker how are you shifting and reframing the conversation surrounding women’s bodies?
I want people to be able to appreciate all women, to see the female form as beautiful without having to be sexual, because that’s how I’d want to be portrayed. It doesn’t have to be about extremes, I didn’t want to shoot this project in a way that would make it feel either sexy or something weird, shocking or grotesque. Sometimes it helps being a female photographer, because the reaction you get to the women you’re photographing is easier. They can just be a bit more relaxed. We’re used to a male gaze being a sexualizing gaze. And that’s not to blame any male photographers. It’s just the society we were brought up in. Having a woman behind the camera takes away that sexualised gaze. Women have always been the majority image consumers and been the people buying the most from advertising. So actually, it’s always been women that we should have been appealing to, not men, or how women are perceived by men.
You’ve collaborated with the charity CoppaFeel!, can you tell us a bit more about this?
When looking into charities to work with CoppaFeel! felt like the perfect fit for the exhibition. They are providing a really important service of course, but also they are big on body confidence and inclusivity and have a great sense of humour! All things that are very important to me and key to this series in particular.
CoppaFeel! are the first UK breast cancer charity to create awareness amongst young people, with the aim to instil new healthy behaviour that could one day save a life. They are on a mission to ensure breast cancer is diagnosed early and correctly by getting the nation to check their boobs/chest regularly. They want to educate people on the signs and symptoms of breast cancer, encourage them to get to know what is normal for them and empower young people to have the confidence to see a doctor if they notice anything that isn’t right for them.