India

The Indian artist painting women's breast stories

The woman in the red bra Image copyright Indu Harikumar

Ask any woman and she will tell you that most men are obsessed with breasts.

But ask Indian artist Indu Harikumar and she will tell you that most women are also obsessed with breasts: their own.

For the past two months, she has been working on a crowdsourced art project called Identitty - or identity spelled with two Ts. The reason should be obvious!

"About a year ago, I was having a conversation with someone on Instagram and we started talking about breasts. She was saying she is top heavy and talked about how men react when she enters a room. How they only see her big breasts. And I was saying how I have felt inadequate since the time I was a teen because I'm not busty," she recounts.

"Our experiences were different, but they were also similar. So I asked her if it would make for an interesting project and she said yes. I then asked around to see if women would participate and a lot of them said they would contribute. So I decided to do it."

Image copyright Indu Harikumar
Image caption "I don't remember the first time I was shamed for being flat-chested but a searing memory from when I was 14 continues to make me want to shrink"

The next step was what to call it?

"I asked around for suggestions to name the project and a friend came up with Identitty which I thought was very appropriate."

The Mumbai-based artist, who works mostly on Instagram, put out a post in January asking women to share their "personal stories" of breasts, the joys and sorrows - and sometimes the humiliation - that "the world's most discussed, displayed, and desired body part" had brought them.

The participants were also asked to send a colour image of their bust, they could choose whether to be naked or dress them in "a bra, lace, fabric, sheer, flowers, henna..." and whether to appear with their faces visible or covered. They were also asked about their preferred setting for the drawing.

The response, Ms Harikumar says, has been overwhelming - because "every woman has a breast story. The shape and size of your breasts contribute to who you are".

Image copyright Indu Harikumar
Image caption Indu Harikumar's painting of herself

Take, for example, her own case.

"When I was a teenager I was very skinny and I was always worried about when would I get some breasts. Teenaged boys were very interested in girls with well formed boobs. Others like us, the flat-chested, used to think we'd never find someone to love us."

She says she felt "something was wrong with her body", that she was "not worthy of love", and describes how it drove her into "toxic relationships" because she thought she had to "lap up whatever I was getting". She's now in her mid-30s and believes that she has a beautiful body, but says it took her a long time to reach this point.

That's why, she says, she "fully relates" to a woman who wrote to her that she feels like "half a person" because of her "small breasts".

Size, though, works both ways when it comes to the dissatisfaction many women feel with their bodies. A survey of 384 British women found that 44% wanted larger breasts - and 31% wanted smaller breasts.

Image copyright Indu Harikumar
Image caption "All my conscious life, I had been taught that a woman shouldn't draw attention to her breasts. Like, never ever"

Ms Harikumar says while small-chested women write to her about their feelings of inadequacy, many well-endowed women have written to her about the shame and discomfort that size brings.

"One woman, whose size is 36D, never wears a T-shirt. She told me she wore really tight bras to make her breasts look smaller because she was ashamed of drawing attention to them," she says.

In one of the stories on her Insta feed, a woman writes: "The idea that larger breasts are attractive seems to me to be a cruel lie. The pain when I've tried running. The embarrassment of going to the gym. Breasts getting in the way of various yoga poses. And now that I'm breastfeeding, they're EVEN bigger."

But despite shame creeping into most stories, Ms Harikumar says her paintings also convey the joy and pride women take in their bodies, like the "woman who wanted me to draw her in a bedroom because she's aware of the impact her breasts have on men, she knows the power of it".

Image copyright Indu Harikumar
Image caption "When puberty came and I was expecting a miracle but nothing happened. All my growing up years I heard the nastiest remarks about having no boobs and no butt"

The project stands out because Indian society is still largely conservative and women are expected to dress modestly. Outside of the big cities, necklines remain high and hemlines low, even an innocuous bra strap peeking from under a blouse can invite censure, and only the very daring show cleavage.

But ever since Ms Harikumar announced this project, her mailbox has been full. In less than two months, she has received about 50-60 stories and photos and so far she has drawn 19 of them.

Ms Harikumar says the responses are coming from across India, from big cities and small towns, from women between 18 and 50 years of age. But her paintings do not identify the subjects or give any clues to where they are from, thus allowing women to bare their bodies and discuss their most intimate feelings in a space that's safe and built on shared experiences.

And this is giving her plenty of fodder for her project. "I've never looked at my lovers' bodies as carefully as I've looked at these pictures," she says, laughing.

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