“I’ve often asked women if they ever feel like they’re just bodies,” says Indu Harikumar in a part-ruminative, part-matter-of-fact fashion.
While there exists a global discourse on women being transformed into territories to gain political and social control, there isn’t adequate space for women to determine their relationships with their own bodies. It’s natural then, for women to sometimes view themselves as mere flesh and blood.
But what do they think of their bodies in their most intimate moments, away from prying eyes?
What do they think of their curves and edges in those rare times when they let themselves slip and savour the joys of vanity, unapologetically?
Harikumar, a Mumbai-based artist and storyteller, has been drawing women’s breasts for about three months now, as part of her crowd-sourced project Identitty. What started as a mere conversation with an Instagram acquaintance, a big-busted woman who until the age of 26 felt she was somewhere responsible for being catcalled, has opened a dialogue on the love-hate relationship brown women share with their breasts.
Indu Harikumar. Photograph by Chaitali Mitra
In fact, when Harikumar was opening up to the lady about her own experience of being a scrawny, flat-chested woman and feeling like “half a person”, she bounced the idea off her. And a month later, #Identitty debuted on her Instagram page.
The first story came from a South Asian woman with a “frustratingly large” bust. After feeling unfeminine for years due to her size, the woman eventually learnt to embrace her breasts and the sexual compliments that came with it. She now fantasises about being an exhibitionist, with a strong secret desire to “have random people see them”.
Interestingly, a lot of women that Harikumar has drawn have made reference to the pleasures of being vain.
For some contributors, having the beauty of their breasts validated by a partner is all that it has taken to undo years of shame. “Women are not conditioned to enjoy attention,” she says, “It’s what John Berger said: ‘You painted a naked woman because you enjoyed looking at her, put a mirror in her hand and you called the painting ‘vanity’, thus morally condemning the woman whose nakedness you had depicted for your own pleasure.’”
Having looked at many naked bodies before had primed Harikumar well to overcome the initial confusion of seeing an unfamiliar bare body. Last year, she worked on a project where she drew parts of women’s bodies they really liked and asked them for photographic reference. Breasts have now been desexualized for her.
“Now that I’ve looked at so many pictures, I notice tiny details and see a lot of beauty in people’s bodies,” she says. As an artist though, it hasn’t been easy for her to shake off that image of the ideal female form. “When it comes to representation of bodies in art, we don’t see variety at all. I remember I used to keep telling myself to not draw such perfect bodies, but I just couldn’t bring myself to draw other than what is considered perfect.”
Wanting to represent brown women in an overwhelmingly white world, she finds it strange when women who wish to be drawn do not send her coloured pictures of themselves. “I’m wheatish” is their usual defence. The discontent among brown women with not being white is something Harikumar has explored earlier as well. While working on a different project some time ago, she asked women what undressing in front of their lover(s) felt like. While there were all kinds of answers to that question, what struck Harikumar was women being embarrassed of their “dark private parts”.
For Identitty, Harikumar insists her contributors send her coloured photographs.
The Instagram page now contains bits from a motley crowd of girls, young mothers, women who have pushed the boundaries of gender, and women in their late 50s. While the internet may have allowed accessibility, it has not made the artist immune to reactions of all sorts. She recounts being called a “feminazi” after the project broke into international press circuits. “Why are you doing this?” is a question she gets a lot. But that does not hold a candle to the daily encouragement she receives from allies.
Among patrons of the stories of women’s bosoms are also men who once shamed them.
Some have confided in Harikumar, perhaps emboldened by the temporary sense of security the inbox provides. “I’ve had men say to me that they shamed someone about being small-chested and now they feel guilty because they’ve read the stories. These stories are inaccessible to men, and the thing about Identitty is that it does not tell anyone how to feel. It’s not like saying ‘smash the patriarchy’ where you’re giving an instruction. Here, you take what you want to take.”
Harikumar’s biggest learning from the project reflects what acknowledging your privilege can do to you. Because once you do that, you are aware that there exists a world where people do not have the same privileges. It’s then impossible to see your own self devoid of that realisation. “People tend to think there’s only one kind of bust. I already knew that, but now there is no way for me to escape it,” she states.
"Save that awkward window of one adolescent year when the sides of my chest started to heave up and hurt real bad, I've always had a very loving relationship with my breasts. When I say my breasts, I really mean my boobs. Breast is too clinical a word for something so punk, right?
From the teenage years of excitedly scrounging for sturdier, better padded bras to realising I won't be dealing with additional padding in this lifetime; from my breath catching when a college boyfriend's eyes visibly widened as he marvelled at their shape and softness (R and I are now pukka friends, and there's no way I can relieve the memory in a conversation. So now it's just a stray-day thought that leaves me smiling whenever it crosses my idle mind) to the first time I made the small but heart-flippin' move of taking a partner's hands and cupping them around my chest (not long ago, haan? Can't imagine what took me so long. Could it be because men anyway start by reaching for them like Harry grabbing the portkey to Quidditch World Cup? Hehe), my boobs have always been my badge of confidence.
To the point that they are my first point of contact when I am pleasuring myself. Which in turn, makes me wonder how I'd respond to another woman's boobs, should I ever encounter one (woman) in bed? It is the decade-long, positive interaction with my boobs (I'm 28) that form the crux of a question I often mull over--how curious is my 'bi-curious'? I am, as you can tell, yet to find out. But if/when I do, I'd pay conscious heed to whether I field the same clumsy-cute portkey movements from women partners, or if we are more about glowing hickies and mindful kisses. I feel silly for wondering, but is there a gender to touch?
How differently would she touch my boobs than I remember R, S or S touching? I've never felt an immediate-immediate urge to find out, but it's one of those things makes me curious when it crosses my mind. I think it'd be fun to find out." They said, "My favourite places to be are inside of books, or beside billis. Neither books nor cats scare/shame easy. That's how I would always hope to be about my breasts, about all of my body, and myself."
"An Ode to my Breasts
Staring at my reflection in the ocean
I undress and sing
Songs of admiration
For my tear drop breasts
Which perfectly fit into my palms
Tender and relaxed
Squeezed every now and then.
of beauty and sensuality
I sing, staring at them for long,
memorizing the contours
of chocolate brown teats
on my warm skin
I praise them morning and night
and adorn them with regard;
laces, colours, scents and flowers.
My only organ of worship
Coach me to swim
In the ocean of self-love
Against the tide of self-hate."
"I am the one with really small boobs. When puberty came and I was expecting a miracle but nothing happened. I didn't need a bra (I don't think I still need one). All my growing up years I heard the nastiest remarks about having no boobs and no butt. ‘Pudhun paat maagun sapaat laagti hai jashi Godrejchi kapaat (Flat in the front, flat from the back, looks like she's a Godrej cupboard).’ I was really conscious of sleeping on my back because they just disappear. I was one of the boys because that's what I looked like too. At the age of 17 they found a lump in my breast a size of golf ball. What followed was a nightmare of sitting topless in front of male doctors, mammograms, sonograms and ultimately a surgery which resulted in an ugly scar. Two years later another lump was found and they had to remove that too. This time they cut open my areola. I didn't think it was possible to remove anything out of my already non-existent boobs.
I was told to have kids sooner. I always wondered if I would be able to breastfeed them. And with my first born, I couldn't for 10 days after he was delivered. All the doubts and negativity came rushing forth and postpartum depression was heavy on me. But one day magically he latched on and I fed him all day all night for 14 months. It was painful and tiring but I was so proud of me and my baby. I did the same with my younger one and finally, I had new found respect for my breasts. They were nourishing my children.
Also for the first time in my life, I had cleavage double yay! It was very short lasting though. After weaning them, my boobs deflated like a balloon after a birthday party. But you know what the great thing about small boobs they don't sag. So I can wear deep necks, and go to the gym without worrying about a sports bra. Yes the husband feels the lack but my endlessly long legs make up for them (at least I think so). So I love my tiny tits because of what they did to my tiny tots."
"Till a certain age I was ashamed or uncomfortable of my boobs. Big and attention seeking; groped, pinched and stared at, these babies went through a lot. But my perspective changed when my boyfriend touched them. Ogling at them he kept showering compliments. From that day I felt confident and comfortable with my boobs.
Now a mother, these babies are a bit out of shape but still pretty good to attract attention. Honestly I love the attention; not only when people stare at them but also when given proper attention to both during sex. I believe these are assets women should be proud of. From a tender age, women should be taught to flaunt, be comfortable and be confident of their boobs."
“I was a scrawny child. This adjective truly described me even as I turned into an adult. I was often called Miss Somalia, Kaadi (Marathi for stick), skeleton, carom board (flat-chested) and football ground among other things. In the little sex education that was available to me, I knew that with puberty, boys became leaner. Girls were to develop ample bosom, rounded bums and small waists. I only had that waist — no hips or no breasts; I felt inadequate. I thought I didn't have the *one* thing every man wants in a woman. Around the time there was a song that was out by Cornershop, ‘Everyone wants a bosom for a pillow.’ It was thus established that I could never be a pillow.
There were nasty comments of varying degrees that I had to put with. Was it just the men who were dismissing my body like I was not even a person? Of course not. My friends weren't far behind. I remember this rickshaw ride around Pali Hill where one of my friends said, ‘My nipples are hard! Thank God you won’t have this problem.’ I didn't know how to respond to that. I have had a well-meaning relative say, ‘What will you give your husband? You don't have fat in both places.’ Silence again. I thought I was never going to get my periods during my teens. I finally started menstruating at 14. But even after I did, I had the boobage of a 10-year-old boy. And that's how it was for the most of my life.
When I was younger, there were no padded bras or I had not heard of them. But when I learnt about it, I felt like I was cheating if I were to wear one. I could so imagine taking it off, and some smart ass thinking, ‘Jasa Dista tasa nasta.’ (It’s nothing as they seem!)”
The absence of fat on my body made me miserable and insecure and I looked up exercises and diets to grow them boobs but nothing worked. When I got physical with boys, I slept on my sides and never on my back because it meant I wouldn't appear completely flat. When I bought bras I also checked if they would make me look flat/flattering. I looked at colours that made my breasts look bigger than they were. Oh I knew I was not a real person! And if I ever had children I would never be able to breastfeed them.”
"Big breasts maybe the object of desire, but living with the twins isn't easy. For one, you are the ‘girl with big boobs’. I wasn't always aware about it.
The awakening was well, abrasive... more like a rude shock. As my breasts got fuller, I found my friend tugging my inch-wide bra-strap, to relay the message that I've have become a ‘woman of age’. Or men would cat-call, obviously drawing the attention to my breasts, that I was somehow responsible for their erect penis.
Growing up, Amma often told me that my breasts were too big and saggy; and that no man would ever want to be with me since it was a thing of shame. Although said lightly, her words already hit me like arrows, jabbing into me and plucking out the self-esteem I had managed to gather. Before I knew it, I internalised that thought.
She was clearly gifted with foresight since men often turned out to be the type. They didn't want to know me; they only wanted to see me.
One good thing about being an adult is you choose what affects you. With time, the tides turned. My relationship with my breasts slowly changed. I decided to own my breasts, and my body. No more did I cover it with a dupatta or a jacket — this was an exercise in me subconsciously apologising for the size of my breasts. I wear neck-deep dresses very well knowing that my bosom will get all the attention.
The men in my life too helped me improve my relationship with my body. My breasts weren't "too big" or "saggy." It was "beautiful"; it was "divine". Some may call me crass or vain; I call it being self-aware of femininity. My breasts have given me the confidence to be the person I am.
Every time, a man (a lover or a potential one) has complimented my breasts or made love to it, I have this happy, heady feeling that rushes through me. My body feels warranted.
Amma was wrong. Men want to be with me; & this time, I choose."
"I had very large breasts. They were GG cup. I felt they were too large for my frame because I am only 5’2” in height. They were very good for feeding my babies though. I breast fed my son and daughter until they were one and loved that experience.
When I was 54 I was diagnosed with breast cancer. The tumour was in my left breast and was around 7cm. It was a total shock as I hadn’t felt a lump nor seen any of the other signs of breast cancer. At first it was thought that a lumpectomy would be enough remove the tumour but the surgeons couldn’t get all of out in that way. So I had to have a mastectomy which meant saying goodbye to my left breast. I was devastated which surprised me because I didn’t know that I actually loved my breasts until I was about to lose one of them.
After the mastectomy I was left as a ‘uniboober’ and I really hated that. I had to wear a huge silicone prosthesis in my bra to balance me up and it was heavy, uncomfortable and hot. I had asked my surgeon if he would remove both breasts at the same time but he declined to do that. As time went on and when I looked in the mirror, I came to like my flat side and my scar much more than my large remaining breast. So every time I had a checkup with my surgeon, I asked him if he would agree to a second mastectomy so that I could be symmetrical and totally flat. He eventually agreed and I had my second mastectomy eighteen months after the first.
I’m so much happier living flat and I don’t miss my breasts now. I still feel like a woman and feel feminine. I’ve discovered that my breasts didn’t define me as a woman and that living flat is a positive choice after mastectomy. I’ve made an interesting discovery – I used to get a lot of stares when I had large breasts but people don’t look at me and my flat chest when I’m out and about now. And I’m very happy about that.”
All illustrations courtesy of Indu Harikumar