“Alright. Tops off then.”
It’s a Monday afternoon and I’m stood in a church in Sidcup wearing only my black skinny jeans and favourite pair of shoes. The ones that make me feel powerful. I’m staring down the lens of a camera, thinking of all the times I ever felt like I couldn’t do something because I was a woman, or got spoken over, or made to feel like I wasn’t pretty enough, or skinny enough, or that any of those things even mattered. My boobs are out for the stained glass windows to see, but in this moment they’re completely desexualised. I’m not sure I’ve ever felt as okay with my body as I do in this moment.
The other girls having their photos taken (and MJ, directing the photos, who has got her boobs out too) have different body types to me, and it strikes me that I don’t know the last time I saw a normal girls body; that wasn’t stick thin, or model level hairless. We’re all just feminine bodies, together, in this space. And it feels fantastic.
When MJ asked me to be a part of her exhibition, Stuck Up Cunts, which she devised with Ellamae after female sanitary products were labelled as a luxury under the Tampon Tax, I said yes in an instant. When she asked how I felt about nudity, my answer took a bit more thinking about.
I had always assumed that everyone has issues with their body, and that absolutely no one was okay with how they looked. I thought that this was a given; that it was just something unspoken across all women. It took quite a long time for me to realise that this is utter bullshit, and that even if this was the case – it didn’t make it okay. It’s not okay to not like how you look, it’s not okay to be uncomfortable in your own skin. It’s not okay to not want to wear a swimming costume, to be seen looking anything less than perfect, to not want to look in the mirror.
So when everyone started taking their tops off in a free the nipple frenzy of feminism, and I found myself joining in without much of a second thought, I was the most surprised of all. But I did it, and you know what? It felt fucking excellent. I posed and stretched and looked straight down that camera, and truly felt like I was living inside my own skin, like it was mine, and like I was proud of it.
Myself and my experience aside, the shoot did something bigger – it made all the women who saw it feel like they weren’t alone.
“A lot of people have said they also found it quite liberating, that we’ve done this, that we’ve put it on. They said that they needed this kind of radical input, because they’d never seen anything like it” Ellamae told me on the penultimate day of the exhibition at Rose Bruford College, where her and MJ are just finishing their degrees in American Theatre Arts. “A girl came in here and said ‘I don’t think I would have liked this exhibit if it was just one person modelling, I don’t think it would have made a difference to me, because I’d still feel really insecure about myself. But the fact I’ve seen so many diverse women as a collective, working together on this; I feel like it’s made an impact on me.’” And as other students came in and out of that room, and disappeared behind a curtain to print their vaginas with paint for the vagina wall, it did feel like a very diverse collection of women coming together for something special. Everyone who came in and looked at the photos seemed to be revelling in one thing –bodies, just being bodies.
The images that have sparked the most attention so far, including an article in an Icelandic magazine, are the ones that are inspired by the tampon tax. When I asked MJ about where the idea for these came from she told me “It’s the irony of it being taxed as luxury – I was like ‘we should just totally get loads of massive dresses and wear tampons as earrings and all that kinda stuff, just to highlight the sheer fucking ridiculousness of luxury products. Like, no, no it’s not, I’m not shoving a Ferrero Rocher up my vagina.”
And so a shoot was born. Born out of a rage at things still not changing, at still having to put up with the system being forever stacked against women.
MJ told me “I like shouting about it. It just excites me. But I think that’s just me because I’m a bit naughty and I like having fun like that, getting into trouble. I want to do stuff that in no way is quiet, because I think we can’t be quiet anymore; we’ve been quiet for so long.”
For me in particular, this struck a chord. I’ve always been privy to a bit of a discussion, an angry tweet now and then. But that’s not enough is it? It’s time to shout. And taking part in these photos, exposing my body, for me, felt like shouting. And I was shouting at myself just as much as at anyone else.
For someone who has lived a life uncomfortable with how they look, it’s important to realise that it took a grand acceptance, to make me love it. I spoke to Ellamae and MJ about being a teenage girl, and asked what they would tell their 14-year-old selves about Stuck Up Cunts.
Ellame: “It’s really difficult because at that age I was getting into the age of trying to sexualise myself and flirt with boys. Those are the ages where you’re like ‘oh my god my boobs are growing, and I’m starting to look like a woman’”
MJ: “I mean I never experienced that – I did experience five padded bras”
Ellamae: “Your body shape changes though, you would have had a very straight figure, then your hips come in-”
MJ: “-and you’re like what the fuck is going on?”
“What we do now, I don’t think I could have done if I’d grown up in this perfect feminist world.” MJ went on to say. “All of this is reaction, and I think that this is my reaction to how I felt when I was 14 and what I think about it now. This whole thing is ‘why the fuck did you ever think like that?’”
And what next? Where now? “I don’t think I’m finished fighting” MJ told me.
And as for me? I’ve only just started.
Stuck Up Cunts is going to the Edinburgh Fringe, and Ellamae and MJ have asked me to help develop a piece of theatre to go with it that will be headed to Summerhall at the beginning of August. Stay tuned for more information!
Words by Sian Brett.
Photos for Stuck up Cunts, by Ellamae Cieslik and MJ Ashton.