Social Issues

It’s time to challenge our views of breasts

Family and criminal defence lawyer Charlotte Shade, who publicly revealed her experience of sexual assault in 2018, is now taking on the art world, one breast at a time. She speaks to Sasha Borissenko.

In a bid to find new avenues to bring issues to light, lawyer Charlotte Shade is hoping to present a photographic series that explores the female body for this year’s Performance Arcade in Wellington.

“I’ve always been engaged in social justice groups,” Shade says. “But they tend to give people a hard-line view about what’s going on, whether that’s the policy issues or what needs to change from a top-down or bottom-up level. It’s really important, but it often feels depressing and hopeless and I know I find myself shutting off from it all at times.

“I suppose this is a natural progression from my love of law and the arts. I’m interested in how creative arts can speak to people in a different language and bring a different angle to social justice issues.”

The Bare Breasted Project will consist of 100 pictures of women’s breasts accompanied by a soundtrack created from samples of each woman talking about their relationship with their breasts.

“The project is about empowerment, and women taking control of their bodies, especially in light of last year and wider public debate around sexual violence against women.

“I’m hoping people’s perspectives on the nature of women’s breasts will change. Breasts are really diverse, they’re not just what you see in the media they shouldn’t be hyper sexualised all the time or even inherently sexual.

“For heaps of women they’re just breasts, they’re just something that women have (for the most part), and they should be able to use and display them without unwanted attention from anyone, really.”

Shade says it’s nonsensical that male chests are presented in the media without question but the same can’t be said for women’s chests.

“Sure there are historical reasons. Breasts are considered a symbol of fertility, and most heterosexual men may find them sexy, but this shouldn’t mean women are forced to cover themselves up. We need to move past this.

"We have [biological urges] but we also have brains. We can make decisions as to how we want our society to be. We don’t have to accept sexual harassment or women having sex against their will. We live in a changing world and it’s about progressing to a place where all people have choice, equality and fairness.”

Many of the women will have their names attached to the works, and some will be anonymous – something that is parallel to women speaking out about their experiences with sexual violence, Shade says.

Survey prompts brave stand

Shade decided to tell her story of sexual violence last year off the back of a survey conducted by the Wellington Women Lawyers’ Association. The survey, which is currently being collated, asked people to detail any sexual assault or harassment they experienced while working in law.

For Shade, she was in her early 20s when she was assaulted by a senior colleague at a former workplace after a function, she told RNZ.

“I wanted to make a stand that you’re not going to destroy your life, your reputation and career by coming out about the assault. Of course, I took a risk. There haven’t been any negative consequences that I know of as I felt quite supported and lifted by my community.

“I could be oblivious, but I try and live in the world that I want to see, and me speaking about my experience was a way of contributing to that ideal and creating a space for other women to come to forward.”

Why is there a reluctance for women to come forward? Shade says it could be likened to mental health.

“Even if you’re the most liberal-minded person, you’re not necessarily going to broadcast your mental health situation for fear of real or perceived consequences. We’re just not there yet.

“I think with all of these things there’s a massive degree of misplaced shame, and people not wanting to deal with reactions or concessions. There are so many factors as to why women don’t speak up, it could be because you don’t want the event to affect your life any longer, or you don’t want or need people’s sympathy.

"I think ultimately, though, people are often just scared, which suggests we have a long way to go.”

See here for more information about this year’s Performance Arcade.

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