'You're so brave. I could never do it.' Brave? I stopped dying my hair.
Should it feel brave not to dye my hair? This was one of many, many comments. For myself, I like it, I think the colour suits me. I don't spend two hours every six weeks at the hairdresser's. I enjoyed playing with colour for two decades, but when the primary focus became covering grey, rather than having fun playing 'dressing up' with my hair, it felt, somehow, like putting on a uniform. I remember sitting on a busy train carriage a couple of years ago, and every man had natural hair, while all the women, including me, had dyed or highlighted hair. I've got absolutely nothing against dying one's hair, or any form of beautifying, but I realised I was unconsciously conforming to an ideal I didn't believe in. Now my hair feels truthful to the core of me.
I'm in my 40s and I wouldn't trade this decade for any other. Age and experience, which for me includes motherhood with all the body changes that confers, are sources of creative inspiration and power. If that shows in the lines on my face and white hair in my hair, then so be it. I'm not a Maiden anymore, I'm a Mother. I'm not a Princess, I'm a Queen. I guess one day, if I'm lucky to live that long, I'll be an Old Crone. I will not erase my experience, but embrace it.
Advertisers create and relentlessly exploit women's fears of ageing based on being passed over at work, social invisibility or romantic rejection. Ageism is still primarily a woman's issue - men get better as they age, but women don't. Outside of advertising, older women attract an almost hysterical level of criticism in the media. Just recently, Gillian Anderson and Susan Sarandon. Look good, but not too good! Don't age too much, but don't try too hard either!
Youth, middle age and old age are stages of growth not a graph of decline and loss. It's such a pity that as women acquire an increased sense of self, and confidence in their abilities, they are thwarted by knocks to their self-esteem and invisibility.
The two year experience of meeting and talking to 100 women for Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories was the most transfiguring experience of my life, aside from having children. The last thing I want to do is tell you how to think and feel. Bare Reality was about curating and presenting personal testimony, making 100 women subject, not object. Here, I just wish to share my personal testimony, my revelations about ageing and experience.
Did photographing 100 women's breasts for make me feel better about my own breasts and body? Of course. These un-airbrushed and non-sexual depictions of breasts are so rare, and so gently truthful, they came as a refreshing surprise to everyone, including me. The women in Bare Reality, real life women, come in different shapes and sizes - there's no such thing as 'perfect'.
Like most women I've compared myself to literally unobtainable ideals of female beauty my whole life. I'm a photographer, I know my way around photoshop, I'm a feminist and I'm pretty media literate, yet none of that has conferred immunity to media hype, anti-ageing ads and the ubiquitous airbrush.
'Photoshopping makes me so cross, I hate it. It objectifies women's bodies. Leave our bodies alone. What is wrong with the female body just the way it is? I know it is done to men's bodies as well, but they aren't used to sell everything like women's bodies are. It is irresponsible and dangerous.' - extract from Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories
The 100 women talked about growing up, relationships, sexuality, marriage, motherhood, careers, body image, cancer, health and ageing and more. I laughed and cried with the women. I sympathised with the sad times, and I celebrated the good times.
'Bare Reality has changed me, and changed how I think and feel about women. It has transformed my relationship with my breasts. Quite simply, I like myself more as a woman, and I like my breasts more. In retrospect it is clear to me that Bare Reality has been a very personal exploration of what it means to be a woman. Talking to 100 women has helped me deconstruct cultural myths and define being a woman on my own, fresh terms.' - extract from Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories
The stories helped me realise what it is about the exacting standards of female beauty that is so uncomfortable - they relentlessly erase experience. The 'ideal woman' in advertising has smooth and unlined skin. Her hair is full-bodied and never grey. Her stomach is flat, breasts are pert. The ideal woman is pristine, scarcely touched by life, a blank slate. She looks untouched by experience of any sort. If we believe the imagery that surrounds us, men are, if anything, enhanced by experience, while women are reduced by experience. Men are under more pressure these days to also 'look good', but overall it's considered that maturation suits them, like cheese or fine wine. Conversely, women are degraded by maturation, and expire, our physical 'best before' date decades earlier than men's.
How insulting to imply that our experience should be hidden. How sad that our beautiful stories and wisdom should not shine through our faces and bodies. If you own and embrace your experience you will own and embrace your body. If you don't feel able to own and embrace your experience, start with other women.
As I reviewed and edited the warm, funny, courageous, painful and intimate stories in Bare Reality I was filled with admiration and warmth for female experience. How could I not feel more tender and accepting towards myself? If I found these 100 women incredible, then wasn't I a little bit incredible too? I don't think you can make friends with your body without making friends with yourself.
'Breasts are part of you. My breasts are confident. There are things you associate with different parts of the body; my breasts are empowering, feminine, attractive and confident. They will change in time and I look forward to changing with them.' - extract from Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories
Stories, voices and experiences are the key to unlocking a greater body confidence. It turns out that, for me anyway, the most powerful way to feel comfortable in my own skin, is to remember the value my body holds, rather than the ways it can be judged by me, or by anyone. Connecting with other women's value was the key to remembering my own value.
If you don't want to get older, something's gone very wrong. Getting older means living longer.
Talking to women who'd had breast cancer in Bare Reality and for No Less a Woman put my cares and worries into a precious perspective. A healthy, happy life is what's important. There is an ordinary beauty in all our lives, all our bodies and all our faces.
I'm not the finished article, I'm no paragon of perfect body acceptance, but a shift has taken place. Not wishing to erase life's experience from my face and body does not mean I don't care about how I look. I'm as vain as the next person. I want to be attractive, I just don't want to have to pretend I am 20, or even 30. Human peacocking is normal, but can we resolve the tension between feeling and looking attractive with fighting an increasingly doomed battle to freeze our appearance in our 20s? Why have we forgotten how to value beauty through the ages? I don't have answers for you but, for myself, the inevitable result of gravity, the beginnings of lines and wrinkles on my face are more welcome when I embrace what they mean: I live, I experience, I'm lucky.
Bare Reality: 100 women, their breasts, their stories is out now and can be purchased here on Amazon
Find out more about Laura's work here
HuffPost UK is running a month-long project in March called All Women Everywhere, providing a platform to reflect the diverse mix of female experience and voices in Britain today. Through blogs, features and video, we'll be exploring the issues facing women specific to their age, ethnicity, social status, sexuality and gender identity. If you'd like to blog on our platform around these topics, email firstname.lastname@example.org with a summary of who you are and what you'd like to blog about.