Every day, when Mumbai-based artist Indu Harikumar opens up Instagram or her email, she finds a flood of personal stories, intimate details of people’s lives, and nudes.
They’re not unsolicited, though. It’s become the norm for Harikumar after she started Identitty, a crowd-sourced visual art project that invites women to share their stories and feelings about their breasts.
As someone who regularly has online discussions about gender, identity, and body, Harikumar has many crowd-sourced projects.
Her first one, #100IndianTinderTales, features her illustrations depicting the experiences of Indians using the dating app Tinder. She also started a project called #BodyofStories that focused on conversations about body shaming and body positivity.
It’s no surprise Identitty came from one such conversation. A friend told Harikumar about how her large bust got her too much unwanted attention and how she felt about people’s reactions and unsolicited comments. She was always the “girl with big boobs.” They were a thing of shame; even her mother told her no man would want to be with her since her boobs were too big and saggy.
Harikumar, in turn, shared her own experience of growing up flat-chested, recounting the taunts and comments she used to get from others. “We were on different sides of the spectrum [in terms of size]. Our stories were so different and yet similar,” Harikumar says.
This friend’s story became a beautiful piece of art, which Harikumar shared on Instagram, along with her friend’s story in her own words in the caption. With Identitty, Harikumar aims to explore women’s relationships with their breasts throughout all different stages of life.
Everyone has a breast story
The stories reflect a range of emotions: shame and humiliation about breast size; acceptance of ‘”laws”; knowledge and power in learning about breasts; the influence they could have in the bedroom; and the joy of flaunting them as assets.
Bras are another hot topic. One woman talks about finding the perfect fit at 30. Another recounts how she found that padded bras without underwire help her unlearn how it felt to be “ironed flat.”
And why Instagram? The social media platform provides a space that’s intimate and yet still allows Harikumar to keep a distance when things get overwhelming. She’s able to use the sticker question feature on Instagram stories to initiate a dialogue. She then chooses which messages to read and respond to, since she gets quite a lot.
During her call out for stories, Harikumar asks people to submit a color picture of their bust and how they’d like their breasts to be drawn.
Many women ask to be drawn as the goddess Aphrodite; as a subject of Indian artist Raja Ravi Varma; amid flowers; in lingerie; in the sky; or even nude, with Oreos covering their nipples (from the submission “because all of me is a snack, tits included”).
Harikumar spends about two days turning each photo submission and story into a piece of art, trying to stay as true as possible to the person’s photo while seeking her own inspirations from different artists.
In these conversations about their breasts and bodies, many women also discuss the struggle to conform or “squeeze” their breasts into the boxes of desirability that have been defined by popular culture, and how they want to break away from the pressure to look like Victoria’s Secret models.
A nonbinary queer person talks about wanting a mastectomy because “the presence of my breasts bothers me.”
There are women who have survived sexual abuse, sometimes inflicted by a person in their own family. There are women who have recovered from surgery. There are mothers and lovers.
The project started with no agenda, but Identitty turned into a space of empathy, to have conversations, and celebrate body positivity.
Stories shared on Identitty are from women of all different backgrounds, ages, demographics, and varying levels of sexual experience. The majority of them are about women trying to break through years of patriarchy, neglect, shame, and oppression to accept and reclaim their bodies.
Much of this has to do with the current society and the culture of silence that pervades women’s bodies in India.
“Women write in saying, ‘This is how exactly how I’ve felt’ or ‘It made me feel less alone.’ There’s so much shame, and you don’t talk about it because you think everyone else has this sorted. Sometimes you have to see things articulated by somebody else to realize that’s how you feel too,” Harikumar says.
She also gets messages from men who say the stories help them better understand women and their relationships with their breasts.
It’s not easy growing up as a woman in India
Women’s bodies in India are often policed, controlled, and worse — abused. There’s more talk about what women shouldn’t wear or shouldn’t do than the fact that clothes don’t lead to rape. Necklines are kept high and skirts low to conceal a woman’s body and adhere to long-held principles of “modesty.”
So, it’s powerful to see Identitty help shift the way women see their breasts and bodies. As one of the women (an Odissi dancer) tells Harikumar, “The body is a beautiful thing. Its lines and curves and contours are to be admired, enjoyed, lived in, and taken care of, not to be judged.”
Take the case of Sunetra*. She grew up with small breasts and had to undergo multiple surgeries to remove lumps in them. When she initially couldn’t breastfeed her firstborn — for 10 days after he was delivered, he wasn’t able to latch on — she was flooded with negativity and self-doubt.
Then one day, magically, he latched on, and Sunetra managed to feed him, day and night, for 14 months. She says it was painful and tiring, but she was proud of herself and had newfound respect for her breasts for nourishing her children.
For Sunetra’s illustration, Harikumar used Hokusai’s “The Great Wave” reflected in Sunetra’s body as if to show the strength contained within her breasts.
“I love my tiny tits because of what they did to my tiny tots,” Sunetra writes to me. “Identitty gives people a chance for them to shed their inhibitions and talk about things they would not otherwise. Because of the reach, chances are they will find someone who identifies with their story.”
Sunetra wanted to share her story to tell other women that though things may be tough now, in the long run it will all get better.
And that’s also what made me participate in Identitty: the chance to tell women things can and will get better.
I, too, grew up believing I had to cover up my body. As an Indian woman, I learned early on that breasts are as sacred as virginity, and a woman’s body will be policed. Growing up with big breasts meant I had to keep them as flat as possible and ensure clothes didn’t bring attention to them.
As I got older, I started to take more control over my own body, freeing myself from societal constraints. I started wearing proper bras. Being a feminist helped me change my thoughts about how women should dress and behave.
Now I feel liberated and powerful when I wear tops or dresses that show off my curves. Hence, I asked for myself to be drawn as a superwoman, showing off her breasts simply because it’s her choice to show them to the world. (The art has yet to be published.)
Women are using Harikumar’s illustrations and posts to offer empathy, sympathy, and support to those sharing their stories. Many share their own stories in the comment section, as Identitty can provide a safe space when talking to friends or family isn’t a possibility.
As for Harikumar, she’s taking a temporary break from Identitty to focus on work that brings in money. She’s not accepting new stories but intends to complete what’s in her inbox. Identitty may potentially become an exhibition in Bengaluru in August.
*Name has been changed for privacy.
Joanna Lobo is an independent journalist in India who writes about things that make her life worthwhile — wholesome food, travel, her heritage, and strong, independent women. Find her work here.