Women in all shapes & sizes

Artist Cheryl-Ann Webster made 119 sculptures of the female torso to promote positive body image among women.
Artist Cheryl-Ann Webster made 119 sculptures of the female torso to promote positive body image among women.
Photo courtesy of Cheryl-Ann Webster

Fine Art Review: Beautiful Women Project @ Studio Gallery, West Campus

It all started when artist Cheryl-Ann Webster heard her 13-year-old daughter discuss her “saving box.” When asked what she was saving up for, she daughter calmly replied that her and her friends were all saving up for breast implants.

“They truly felt that unless they had a body like those in magazines do, they weren’t going to get good boyfriends.”

As both a mother and an artist, Webster decided to show her daughter—and women everywhere—how real women look. And the Beautiful Women Project was born: real-life sculptures of the torsos of 119 women aged 19 to 91 (which she quips is “purely coincidental.”) “My original idea was to have one hundred sculptures of nameless people … so young girls could come to the gallery and say, ‘oh, nipples go that way’, ‘oh, that one’s smaller’, ‘oh, maybe I’m alright.’ ”

Her original intention was just to sculpt the breasts.

“But every time I thought of that, [it seemed that] something was missing. Then the first lady said to me, ‘I don’t mind you casting my breasts, but you’re not going to cast my belly, are you?’ and I said, ‘yes, I am!’” After realizing that women spend much of their lives sucking in their tummies or hiding them behind garments, she decided to include the stomach area as well.

The project took off in August 2003. At first, she expected the project would take a much longer time to finish. Instead, the response she got was so overwhelming and enthusiastic that she quit her old job and started working full-time casting the women.

But she soon discovered another dimension of the project, whereby the participants in the project were also benefitted from it.

“I soon realized that no matter what age we are … we still focus on our bodies more than anything else.” And yet, this obsessive focus works only to distort the views of women’s body image, Webster said. She recalled that 95 per cent of the women “didn’t recognize their bodies” when she took the cast out of them.

She recalled the time when she cast a woman who used a wheelchair due to a twisted spine.

“She can’t choose her sculpture out of the rest of them. You wouldn’t know which one here was of the lady with the twisted spine. It’s nowhere near as twisted as she thinks.”

Truth be told, I could not find her in the gallery, either.

Walking around the small space of the Studio Gallery, I couldn’t help but feel overwhelmed by the entirety of 119 life-size torsos surrounding me. I was amongst the rounded bellies of expectant mothers, the toned stomachs beside the soft cushy ones, a body before and after a double mastectomy, stretch marks and colostomy bumps. And Webster has not done injustice to celebrate the uniqueness of each female body. She has decorated each one differently from the other, experimenting with many different colours, symbols and textures of glass, tissue and fabric.

Some examples incorporating the above aspects effectively included “Self-Acceptance,” a one-breasted torso with a patch of the woman’s own t-shirt she designed for herself (the woman herself is also an artist who has lived proudly with one breast, despite the pressure from others to get an implant to look “symmetrical”); “So Much, So Little”, a lithe, youthful body covered in floral, pleasing-to-the-eye decoration, but deceivingly coarse in texture. It was a challenge to society’s rigid mould of “beauty” is often more exclusive than inclusive, engaging all the sensory system to not only look for beauty, but feel it as well.

As I paced around, Webster explained to that while one woman was sculpted “celebrating the fact that she doesn’t have any [scars,]” others went for opposite reasons, to mark their survival after terrible physical trauma. In a piece named “Concealed Pain,” a colostomy bump was present—where the lower intestine was replaced with a pouch, resulting in a visible bulge. Webster said there was no better way to celebrate such courageous decision to bare all and show all than to adorn the piece in beautiful shades of blue.

The more she shared the stories of these faceless women, the more I longed for a brief overview of each and every one’s life story attached to the torsos hanging up on the walls.

It would’ve been a welcome addition to have a few stories of women attached to the sculptures—but the intrigue behind each sculpture can be a catalyst for more fascination with the visual qualities of art as well.

Due to the gallery’s space constraints, the lack of distance between pieces was inevitable, unfortunately, crowding the eye with too many visuals at once distracting from each one’s unique value. Webster explained to me that the lack of space between each piece represented the kind of image claustrophobia that the media bombards us with these days. While the explanation made sense, I couldn’t help but wish for a more spacious venue, where I could examine the artwork more in depth without getting distracted by another. But altogether, the visual effect of the pieces evokes a startling reaction, which is exactly what Webster wishes for. Faced with the sheer diversity of the female form, the viewer’s concept of beauty becomes more and more open-ended, hearkening back to Webster’s slogan for her exhibit: “Body image is not black and white.”

Articulating on what message she hoped to deliver, Webster stated: “I’m not saying that we should be fat. I’m not saying being 400 pounds is healthy, I’m’ not saying being 85 pounds is healthy. I’m saying we have to maintain a health. And I’m not saying whatever happened to our body isn’t important. What I’m saying is no matter what happened to our body, no matter what size or shape, it should not affect how we see ourselves or others view our self-worth.” And she has succeeded in making the point.

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