In every society there seems to be a specific spectrum of exposed body that is considered acceptable for women, says documentary photographer Elin Berge at TEDxUmeå. Berge has spent years photographing women — exploring the invisible boundaries that define acceptable women’s clothing. For women, there is always “too naked” or “too covered up,” Berge says, and both garner extreme reactions from others.
Berge began photographing young Muslim women wearing hijabs in Sweden after several national and international debates took place about whether or not women should wear a veil, she says. People were coming to conclusions about the “issue” without actually consulting women who wear hijabs, so Berge traveled the country interviewing and photographing women in hijabs. Through portraits and quotes, the work — Slöjor (Veils) — gives a voice to a group of women that often are discussed, but seldom heard, Berge says.
Many women she interviewed for Slöjor referred to the hijab “as a strategy to gain more freedom in the public space,” Berge says. Women told her, “the hijab moves focus from my body to my personality” and “[with the hijab] I don’t have to think about normative beauty,” statements that boldly defy the assumption that women in veils are victims and other oft-quoted assumptions about Muslim women, Berge says.
On the other end of the clothing spectrum is Bara Bröst (Merely Breasts) — a protest movement sparked by the ejection of two female swimmers from a Swedish bath house for not wearing bikini tops. Women of Bara Bröst hoped to show that men’s and women’s breasts were not so different, and that one shouldn’t be more socially acceptable than the other.
Berge began photographing the women of the movement — who posed with bare breasts — as a way to “gain freedom in the public space by taking clothes off” instead of choosing an item to put on, she says. “They simply want the female breasts to be seen the same way as men’s because they feel that being sexual objects is something they are limited by,” Berge says.
Both Bara Bröst and Slöjor are attempts to document women working to “break free from being objects in a commercial and hypersexualized world,” Berge says. Her talk urges us as a society to evaluate the ways in which women are limited by their appearances and applaud the varied ways that women try to break free of those barriers.
To learn more, watch Berge’s entire talk below: