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Meet the Bristol artist casting nipples to celebrate bodies 

Ellen Downes’ pioneering bodycasting project aims to help women, trans and non-binary people ‘connect to’ their bodies, while challenging hypersexualisation and sexual harassment.

Three women standing with arms folded across their naked bodies, heads not visible.

(credit: Ana Clark Ribiero)

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​​Sitting on a chair, with my torso exposed and a waterproof apron draped over me, pink silicone gel is applied to my bare nipples. The gel is surprisingly cold, and I feel a sudden wave of goosebumps as my body adjusts to the odd feeling of someone applying an alien material to what, for many people, is an intimate area.

I’m in Barton Hill, in a studio situated in a large, unassuming industrial estate. Surrounding me are several golden casts of female body parts, pregnancy bumps, breasts, and entire torsos, stylishly mounted on the walls and exhibited on shelves.

I’m here to get my nipples cast and talk to the artist Ellen Downes about her recent project ‘CENSORED’, which I am participating in, and journey to creating her bodycasting studio, Every Body’s Story. This aims to help women, trans and non-binary people “connect to and celebrate” their bodies.

Downes, 30, is the first Bristol-based bodycasting artist to open this kind of space. CENSORED, which took place in September, was her third exhibition, and this time, she decided to focus on the nipple, challenging unwanted sexualisation and censorship. “Our nipples are encouraged to be hidden, which means we’re not used to seeing each other’s bodies, and ultimately they’re attached to shame and even our safety,” she says.“I wanted to raise awareness of this.”

The power of bodycasting

Over nine weeks, Downes worked with 150 women and non-binary individuals to produce the 300 casts, eventually lining Centrespace Gallery’s walls in St Nick’s Market.

Downes started bodycasting from her bedroom, working with friends. However, she first recognised the power of casting due to a personal tragedy in her life, after the passing of her sister six years ago. She was cast before the grief but it was some time after that she held the physical cast for the first time:For me, it felt powerful to see myself before the loss and helped me to appreciate all the memories my body carries – it represents a passage of time.”

Artist Ellen Downes with a selection of her golden nipple casts – which will be offered back to all participants (credit: Ana Clark Ribiero)

Her realisation of how transformational the casting experience can be for individuals inspired her to provide this platform for others. And, for the many participants who shared experiences of sexual violence, it provided an opportunity to reconnect to the body in a safe space. With some reports showing that 97% of women have experienced forms of sexual harassment, it is sadly unsurprising that Downes says this was a pervasive experience.

There is also a well-documented difference between how female and male nipples are perceived – the former hypersexualised and the latter more widely normalised.  This impacts women who breastfeed daily, a sentiment she also heard from some CENSORED participants who experienced unwanted comments from the public.

“A big question I wanted everyone to leave with is: why? Why are things the way they are – and how can we all challenge this?” Downes says.

The first time I saw the casts at the exhibition, I was shocked at the intimate detail- from hair follicles to visible goosebumps and perfectly outlined nipple piercings. Like its predecessor, MY BODY, MY HOME, the show powerfully lined the walls with the golden casts, symbolic of an avant-garde suit of armour. 

The absence of breast tissue in the casts was a strategic choice for Downes, as it meant the focus was firmly on the nipples themselves. There were touching notes written by members of the public of all genders, reflecting on their experiences and perceptions of public breastfeeding, topless sunbathing, and sexual harassment.  

Now, the exhibition is over, and each pair of golden nipples will return to their respective owners. Downes has painstakingly labelled each of the 300 casts by hand and offers all participants the option of personally delivering them to their homes- showing her heartening dedication to the process.

“There’s something exceptional about being able to hand these back over to each individual – it feels like the real end of the process,” Downes says.

The next chapter

I reflect on my casts’ future journey when they’re back in my hands. I feel a subtle hint of awkwardness at the thought of their public display in my home – emblematic perhaps of the exact shame and embarrassment Downes is attempting to challenge with the project.

When I ask her what she learned most about the process this time round, she says, after a long, thoughtful pause: “Given the sheer amount of people who were so keen to be part of it and share their stories, it has made me realise just how needed and relevant the project is.”

But the end of CENSORED is not the end of Every Body’s Story. With the platform, Downes has created an inclusive, much-treasured community in Bristol, celebrating bodies, diversity, and connection.

So, what’s next? “I’m planning to rest a bit; it’s been a lot.” The relief in her voice is evident, and she laughs.

“But, after that, there will be group casting sessions, and I’ll be taking the CENSORED – on tour next year,” she says. “The future for this project is so exciting, I can’t wait to see where it goes.”

Ellen Downes will be hosting group nipple and bust casting sessions in November – find out more.

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