Following the success of our first interview with body positivity artist, Isabelle Sophia, last autumn, Britain Uncovered recently made the trip back down to Bristol to find out everything the artist has been up to in the time since we last met! In addition to hearing about why Issy is stepping back from commissions and deciding to experiment with her art, we discuss the ongoing evolution of her artistic journey, why she’s intent on focusing on presenting femme bodies, the ways her art is opening up conversations around body image, and more!
As many of our long-term readers will recall, our first encounter with Isabelle took place at her charming home on the outskirts of Bristol back in September 2021 – and during our nearly two-hour conversation, we covered an incredibly wide spectrum of topics that included Issy’s beginnings in art, her upbringing in the Middle East, her work as a sex educator, the ways growing her body hair is changing people’s perceptions of the female body, and lots more besides. We then headed into a local woodland area for another of our body positivity photoshoots, and both Issy and I were so pleased with the response we received on social media and beyond. If you missed it first time around (or simply want to refresh your memory), head on over to parts one and two in our archives to catch up on everything that went down first time around!
Our special collaboration was so well-received that it didn’t take long for us to start planning out a follow-up, and in early May – some eight months on from our previous visit – Britain Uncovered was once again back on the road and headed in the direction of the South-West! This time, we met Issy by the renowned Cascade Steps in Bristol city centre, and after a quick vegan ice cream down by the river, we headed on up to our venue for the afternoon; which, on this occasion, was the rooftop terrace of a spacious and delightfully-appointed apartment complex overlooking the entire city.
In addition to picking up the conversation where we left off previously and getting stuck into a number of other really interesting and engaging subjects, we also brought along our camera and incorporated another of our body positivity photoshoots into the day too – complete with some of Issy’s art and her beloved pet mascot, Marley, in the frame – and we’re pleased to be able to present a selection of our favourite images from the afternoon throughout our write-up below. As you’ll see throughout this post, Issy continues to be extremely passionate about promoting the concept of body positivity and normalising bodies, and continues to stand by everything she’s putting out there – so read on for her thinking behind this also.
We’re joining the conversation in progress shortly after arriving on our breezy rooftop terrace, and with copious amounts of mint tea to keep us hydrated, along with the faint sounds of church bells and police sirens off in the distance, it’s fair to say that this was Britain Uncovered’s most relaxed and chilled out interview to date! We hope you enjoy the read.
Britain Uncovered: So something we didn’t really touch on last time, that I think could be a good place to start, is this whole debate around body positivity versus body confidence, and the various implications that each one brings. I’m getting the sense through our Instagram community that people are starting to favour the body confidence side of things, with many saying that body positivity can sometimes seem a bit too forced, and that it can push you into feeling artificially positive about your body even when you’re not really feeling that way – but where do you stand on it all?
Isabelle: I guess the only thing with that take on it is that it puts a lot of emphasis on body positivity being on the exterior and the way that you look. Sometimes how you feel inside is just as important. Maybe you wake up one morning and you’re feeling ill and it’s hard to be body positive in the simplest of senses, but I guess the way I see body positivity is that on those days that I wake up ill, or I feel terrible, or I’m feeling low and am just finding it really hard to summon up the love I have for myself… it’s actually learning to appreciate something about my body, whether that’s the way that it looks, the way that it feels or what it does for me.
Ever since January I’ve had non-stop colds and have often felt sick and grotty, but what’s so amazing is that I’m being good to myself because I appreciate what my body’s doing for me. It’s fighting off this virus, it’s helping me get up every morning, it’s helping me go about my day even though I’m feeling rubbish, and having that positive relationship with it actually forces me to look after it a little bit better and I’m like, “Okay, I’m going to take some time today and I’m actually going to nurture myself and give it the nutrition it needs and the water it needs.”
But I also see that body confidence is a really nice expression and way to see it too.
Britain Uncovered: I think another way’s it been described to me is that when it’s body positivity, it’s something you proactively focus on, where you consciously make the decision to think, “I’m going to feel really positive about my body today.” But even though it’s a positive mindset, you’re constantly thinking about what your body looks like; whereas with body confidence you get to a point where you’re not necessarily even thinking about your body, you’re just existing in it and you don’t have to be either happy or sad about it. It’s just a non-issue and not something that’s consuming your thoughts (this concept feels closely aligned to the concept of body neutrality). But I think it ultimately comes down to what best helps each individual person, and there’s no right or wrong answer.
Isabelle: That’s so true, definitely. I think it’s so important to learn the subtleties of language and the ways different terms can make people feel – and how we can use inclusive language that makes everyone feel like it’s relevant to them. And I think if you think body confidence and body neutrality helps achieve that, then it’s really important.
I hadn’t really involved myself in that discussion around language for my relationship with my body and others’ relationships with their bodies, but I think it’s really interesting. I totally agree that what we should be striving for is almost a contentness, where I’m feeling content with my body, all the time, and it’s not something that’s impacting my mental health. It’s all just wellness isn’t it – striving for a holistic sense of self in mind, body and soul.
Britain Uncovered: Do you think your art and being in this world of nude body positivity art is forcing you to think about these things moreso than you would have done before you started with this artistic journey of yours?
Isabelle: I think it’s definitely been more of a journey and finding an approach to my creativity that worked for me. I’ve always been fascinated by the naked form and have always found nudity very beautiful, and initially, I liked that it was unusual. Although I liked to create it in a desexualised space, there was something almost provocative about painting naked people when, actually, that wasn’t always the done thing and people didn’t always expect that, so I think it started off as, ‘This is unusual, this isn’t done so much, and people aren’t going to expect this sort of art from me.’ To then realising that the more I did this, the more people were connecting with it, and the more I then travelled onto this body positive journey.
Because I think the journey for myself was always very insular. I’ve always been wanting to build a better relationship with my body, and I definitely started doing that through communicating with my friends and sharing experiences with them, and having naked experiences where I felt, ‘Actually this is doing something for me, and making me feel better about myself.’ But then I didn’t realise as an extension of that I could actually work with my art, where I thought, “I’m going to paint naked people because that sounds really fun!” To realising that actually, through the work I was doing I could spread a message of body positivity, body confidence and body neutrality as well!
I always knew that I wanted to focus on being a better representer of femme bodies, and I think that’s what I’ve always wanted to do, but I never really sat and questioned why for me specifically that was something I wanted to do. But conversations with other artists that are doing the same thing made me realise that I’m doing this because of the unfair objectification of feminine bodies in everyday life, and you’re taking back control of that. And actually putting that into words, through chatting to other people doing the same thing, and suddenly realising, “Yeah, that works for me too, that’s why I’m doing that.”
And it’s always hard to communicate that when men reach out and want paintings done.
Britain Uncovered: Does that happen from time to time?
Isabelle: It does. I do definitely want to paint a few male (or typically more masculine) bodies at some point, but the most important thing is that it never becomes my focus. I want there to be a discrepancy in my art and I want to represent more femme bodies, just to make up for discrepancies outside of my art work. And to say, “Actually, this is about taking back control of bodies that have been hypersexualised and objectified for so long.”
But it was hard. When someone first reached out I asked myself, “Do I even want to paint a man? I don’t know.”
Britain Uncovered: I know that a lot of other body positive artists in your position have had the same dilemma, and many are quite adamant about not doing it because they feel sceptical about the motivations, which I think is understandable. Some artists paint couples, as a compromise and to test the waters – could that be of interest perhaps?
Isabelle: Yes, I think so. I want anyone and everyone to be able to have a body positive experience, and if that is through my artwork then I would love to be able to do that.
It comes down to that difference between doing commissioned work, and then doing my own work, because if I were to go off and do my own work – off my own back and not painting for somebody else – I would probably paint all femme bodies. But in the way that I want to give people an experience through commissions, which is very much like, “I want you to experience your body through my eyes, and I want you to be able to have a different connection with your body through art.”
I don’t necessarily want to turn men away just because they were born male. Because men have equally crippling body image issues and they should also have a space where they can explore that and feel safe doing that. But then there’s also a message through my art that I want to uphold, so it feels quite conflicting.
Britain Uncovered: Absolutely, and it’s completely understandable that you don’t want to dilute the message you’re putting there. I’m sure you could dabble with it one day if you wanted to, but everyone has their own individual process, and it’s really interesting hearing your take on that.
You mentioned before we started recording that you’re probably moving back to working more for yourself as opposed to commissions – can you share with us your thinking behind this?
Isabelle: I’ve got into very commission-heavy work, because I absolutely love the response I get. Being able to open someone’s eyes to their own body and freezing a moment in time, in paint, can almost serve as a daily reminder to them when they can’t summon up the positivity within themselves; and they can look at these paintings and think, “Wow, I have to remember that I am still that person, and she/they are me.” I’d had such powerful experiences when I started painting myself and realising that I’m capturing something beautiful, and I wanted other people to have that.
But then I think through doing commissions, you are always producing someone else’s vision, and you’re helping facilitate their experience, and I think that stops you experimenting and progressing a little bit. Since we spoke last September, I’ve mostly been doing commission-based work, and I’ve really, really loved it – but I’ve realised that I needed to start painting for me again, as I was missing being able to be a little bit more experimental. Because just due to the nature of commissions, you want to produce the best piece of work for that person, and you want it to be based off the other work you’ve done; because that’s the work they like and enjoy, and that’s why they’re commissioning you to create a piece. So I just realised that I need to give myself a little bit more time to be able to experiment.
Some of my favourite pieces have been the ones where I’ve come back after a little bit of a break from painting on big canvases and painting for myself, and I suddenly think, “Right, this is going to be the most colourful, explosive piece yet”! I want to do a bit more of that. I also find that commissions, because of the cost of commissioning a piece, generally tend to be quite small, and there’s something so satisfying painting on a really big canvas – it’s just really lovely. I think having that time to explore my style as an artist again is going to be really important for me, so I’m quite excited!
Britain Uncovered: When we last met, you had just launched your brand new A5-sized commissions, and judging by the positive feedback these have received online this decision proved incredibly popular! Are these among your most requested commissions now?
Isabelle: Yes! My most popular commission pieces are these really little A5 pieces on card, and they’ve been so popular and I had so many commissions over the Christmas period which was really fun, and it was nice to suddenly have a whole host of photos I could suddenly paint up. It was really, really nice.
But it’s definitely hard work, and you’re also having to paint to a deadline to make sure you’re getting things out on time, and life sometimes gets in the way a little bit and it can be hard to muster up the creativity when you feel rushed and when you’re busy. So being able to create something outside of having a strict deadline is going to be nice again, because time’s always limited.
Britain Uncovered: I think it’s really important to afford yourself the opportunity to experiment and evolve as an artist, and I’m sure that the enjoyment you’re having with these new pieces will shine through and be reflected in the final artwork, which will no doubt generate a really positive response! Have you still been selling your art at the M32 Flea Market here in Bristol?
Isabelle: Yes, I’ve got another market in the works that I’ll be announcing very soon! I’d love to look into finding somewhere in Bristol where I could possibly hang and sell my art, whether that be a little shop, café or gallery. Going back to focusing on painting for myself again will give me the space to create some pieces to get out there.
I have found it hard finding somewhere to hang and sell my art locally – I’ve reached out to a few shops and spaces that sell a lot of work from local creatives, and sometimes the responses I get back are along the lines of, “Oh, this is not really fitting with our brand”, which is ultimately going to be the case when you decide to paint naked bodies! But I’m still really loving what I’m doing, and you’ve got to take the good with the bad!
Britain Uncovered: Absolutely! You’ve been working as a body positivity artist for just over two years now, but how would you say that’s changed your journey as a person? And how different is your life now compared to how it was before you started all this – not just in terms of the art, but being part of the community that’s come with it? That aspect must be a really positive (and perhaps unexpected) addition.
Isabelle: It’s been very, very positive. I think, most importantly, it’s triggered in me a platform to be creative and to express myself in a way I feel I wasn’t able to before. I couldn’t imagine switching off that creative side of me now and going back to not painting and not constantly thinking about ideas. And that’s just been so amazing.
Through the process of creating a ‘brand’ – or at least an idea or concept – and deciding what the message is I want to put out there with my art, having that concept come together and actually feeling like you’re making a difference when you’re connecting with people that are reaching out to you to purchase or commission art is so amazing.
I’ve spoken to so many people about just nudity in general, which is definitely not a conversation I ever would have had if it wasn’t for doing the sort of work I do. And actually it’s opened up a lot of conversations with people about their own experiences and relationships with their bodies, and sometimes I think they come and talk to me thinking that I’m just this uber body confident person who’s really woke and in touch with themselves, and I don’t think they realise how much I battle with my own relationship with my body. They just think, “Well, you’ve sussed it”!
But I think people are really interested in how I work on my relationship with my body, how I improve it, and how I have the confidence to put naked photos of myself on the internet! And I don’t pretend to be all-knowing in any form. I’m not an expert and I’m not qualified to give people advice about that sort of thing, but we just have a really frank conversation about it, and I think it is through sharing the qualms and the difficulties you have with your relationship with your body, that they suddenly start to dissipate. The more you realise that everyone kind of feels the same about it, and actually it’s really normal and there are things we can do to make ourselves feel better... what seemed like such a big issue before suddenly becomes a non-issue through sharing and communicating.
And I don’t think that would have happened if not for initiating this art. It started off as a little project where I decided I’m going to start painting nudes, but then I decided that I wanted to make this bigger. Although I don’t think I’ve grown loads and loads in the past year, I’m still doing my thing and staying true to it, and I’m still making connections with people too.
And like you said, I've joined a really lovely and open community of people – albeit mostly online, but there have been some face to face things too – and everyone’s just so lovely. It’s a really welcoming and inclusive space, and everyone comes to this community with their own lived experiences, their own reasons for wanting to get involved and their own lens looking out onto the world; and there’s so much to be learnt from that.
The thing I’ve taken away from this whole experience that will stick with me forever is the idea of inclusivity, and the inclusivity of a movement. If we’re trying to change the world, so to speak, and we’re trying to help people build better relationships with their bodies and we’re trying to destigmatise nudity and say a big ‘fuck you’ to censorship, then we can’t do that if our movement’s not inclusive. I think hearing how other artists and other people in the community are making what they’re doing accessible and inclusive to people is really inspiring, and it’s just been really great.
Britain Uncovered: You alluded to our previous interview and photoshoot, along with the fact that you subsequently posted a few of the naked shots we ended up with on your own Instagram – but were you at all apprehensive about sharing this type of content with your friends and followers?
Isabelle: I was actually quite fearful of the response from the medical community [where Issy works and studies] about doing the sort of art I’m doing and putting nude and semi-nude photos of myself out there, and yes, I was concerned. I’ve got so much of my career to go in the future and I don’t truly know what impact it will have, but what I do know is that I’m really behind what I’m doing and I really believe in this. I don’t think that it should be stigmatised in the way it potentially is nowadays, and if I want to have these experiences with my body and if I want to put myself out there in that sort of body positive way – and if there’s a really good message behind it – then anyone I really want to work with should understand and respect that.
The medical community can be a little bit old-fashioned, and people can be discriminated against for the way they look or how many tattoos or piercings they have, which is such a shame – but I think that’s definitely changing for the better.
Britain Uncovered: It’s weird isn’t it, as you would think that those within the medical community would be more accepting than most, purely because they’re used to seeing bodies of all shapes, sizes and diversities on a daily basis. So it’s strange to hear that many within the profession can be so judgemental.
Isabelle: It’s this association between nudity or the way you look or your appearance, and professionalism, and the way in which you decide to express yourself outside of the workplace. I’m obviously not turning up to work naked! But if I decide to get naked outside of work and I want to spread a positive message and have a nice experience and relationship with my body, then I should be able to do that without it impacting my professionalism at work.
But it’s such a big decision. I think people really worry about what their employers are going to think.
Britain Uncovered: A few people have declined photoshoots with our website over the years for those exact reasons, as concerns about how employers, or friends and family, might react to images of people embracing their bodies without clothing is definitely a factor that people have to take into consideration before going ahead with a photoshoot of that nature, and for many people, I’m sure it could be problematic. But maybe the only way this culture can change is by people taking a leap of faith and participating in these types of projects, so well done for doing everything you’re doing to support your art and for putting such a positive message out there!
Isabelle: Thank you! It was a conversation I had with my partner and with my parents before I agreed to doing our first shoot, and they said, “We wholeheartedly support you doing whatever you want to do, but you have to be fully aware that there could be implications later down the line.” And those are implications that I don’t feel should ever happen, but if they do, I really stand by what I’m putting out there, and I really stand by the message behind it.
The way that I want to practice medicine in the future is that I want it to align with my core values, and I wouldn’t be being true to myself if I denied myself these experiences because I was worried about my future practice as a doctor. I think actually, my core values and why I feel so strongly and passionately about these experiences are actually going to make me a better doctor… I hope!
Britain Uncovered: How so, exactly?
Isabelle: I just think it affects the way you’re able to understand and empathise with people, and it’s also like a ‘practice what you preach’ thing. So many people, particularly in a primary care setting, have really poor mental health as a result of feeling pretty horrendous about themselves, and having awful body image issues, so being able to understand where they’re coming from and how they feel, and really being able to empathise with them, should make a really big difference.
And then on the total flip-side of that is being able to normalise bodies, normalising that kind of relationship with bodies, and making people feel comfortable. I think I’m good at making people feel at ease, and never making anyone feel abnormal or uncomfortable, and I think that comes through having had all these experiences where I’m able to feel that nothing’s awkward anymore. I want everyone to feel safe and comfortable, and being able to foster that environment is not always easy – sometimes it can feel really awkward and clinical – but having really lovely communication through these experiences, by setting good boundaries and making sure everyone feels safe and having an open dialogue, is key in your practice as a clinician as well.
As we bring things to a close, I would like to say a massive thank you once again to Isabelle for her willingness to be involved and for generously sharing with us so much of her creative process. Our latest collaboration was just as enjoyable and successful as our first, if not moreso, and I was also very grateful to be gifted a print of Issy’s artwork, Grace, which is now framed, up on the wall, and already breathing fresh life into Britain Uncovered’s HQ!
– To keep tabs on Isabelle’s art, be sure to visit her recently-launched website at isabellesophiaart.com, where you can also purchase a wide selection of original art and prints. We’d also strongly recommend following Issy on Instagram and Facebook, where the artist regularly posts her latest artwork, behind-the-scenes content of the work as it's progressing, and a great deal of other body positivity-related goodness also.