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Interview with artist and body positivity advocate, Ilhem!

In our latest interview, Britain Uncovered is speaking with artist and body positivity advocate, Ilhem! We’re discussing all the ways the artist’s current project – aptly named ‘My Body, My Story’ – is helping people to celebrate their bodies whilst providing them with a newfound sense of body confidence; and Ilhem also provides some really fascinating insight into how and why she decided to create this platform of positivity!

Ilhem, a body positivity artist, posing at the Goldborne Road market in London
Ilhem at the Goldborne Road market in London

(Trigger Warning: Although this story chronicles the inspirational ways in which Ilhem has managed to overcome her eating disorders, please proceed with caution if this is a subject matter that could potentially cause distress.)

Britain Uncovered: Hi Ilhem! We’re really looking forward to hearing your views on a wide range of body positivity matters, along with the ways your art and the various projects you’re involved in are supporting this initiative and enabling people to feel happier and more comfortable about themselves!

To start with, can you tell us a little bit about your latest project, My Body, My Story? How did it first come about, and what were some of your early aspirations when you started work on it?

Ilhem: The idea for My Body, My Story came up when I started to work on my relationship with my body about a year ago as, from a very young age, I didn't like how I looked. It has made me suffer from depression and anxiety, which made me put on 30kg [around 4.7 stone]. A year and a half ago, I started to challenge myself by getting some professional support to understand my body – from a nutritionist, a sports coach and a psychologist – because I couldn’t do it by myself. They have all been a great help, as I have learned that due to my PCOS (Polycystic Ovary Syndrome), my body is insulin resistant; which means that I had to learn how to nourish it, so that my insulin and weight are in control.

Then, when I joined a Body Love Sketch Club online life drawing session, I once again challenged myself to show my naked body for the first time ever so that I could face my fear and self-criticism. The experience was awesome, because not only was it not as hard as I expected, but it has also liberated me. Then, when the other life drawing participants started sharing how they felt about their body – which I found beautiful – I realised that I wasn't the only one going into this common ‘dark place’ where we feel negatively about our bodies. The girl speaking was stunning in my eyes, but yet we felt the same. This is when the idea of My Body, My Story started to take shape.

I named it that because we all have our individual bodies and a story that comes with it, and no one else can tell it better than the person living in it. But this time, instead of looking at the negative aspect of it, I decided to offer a space where we can take a moment and reflect on the positives instead. So my idea is to collect as many stories as possible from participants of any gender, sex and generation about the relationship they have with their body. I ask them to tell me what part of their body they love or have learned to accept in a short paragraph, and they also send me a reference picture so I can draw them. Once it's done, I post my drawing of them with their story.

I want to shift negative talk and thoughts about our bodies to a more positive approach by sharing real bodies, real stories and real struggles. I want to create (and follow) a movement that normalises talking about our bodies without us feeling weird or ashamed. The audience may or may not relate, but we can learn from each other with no judgement.

Artwork featured in Ilhem's 'My Body, My Story' project
My Body, My Story number 29 - Eugénie

BU: How many participants have you had involved so far, and what type of reactions have you received to the artwork you’ve created for people?

Ilhem: So far, I have had 42 participants, which has led to the creation of 42 stories and drawings – and I have more people joining too. The reactions have been amazing and supportive, and have given me the encouragement to continue with this project. I have people sending me direct messages telling me how much they love this project and my art, and they relate to it and want to participate. They also tell me that the world needs people like me to address this kind of topic. It’s so kind and positive. I want My Body, My Story to become our project, not just mine.

BU: Along with the art you’re creating, participants also submit a paragraph or two detailing some of the struggles or hang-ups they have with their own bodies – which I’d imagine really influences the direction you take with the subsequent artwork.

How impactful is it hearing other people’s testimonies regarding their bodies, and do you feel that people sharing their insecurities with others can be a therapeutic process? It must feel really fulfilling to have created this type of platform in which people can share their thoughts and feelings about their bodies in such a safe and supportive environment.

Ilhem: Absolutely! Their stories move me and inspire me as an artist (as well as on a personal level) every day. It is a big deal to share those parts of us that we often don’t talk about, and the secrets we hold on to because we’re too scared to share. For some participants, sharing a part of themselves they love or have learned to accept sometimes goes through sharing their insecurities first – which isn’t always easy to do, but it seems like it’s so liberating and healing.

Their stories inspire my art as I build a friendship with them built on trust and compassion. I am so grateful that everyone involved in this community we have created is very respectful of one another. There are never any negative comments, as there isn’t a right or wrong story. You can either relate to someone’s story, or simply learn from each other. I believe that if us adults normalise talking about the body in a non-sexual way, even though sex is part of it, then children would feel comfortable and confident to speak with one another or to a member of a family and talk about anything. And this, in turn, would diminish bullying in schools.

So yes, I am offering a platform where anyone is welcome to share. Normalising conversations around the body is the start of the global healing the world needs. We all need tools and support, so why not do it together. Let's say that it is a form of art therapy (even though I am not pretending to be a therapist in any form.)

Artwork featured in Ilhem's 'My Body, My Story' project
My Body, My Story number 15 - Sabrina

BU: Is there any artwork in the My Body, My Story series that you are particularly proud of, and are there any particular success stories where your creations have helped participants feel more confident about themselves or their bodies?

Ilhem: This a very good question. I have been proud of all the stories shared and the artwork I have created. Having said that, I feel that my art is evolving through the time I have been drawing on this project. For instance, I have decided to draw the outline with my less dominant hand as a way to get away from perfect lines and to catch more vulnerable lines. As a result, I have developed a new skill and my left-hand drawing has improved immensely. I also allow my imagination to be transported by the stories being shared.

The story that has inspired me the most – and had an impact on me personally – is the one where the participant talked about her body hair. Due to a treatment for my psoriasis, I had to let my body hair grow out, which I haven’t done for a very long time (I actually documented it all to show how I felt growing it). Therefore, that story gave me confidence to go ahead with it because I agreed so much with the beautiful participant who shared her story on the subject. She loves and has embraced her body hair, whilst others would make negative comments about it. It does irritate me to follow society’s beauty standards! I believe in choice and the wellbeing we feel is right for ourselves; and that should not be dictated to us by others.

There are too many beautiful stories that have been shared with me to name them all, but they are all worth reading to help learn about what other people go through. I might not have the exact same feelings as each participant, but I have related to so many aspects of their stories – which, in a way, made me think it’s actually the human condition to share similar thoughts, probably based on the world we have been brought up in.

I have felt grateful, emotional and happy at the same time when reading the participants’ testimonies. It helps me to stay grounded, and it reminds me to be kinder to myself. I would say the common thread is that we live in fear to please others and to fit in, whereas being yourself is what really needs to be celebrated. We are definitely too critical of ourselves.

Ilhem posing alongside artist and friend, Jama Elmi
Ilhem posing alongside artist and friend, Jama Elmi

BU: How would you describe your own relationship with your body over the years, and would you consider yourself to be confident or positive about your body, by and large? What are some of the things you’ve learned about yourself and your own body as a result of starting this project?

Ilhem: I am a ‘work in progress’, as they say. I have had a negative outlook on myself and what I look like from a very young age. I remember when I was about six years old, a friend of a family member made a comment about my cheeks, saying how big they are – and that was the first time that I can remember questioning my looks. Then I can remember always comparing myself to the kids who had a completely different body shape, or different hair to mine, and I always wanted to be slimmer and taller with straight hair.

Although I wasn’t overweight or anything, looking back, I did struggle with my weight during adolescence – which made me try all these fad diets, to the point I developed eating disorders (anorexia and bulimia) that I managed to hide from my family for years. To this day, I still don’t think they are actually aware of it. In the 1990s, I was influenced by the era of supermodels like Claudia Schiffer and Cindy Crawford. It didn't help, because my body didn’t look like theirs, and I have never looked nothing like them. I also studied fashion design back in Paris where I grew up. So my mind was immersed in this superficial world.

I still struggle with an eating disorder, but I would say that it is in check because I have learned about my body and sought medical help. Today, my goal has changed, and I have matured and now try to learn from my past experiences. I am not looking for a perfect body anymore. I just want to learn to love myself and embrace my body as it is. For instance, I wouldn’t consider having plastic surgery to uplift my saggy boobs (or anything else), because if things went wrong, I would probably regret it – and to be honest, it just isn’t for me. I want to accept my body ageing and embrace the change.

I have done the same with my hair since 2018, and have just let the grey grow. At first, I was concerned about what people would think, but I grew not to care. And I don't, because I am seeking my own validation, and not the validation of others anymore. I do work out which helps me maintain a healthy weight, and I have learned to feed myself the nutrients my body needs.

Overall, I am in much healthier place. I do still have moments where I think negatively, but I have beautiful followers that I call friends because they remind me how beautiful I am. I have learned through my project to love bodies of all sizes, shapes and forms. In the past, my only references were the people found on the pages of magazines, but now I’m looking at real bodies and it’s incredibly refreshing. I'm now focusing on my mental health and working on building my confidence up too.

Ilhem taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride in Brighton in June 2022
Ilhem riding in the World Naked Bike Ride event!

BU: You noted on Instagram that due to your psoriasis condition, you won’t be able to shave your body hair for the next three months – and you mentioned that you’re both nervous and excited about this prospect. Several of our past interviewees feel strongly about the fact that people of all genders should have the freedom to grow body hair without judgement, and understandably feel it’s important to challenge people's perceptions in this regard. What are some of your own feelings about body hair being an option for all, and do you think your attitudes may change at all over the next three months?

Ilhem: This experience was much needed because it goes in line with my personal convictions and values. Who ever decided that a woman's body hair is ugly? And why is it okay for a man to be hairy, but not a woman? And the same goes for hairless men. In fact, one of the participants in My Body, My Story speaks about his struggles as a man because he wasn't massively hairy. Therefore, according to others and himself he wasn't manly enough. But who decides what is beautiful or not? Shouldn't you be yourself for yourself?

Growing my body hair was an interesting experience, as I have been shaving since the age of 13 or so. It challenged me to experience how I feel about being a hairy woman. Day by day, as it grew, I realised it wasn't as bad as I thought, and my eyes started to get used to seeing my body in its natural state. I think I was rocking my hairy armpits, but I found it trickier to embrace my hairy legs when wearing shorts and skirts because I didn't feel feminine enough, I guess. But I know it's ridiculous and I want to work on that part in the future.

I have now shaved since, because I think what matters is to have a choice of doing what we want. I must say that my followers were all very kind and supportive, and funnily enough, men were very supportive. I did not realise before that so many men like body hair on a woman, which I was pleased to hear; but again, it's my own validation that I was (and am) seeking. Having said that, it’s a topic that has created a conversation, and it's a good start. I hope it has inspired some women in the same way other women have inspired me.

Ilhem taking part in the World Naked Bike Ride in Brighton in June 2022
The WNBR helps normalise social nudity, Ilhem tells us

BU: We also understand that you recently took part in the World Naked Bike Ride in Brighton last month, and this event has always done a really great job of highlighting the environmental and social issues which cycling and body freedom can address. What most appealed to you about wanting to participate in an event like this, and do you feel that social nudity events such as these can help normalise nudity and help people feel more confident in their own skin?

Ilhem: The naked bike ride was a blast! I loved it so much and it was so liberating. I would never in a million years have thought that one day I would challenge myself to do such a thing. I grew up in a slightly conservative family where we didn’t show our bodies, and for me, it has made me ashamed of it more than anything.

But taking part in such an experience, with all sexes and genders naked next to each other, and celebrating our freedom whilst being very respectful with each other, was amazing. The sun was out and my goodness, the Brighton crowd was brilliant. They were so cheerful. I went there to experience my nakedness amongst others, standing for the environment and the issues around cyclists. I am a cyclist myself, so as an individual I do what I can to support the environment, but I want to feel safe while cycling too – so I hope more and more cycling lanes would be available in the future.

I think events like these do help to normalise social nudity and nudity in general. Seeing real bodies is important, and you also see that we all more or less are the same .

BU: You also have another project, named My People, that will also likely be of interest to our readers. What can you tell us about this one, and in what ways does it differ to My Body, My Story?

Ilhem: My People is a parallel project of mine, which is based on my own body. In My Body, My Story, I'm not focusing only on me but on others too, whereas in My People, I take the time to observe my body with an artistic eye and be creative by imagining the little people living in it. I actually encourage others to do their own self-portrait and draw their own people. It's very therapeutic too. It helps us see our bodies in a very different (and hopefully more positive) way.

I realised how mean and awful I have been letting my body down, despite the fact that my body has always been there to support me. So it's my turn to take care of it and show gratitude towards it.

A selfie taken by Ilhem while participating in the World Naked Bike Ride in Brighton
'My Body, My Story' is all about promoting positivity

BU: Do you have any other projects relating to body confidence and/or body positivity, and if so, can you share with us some details about how these came to light?

Ilhem: I have created other projects and characters like Ms Wrinkles, which is a low-budget short movie series where I talk about the physical insecurities of this woman and how she deals with it using self-acceptance. It's all inspired by my own insecurities as a woman. I have made five episodes so far, and have had great responses. I use lots of humour too. As a person, I like to support and uplift people, and I like to use my art to bring self-reflection.

BU: And finally, how long will My Body, My Story continue for, and what are the best ways for our readers to get involved should they wish to participate? Is there a website or online platform where people can access all of your work in this project thus far, including the testimonies that accompany them?

Ilhem: My Body, My Story is an ongoing project. I haven't set a time limit yet because I would love to collect as many diverse stories as possible to represent as many people as possible. Britain Uncovered readers are very welcome to participate, and they can do so by heading over to my Instagram art page, @_il_m_art, where they can have a look at my art and read the stories if they wish to. They are invited to direct message me with a paragraph or two telling me what part of their body they love or have learned to accept, along with a reference picture so I can draw them. I never post their original picture and I want to highlight that nudity is optional. In fact, I don't encourage people to send me nude pictures, but moreso a picture they are comfortable sharing with me. We usually discuss the details together in private when they reach out.

My goal for this project is to create a global community that brings awareness about by normalising body conversations. I want to shift negative thoughts to positive ones to look at our bodies in a more positive way, so that future generations can do the same and hopefully people can be kinder to one another. And to themselves first. I want to take these stories and my drawings to multiple exhibitions to create those conversations.

To follow Ilhem on Instagram and to keep tabs on all of her artistic endeavours, head to @il_m_art where you can find an extensive selection of artwork from My Body, My Story and beyond!

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