Interview with artist and feminist, Isla Morgan!
Today, we have the pleasure of speaking with Dundee-based artist, Isla Morgan, about her project Stripped – which seeks to normalise nudity not only to encourage body confidence, but also to dispel the sexualisation of being naked. During our discussion, we find out how the project came to be, why Isla decided to highlight people’s body insecurities by photographing people nude, how online abuse from men changed the direction of the project, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Isla! It was really uplifting to discover your recent Stripped exhibition online, and it seems like a fantastic project that succeeded in tackling a number of important issues. To start us off, can we please ask how you originally came up with the idea for Stripped, and also, what some of your initial goals and aspirations were when starting on it?
Isla: This project has been ongoing for the past two years. It started with my third year project where I was exploring the perception of body image, but with sculptural and wearable items. I was interested in why women wanted to change their appearance and were often self-conscious / insecure about their bodies. I worked with Spanx and other types of women’s clothing that marketed a slimming claim, using myself as a model. In my last year of university and with Stripped, I wanted to further develop this theme. I wanted to continue using self-portraiture, however I also wanted to expand my viewpoint by including my peers (both male and female) into a project focused on expressing the natural body. By having more of a variety of bodies portrayed together, I aimed to try and get people to see similarities in features considered as ‘imperfections’ which would demystify and normalise the authentic body.
Coincident with the practical work, I was also writing my dissertation on looking at whether the male gaze has evolved in contemporary art. This made me realise that the majority of nude paintings of men and women all fitted a certain body type – the women were either very slender, hairless, had smooth skin and/or perky breasts, while the men were expected to be very muscular. This is of course not reality! From an artistic perspective, I thought that these paintings of perfectly smooth skin weren’t as interesting as those of realistic skin textures such as cellulite, stretch marks, fat rolls or even body hair. I aspired to show the bodies’ shapes and textures in their rawest form.
Britain Uncovered: As you mentioned, these depictions of unrealistic body types create so many challenges and can result in many people developing insecurities about their bodies. How did you seek to tackle this damaging concept through Stripped, and do you feel that sharing and showcasing body insecurities can be helpful and even empowering in the right setting?
Isla: I chose to take photos of the body parts that people found unattractive about themselves, to help encourage them to see their bodies in an artistic and beautiful way. From me sharing these photos, I hoped that women could see that others have the same insecurities as them or could even relate to the same body shape / type. I also showed posed vs. unposed pictures highlighting how photographs on social media often create illusions of slim bodies purely by choosing the right angles. The women I was working with found the process of being photographed in a professional environment empowering – and it was not as intimidating as they thought.
Britain Uncovered: Although the media may still be failing in its quest to present more diverse body types, it does feel as though this issue is starting to be tackled on social media – and part of your final work alluded to the fact you were influenced by the #loveyourlines movement that went viral on Instagram. What was it about this particular hashtag that spoke to you so strongly, and do you feel as though social media overall is helping to change the narrative about what a healthy and ‘beautiful’ body type truly is?
Isla: What inspired me most about the #loveyourlines movement was the range of ages of the women who participated, which made it relatable to a lot of people. I also loved the fact there were women shown at different stages of having had children. This was very important to show, as stretch marks and loose skin from pregnancy is a big insecurity and fear of women. Pregnancy is a natural process that shouldn’t solicit body shaming.
When it comes to sharing pictures on social media: yes, the more photos that we see of women embracing their body type the better. However, no matter what size you are, there are always going to be people who judge your appearance, sexualise you, or shame you for showing off your body. This is a sad truth of our generation. I think people need to develop an attitude where they care less about other people’s negativity and have more body confidence.
Unfortunately, social media is still a depository where celebrities / influencers can deceive about having had plastic surgery, which creates unrealistic goals; and editing apps have become so normalised that some people can’t post a picture without heavily editing their body.
Britain Uncovered: Would you consider yourself a ‘body confident’ or ‘body positive’ in general, and do you feel that your relationship with your body influenced the way you approached Stripped?
Isla: I can remember, even as recently as a few years ago, that I wouldn’t want to wear anything with bare legs as I was self-conscious about the cellulite on my legs. Also, being bigger chested, puberty was difficult as my peers had smaller chests which made me feel very different and insecure, as I had to wear bras sooner than everyone else. I struggle with anxiety and was very shy, so I always let other people’s opinions influence me.
Doing this project made me very confident in myself and made me realise that I had nothing to worry about. I think by spending so much time naked, posing / learning with your body, I learnt to see the things I didn’t like about myself in a different way and I came to accept them. I am now very body confident, hence why I want others to have the same experience I did.
Britain Uncovered: When it came to creating the photographs for the project, what moods and themes were you seeking to portray, and how did you want the viewer to react upon seeing these images? This was clearly a big part of your project, but was it also challenging to a certain degree?
Isla: I ended up splitting the project into two themes which were a body positive series with my multiple models, and then a male gaze series which was my self-portraiture. The challenge was to make it obvious as to what both sets of photos were about. This was easier for the body positive piece, as I was taking photos of ‘imperfections’ and focusing on them. But for the male gaze series, I was worried that people would just see the photos as ‘nude photography’ with no meaning behind it, hence why I later added in the audio commentary.
As for the mood, I like the moody and dramatic atmosphere that black and white brings with the high contrast of tones. I also experimented with the lighting in some photos to make the body look very abstract and interesting, and in others used the strong light as almost a spotlight. I felt like this was a good way to show empowerment and vulnerability. For the body positivity series, I wanted the audience to react in a relatable and positive way. But with the other series I wanted a ‘shock factor’ to educate people that women should be respected regardless of how much or little clothing they wear.
Britain Uncovered: How did you go about finding some of your initial models, and was it relatively straightforward finding people to take part; or did you find that they had reservations about being involved? Were the photoshoots uplifting and joyful occasions, and did both the models and you as the photographer find this process quite cathartic and empowering to an extent?
Isla: Due to Covid, my studio was closed so I couldn’t ask anyone at my university (Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design – part of the University of Dundee). I had to make a photography studio in my flat and at the time I had to form a small support bubble with my friends and the people I lived with. As we had known each other for a long time, there was already a bond of trust. I had spoken to people who I didn’t know (or at least not very well) about taking part, and once I had explained the whole idea behind the project, they would have participated had they been able.
Of the people I photographed, some had reservations about me photographing the parts of their body they were so insecure about. However, once they got into and relaxed, they changed their minds, which was very refreshing to see. The only other reservation they had was to not include their face, which was completely reasonable and not a problem as I was focusing on closer photos of the body anyway. I also asked their permission to share some of the photos on various online platforms and some were self-conscious about being online. There was fear of getting unwanted attention from the opposite sex.
Overall, I think the photoshoots were uplifting and joyful. I tried to make the experience not too serious, and the models involved thanked me for the opportunity to have such a different experience. After taking the photos, I still involved my models by asking their opinions on which photos to choose or which to paint or draw, so I think they enjoyed that too.
Britain Uncovered: How did your models feel about seeing themselves in the subsequent images, and do you think that participation in the project helped them on a personal level and enhanced their own body confidence levels? Were you also inspired by their willingness to be vulnerable and pose without clothing?
Isla: After showing my models the finished and edited photos, they didn’t mention anything negative about their previous insecurities but were using artistic words, complimenting themselves at looking good! I felt like I was successful in showing them this female gaze / my viewpoint. Some people asked to keep some of the printed photos for their walls and to show their friends and family, so I would say that was successful too with them gaining enough confidence to show more people.
Yes, I was inspired by their willingness to take part as it’s a big ask for people and especially being their first time doing anything like that. It must have been quite intimidating. I felt like we both (photographer and model) had to work through our anxieties together, as I was quite nervous and awkward to start off as I had never taken anyone else’s nude photos. I am very grateful they let me see their vulnerable side.
Britain Uncovered: Due to Covid, you were sadly unable to continue working with other people, and decided to pursue self-portraiture instead. How greatly did this impact the project, and how did you feel to suddenly be thrust into the spotlight and featured so prominently? Do you think that your participation in front of the camera helped you to view the project from a completely different perspective?
Isla: Covid very much effected my project as I had a lot of other plans to experiment in other mediums, such as sculpture, but our university facilities were closed for a long time. I had to keep making use of the time effectively so just continued with photography, but it was never intended to be the final outcome. I embraced pursuing self-portraiture – firstly, because I had no choice! And secondly, because the photos were artistic, and very abstract and textural, I wasn’t too nervous about making them a prominent feature of my degree show.
It was easier to take my own photos, as I knew how to get into poses quickly whereas working with other people, they needed direction and I had to think more about the lighting and poses. In addition, I was more time restricted with my models so didn’t have as much time as I would have liked with some of them. Whereas using myself, I had easy access to the photography setup I had created in my flat and being in lockdown I had plenty of time, so I could take lots of photos, not have to rush them or not have to worry if I didn’t get them right first time.
Using myself made me have a different perspective to the project as it was meant to just be female gaze artistic photos, but after sharing them online and getting sexual commentary from men, I realised that sexualisation is an issue that a lot of women have to deal with and could relate to, and that nudity is often misused and is still controversial in art today.
Britain Uncovered: What were you seeking to achieve from the self-portrait images, and how did you feel when it came to posing? Were you comfortable being featured so prominently in the project, and how did you feel about the images of yourself whilst you were creating them? We know from our own experiences that it can sometimes feel very confronting seeing yourself in this light.
Isla: From this series I wanted to raise awareness of the male gaze by documenting the responses I got to posing naked as it is a topic / voice that needs to be spoken about. I wanted to show that having self-respect is unrelated to nudity or sex; it means making choices that will make you happy.
I felt that whilst posing and creating these images I had a bit of performance anxiety as I was aware of everything I was doing. I think that because it was self-portraiture, I was lot harder on myself.
Britain Uncovered: As you’ve referenced a couple of times above, it was really disappointing to read that, in response to sharing some of the images on social media, you received abuse from men that was sexual and derogatory in nature – as this completely went against everything the project was seeking to promote. Do you feel that this reaction changed the shape of the project and altered the way you felt about it? What made you decide to include an audio collage of these comments as part of your project?
Isla: Yes, it did change the shape of the project as I ended up doing two separate series. It was sad in a way that I couldn’t just show a body positive series of myself without getting these comments. However, I don’t think it was bad for the project to have gone in this direction, as I consider myself a feminist and it made me realise that there is still so much that women are subjected to that needs to be highlighted. This was my first project that was controversial or political and it felt good to speak up.
By including the audio, I was holding the men who commented accountable. There is an important message for parents: “Don’t just protect your daughter, educate your son”. Women should be allowed to be confident in themselves and show off their skin without receiving these comments. If women choose to pose naked, they can be doing it for themselves, and not for men. I hoped the audio would spark conversation between men and be relatable to women of my age to encourage them to not stand for this behaviour and call this type of man out for his behaviour. Ideally, had my exhibition been in person (it sadly wasn’t due to Covid), I wanted the audience to experience the audio through a headset whilst viewing the series. This would have created an intimate moment, allowing the person viewing to feel the abuse as if it were being directed personally.
Britain Uncovered: Do these kind of comments emphasise just how much still needs to be done to succeed in desexualising the female form, and if so, in what other ways can this be conveyed to help shift societal attitudes in this regard?
Isla: Yes, this does very much emphasise that there is still a lot to do to improve this situation as these photos had no sexual connotation, so it was purely how men chose to view and interpret them. I think to help societal attitudes we need to acknowledge the predominance of male gaze – it is everywhere, not just in art, film and media. A first step is encouraging more female directors in film, putting a stop to using sexualised women to promote and sell things, and being more observant of the multiplicity of gaze that should be represented in our changing society.
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned that your relationship with your body has improved since you started work on Stripped, but in what specific ways do you think the project helped you to recognise the value of body acceptance and self-confidence? Also, what long-lasting impact might the project have on you going forwards?
Isla: My relationship with my body has improved, not only from the sense of body confidence and my self-esteem, but in the way that I’ve learnt to stand up to verbal abuse and unsolicited negativity, which previously I would’ve struggled to do. This project has given me a big confidence boost that I can inspire people and use art to address more serious issues. This project helped me to find the type of art that I want to create.
Britain Uncovered: Was there anything about the project that surprised you, or anything that emerged that perhaps you hadn’t necessarily considered when you made a start on it?
Isla: Sadly, the comments didn’t surprise me that much! Perhaps what was surprising is that random people, who didn’t know me, felt the need and had the time to contact me to be nasty.
Britain Uncovered: Studies have shown that being naked around others can really help with body confidence and your overall acceptance of yourself in your own skin – but do you feel as though social nudity events and embracing your body naked can be a huge confidence booster, and would you recommend these types of experiences to others?
Isla: Yes, I feel that it can be a big confidence boost as we don’t normally get to see our peers nude to see that they too may have the same insecurities; you could feel better / more comfortable with yourself. Even doing a nude photoshoot with a photographer – without sharing the images – is an empowering experience. Seeing nudity in a public setting like nudist beaches or life drawing classes can also help with desexualising the naked form.
Britain Uncovered: It was good seeing that males were also included in your project, as people of all genders can struggle with body image-related issues. How did their experiences and testimonies compare and contrast to the pressures a female might be feeling in regard to their bodies?
Isla: I tried to show variety in body size. A big insecurity for men is being overweight and having the pressure to be more muscular. There is a stereotype that men must be big and muscular to show dominance, and they think that it’s more attractive to women. Toxic masculinity is an issue where, for example, being tall and having body hair is a sign that you are manly. I feel that men and women both struggle with society’s ever-changing ‘ideal body type’.
Throughout history, men and women have both had a variety of body types that were attractive at the time. This shows that people shouldn’t listen to the media to control what their bodies should look like. Both sexes care too much about changing their bodies to appeal more and attract the opposite sex, instead of being themselves and only making changes that make them feel good.
Britain Uncovered: How did you feel about the project once it was completed, and were you satisfied with everything that you’d pieced together? We alluded to some of the negative comments you received online from men, but what kind of positive feedback did you receive to the project? We can imagine it was very well-received!
Isla: I was very happy with the final outcome of the project. It was good to learn about printing and mounting photography professionally, as this was something I had very little knowledge on – and also to get the experience and the process of hanging work in a professional environment which I hadn’t done before either. I ended up having the two series’ on two separate walls, but still besides each other. I think this was effective in showing the project as a whole, although there were two sides of the story: the positive and the negative.
I received many positive messages, especially from women. It was nice to communicate with different people and to reach more people on social media. It was heart-warming to hear that some people had followed along, read / listened to my whole journey for over a year and were even excited to see my updates. Someone even referred to it as like watching a documentary or TV show. It was sad that I didn’t get to have a public audience to see the work in person. However, I did have my art graduate peers’ reactions in person where one girl actually teared up, saying it made her emotional because the country where she is from has such reserved attitudes towards women and nudity.
Britain Uncovered: Were viewers able to identify with what you were doing and feel differently and more positively about themselves? If so, how pleasing is it for you, as the creator of this piece, to have helped inspire and empower people to think differently and see themselves in a more positive light?
Isla: Yes, it was very rewarding to receive messages saying that I had helped with confidence issues. I was very pleased that I was successful in getting this message across, and despite the negative comments from some people, there were so many others that valued my effort to normalise nudity and celebrate our bodies.
Britain Uncovered: Finally, will you be continuing to promote the themes of body confidence and body acceptance in your art and photography going forwards, and if so, in what ways do you think you might go about it?
Isla: I would love to continue producing self-portraiture for exhibition and to sell. I would also like to continue to work with people who want me to photograph them, so they can have such personal images of themselves.
Although photography is the area of my current practice, I am also exploring other mediums such as painting, drawing, and printing, which make nudity less identifiable and therefore more marketable to a larger audience, but stills allows a body acceptance message.
I have recently submitted a proposal for an opportunity to exhibit, where I want to turn objectification onto the male body, reversing male gaze. My intention is to plaster cast parts of the male body (torso, buttocks, arms) and then photograph myself posing with the body parts in a manner that highlights the gaze role reversal. I hope that by juxtaposing a woman with a disassociated male body, it will create awareness of the impact of objectification. The images will show the body part being further objectified with physical touching or holding of the cast, to mirror the way men can inappropriately touch women. The purpose of creating casts of the male body is to reinforce disassociation of the person from their body to emphasise how women often feel reduced to “just a body”.
- Stripped is an expression of the natural body, and a project that normalises nudity to encourage body confidence and dispel the sexualisation of being naked. For more, please visit https://www.dundee.ac.uk/graduate-showcase/2021/isla-morgan. You can also contact Isla directly by emailing email@example.com.