We recently had the pleasure of speaking with artist Erin Barnes, who launched an intriguing ‘You Are Art’ body positivity project back in February 2020. During our conversation, we look at how the venture is helping to combat diet culture, and Erin also explains why her body image views are continually evolving.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Erin! We’ve really enjoyed perusing your body positivity art on Instagram, and we’d love to know a little more about it. Could we start by asking how and when did you first developed a flair for drawing and painting – has this been a lifelong passion of yours?
Erin: I have been interested in art for as long as I can remember. My mother is very arts and craftsy, and she would always set myself and my two younger sisters up with various arty activities when we were little. So I kind of grew up with it really.
Originally, it started with graphite and paper drawings, and always black and white. I was very intimidated by colour and therefore painting, and just kind of decided I couldn’t do it. So many of my pieces are pencil work from when I was growing up.
But since coming to university and being able to explore my artwork as a hobby rather than something I’m graded on at school, I decided I’ve got nothing to lose by experimenting with colour and various media. So I guess you could say yes, it has always been a passion of mine. Throughout my childhood and teens I had some very nasty mental health struggles and my artwork was an outlet.
Britain Uncovered: Much of your artwork is centred around animals and wildlife creatures; but there’s also a strong emphasis on body positivity portraits, and often, people in various states of undress. What first inspired these types of paintings, and what emotions do they evoke in you?
Erin: When I was around 16, my mental health took a turn for the worst and I began to develop issues with my body image and food which resulted in me losing a lot of weight and developing a great deal of anxiety at the prospect of gaining weight. I was utterly unhappy and hated myself.
However, upon coming to university and having more independence and freedom, I made the conscious decision that I wanted to change. To do this, I knew I had to confront ideas of what the ‘ideal body’ looks like, and I used my artwork to recondition what I had been taught by toxic diet culture growing up. The more I could represent nude bodies of all shapes and sizes and abilities in beautiful works of art, the more I learned that there is no single ‘beautiful’ body type. All bodies are beautiful, and I wanted to capture that.
Four years later, I’ve graduated university and my whole outlook on body image has changed. I still struggle occasionally with food guilt and negative body image, but I know now that those feelings are unfounded and that my body is valuable, beautiful and enough. Now I continue to represent bodies that are generally unrepresented in the media in the hope of sharing these feelings with others who may be struggling like I was.
Capturing the beauty of natural history – botanicals and various fauna – brings me a great deal of peace. But it is capturing beautiful bodies that brings me a feeling of acceptance and self-love.
Britain Uncovered: Back in February, you embarked on an ‘You Are Art’ project which led to a series of unique and dynamic body paintings. Could you please tell us a little about what inspired this and how you went about this interesting venture?
Erin: There are so, so many people struggling with eating disorders, negative body image and self-hate and it kills me inside knowing that people are still living every day with those horrible feelings inside that I felt when I was in my late teens.
Growing up, I knew of so many other people who struggled with their relationship with food and body image and looking back that just stuns me. How is this society creating so many poorly minds filled with these horrible, shameful feelings? This is when I knew I wanted to share the feelings of self-acceptance I had learned through representing bodies similar to mine in beautiful works of art. The more body-accepting content I could put out into the world, the more I could help to combat the toxic narrative of diet culture that so many young people fall victim to. Even if only in tiny ways.
So I set up You Are Art. On my Instagram, I put a message out asking if anyone would be interested in sharing pictures of themselves in various states of undress (in total confidence of course), so that I could turn them into pieces of artwork. I didn’t expect anyone to respond really, but I thought it was worth a shot. The response was astounding. I was flooded with messages from people who had felt the same and wanted to take the step to combat those negative feelings just as I had done. So that’s what I did.
Every piece in the YAA project is a representation of a real person in our community, a real representation of what bodies actually look like. I am so grateful for everyone who sent in a photo, for their trust and bravery. Hopefully the project will keep expanding and help to combat the toxic narrative dominated by diet culture.
Britain Uncovered: Which of your pieces are you most proud of?
Erin: One of my more recent drawings, 'TIGRESS' (pictured right). Many of my previous works feature people with soft colours that exudes a delicate, tender atmosphere. TIGRESS is the opposite. It features a nude fat person with body hair leaning gently on to the side of a roaring tiger. Golden light flows onto them both. It makes me feel fierce, empowered and strong, and I hope that other people feel this way too when they look at it.
Britain Uncovered: Earlier in the year, we had the chance to visit one of Ruby & Rosy’s Body Love Sketch Club workshops in London (full review here), where the emphasis is less on the quality of the sketches, and more on the participation and body empowerment side of things. Do you support the concept of these types of events?
Erin: This sounds fantastic! I haven’t had the chance to attend one of these events, but I love the concept. It is really important to me to try and normalise nakedness, especially of marginalised bodies in a way that makes people feel both empowered and safe.
Britain Uncovered: For any of our readers who may be struggling with body confidence issues, what advice would you give – and how do you stay positive yourself? Did lockdown stifle your creativity, or did the time at home help you to focus?
Erin: Every body is built differently, and that’s okay. There is no right or wrong way to live or look. Your body carries you through life – show it a little bit of kindness, and thank it for all it does for you. Spend some time sitting with your insecurities. If your tummy bothers you, spend some time nurturing it. Touching it gently. Affirming that it is okay to exist in a body you may not like, but also that there is nothing inherently wrong with it. The diversity of human bodies is beautiful. You truly are art.
What I’ve learned over the past few years is that when I don’t have a busy mind, the bad thoughts tend to creep back in. Because of this, I could feel that lockdown was threatening to take me back into the depths of my eating disorder. But by then I knew how to deal with these feelings – create more. Keep showing myself that my body is perfect the way it is, because all bodies are perfect. And because I had so much spare time, I could create at my own leisure with no time pressure.
Britain Uncovered: Where can people go if they want to find out more or purchase some of your latest creations?