Interview with body positivity artist, Isabelle Sophia (Part One)
For our latest excursion, Britain Uncovered made the journey down to the South-West to meet with artist, feminist and sex educator, Isabelle Sophia, who welcomed us into her home for an in-depth discussion about her art and so many other intriguing topics! Here, in part one, we’re discussing Issy’s beginnings as an artist, the factors that led to her becoming a sex educator, her experiences attending a naked house party, and more!
It’s no exaggeration to say that I was made to feel at home the moment Isabelle welcomed me into her abode shortly before 10am on the day of our interview, and with a winning combination of a freshly brewed pot of coffee, a warm aroma of burning incense and the calming sound of her dog, Marley, scampering around the kitchen, it was pretty clear that this would be one of our most chilled-out and enjoyable interviews to date.
The plan for the day was to start things off with an in-depth discussion, and after a nearly two-hour chat, we headed out into the great outdoors to take some original photographs to accompany the text that you’ll find here in part one (and to be continued next week in part two). We initially captured Isabelle alongside some of her magnificent art – which the artist was assembling in preparation of her appearance at the M32 Flea Market in Bristol several days after our visit – and after some lunch from a nearby coffee shop, we finished the day off in the true Britain Uncovered spirit with some photos sans clothing over at the nearby nature reserve in Stockwood.
We hope you enjoy not only the fascinating insight provided by Issy throughout our conversation, but also the original images that we’ve selected to accompany our discussion - and stay tuned for the second half of this special feature which we'll be posting in a week's time!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Isabelle, and thank you so much for inviting us into your lovely home! It’s really great to be sat here and surrounded by your amazing art, so I’d love to kick things off by asking how this all got started! Has art always been a big part of your life, and if so, at what stage did you decide to start creating the empowering nude artwork that you’re now so renowned for?
Isabelle: Hi! I reckon there were probably two sides to it. I’ve always been really passionate about my art, and I mainly used to paint animals and auction off my art to raise money for an animal shelter where I lived at the time. And when I was 15 I started selling bits of art, but I then decided to study medicine and became very involved with my sciences – and as a result, my art became more of just a hobby, and then less of a hobby.
Going into uni, I was so focused on my work that art didn’t take up a big space in my life, but what did take up a massive space in my life was being an avid feminist, and my activism; and the two came together when I decided I wanted to pick up my painting again.
Studying clinical medicine and spending time in the hospital drives you into becoming a certain type of person (because they want good doctors that aren’t going to make mistakes), to the extent that you do end up losing a little bit of yourself, because it’s drilled into you to think and behave a certain way to be able to practice safely. But you do start to lose the art side of medicine and being more creative.
Britain Uncovered: I can see that, because science could potentially be seen as almost the opposite of the arts at times. Science has this rational, one-sided thinking where there’s an accepted right and wrong viewpoint and this one way forward; whereas art is obviously so much more creative and you can take it in whichever direction you want to go.
Isabelle: Completely, and I think I needed a creative outlet and a better way to reflect. I’d love to be able to journal or things like that, but I’ve just never really got into it, and so perhaps spending that time doing art was just something really cathartic. And I’ve always been very interested in comprehensive information around sex and being very sex positive and open, and I also really just wanted some better representation for those identifying as female.
It started with a lot of paintings of yonis and doing vulva art, but I wasn’t making anything for sale and it was just my own little process. It just felt really empowering to create this really beautiful piece that wasn’t this spewed-out, pornographic image of a vulva, and instead created something really magical.
I think it’s really, really lovely, as a female myself, to be able to identify with feminist art. I do think there is an imbalance in day-to-day life where those identifying as men can generally identify with what’s around them a little bit better. I think a lot of what we see around us is driven by men, and things can be quite phallic in the way they’re constructed and the way that things are done, so I think it’s really nice that we can create art that females can identify with a little bit better.
Britain Uncovered: After you had completed your first yonis, what prompted you to move on from there, and what helped inspire the next stages of your art?
Isabelle: I just felt like the yonis were limiting me a little bit, so I wanted to explore a little bit more.
I had a home photoshoot with some of my friends – we all got together and my partner took some photographs of us and we’re all getting naked and having a really lovely time! And I think we all just found the process so lovely, and we were looking back at these photos and I think at the time we really wanted to highlight the areas of our bodies that we were really insecure about, and so it was, “Right, I’m going to sit in this way and let my tummy fold the way it’s supposed to”, which is something that you’d never normally do wearing a bikini or a crop top. And then we looked back at these photos thinking we were going to be trying to find it in ourselves to love them, but we loved them right away because there was something so beautiful, earthy and natural about the way the photos had been taken.
So I asked my friends if I could start painting some of those photos. I used those as inspiration and had some really lovely feedback from other friends, who then said, “Oh, I’ll send you a photograph, would you paint it for me.”
Britain Uncovered: So a lot of it all kind of snowballed off the back of that photoshoot?
Isabelle: Yes, pretty much!
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned in one of your Instagram posts that because you grew up in the Middle East, discussions around sex and sexuality were quite limiting (to say the least). How restrictive did you find this to be, and do you think that this ultimately led to you becoming a sex educator and promoting sex-positivity through your artwork too?
Isabelle: I definitely think that growing up in the Middle East was a big driver. There were quite a few of us young people that really identified with queer culture and being a bit more sex-positive, along with feminism.
We all felt shut down, and I couldn’t speak to my Mum openly in our garden about going on a date with a girl – not because she didn’t love and support me, she really did – but if the local neighbour had heard us over the wall, they could have reported us. So there was this real fear driven into people. And I think because there was this wall up everywhere you went, around your friends you created a safe space, and I think we were very open and very liberal with talking about sex and sexuality. And we created our own queer safe space and our own sex-positive space.
I took that mentality into uni here in Bristol and was actually quite surprised at how few people here in the UK were willing to talk to me openly about sex and sexuality. I thought that what I was driving in the Middle East would be on par with what I would have experienced in the UK, but actually I think it drove me past that and forced me to open up conversations further than I think people are willing to here. I definitely found a pocket of people that I could be open with.
Britain Uncovered: That’s actually really eye-opening, and not necessarily something I would have expected – but makes total sense given that you were almost forced to go out of your way and create that safe space to have those types of discussions.
Isabelle: I was quite surprised, and I felt that it sat with that idea of English people being quite prudish.
Britain Uncovered: Do you think this is a result of the way sex education is presented in schools in the UK, and that it can sometimes be glossed over without any great detail or discussion being encouraged?
Isabelle: The interesting thing about schools is that the education you get there is reproductive-focused, and they show you these really awful diagrams of sex characteristics and the changes you go through during puberty. They don’t do a bad job representing male puberty, but you see the depiction of a woman, or someone with a vulva, and it’s basically the same picture and they’re just getting slightly bigger and slightly hairier. There’s no real discussion around labia engorgement, how your pubis changes or how your secretions change.
Britain Uncovered: Despite so many people calling for greater sexual education in schools, it still seems as though it’s very basic here on British shores.
Isabelle: It’s very basic, and I think I’ve always enjoyed pushing the boat out a little bit in conversations. I quite like bringing up topics that people don’t always like talking about and challenging perceptions that people have! I was definitely willing to do that here in Bristol, and at uni I got involved with volunteering for a charity called Sexpression, a student-led initiative that teaches inclusive and comprehensive sex education in local schools.
I’ve been doing this since I started uni, and so having those conversations around sex just became easier and easier – because if you can have these talks with a load of 15-year old boys, you can have them anywhere. I’d go and visit my grandparents and they’d say, “Oh why, why do you want to talk about it? What do you talk about”? They were disgusted, but part of them was also interested, and I remember my Grandad asking, “What do you teach”? And I explained that we teach about all types of sex: vaginal penetration, oral sex, anal sex, everything. I remember sitting having this conversation about anal sex with my Grandad, and I never imagined that would happen!
He’s very interested in where my art is going too. I’m not sure he’d have it up in his house, but he’s interested in what I’m doing and he says that it’s my fault that he’s started seeing vulvas in everything! He’ll look at a flower and be like, “Oh, Issy’s done this to me”! And now he sees a vulva in this flower, and I think it’s beautiful!
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned when we spoke online prior to today that you weren’t shy and that you’ve also dabbled in some naturist experiences. What first inspired you to want to give this a try, and what have been some of your most memorable and positive experiences in this regard?
Isabelle: I think I have always felt very liberated and confident doing that kind of thing, even when I was younger and going skinny-dipping as a teenager.
But it wasn’t until I made a trip over to Berlin and experienced the naturist community there. I didn’t have the opportunity at the time to get involved, but I remember walking through this park and seeing people from all walks of life, of all ages and of all different body types and skin tones, and it was beautiful to see everyone just there, so content. There were children around, and it was so desexualised and just beautiful. And I remember seeing this diversity of bodies and thinking how beautiful every single one was, and I came away thinking, “I really want to go back” – but it rained the next few days I was there, and I wasn’t going to sit naked in the park in the rain!
So I came back to Bristol and I was telling my friend about it and she said, “Ah, well someone I know is throwing a naked party if you would like to come along.”
Britain Uncovered: That’s quite the coincidence!
Isabelle: Yes! Just by making my wishes clear, the universe sent me something amazing!
She took me along and I didn’t know anyone, and I just remember reading this event description that someone had made on Facebook about this being an inclusive space and that this was all about desexualised nudity. It said you can turn up and you can get as naked as you would like to, and that nobody’s going to judge you if you keep your clothes on. But it was also going to be a creative space and the organisers wanted everyone to just be really respectful.
I had a good feeling about it when I turned up with my friend. We went into the little room next to the front door and we took our clothes off. I kept my bra and underwear on at first, and we went into the living room and everyone was just sat around, and people were painting on each other’s arms and backs, and everyone was just chatting.
I thought it was going to feel really odd, but it just felt like any room I’d walk into at a party or a gathering of people – except that people didn’t have many clothes on. And I think there’s this idea that if everyone’s taking their clothes off, it’s going to get really hypersexualised and it’s going to turn into this massive orgy, but it really doesn’t! It was just so beautiful and I felt so comfortable as soon as I came in. A girl I had just met was painting something on my arm and I noticed that she didn’t shave her armpits, and we had this really lovely discussion about it. I think had I just spoken to her with her clothes on, we never would have initiated that conversation around body hair and things like that, and it was really nice.
It wasn’t long until I took my bra off, and the first time that happened I remember thinking I was going to sit a little more upright because maybe I was a little more self-conscious about how my breasts look – but by the end of the night I was just sat like how I would sit anywhere. I was so comfortable just chatting away and having a really nice time, and when we reached the early hours of the morning and were leaving it felt odd. I was leaving with a group of people I had met at the party and we stood outside together with our clothes on waiting for the bus, and it felt really strange!
Britain Uncovered: It sounds like a really positive experience and definitely an ideal way of trying out a clothes-free experience for the very first time. What kind of impact has this had in the long-term, and do you feel as though social nudity experiences such as these have helped with your self-confidence and your relationship with your body?
Isabelle: For months after this experience I felt so in tune with my body. All of the little things I had been building up in my mind as being awful, or the things I was super insecure about, just vanished. There was just something about this shared, naked experience that just took that away.
And when I say that, it sounds like I saw loads of people naked, and saw that their bodies were ‘imperfect’, and that this made me feel better about myself; and that makes it sound really horrible. But it wasn’t like that at all, and I didn’t feel the need to compare myself to anybody. It was actually just looking around at the amount of diversity that everyone had, and it was so beautiful. It was not, “Oh, I look better than that person” – that washed away that feeling.
We have that innate feeling of comparison and a bit of competition between people, and when your clothes are stripped away from you, you have nothing to hide behind. All of that disappears and disintegrates and you are just there in your body, and other people are there in their bodies, and it was really nice. I think it made me feel great because I really learned to appreciate how diverse bodies are, and how incredible it is that we can all look so different and achieve so much in our day-to-day lives; and also that our bodies all look so different and that we could sit together so contently. Nobody was letting anything that they felt personally insecure about hold them back in that moment, and that was really nice.
I was supposed to host the next naked party, but then COVID happened. We were going to do one a year and carry on, but it’s been nearly three years now and we’re still waiting to host the next one! Hopefully we’ll do it soon because it was a really cathartic experience.
Britain Uncovered: It’s good that people are taking the initiative to organise these types of events, as a lot of naturist activities and events seem to require membership or being part of a formal society, and I think that can sometimes be a barrier. You mentioned that you particularly valued seeing the diversity and that you liked the representation of all of these different body types. Do you think that then inspired the way you go about your art? Are you seeking to relay that theme and convey this diversity, and if so, did the party help nudge you in this direction, or were you already heading down this path with your art?
Isabelle: I do think that was probably a big triggering moment. I think that we have these innate biases and phobias, and it’s really easy not to challenge those. Outwardly, you would be very supportive and not slip-up and say something controversial because you know that’s not okay – but that doesn’t mean you’re not experiencing those feelings deep down.
I think we have these innate biases and phobias, and I do think that something like fat phobia is something that I’ve had to considerably challenge myself on, because I have put others – as well as myself – under so much pressure in the past, and this has led to a really dysfunctional relationship with food at times. And I see that with other people and I know that is a bad outlook to have; yet there was some sort of innate bias where I felt like this slimmer body was a better thing to have than a larger body.
It’s taken me a really long time to challenge that bias, and I think that I’m at a really good point now where I’ve been able to have these experiences and have been able to have an intimate connection with all these different bodies through my art.
I’ve realised that it’s so ridiculous we feel this way and that everyone tries to hide behind this idea of health, attempting to mask their fat phobia behind this idea of, “Well it’s not healthy etc.”, but the point is that it’s really none of your concern. You aren’t this person’s doctor, you’re there to love and support them and help them grow as a human being. And their body is as beautiful as your smaller body is, and you’re not in a position to be able to judge who is healthier.
And I’ve definitely had to challenge that quite a lot with people who have said to me, “How can you be so body positive, you’re really encouraging obesity and yet you’re going to be a doctor and you’re supposed to be encouraging people to be healthy.” I think what people really don’t understand is that the concept of ‘health’ that we have in our minds is a result of the fact that we have been indoctrinated by these Photoshopped, pristine images that we’re shown in the media, in magazines and on social media. That isn’t what health is, and the fact that people are being held up to that standard is in itself really unhealthy.
The impact on mental health and self-esteem and how you live your day-to-day life, and being able to access all these things that complete us as human beings, is really impacted if someone’s going to put you down because of your weight. Everyone should be able to identify with something out there – regardless of your body shape or size, you should be able to identify with a piece of art or literature (for example).
Britain Uncovered: How do you balance your views on body positivity with everything that you’ve learned as part of your medical degree? Within the medical community there are (rightly or wrongly) certain standards and tools like BMI calculators that are used to determine how ‘healthy’ someone is, so can it be a conflict to promote body types through your art that you know may be deemed as ‘unhealthy’ in other aspects of your life?
Isabelle: I think my driving focus in my medical career is mental health. I’m very passionate about holistic care. I find clinical medicine to be quite reductionist – your body is seen as these moving parts that can be tampered with and fiddled with, and it creates all sorts of problems when different doctors are coming in and looking at your different body parts, and that creates issues. I’m big on social prescribing, and I think everyone would benefit from therapy and groups where they’re able to reflect and talk about things.
I think holistic care through mental health is something I’m interested in. Therefore, medicine has been a driver in my art, because it’s led me to look into concepts around body dysmorphia and mental health and things like that. I think that’s opened up my perspective a lot, because you are not healthy unless your mind, body and soul are all feeling good; so there’s no point a doctor badgering you about your BMI if you’re not feeling happy within yourself or with your mental health.
The main driver is being able to celebrate all bodies and help people to feel empowered, regardless of what they look like. You have to feel empowered in yourself to really look after your mental health.
Britain Uncovered: Many of your Instagram posts mention that we should focus on what our bodies do for us, rather than what they look like. How important is this theme to you, and is encouraging people to accept themselves and embrace their bodies one of the key drivers behind your art?
Isabelle: I think we put a lot of pressure on ourselves and our bodies, and to be honest we punish them a lot. We’re slaves to the system a little bit – we work really difficult jobs, we don’t sleep enough and we drink far too much alcohol. We punish our bodies enough, so to then scrutinise every single thing that it is brings us down, reduces our self-worth, and impacts the way we behave and interact with people.
Sometimes you just don’t feel good because of the way that you look, and it can really affect whether or not you go out and the ways you interact with your friends or new people or situations. It can also put you off wearing a dress that you really wanted to wear, because all of a sudden you don’t feel like you can, or you don’t feel confident enough to be able to.
Britain Uncovered: It’s very easy to start second-guessing yourself.
Isabelle: Yes, and when that scrutiny starts limiting the way we’re behaving, that’s so detrimental. And I think the way we can overcome that is by actually learning to appreciate what our bodies do, and seeing them as these really strong, powerful vessels that are carrying us day-to-day. Our bodies are the reason we’re able to complete all the amazing things we do in our lives.
I know that I’m really guilty of putting myself down, mostly when I go through stages where I don’t exercise as much. I think, “You’re being so lazy”! But you have this dialogue with yourself, and it’s really good to recognise when that dialogue turns a little bit negative and actually say, “Okay, maybe I didn’t go on that run this morning, but I had a lie-in, and now I’m feeling better because of it, and now we’ve gone for a really lovely walk after work.” Or, “I was able to go and meet up with a friend for lunch and have a really wholesome and beautiful conversation with them, which was so enriching to my mind.” It’s about weighing up those things and trying to present it in a more positive way.
Britain Uncovered: I really like that idea – and I agree that the way we talk to ourselves can make all the difference. The channels we both follow on Instagram are very inclusive and positive, but there’s still a feeling that we’re in a bit of a bubble that isn’t always matched by what you see in the ‘real world’. The same self-love mentality doesn’t always exist and people can still be very harsh on themselves. Is the media doing enough to help encourage people to be kinder to ourselves, and if not, what do you think they could be doing to promote this narrative?
Isabelle: No, I don’t think the media is doing enough. I don’t think a lot of people are doing enough. There’s this amazing and beautiful body positivity movement that’s happening, and although I’m more involved in the female side of it, I know that this is a really powerful movement for men and those identifying as men too.
I think through the movement, people are feeling more empowered to make decisions about their bodies. I know that I’m in a bubble and that it’s not representative of the world we live in, but through that bubble, I’ve felt empowered to grow my body hair and to make decisions around my body and my self-love. And although that’s been a product of the bubble I’m in, I’m still interacting with everyday society and challenging those perceptions of beauty and of standardised beauty.
I’ve been growing my body hair for a couple of years now, and when I first started, I was so content and comfortable with having my hairy armpits out around my friends and my sexual partner, and they were so supportive. But for over a year afterwards, I still found it really difficult being out in public because it’s something that people stared at. If they noticed, they would just stare, and I’ve gone from feeling, “Wow, that was really hard and I feel like they’re judging me and putting me down”, to now being so content with it that I’ll clock someone staring and now think to myself, “Okay, maybe they don’t agree with the choice that I’ve made, but that’s going to challenge their perception of body hair, and it’s going to start slowly normalising it for them”.
And I think all those little things and choices that you make do make a difference and they have a cascading effect. One person’s going to say, “Well actually I’ve seen quite a lot of women out and about with body hair nowadays”, and someone else will be like, “Oh, actually so have I.” As much as the media has a massive responsibility to play in representation and spreading the message, I do think that these little movements and bubbles we’re creating have a larger impact than we perhaps see when we’re just scrolling through social media.
Britain Uncovered: That’s a really nice way to look at it isn’t it? To think that we are making a change, and who knows how far that could go. Maybe the concepts and ideas within our bubble will end up becoming the norm if we reach enough people. And in addition to encouraging men to think differently about their perceptions of body hair, it’s quite possible you’re inspiring females to feel confident about their decisions in this regard too, just by walking around town.
Isabelle: Completely. We kind of have this pack mentality, don’t we – we’re a bit like sheep! And you want to follow the crowd. But more of it is just, “Oh, growing my body hair is something I was thinking about, but now I know that you do it and I have someone I can identify with and discuss that with…”. It does give you the confidence to make that change yourself. And it’s not that it wouldn’t have been a change you’d have made with your own initiative, but it does give you the vote of confidence you perhaps needed.
- Next week in part two, we will be turning our attention more closely to Isabelle’s artwork and discussing the response she gets to her art, the reasons why desexualising the female form is such an important element, the ways her commissions have helped people feel more confident in their own skin, and more!
To see more of Isabelle's body positive art, head on over to her brand new website, www.isabellesophiaart.com. You can also find the artist on Instagram at @isabellesophiaart, and on Facebook by clicking here. Isabelle's fabulous naked art – including her brand new A5 commissions – is also available for purchase over at her Etsy store.