Interview with body positivity artist, Sarah Courtney!
Today we’re taking a trip across the pond to speak with Canadian artist and body positivity promoter, Sarah Courtney! During our in-depth conversation, we discuss why women’s empowerment is the driving force behind Sarah’s art, the reasons she’s so passionate about desexualising the female form, her thoughts on what it was like participating in a recent body positivity photoshoot, and more!
Britain Uncovered: Hi Sarah! Having admired your unique range of artwork for well over a year, it’s great to finally get the opportunity to discuss some of your work and achievements and find out a little more about the artist herself too!
Whether it be through your paintings, your stained-glass ornaments or your embroidery, the female nude has had a consistent presence in your work ever since you started sharing your artistic journey back in 2019. What was it that first led you to want to depict the female form through your art, and how has your message and your art itself evolved since you first got started?
Sarah: While I was growing up, my grandparents always had nude statuettes and artwork hanging in their house. I found the pieces fascinating because I had thought that nudity was something to hide. Yet, here my grandparents were putting the female body on display for everyday glances. From seeing artwork like that at my grandparents’ house, and seeing the artwork depicted throughout time in my high school art history classes, I became more enchanted by the beauty of the human body.
I went to a Catholic high school, which had its positive and negative aspects. The education I received was good; however, due to the religious background of the school, nudity, sexuality, and the human body was something to hide and ignore.
As I was finishing up my final year at the school, we were able to choose our own subject matter for our final acrylic painting assignment. Since it was completely up to me, I decided to paint a nude figure. I was very excited to create something that was so often seen as taboo and inappropriate, and have it displayed in the school gymnasium for all students, teachers, staff, and parents to see. I will forever be proud of myself for having the courage to create and display that piece. From that moment on, I have loved creating nude artworks and pushing the boundaries that surround nudity.
Britain Uncovered: As the body positivity movement continues to grow, it does feel as though more and more people out there are subscribing to its ideologies and shunning media depictions of beauty, which is reassuring to see. How important or relevant is the theme of body positivity to you personally, and how do you go about conveying and promoting this important cause via your art?
Sarah: The theme of body positivity is very important to me personally. I grew up skinny and tall and was essentially told by the media that my body type was the ideal. This may sound like a good thing, but it pushed me to unrealistic beauty standards and made me feel uncomfortable and sexualised when I was still so young. I grew up with red hair wanting it to be blonder, I grew up very fair-skinned wishing I could tan, I grew up wanting to look stronger, taller, thinner and curvier, and I wanted to have clear skin and darker eyebrows.
I have finally come to a point in my life where I am truly happy with myself and every imperfection that I may have. This is what drives me to create art that shows how truly beautiful women are and how there is no set standard for beauty. I will continue to use as many different body types and looks as I can, because young girls and women deserve to see a beautiful and realistic version of themselves in everyday art.
Britain Uncovered: Although your inspiring range of art is empowering people and helping them to feel more confident about themselves, do you feel that creating this type of body positive art has also had a big impact on you, as the artist? How do you feel about yourself when painting these types of pieces?
Sarah: Although I do try to create works of art with many different body types, I do often come back to a body type that is similar to my own. The reason is that I have spent so long judging my own body because of what the media and society has said. By painting my body type in these powerful and dynamic ways, I can continue to grow with my self-love and appreciate my body for the strong and beautiful gift that it is.
Britain Uncovered: Whether it’s through your work as an artist, or more recently as a model (which we’ll get onto shortly), desexualising women’s bodies is a hugely important and recurrent theme throughout – and it’s clear that you want the female body to be seen as beautiful, and not sexual. Can you tell us a little more about your views on this, and do you feel that normalising the human body can help decrease the over-sexualisation of women too?
Sarah: Women are often seen solely as sexual objects. Whether it is through media portrayal (we literally have a sexualised female M&M), or through the beliefs of those around us, women are sexualised.
When all that we see is sex and how women are sexual beings, it degrades who we are as people. I am a woman, and I can tell you for a fact that my sexual nature is the least interesting thing about me. I am so much more than simply a vessel for sex. I am a human being with thoughts, beliefs, ideas and rights, and I have so much more to offer the world than sex appeal. I want to live in a world where I will not be ignored because of my gender. I want to live in a world where I am viewed as a human being and not a sexual object. I want to live in a world where we do not have to teach young girls how to protect themselves from sexual violence. I want to live in a world where women are not overly-sexualised.
I wholeheartedly believe that the way to reach these goals is to be more open about the female body and sexuality as a whole. For me, this means creating nude works of art for the purpose of beauty, body positivity and women’s empowerment - and not for sex. Nudity and sex are not the same thing and yet they are so frequently grouped together. When we group sex and nudity together, we create a situation where nudity becomes a ‘for specified audiences only’ and becomes inappropriate in everyday situations.
I have been told by a few different art markets that I would not be allowed to participate because my artwork is not ‘family friendly’ or ‘child appropriate’. I am not trying to share artwork that is of a sexual nature to kids, nor do I agree that is something that should be done. Nudity, however, is not sex. The primary purpose of breasts is to feed children, so the idea that the sight of boobs is inappropriate for children to see baffles me. If we normalise nudity and seeing the human body in its natural form, I believe that people of all ages will be able to separate nudity from sex and sexuality. Ignoring things that make us uncomfortable is never going to get rid of the thing that makes us feel that way. We have to face the uncomfortable in order to understand why it makes us feel that way.
My body is not for the enjoyment of others. My body is mine and mine alone to choose what I do or do not do with. Allowing me to be seen as a person instead of a sexual object will give me so much more freedom and allow me to live in a much safer world than the world we live in today.
Britain Uncovered: You’ve also gone on record to state that it’s rare to see “real women” in media and art. How problematic is this as it relates to society’s views on beauty, and is normalising and/or celebrating body of all shapes and sizes an important part of your work?
Sarah: Although the women that we see in the media are of course real women themselves, they are usually only a small proportion of women across the world. We often see tall, slender, white women in the media and in art. I like to take inspiration for my paintings from modelled photoshoots that show the body in a variety of poses and dynamic looks.
However, when I am looking at these photos after searching for ‘unique model poses’ or simply ‘model photoshoot’, I get almost exclusively images of slender, tall, white women. If I want to see inspiration of curvy or plus-sized models, models of all body shapes, or models of different ethnicities, I have to specify that in my search. Thin, white women are the default.
This cherry-picked selection of images that we are presented show a drastically skewed version of what women truly look like. I believe that women deserve to see themselves represented in the media and in art. Women deserve to see their beauty being celebrated, not ignored for being outside of the current societal norms.
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned in a recent post that you “want to live in a world where I can wear and do whatever I want without persecution or judgement from those around me.” Is it important for you to be able to establish your own boundaries and make your own choices, both as an individual and as an artist? How much needs to change within society to break down these types of barriers that seemingly dictate how people of different genders should behave?
Sarah: It is extremely important to me to be able to establish my own boundaries and make my own choices. It has never been a question about whether men should have these options and therefore it shouldn’t be a question of whether I should. I will forever fight to have my opinion heard and respected and will fight for the right to make my own choices and decisions regarding my own life, and especially what I do with my body. Who is possibly more suited to make these decisions than I am? Absolutely no one.
As an artist, it is also so important to push boundaries and challenge the norm. Art allows us to look at the world in a new way and learn and grow from these new perceptions. As a woman, I have been pushed to keep my body hidden, and at the same time told that my body is solely for the purpose of pleasing men and bearing children. For me, art allows me to share the idea of women existing simply for themselves, not hiding who they are, or what they look like based on these ridiculous ideas.
In today’s society, there is still such a large disparity between people who believe that different genders should follow certain behaviours, and those who believe that gender should not play a role. Thankfully, my generation seems to be on the side of breaking these gender norms and making our own boundaries. I believe that if our generation continues to fight for what we believe in, we are on the right track to breaking down these barriers in the future.
Britain Uncovered: Last month, you had the opportunity to take part in your first ever body positivity photoshoot, and in some of the more powerful scenes of the day, you bravely tried some implied nude poses. What was it that led you to want to take part in this photoshoot, and what were you hoping to achieve by taking part?
Sarah: My first photoshoot that I had taken part in was one that the photographer Rian approached me with. He mentioned that he had been a fan of my artwork and the messages that I try to convey and that he would love to do an artist photoshoot with me and my artwork. I was extremely excited for the opportunity, and it was such a wonderful experience.
From that shoot, Rian and I discussed doing more photoshoots in the future and if we had an idea we would get in touch. I then came to the idea of doing a more interpretive photoshoot where I would paint myself in the same style as my Embroidered Bodies body positivity series. The implied nude concept came about while Rian and I were discussing the concept. I had never done anything like this, but I had all the faith in Rian to make a great shoot.
I also wanted to put myself in the position of being vulnerable. The mood that I was trying to capture was ‘strong vulnerability’. I wanted to show that by breaking down barriers and taking back our bodies, we can find strength in our choices and decisions.
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned that the concept behind the photoshoot was to capture ‘the artist becoming the art’ – and being the model, rather than the artist, must have been an interesting change of pace! How did you feel prior to the shoot, and what was the experience like being in front of the camera?
Sarah: In my artwork, I display nude figures for the purpose of normalising women’s bodies and desexualising them. By creating the implied nude shots, and painted nude shots, I was able to put myself as the artist front and centre of the message I am trying so hard to convey.
Since I am a woman, I am both the artist and the target audience of my works. I believe in body positivity and that every woman is beautiful in her differences. I am also a woman that has been subject to judgement and led to fit into a standard role of beauty. I was able to use this shoot to put myself into more of an audience role than an artist role and it was very enlightening.
I am well aware of the dislike of the naked human body, but until I took part in this photoshoot, I had never had to put my own body out there for as much scrutiny. It was definitely a more stressful shoot than the first one I took part in. I was much more nervous about whether the photos would be accepted and understood by my followers, friends, and family. I was worried that people would look down on me or judge me for taking a more risky direction with the photos.
Although this was the second time in front of the camera, I was definitely more awkward and confused about what to do. I felt fairly natural with the first shoot, but with this one I was much more critical of myself and how I would look. Thankfully, Rian is a very kind and supportive individual and a very talented photographer. He was able to ease my worries and provide a safe space for me to figure out how to get the right kind of photo.
Britain Uncovered: Did you find it a positive event to be a part of overall, and how did you feel about yourself when you saw the resulting images? Were you satisfied with how everything turned out?
Sarah: After the photoshoot was over, I felt much better about the entire process – although a few doubts still remained. I decided to share my worries and doubts on my social media platforms.
I posted a nude watercolour painting I had recently done and discussed my nervousness in the caption. My followers, friends, and family were all extremely supportive. I am sure there were some that did not approve or agree (I did have a few unfollows after the first photo was posted), but the overall response was overwhelmingly positive.
Many people applauded my courage and expressed their appreciation for the message these photos were sending. The photos turned out truly incredible and I am so beyond happy with the process and so very proud of myself for taking this risk.
Britain Uncovered: Has taking part in a photoshoot like this helped with your body confidence and overall self-assurance – either in the long-term or shorter-term – and would you recommend this type of experience for others seeking to feel more comfortable in their own skin?
Sarah: I definitely believe that this photoshoot has helped with my body confidence and self-assurance. I have always had good confidence and self-esteem in myself as a person – I credit my brilliantly strong mother for this. I have, however, struggled with body image issues growing up and am only really in the last few years becoming comfortable with my body as it is.
Doing this photoshoot really gave me a chance to face my fears. Seeing such strong and powerful photos of myself has shown me what I have known deep down all along. These photos showed me how strong and powerful I am and that I can tackle any problem that I encounter if I believe in myself.
On the other hand, I was also forced to look at photos of myself and to accept that I might not always be happy with every aspect of them. In some photos, I felt my arms looked a bit big, or my stomach wasn’t flat enough. I was able to take my criticisms and try to understand where they were coming from. Although hard in the moment, I have now faced those issues and am able to remind myself that the message I spread about body positivity goes for me as well.
I would definitely recommend this experience for others, but with the recommendation that you choose the right photographer. This experience was extremely positive for me and I attribute a lot of that to the fact that Rian created a safe and accepting space in his studio.
Britain Uncovered: What advice would you offer to somebody struggling from self-image issues at present, and what guidance might you provide to an individual who is finding it difficult to feel confident about their body?
Sarah: Firstly, I would try to remind someone that they are their harshest critic. We are exposed to seeing ourselves more than others see us, and when we do, we often pick apart every fine detail since we are so aware of them. Other people do not see the small things. Most people will not notice stretch marks, or that bit of extra weight. They won’t notice if you have acne or if you have one ear higher than the other. And on the off-chance that they do notice, there are very few people that will care.
The most important part of body image, in my mind, is loving yourself. Whether people do or do not notice, although it can play a role in how we feel, should not dictate how we feel about ourselves.
If you cannot love your body at the moment for what it looks like, try to love your body for what it does. It allows you to do the things that you love, the things that make life worth living. Your body is strong and gives you the strength to try and fail and try again. If you focus on how strong and resilient your body is, you may find that you will learn to love your body for what it is and in turn love it for what it looks like.
Lastly, I would note that we all feel this way at one point or another. Some people may feel it more often than others, but it is something that we all know all too well. You are not alone. You may have some days that are worse than others, but my advice to you is to try to focus on the good things and give yourself a break for the things that you do not like. We are all trying, and learning, and growing, and its not easy to always love yourself all the while doing that.
Britain Uncovered: Before we bring things to a close, we would love to hear about some of your upcoming plans for the future! Are you intending to stick with the body positivity art for the time-being, and if so, what can people expect to see from you in the coming months?
Sarah: I definitely plan to keep nudity, body positivity, and women’s empowerment as a focal point in my artworks. I have only just begun my journey of reclaiming the body and I am so excited for what is to come.
I currently am working away in the background on a series that will show nudity as an everyday occurrence, something that adds aspects of nudity to ‘normal’ situations without being a big deal.
I am also working away at an idea to bring even more diversity to the works that I create. Along with my paintings and stained-glass ornaments, I would also like to continue with modelling and see if I can keep bringing my artwork to life through this different stream.
To see more of Sarah’s work, along with additional highlights from her recent photoshoots, be sure to follow @sc.artstudios over on Instagram. Meanwhile, you can also purchase some of Sarah’s art for yourself – including pieces from her recently-launched Embroidered Bodies series – via her Etsy page, which has an extensive range of original and custom artwork for sale.