Interview with student, poet and activist, Eloïse Armary!
Earlier this month, Britain Uncovered had the opportunity for a sit-down interview with Eloïse Armary, a Parisian who is currently undertaking her Master’s degree at the University of Sussex in Brighton. During our conversation, we discuss Eloïse’s thoughts on body positivity, her modelling experience in the summer, the ways her relationship with her body has evolved over the years, her poetry work, and a great deal more!
Shortly after posting our exclusive interview with Alice Pierre ahead of the launch of her Write Me A Novel project back in September (which you can read by clicking here), we had the pleasure of interacting with Eloïse Armary, one of the three models involved in this intriguing project, and it quickly became clear that her experience on the day made for a particularly compelling story.
After hearing about what the project entailed and what it meant to Eloïse on a personal level, we decided to get together for a long-form interview to discuss not only her involvement in this project, but Eloïse’s thoughts on a wide-ranging spectrum of other subjects too: which, as you’ll read below, included her difficulties with acne and body hair, the ways she’s felt sexualised from a young age, the reasons why not thinking about your body can prove empowering, and so much more fantastic body positivity-related content that makes for an insightful and enjoyable read.
Eloïse very kindly invited us into her home in Brighton for a laid-back and informal conversation that took place over a period of several hours, and in addition to the coffee and cake we devoured during the course of our discussion, Eloïse also volunteered to be naked for an extended period of the afternoon to see how she might react and feel about herself – and several of the images throughout this article capture these raw and vulnerable moments.
My thanks go to Eloïse for her hospitality and for being so open and candid throughout our exchange, and it was a genuine pleasure to hear her unique insight on so many important topics. We think you’ll agree that the write-up below is one of our finest pieces to date.
Britain Uncovered: Hi Eloïse, and thank you for inviting us into your wonderful home! Can we start by asking whether or not body positivity is something that’s close to your heart, or if it’s something you’re keen to learn more about, perhaps?
Eloïse: I feel like body positivity is not something I think about every day. I have my own relationship with my body like everyone, with body issues and thoughts about my body and my own experiences, but I wouldn’t consider myself a body positivity activist.
Britain Uncovered: As part of today’s interview you have volunteered to be naked for a portion of our interview in an effort to see how this makes you feel about yourself – but have you ever taken part in nudity-related events before, whether at beaches or for photoshoots, for instance? If so, what kind of impact have these experiences had on you?
Eloïse: I actually had a nude experience when I went to Finland in June 2018. We went to a party with some friends for a weekend – it was Summer Solstice – and they had a private sauna in the house and people went in naked. So I was with some friends and we were all naked, but I felt comfortable right away because it’s all about context and how people look at you.
There’s been times where I’ve actually felt more sexualised with clothes on. Sometimes you can wear a dress and feel like a piece of flesh. But being naked in a sauna in a closed space is different. Unfortunately, during that same moment in the sauna there was a drunk guy who was really inappropriate and his friends were having to push him away – but it wasn’t because we were naked, it was because he was drunk. If I’d have been dressed it would have been the same thing. It’s just part of the inconvenience of being a woman, I guess!
Also, I grew up with two older sisters, a mother and a father who was working very often, so I grew up in a house that was very feminine. We were always comfortable being naked around each other and were walking in on each other in the bathroom etc., so to me intimacy wasn’t so much of a thing. I was never shy getting naked in front of people, because I shared the same bedroom with my sister as well.
Britain Uncovered: Having been in England for a while, do you think attitudes in Britain are different to how they are in the rest of Europe? We’re generally perceived as quite prudish or reserved, and I think the body positivity movement is a result of those attitudes in some ways. Up until recently, nudity had almost become a taboo or is something that is deemed to have a sexual connotation in this country, but in mainland Europe where there are spas, sauna complexes and clothing-optional beaches, I think it is more a part of everyday life and culture?
Eloïse: For me, it heavily depends on context. Growing up in Paris is really the same as England to me. People don’t get naked, and people really care about their body image and how they come across. At the beach, I think people are quite loose and I’ve seen a lot of people topless. I don’t really know about beaches here in England, but maybe it’s more of a cliché that French people are more topless.
I don’t hang out naked all the time and it’s not something I want to do, but I’ve seen in Brighton the World Naked Bike Ride where people are naked. In a way, my knowledge of England is not Victorian England, it’s contemporary Brighton – so in my mind I don’t think of the English are prudish. I think this is due to younger people and things like Instagram, as a lot of the conversations that are going on now cross borders.
Britain Uncovered: We’ve spoken to several of our past interviewees about the differences between body positivity and body confidence, but what do they mean to you and where do you stand on the subject?
Eloïse: To me, body positivity has more of a connotation of having more diversity of bodies in the public space, even in terms of shops promoting bigger sizes and different body types and body colours. It’s more about promoting diversity and having less of a thin, white norm. It’s more political. I always viewed body positivity that way, and being a thin white able-bodied and cisgender person I was listening, but I didn’t feel like I was in the centre of the conversation.
Britain Uncovered: Do you think there’s also an onus on shops, brands and/or the media to start portraying different body types and different shapes and sizes in adverts and newspapers?
Eloïse: To me, it’s all about how ethical the brand is. The brand can have a diverse image as it relates to different shapes and sizes of bodies, but if they are getting their cotton from slavery in China, I don’t care. To me, that’s what matters more. Body positivity is all about diversity to me.
The other aspect would be in relation to eating disorders. ‘Fat’ doesn’t mean ‘unhealthy’, and ‘thin’ doesn’t mean ‘healthy’. And stop body shaming people and saying, “Oh you’re looking good” to somebody who could be anorexic, and promoting certain eating disorders by judging people based on what they look like. Appearance doesn’t mean health.
The end point is caring less about bodies and what people look like.
Britain Uncovered: Turning our attention to Alice Pierre’s Write Me A Novel project that you were involved in as a model back in July, we' be interested to hear how it first came about; and also, what your initial reaction to the concept was?
Eloïse: It was at the beginning of July and I was in Brighton, and Alice asked me if I wanted to take part in the photoshoot because a model had stood her up. I said “Yes, sure”, because we had done a photoshoot before where I was just in my underwear. That shoot was all about focusing on the parts of my body that I didn’t exactly accept.
We focused on my body hair because I always had a complicated relationship with my hair and I really tried to be subversive with it. The shoot went well, so when Alice suggested doing this, I thought it sounded really cool, especially with the writing on my body and everything! I was so excited.
Britain Uncovered: How did you enjoy the entire process and being in the studios? We’ve had a few of our own photoshoots at the Capture Factory, so we know it well!
Eloïse: Being in the studio was exciting too. I’ve never been a model and it’s never really been my thing. It was really cool, even though I was in there with two other people I didn’t know, and knowing that we were going to be together and touching each other and being super close. Because the two other girls knew each other and we all knew Alice, we had a friendship vibe that was just extended. You just had to accept that some parts of the day would be a little awkward and just laugh about it. There’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Britain Uncovered: Were you quite confident about the overall nature of the shoot heading into it?
Eloïse: Yes, because I trust Alice. I knew she was going to portray us in a very positive way, which is very respectful and you don’t feel degraded. To me it was a very poetic project, so I really related.
Britain Uncovered: What did you most enjoy about the day, and how did you feel about bringing Alice’s words to life?
Eloïse: The day was just a really fun experience. There was a part where we were just writing on each other and we were reading the words, and it was really meditative. And we were just saying the words, and it was like the music of the words mattered more. Because you can’t read the story, so at some point you kind of give up! Which to me is really hard because I always want to know the meaning of the words and what they are talking about. I wanted to have the full thing!
Britain Uncovered: What was it like looking back at the photos following the shoot? Seeing images of yourself like this can sometimes be confronting if you’re not used to seeing your body in such a way. How did you feel seeing yourself in such a different light once the exhibition was released?
Eloïse: I think they look really good, and I didn’t feel naked at all – I was just focusing on the words. It was more about the aesthetics than the looks: the shadows, for instance. Alice has a really visual eye, and I like the picture with our bums out; it makes me laugh. And it just so happens that my bum is a part of my body I’ve always been quite comfortable with, so I was like, “Yes, just put it on the internet – I don’t care”! There was one part during the photoshoot where I was worried that I had a little bit of a belly, but when I saw the photos I thought to myself, “What are you talking about”?
Originally, Alice was going to have more diverse bodies, but because scheduling the models was difficult, it just didn’t work out. But I think it would have been an even more interesting project if we’d had really diverse bodies.
Britain Uncovered: What was the main or most important thing you learned about yourself taking part on the day – did it make a big impression on you personally?
Eloïse: It showed me that I’m more photogenic than I thought I was! The photos turned out well and I didn’t have a horrible face or anything like that. Many times when people take pictures, you just freak out and have a face that you don’t look like (or that you don’t like), and I think a lot of it is in the photographer as well.
Because Alice is a professional, she knows how to make you comfortable and she knows what looks good, so will only include photos in the final exhibition where you do look good. Compared to normal portraits where people take a picture of you, and you’re really looking unnatural and forcing a smile, compared to a picture where you think you look good – it made me feel like I can look good. But I also had that feeling before from the previous photoshoot I did with her, where it was just me and her. And I thought, “Wow, I really like these pictures.”
Britain Uncovered: What were some of your favourite or most memorable parts of the shoot?
Eloïse: Probably when we danced after the shoot (you can see some clips of this here). That was a really fun moment, and it just took all the pressure away. Previously, it was all about having to look good and finding the right positions, and wondering what to do to change things to avoid having the same pictures ten times… and then after it was all done, we celebrated by having a dance. Alice kept taking pictures, and they turned out pretty well!
I’m actually going to get some of the words tattooed on me, just because it’s an ode to art really. Art is a big part of my life, and the poetry and words are really relaxing – they’re the words I chose and words that remind me of nice memories as well. The words Alice wrote remind me of nice smells and nice moments. I’ve put off getting the tattoo for a couple of months, but haven’t yet taken any action! [Eloïse did end up getting the tattoo just a week after our interview took place – Ed].
BU: And that’s pretty cool for Alice too, knowing that her words will be immortalised on you for evermore – that’s pretty high praise!
Eloïse: That’s what I thought! She’s not going to be publish the short story, so to have a little bit of it published on me… I think that’s going to change my relationship with my body, just to have a little bit of art on it. It makes you feel differently.
Britain Uncovered: Turning our attention back to body confidence matters, if somebody’s not feeling overly confident in their own skin or their own body, what advice might you give somebody who’s feeling down or struggling? Are there any tips or techniques that might work, and is there anything that has worked for you in the past as well?
Eloïse: I think what helped me is seeing what I like in other people – and realising that maybe they don’t like that part of themselves. Or seeing what people like in you that you find normal, and you think, “Well that doesn’t make me pretty”. But usually people like in other people what they don’t like about themselves.
Growing up as a girl when I was a teenager, when your body changes, we were commenting a lot on each other’s breasts and bums, almost to an unhealthy level. I wasn’t comfortable with my breasts but I was comfortable with my bum. I was looking at other people’s breasts and comparing them to myself, but I wasn’t looking at other people’s bums! I wasn’t judging them on that. So I think just seeing people in different ways, and being aware of what you like about others is usually something you don’t like about yourself.
Another thing that could help is talking to people about their relationship with their body and what they like and dislike about themselves. I think this really helps – even if you think somebody’s really pretty, and they really don’t think that they are, they will ask, “Why are you lying”? But they’re not. It’s just all about image and your own perception, and I think having other perspectives make you distance yourself from your own views.
I think with the internet, you can see so many bodies. Look at people who look like you. So many people are the same as you, and I think that really helps.
Britain Uncovered: Is accepting our bodies naked important to help us feel good about themselves? Previous interviewees have explained to us that once they embraced their body without clothes, that really helped them to see themselves in a different and more positive light. Is that something you can relate to, or not so much?
Eloïse: Not so much, because to me, accepting myself comes via not thinking about my body – and being proud of what I do and not who I am. I accept myself and I’m proud of all the hobbies I am doing that I’m passionate about, and I feel like I’m good at them.
And I just think that I don’t care what I look like, and then usually having that confidence makes you feel more beautiful. Be so grateful for your body for enabling you to do everything you do, and for allowing you to live. Rather than how you look, focus on what your body does for you. I find that personally, meditation, wellness and mindfulness really helps with my anxiety.
My problem is not so much my body issues – I mean, I’ve had them before, but then I thought, “Well, we’re all different”. But my problem is more that I live in my mind and not my body, and I have anxiety because of the way I live.
Doing photography and being sensitive visually and artistically, I’m like, “Well everything’s so beautiful”, and taking pictures and liking certain little textures makes me feel that I am seeing through my body and my body senses, and it makes me feel more in tune with the world.
Britain Uncovered: What was your relationship with your body like when you were growing up, and did you feel as though you were being sexualised to a certain extent?
Eloïse: My teenage years were the time I had the most body issues (I think like everyone), because your body changes and you care so much about what other people think of you. But now I’m at a stage where I don’t really care, and I’m not trying to fit into any norm. You still care about your body, but I’m not trying to imitate anyone and am just doing what feels good to me.
As soon as I hit puberty, I was sexualised and I saw myself like how straight men saw me. Every sexual trauma is a reminder that in the eyes of society, my body doesn’t exist for itself but for the pleasure of men. It reminds me of how little I matter. The greatest challenge of loving myself was to get rid of this male gaze and see myself with my own eyes.
Britain Uncovered: You mentioned before today about your difficult relationship with acne. Can you describe some of your experiences and explain how has this impacted your overall confidence? Has it had a big effect on the way you perceive yourself?
Eloïse: I had acne since I was ten years old, which was really young and before anyone around me had it. My older sisters thought I had “cute acne”, but I said to them, “But I’m ten”! From a really young age people would ask me about it, so that ruined my relationship with my body and created a lot of complexes, because it’s not something you can hide. I would try to wear make-up to hide it, but you could still see it, and it ends up making it look worse. I think that was my worst period, in terms of accepting myself. And then the hormones kick in and everything changes, and you’re like, “What’s going on, I’m a monster”!
I was also around people who didn’t have much acne, and that wasn’t helpful either. Once I was with friends – even older people – who had acne as well, I just found them pretty and wasn’t focusing on the acne. I think seeing other people who look like you helps. Not having acne anymore really helps my relationship with my body on a daily basis. I can look at myself in the mirror and feel nice about what I see.
Britain Uncovered: You’ve also touched on the notion of body hair, which can lead to so many different talking points. First and foremost, do you feel a societal pressure to have your body hair a certain way, and if so, how damaging is this ‘idyllic version’ of what a woman should look like in this regard?
Eloïse: As soon as girls (or people who present themselves as girls) have body hair, you’re expected to remove it, and I rarely saw girls with body hair growing up. I saw it in myself and my sisters, but then rarely around my friends – so I felt like I had to hide it and I had to shave, but then everything grows back really quickly. You look at other people and they have no hair, and you just wonder what’s going on!
My best friend when I was growing up had no body hair, and was really light and blonde, so this also made me feel like a monster. But some people just have more hair than others, and I’m a light-skinned person with really dark hair, and I had some friends who had dark hair on dark skin but you can’t really see it because there’s not much of a contrast. I didn’t see many people who looked like me, except maybe my sisters.
Britain Uncovered: Did your sisters’ decisions around body hair influence you as to what you felt you should be doing as well?
Eloïse: I really tried to conform, but it never worked because you could always see the hair growing back really quickly. People always complimented me about how fast my hair grows, but it grows fast everywhere!
When I learned a bit more about feminism I decided to just let it grow, and didn’t worry about shaving anymore. I was in a resistance stage, and decided that even if people could see my body hair, I wasn’t going to spend time torturing myself. Sometimes in the summer I would spend entire afternoons trying to wax my hair and my legs, and it was just hurting so much and I was crying. It would end up half-done, and I just felt like I was never going to win on this. It was so time-consuming, so I just resisted it and decided I’d rather face society’s glares, as opposed to all the work I’d have to do to keep removing it.
I made it part of my identity to be hairy. And now I think you can be hairy or not – it doesn’t matter if someone shaves. It doesn’t mean you’re less of a feminist either. People may think that shaving again means you’re submitting to the patriarchy, but that’s a really toxic mindset because you’re then judging other people – and that’s not the point.
Britain Uncovered: This brings us onto the topic of your blue hair – what was it that prompted you to dye it, and how has it impacted the way you feel about yourself?
Eloïse: I just decided that it would be a very ‘Brighton’ thing to do! And since it’s been blue, everywhere I go people have said, “Oh, I love your hair”! People are being so friendly to me, and it makes me feel like I don’t have to be shy anymore. It’s a good conversation-starter, and people just start talking to me.
Britain Uncovered: It’s actually helped your confidence then by the sounds of it?
Eloïse: Yes, I think so, because I kind of stand out a little bit. People then talk to me and we have something to talk about, and it just eases the conversation. I suffer from social anxiety, so it really helps with that. I enjoy it, but in a very unforced way. I don’t want to feel as if I’m making people uncomfortable. I don’t want to come across as someone who says, “This is me” and who doesn’t listen to other people, but it’s always enjoyable when you’ve been noticed a little bit.
Britain Uncovered: Last week you took part in your first ever poetry reading! How did this go, and did you enjoy delivering your poetry to a room full of people? What was the experience like?
Eloïse: My poetry is always a reflection of what I’m experiencing in the moment, and is something I can’t express with normal words – so I have to investigate! It can be overwhelming, so I just have to put the words down somewhere and then see if it’s any good. I try and journal, but it often ends up as poetry, because I just say the words that are important and skip the rest. It can be so intense, so I just have to get it all out and think to myself, “Well, that was that”!
The process of then sharing it can be interesting, because maybe people will get what I was feeling, or maybe you were feeling something similar and you take something from these words.
Britain Uncovered: I guess once you’ve done your part in writing it, the audience will take away from it whatever it is they want. It’s almost like a message in a bottle, because once you’ve finished and released it to the world, how people interpret and perceive the poetry is almost out of your hands – but I think that’s a nice part of it. Did you find it quite vulnerable reading your poetry in public last week?
Eloïse: Yes, but I found it more vulnerable putting it on paper and asking people if they wanted to buy my poetry (such as when I recently published a zine for fundraising purposes). Even publishing poetry and posting it on Instagram, you’re wondering who’s really going to read it, and if people are really going to like it. You don’t get much feedback.
I was vulnerable on stage, sure, but I had some warm-up via other people who read before me, and people were so responsive and it made me want to share in that space – because you do get the feedback. I find writing poetry therapeutic, but when it comes to sharing in a public environment like this, you realise that it’s more than just self-therapy.
Britain Uncovered: We also saw via your Instagram feed that you have taken part in protests for Extinction Rebellion, both in Paris and in London. What can you tell us about your participation and activism as it relates to this?
Eloïse: The way I use my body in activism is important. When I protest, I am physically present in the street, and sometimes I sit down and meditate when blocking a street for an Extinction Rebellion action. I sit down, don’t even talk, have a message on a piece of cardboard and I breathe. I am here, and that’s all. Using your body for a political message is powerful.
That said, I am aware that my body is privileged and I suffer very few abuses of power on my body by the state, so I don’t take many risks putting myself out there; but I am very inspired by people to whom it’s risky but who still do it, because the impact is greater. I think the body is the place where many injustices are marked on, but it also can be used as a political statement.
To keep tabs on Eloïse’s latest projects and activism, head on over to her Instagram account, @eloise_armary. Additionally, we would recommend following Eloïse’s dedicated poetry account, @luluwritespoetry, and you can also find her work on student newspaper, The Badger – where she serves as Artist Focus Editor – by clicking here.