As we shift our focus to sexual assault awareness for the month of April it seems a perfect time to talk about the body, how we experience our own and encounter others. It’s no secret that we live in a world saturated with images of what bodies should and shouldn’t look like, standards that can be oppressive no matter who you are. Last  month I stumbled upon the Body Joy Project, a feminist art collective founded by Chloe Allred, Gabriella Ayala-Cañizares and Charlotte Dean. They take on issues of agency, shame and joy in hopes of changing the way our culture sees and values bodies. I’m happy to present the following interview with three very inspiring ladies.

Akiko Surai: Before coming upon your project I had never heard the term “body joy”. What does Body Joy mean to you?

Gabriela Ayala-Cañizares: Body Joy stumped me at first. It seems so simple now but before I had never associated my body with the word joy, it felt strange to do so. Naturally, those words actively tried to run away from one another when I first introduced the phrase to my contemplations. Now that “body” and “joy” have found peace with being clumped together I’ve developed a definition that works for me, for now. Body Joy means developing a loving, attentive, and understanding relationship with my body. Body Joy is not a place that you arrive to and never look back. It is constantly in flux and that is where compassion takes a huge role. Body Joy, like anything, is something that you have to practice and never stop practicing. It is worth it.

Charlotte Dean: Feeling at home in my own skin. Being present in my body. Using it, not worrying about it. Having sex, not thinking about what my body looks like while I’m having sex. Stopping eating when I’m full, taking a break when I need one, buying the clothes that actually fit, not the ones I think should fit, and balancing my love for quesadillas with walks around the block. It is about actively cultivating an environment around me that is safe both physically and emotionally. Giving myself a chance to be myself. Stuff like that.

Chloe Allred: Body Joy is tennis. I love to hit the crap out of the ball, it feels so good. Body Joy is hiking and the ache in my legs after a good hike. Body Joy is eating well, and not just letting myself eat, but enjoying food.. Body Joy is paint: physical, beautiful, messy paint. Body Joy is intimacy, love, sex, pleasure. Body Joy is making the right relationships and ending the bad ones. Body Joy is knowing that being raped was not my fault. Body Joy is my daily choice. It’s not always easy, but it has gotten easier, and I can finally say with confidence that I love myself.

AS: How did “The Body Joy Project” start?

CA: I had done a project called “To Be Brave: Ending Body Shame” where I worked with survivors of eating disorders, sexual assault, and body shame. I wanted to continue this project in some way and begin collaborating with other visual artists. I talked to Charlotte about it and she said, “What about Body Joy?”

CD: I think I just blurted out something like: Enough shame. What about Body Joy? We talked about it more and pretty much immediately reached out to Gabi to join forces with us.

GAC: I was completely confused with what body joy meant when Charlotte and Chloe first approached me about it. I distinctly remember Charlotte saying the phrase, “what about body joy? What about what comes next?” I also happily remember their eager faces coming up to me and speaking about what was just vague ideas at the time. They were so excited that passionate, small, quick, thoughts were bursting out of both of them in blurry speeds.

CD: We really approached her with a raw, somewhat incoherent handful of ideas and she was so up for it from the get go. It was like: “Have you ever told a friend they are beautiful and amazing and then turned right around and told yourself you are ugly or awful? Yeah! Me too! That sucks. We should talk about that.”

AS: Chloe, Tell us more about yourself and To be Brave: Ending Body Shame.

CA: I’m currently based in Southern California and am getting my MFA at Laguna College of Art and Design. I love to paint and am primarily working in oil at the moment, but I also love watercolor and acrylic. I’ve been an artist since I can remember, really. I started To Be Brave: Ending Body Shame after I graduated from college. For my BFA show, I created a series of paintings that explored my experiences with eating disorders, sexual assault, and childhood abuse. After showing this work, an incredible thing happened: other people began to tell me their stories of survival. I wasn’t alone. This was a powerful realization. When I was twelve and in the throes of anorexia, and later when I was a college sophomore trying to cope with my rape, I felt incredibly alone. I started To Be Brave because I wanted to paint and share the stories of other survivors. Ten different women modeled for To Be Brave. They shared with me stories of eating disorders, rape, of body shame, and ultimately stories of resilience and survival. When I think of what it means to be brave, I don’t think of cheesy action movies, I think of these women.

AS: The interviews of your subjects are especially enlightening, what have you learned from other people’s experience of being painted?

CA: I learned a lot. First, let me explain the process a bit. I met with each model and had a conversation with them about their relationship with their bodies. I took notes after these conversations and made a list of words relevant to their experience(for example, Anorexia, Violation, Acceptance, etc.) In the modeling sessions, I had my list of words. I would say a word from the list, and the model would respond with their body in that moment. I noticed that these women were communicating something profound with their bodies. Trauma is really difficult to talk about it, and with words, sometimes we try to distance ourselves from the pain of our trauma. We want our trauma to sound finished, or like it wasn’t as painful as it actually was. But in these modeling sessions, when these women were telling me their stories with their bodies, that really hit me. The body was saying what was unspeakable. The first showing of this work was really wonderful. I really wanted to show the beauty, bravery, and resilience of these women and I think they all really appreciated that.

AS: How did you come to self portraiture?

CA: I made my first self-portrait from the mirror when I was twelve. I had made other self portraits before, casting myself as epic superheroes or poka masters, but this time was different. I was really examining my reflection. I was severely anorexic and as I made that drawing, I began to really see myself and see what anorexia was doing to me. I saw the dark circles under my eyes, how painfully thin my face looked. That was the beginning for me of using my art as a way to think about body image and combat body dysmorphia.

AS: What do you want to communicate to viewers about sexual assault, trauma and eating disorders?

CA: First, that survivors of these various traumas have a story to tell, that we need to listen to that story, and that we need to honor and respect survivors. Second, we have a hell of a lot of work to do. We need to do better. One in five women in the United States will have experienced sexual assault by the time they have graduated college. Many survivors of assault are treated like they are guilty of something. After my own assault, I was told by a loved one, “that will teach you to go to parties.” That is not okay. It is also not okay that eating disorders are so common. I also want to communicate that it can get better, that when we tell our stories and come together, we can begin to heal ourselves.

AS: How has the collective informed or changed your personal practice?

CA: The conversations I have with Charlotte and Gabriela are inspiring and definitely inform my practice. I think of them as pollination sessions, where these conversations are helping me strengthen and fertilize the ideas for my paintings. It’s been wonderful modeling for Charlotte and having her literally paint on me. The way I work in the studio hasn’t really changed. I’m an obsessive painter, I show up every day and put the time in.

AS: Charlotte, how did you come to be an artist?

CD: I’ve been making art my whole life, but I never thought of it as something that I would make a career out of until I was in my early twenties. I was renting a bedroom in a big house (which I paid for by painting murals in all the bedrooms of the house) and my whole room was filled with stacks and stacks of paintings. I didn’t know what to do with them until one day, on my birthday, the man I had been dating for awhile (who is now my husband) took me to our favorite local cafe and hanging up on the walls were a bunch of my paintings. He had shown them to the owner and set up the whole thing. Well, a few of those paintings sold and I started showing more and more work publicly. I had an art show in Los Angeles and another in Seattle and that’s where I found Cornish College of the Arts, where I would eventually meet Chloe and Gabriela.


Watercolor Chloe, Body painting by Charlotte Dean, photo by Jim Meyers


AS: When did you start body painting?

CD: I started with painting myself in November of 2014. I called Gabi and asked if she would come over and take pictures of this project I wanted to try. She had no idea what I was going to do, but she came eager and ready for anything. I told her I was going to paint myself, but she didn’t really know what I meant. I filled some bowls with tempera paint, got naked, and went for it. Gabi took photos and some video that day. I had no idea what it would look like, but from her excitement as I did it, I could tell it was cool. She called Chloe over, who was painting in another room. They both watched me. I felt amazing. Powerful. Like a sexy beast. Almost immediately they said “you have to paint us next.” A few days later I did. That’s that image that you see everywhere- at the top of our blog, (and the feature image for this article.). That’s from the first time I painted them. That in itself was an amazing experience. It was so cool to get to show them: this is how I see you.


AS: What drew you to it?

CD: I teach art to kids and I always have these huge jugs of colorful tempera paint. A lot of the time I would have paint left over in bowls, and what I couldn’t save, I would wash. But as I washed, I would take the paint and cover my hands and forearms with it. Like fancy gloves. It felt really good and I kept getting this nagging urge to do my whole body. That’s it. I got to a point where I said “why not?!”

AS: Can you expand on the role of consent in your work? I’m thinking specifically about the participant you had that didn’t want to be touched.

CD: After I painted Gabi and Chloe and we went public with some of those images, we got a lot of responses- there were a lot of people who wanted to be painted. One of those people was a woman who had modeled for Chloe in her Body Shame series. The first time we met was at the body painting session. She came with her best friend, I was going to be painting them both together, and she knew Chloe, but I was a stranger to her. We all sat as a group before the session to talk about what we were about to do and one of the first things she said to me was “I don’t like to be touched, but I really really want to do this.” I think we all just kind of stopped and were quiet for a moment. We reassured her she didn’t have to do this, but she kept insisting she wanted to.

So I said “okay, what if I just ask before I touch you? I’ll ask every time.” and that’s what I did. After a while she was saying yes before I asked and reaching for my hand, for the paint, even painting herself. She loved it! From the moment the first handful of paint touched her skin, she was just totally into it. I was shocked. And then after a while I wasn’t. Because it hit me like a blow to the stomach: This is not someone who doesn’t like to be touched. This is someone who doesn’t like how she’s been touched. Someone who had too many experiences where what she said or wanted didn’t matter.

That experience changed things for me. I started thinking about the paintings in new ways. They’ve become powerful experiences consent and accountability. I’ve gotten so used to asking permission to touch someone, and constantly checking in with them. It feels so natural. And you know, I do all the painting with my hands. So there is no way I can touch the person in front of me without leaving a mark. Every stroke of paint you see on these bodies is one that person said yes to. And not just an “it’s okay with me, go ahead” type of yes. A real “YES. I like that. I want more, could we try this?” Each person I have painted quickly became an active participant, a creator. The paintings are not happening to them, they are happening with them. I think that’s big. Historically, in art, the model is an object, a prop. I don’t give a fuck about props. I care about people.

AS: Has experiencing other bodies through these painting sessions changed the way you feel about or experience your own body?

CD: Yes. Both the painting sessions and the hours and hours of conversations we’ve had as a group. I remember my body more. It’s a lot of little things. Remembering to stop eating when I’m full, to take breaks and walks around the block- even when I’m immersed in a project. I think that I’m more conscious of things like that. And I’m not always good to myself you know? I forget. But I forget less and I know that getting to a place where I feel at home in my body is not a one-way trip. It is a mountain I climb over and over and over again. The paths become clearer and worn and familiar. And over time they start to feel like the way home.

AS: How has the collective informed or changed your personal practice?  

CD: I take bigger risks. I feel comfortable enough to fail. There’s nothing like presenting your most vulnerable ideas to someone and having them say “yes, I’m in.” I’m fortunate to have that with the Body Joy Project and with my husband as well. He’s been a huge supporter and inspiration for this project (and many others in my life). He doesn’t just say yes, he says “Yes! Let’s do it now.”

AS: What is your goal for the public reception of your work?

CD: I hope people see my work as a big hot beautiful mess. Being a person is messy and I love that. There is not just one way of being a person. Not one way of being beautiful. There’s a place for us all, just as we are.

AS: Gabriella, what brought you to art?

GAC: I’ve been drawing since I was kid. I used to grab several Disney VHS boxes and try my best to draw mermaids on rocks and blue genies in mythical lands. I did not even dream for a moment that art would be a huge part of my future. In 2008, I started my first year of college and moved to LA to study psychology. It was then that I started to feel like I needed something different to feel satisfied. I stumbled through two years of school not quite knowing what I was doing but in my junior year I combined the two biggest passions I’ve had in my life: art and yoga. I focused on making work that expressed my journey with yoga and wanted to capture through imagery what it felt for me to practice yoga. Before the Body Joy Project, I had never worked with photography or video. I have always been someone who likes to create with my hands and get messy. I now mostly work with photography and video and I use my skills with drawings and composition to inform this newer form of work I have taken up. I am currently doing a Masters in Yoga Studies at Loyola Marymount in Los Angeles, California.


AS: Tell us about your recent video, SVADHYAYA.

GAC: The title is a Sanskrit word from a Indian yoga philosophy. This philosophy is from Patañjali’s Yoga Sutras and is called the Eight Limbed Path of Yoga. Svadhyaya is translated in many ways but the definition I most relate to myself and my video is the dedication and process of discovering the self. It’s that moment when you decide that you are important enough to be discovered and loved. It is taking back the inherent agency over our minds and bodies. That is SVADHYAYA.

My video was all a process about being honest. The concept came from many different seated meditations for the period of a month and a half. I felt a need to capture those obsessive and repetitive thoughts that commandeer my mind during meditation. I’d often think, how much more could I accomplish if I wasn’t wasting my time worrying about this? Then frustration and guilt arises because these thoughts are still marching on. Haven’t I worked hard enough to get rid of them? Then the video moves on to address the most important point. I have a choice. Every day is an opportunity to rip the skin of the past and give a smile to the present day. Just like meditation and yoga, this a practice. These thoughts disappear and they usually come back. It is one hundred percent okay. I practice as much as I can to love myself and to listen to my body and to discover how it changes and how it stays the same. This is what SVADHYAYA is about.

AS: How has exploring the body in your work changed the way you encounter your own body?

GAC: My boyfriend filmed this video. He sat there and listened to myself as I grotesquely explained my physical insecurities and how we were going to express them in this video. That was really difficult. I had to put myself in my most insecure place so that I could be as honest as possible. I had to listen and momentarily believe the terrible thoughts that run through my head. That was part of the exploration and since then my work has helped me approach my body with more kindness. As I continue to explore and make work I am learning and believing more that my body is my friend. All it wants to do is help me survive. It is about time I gave myself a break. My new work is exploring more of an empowering connection to my body.

AS: Are you planning on continuing with video and self portraiture? What else are you interested in exploring?

GAC: I am currently working on two different projects, a video and photo series. For the video I am interested in interviewing people about their body stories. I am asking questions like, “if your body could talk what would it say?” and “What is a major event in the story of your body?”. I am passionate in connecting the mind and body and not letting those two important parts of ourselves to separate, as they sometimes can from trauma. For my photo series I am working on a series of photographs of different female bodies expressing this powerful, feminine connection to mother earth. This was prompted by this stellar Hymn from an ancient Indian texts that expresses the diva like, goddess power of the earth and how that power is inherent in all women. I want to make a colorful and empowering series of photographs that express this connection.

AS: Does your background as a yoga instructor inform your artistic process?

GAC: It most definitely informs my artistic process. Yoga has given me the tools to listen to my body and mind. It has given me the confidence to know how to express myself in my art. . As a yoga instructor I see different bodies every day. I have the responsibility of making sure that everybody in the room feels safe. I always make it a point to ask my students before class that if they do not wish to be adjusted or touched in any way that that is okay and I will honor their space. I feel incredibly fortunate because I get to encourage people to develop relationships with their bodies and to speak to topics that I find incredibly important: agency, consent, and body awareness among other things. I use the lessons I learn from being a teacher and a student to inform what I feel l need to later express outside the yoga practice.

AS: How has the collective informed or changed your personal practice?

GAC: These ladies are like sisters to me. The development of the Body Joy Project came at a time when I needed it most and it has empowered every practice in my life. It may be cheese-y to say but everything in my life changed for better after this. This is the truth. My art, my yoga, my relationships to others and myself have all become more honest and compassionate. I have more confidence to fail and to succeed. I am more willing to express and discover. I feel brave. The pretty rad thing is, I have noticed that when you start to change one part of your life, it tends to carry on to the other bits too. That is a lucky little pattern in this case.

AS: Has the collective expanded since its founding? Are you looking to expand?

GAC: So far, it is just Charlotte, Chloe and I creating work, but we want other people to bring their voice into this conversation. From the beginning we have wanted the Body Joy Project to be a place of collaboration. Chloe has made a lot great connections with artists, writers, and other creative people in her area and so I feel there will be more collaborations to come in the near future.

CD: I have a few collaborations coming up with a dancer and musician. I’ll be painting them as they perform- hopefully we’ll get to do this live at our next big show this August. (The show will be Saturday, August 20th, 6-9pm at ryan james fine arts in Kirkland, WA)

AS: Where do you see the collective going in the future?

CD: We’re working towards becoming a non-profit, and eventually, a body-positivity empire!

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Images, including feature image via the Body Joy Project

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