Artist Flavia Bernardes Creates Body Positive Portraits Inspired By Instagram

Flavia Bernardes in her studio, surrounded by images from her series of body positive portraits.

I don't know about you, but Instagram is my favorite corner of the internet most days. Though the new algorithim can be a bit befuddling (WHY am I getting a picture of my uncle's bulldog from 5 days ago right next to Gabourey Sidibe's latest red carpet look? Only the Insta-gods truly know), the image-based social media platform lends itself to being made into a sort of curated paradise.

Just by nature of who I follow and what photos I like, I can launch the app and find a radically body- and fat-positive feed full of lovely femmes and gents who celebrate the skin they live in every single day. A fun #OOTD post can really brighten my morning and encourage me to adorn and adore my body when I am more inclined to hide it. And from the looks of the follower counts of many of my favorite bo-po Instagrammers, I'm far from the only one who feels that way.

Flavia Bernardes finds the same sort of body positivity in her Instagram feed. She was so inspired by the work of social media activists on Instagram, in fact, that she painted a series of portraits of some of her favorite ladies!

Portraits by Flavia Bernardes

When we saw her stunning watercolor portraits of some of our very own Instagram Sheroes (plus a few lovely new additions to our feeds!), we knew we had to have her story on the site. Happy fat ladies surrounded by gorgeous watercolor is sort of our thing, so it was only natural to interview Flavia for People We Love.

Tell us a little bit about your process. What does a Flavia piece look like from idea to finished piece? Do you have any rituals that get you in the mood to paint and create?

I don’t have a lot of rituals, but I do need to connect with the people I paint, with their stories. My paintings are about owning our stories and being in peace with who we are, truly loving and accepting ourselves exactly the way we are now and stop trying to fit into a mold of what someone else thinks we should be.

Most of my work is based on photographs, mainly because I love painting candid moments. I love portraying people when they are not playing roles, when they are just being themselves. That’s when they truly are at their most beautiful. So I need to know a little bit about them, to connect on some level with their stories. Once that happens, everything else flows. 

What led you to choose the women featured in your Body Positive portrait series? How has social media influenced the subjects and subject matter you use in your art?

I paint women who have learned to love and accept themselves, or are in the process of being a little nicer to themselves. Social media made finding those women easier. It all started one day when I stumbled upon a picture on Instagram and clicked on a hashtag. It was as if someone had put into words exactly how I felt. I found so many brave strong women with such beautiful messages and I knew I had to paint them.

Social media helped me find people I connect with, people spreading a message that needs to be heard. I want to honor those stories and help other people see themselves in them. Real beauty can only come from a place of love and acceptance and that is the main goal of what I do. I want to show women that they’re beautiful, unique, and special exactly how they are now. Not when they do, change, or achieve something. I want them to feel beautiful, whole, and complete the way they are now. My paintings are a reflection of the beauty we already have. Sometimes we just need a little reminder. 

 Your background is in English literature, and you use that to write and illustrate childrens' books. What was your journey from the world of words to freelance fine arts?

In a way it’s all about connection. We’re all trying to express ourselves, our truths one way or another. I love languages and I love writing, but there were things I couldn’t express through words. That’s where art came in. It was a tool that helped me connect with others on a deeper level. It was a very natural progression, just another way of connecting with people. 

I love the idea of commissioning a portrait of yourself as an act of radical self-love — sort of like an extreme selfie. What effect do you think portraiture can have on our personal relationships with our bodies?

I love the concept of an extreme selfie! It’s about getting to know ourselves better and learning to love and accept who we are. Truly loving ourselves and knowing that we are good enough, that we are beautiful and that we matter. Art has the power to make us stop, think and feel. It connects us to our shared humanity. And to create positive change in the world, we need to start with ourselves. A painting serves as a reminder of the beauty we already have, of how far we've come. It has a life of its own, it has a filter of the artist’s eyes. And it’s really powerful to see yourself through someone else’s eyes.

I remember when I was 10 or 11, during an art class at school when one of my classmates (who was already an amazing artist) drew a portrait of me when I wasn't aware, and I remember looking at it thinking how amazing that portrait was, but that it didn’t look like me. I thought that he had made me look better, but everyone in class — even the teacher — kept saying that it looked exactly like me. That changed something in me. And now I try to do the same for other women. I want them to have that kind of experience and I know art can do that. It can reflect back to you the beauty you already have.

Your art aims to capture moments that feel "especially human." What's the most recent moment in your life that has felt that way? How can we better appreciate such moments in our lives and social media feeds?

What I do is really meaningful to me. I know what it feels like to not feel good enough and I know how art can help change that. When someone connects with my work, when they can see themselves in those paintings and see their own value, their own sense of worth… It makes my day. That feels especially human to me.

I recently received a message of someone thanking me for painting someone just like her. She thanked me for painting her cesarean scar, her stretch marks, her belly, her mom body. She could see herself in that painting and see that she’s beautiful just the way she is. There’s nothing to be changed, nothing to be ashamed of. Beauty comes in all sizes and shapes.

Social media can be a wonderful tool for change, it can help us redefine our perception of what’s beautiful, of what is accepted or not. And the women I paint are already creating positive change with it. We need representation, to see different kinds of beauty, different bodies, different shapes, different hair, different personalities and we need to see that what makes us beautiful and special is our differences. Differences should bring us together, not drift us apart. We can start by appreciating those little moments of real beauty.

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