When photographer and body image activist Sarah Gill hit her own personal rock bottom in 2017, she had no idea what journey awaited her. Or the changes she’d experience in her own development that would give her the vehicle to help other women transform their own body image and self-esteem – one picture at a time.
“My own body image has always suffered,” said Gill during a phone call one chilly morning in January. “I’ve never been able to fully love my body and love myself because of that.”
Gill was hospitalized in 2017 for mental health. It was at that point that a shift began to take place.
“Yoga teacher training coincidentally started two weeks after getting out of the hospital,” said Gill. “It was divine timing.”
Gill said she found her power by immersing herself in the practice of yoga. Through breath and breathing, Gill said she realized she’s allowed to take up space, and developed the power to say, “This is who I am, and there is nothing wrong with this. Finding my voice, I realized I needed to give people the space I’d been afforded, so they could feel the same way.” And the momentum began.
Gill said she didn’t originally think about body image activism. But as she decided to invest in her own education as a photographer, she attended a workshop in Philadelphia. She had her photos taken by a boudoir photographer, an industry she had just recently entered after the brides she photographed started asking for the service.
“The photographer in Philadelphia took my pictures as part of the class, and when I saw them, I realized, ‘Wow, so that’s what I look like.’ Suddenly, I felt like I had permission to exist. And I realized I needed to do this for other people.”
Boudoir photography is described as a photographic style featuring intimate, sensual, or romantic images of its subjects in a photographic studio, bedroom, or private dressing room environment. But Gill’s clients experienced a palpable shift in power after one of their sessions.
“I’ve seen people go from quiet and shy, to immediately asking when they can book another session,” said Gill. “It’s hard to describe unless you witness it yourself. It’s a look in their eyes, the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, the way they interact with other people.”
Gill said some of the clients she sees have suffered various forms of abuse, and the photography session is a deep release of shame or pain that’s been buried over time.
When asked about the most common misperceptions about what she does, Gill doesn’t hesitate.
“Because I center a lot of my work on what I call ‘marginalized’ bodies, I get a lot of comments like ‘You’re promoting obesity,’ or ‘You’re promoting unhealthy behaviors,’ and that’s simply not true. I’m giving people space where they can feel loved and realize there’s nothing wrong with them.”
“Also, because I do take a lot of photos with minimal clothing, some say the subjects aren’t respecting themselves. But these people are reclaiming their sensuality and sexuality. Many of them are reclaiming their power.”
Power seems to be a theme in all of Sarah Gill’s work. The images are stunning, and the (mostly) women in front of the camera appear incredibly comfortable; something that’s difficult to imagine in today’s ultra-filtered, ultra-happy, social media environment.
Gill has backed up her work in the studio with a now-thriving Facebook group called Body Love Warriors. The online community supports one another, giving its members a safe space to voice fears, celebrate wins, and continue the mission of body-positivity. The group’s 2020 Let Free Your Wild event raised money and collected goods to donate to the Safe Space in Sioux City.
“We’re not only building community, we’re giving back to the community,” said Gill.
She’s also used her yoga teacher training to offer body image bootcamp workshops.
Gill hosts Let Free Your Wild retreats that include journaling, group support, body acceptance, and most importantly, healing. Her next retreat is scheduled for Breckenridge, Colorado, in September.
Gill said she sees a ton of progress happening. Lots of work still needs to be done to arrive at the concept of body neutrality. But there is movement. She plans to make sure her Body Love Warriors are front and center of the positive shift.
“I try to give people permission to exist as they are. We shouldn’t have to justify the way we show up in the world. That’s one of my favorite things to teach.”
Curious about exploring the connection between outward appearance and inner power? Erika is passionate about showcasing accessible style, and fostering a spirit of inclusion with no limits on age or body type. You can find more of Erika’s journey on Instagram, @erikahansen.official.
Erika Hansen, a professional model, influencer, and lifelong lover of fashion.