Scotland

'My body, my rules. My life, not yours'

'Fragile' by Eliza Coulson Image copyright Eliza Coulson
Image caption 'Fragile' by Eliza Coulson

Eliza Coulson, who is 20 years old, turned her personal experience into award-winning art after she was sexually harassed by a man she had just met.

"He made me feel as if it was normal, although I knew I felt uncomfortable," she says. "I was scared."

The events contributed to the creation of a project on "self-love, self-worth, and self-empowerment".

"I used my art as a means to process what I'd had been through," she says. Now, she uses her art as a means to empower others.

A year later, she was named Young Photographer of the Year at the Scottish Portrait Awards 2018. Eliza has told the BBC Scotland news website how art helped her channel positivity into her life and the lives of others.

Image caption Eliza Coulson is a student at the Glasgow School of Art

Eliza grew up in Nairn in the Highlands, and attended Gordonstoun School in Moray. "I don't consider myself as a hugely academic person," she says. "I've always enjoyed more extra-curricular activities such as sailing and hiking."

"I had a great experience at school, and have always loved art. I've got A Levels in media, art, and photography."

Following school, Eliza moved to Glasgow in 2017, and is now in her second year at the Glasgow School of Art.

It was while she was in her first year that she was harassed.

'Red flags'

"I was on a first date with this guy. We went for pizza," she explains. "It was a summer's evening so still very light outside.

"Looking back, some references were made during the date that should have been red flags to me, but as they say, hindsight is a wonderful thing.

"If those red flags have never happened to you before then how are you supposed to know they're red flags? You give people the benefit of the doubt."

Image caption "Some people may look at this image and see a defiant, strong woman, but I was documenting a fragile time."

It was then Eliza's date suggested they go for a walk. Being a bright summer evening, she agreed.

"You only learn once you have been in that situation, and then you just never do it again."

Eliza explained how he made her kiss him after she told him she didn't want to.

"At the time I had really long hair, like 15 inches of it," she says. "I couldn't understand why he was pulling it and thinking I liked it.

"He put his hand on the back of my head and then just yanked my hair, and made me feel abnormal for saying I didn't like him doing that.

"I've since cut it all off.

"Suddenly it was dark and I was alone. I had told him to get off. He physically pushed me. I pushed him off me and he retaliated. If I hadn't pushed back, I know things would have completely escalated.

"I felt like I got off lightly."

Eliza received a text the next morning from the man who had harassed her just a day before. The text read: "Morning beautiful".

Eliza has since used her artwork as a coping mechanism. Using her social media as well as documenting her feelings in her journal, she says she has taken back control of a situation that tried to dominate her.

Her photo, 'Fragile' is in her words "not of great innovation to photography". She explains that it is part of "a great personal journey".

"Every evening I used to write all the good things that would happen to me during my day. Only the positive things or things that made me feel good about myself. I took extracts from that and wrote them all over my body."

Positive affirmations

"I would describe my work as a way to channel things. My photography is most often of myself as that's what I know best," she says.

"I feel a lot older now even though it was only last year - after an experience like that you have to grow up. The world is not how you thought it was."

Image caption "Initially the piece was created just for me. I then realised how powerful it could be to help others."

Since sharing her work, Eliza believes that her story can be used to help others as well, as it helped herself.

In one of her social media posts, Eliza wrote: "I find it important to state that this image and this meaning is sadly not a new topic of society. I do find it greatly important that sexual harassment with young women is talked about.

"Where some will find this text book, I will only find it liberating that my voice was heard, and it was spread for others to hear.

"My body, my rules. My life, not yours."

Image caption "No-one should be put into a situation that they are not ready to handle."

"This isn't revenge. It's not for him, it's for people that have been in similar situations. It's for anyone that feels like their personal space has been infringed.

"It is only natural to keep it to yourself, but it is very important not to. It doesn't matter if you feel it's insignificant.

"Nothing is insignificant if you were made to feel uncomfortable."

Eliza's photograph will be on display at the Scottish Arts Club in Edinburgh from Saturday 3 November.

It will run until Saturday 1 December and then transfer to the Glasgow Art Cub, where it will be on show in the Mackintosh Gallery from 21 January to 9 February 2019.

More on this story