WATGB: Orla Foster In Conversation with Giorgia Bortoli

To coincide with their new monthly residency on the MDR airwaves, Where Are The Girl Bands? offer us a monthly glimpse into what they’ve been up to and what’s caught their attention over the past 30 days… 

This month’s WATGB’s piece has been written by local writer Orla Foster, in conversation with Giorgia Bortoli, discussing her latest single ‘Summer Body’. 

Where would beauty editors be without the concept of the “summer body”? That chimerical creation has been lurking in magazines and fuelling crash diets since the 1960s, and Giorgia Bortoli isn’t having any of it. The singer, songwriter, dancer and model is now on a mission to tear down decades of female inhibition and take back the beach. 

Her latest single ‘Summer Body’ is a rapturous disco anthem with shades of Lizzo, exploring “fatphobia, body positivity, love, loss and hoodoo, mixed with a beat that you can’t help but move to”. And in case you’re left in any doubt about the true definition of a “summer body”, Giorgia is happy to spell it out: “If you’ve got a body and you’re existing in summer, you’ve got a summer body!” 

Summer has always been important to Giorgia. “I’m half-Italian so it’s in my blood,” she says. “The sun is meant for me.” She recalls childhood trips to Venice; eating slices of watermelon and jumping off rocks into a sparkling sea.

But growing up was often a less than idyllic experience. To understand Giorgia’s journey towards self-acceptance, you should know that her early years were spent desperately trying to avoid drawing any attention to her figure: “I was dressed in black basically my whole life, always leggings and a long t-shirt. I never used to wear a crop top, never posted full-length body photos. Always censoring myself, which is just crazy. 

“But now I want to dress up like a glitterball. I don’t want to hide myself, because that’s not what my music is about. It’s about being gloriously accepting of yourself as you are in that moment.”

Starting out as a musician, however, she gravitated more towards gentle, acoustic love songs. This all changed after she penned ‘Beauty Lies’: “a poem about the lies which spread within the media about beauty standards – in my head it was a little bit Alexis from Schitts Creek.” But the humour was masking a deeper truth about unrealistic demands placed on marginalised bodies, and her own refusal to submit to the harmful messaging of the beauty industry. At last she had found her voice. 

‘Summer Body’ picks up this theme and runs with it, inviting listeners to embrace the way they look, as well as demanding better representation within the mainstream. As Giorgia puts it: “I’m the main character of my own life! So why can’t someone like me be the main character in a movie?”

But there was a time when she felt like she couldn’t even be an extra. She recalls being singled out during a dance class at a childhood summer camp, and moved to the back of the room, where she could barely even see the instructor. And worse, where she could no longer be seen by anyone else. 

This was a formative experience, a memory which pained her for years until she finally started to unpick it. Why are dance classes so often hostile to larger bodies, she wanted to know, and what could be done to remove the humiliation and stigma experienced by people shoved to the sidelines? Rather than simply wonder, she took the plunge and started her own dance workshops, determined to embrace every possible shape and size.

“There are so many people who want to move their body but don’t feel confident enough, or don’t feel like they’d be accepted,” she explains. “It’s really hard when you’re not free to express yourself fully, and unfortunately, that’s what I’ve found in many dance and drama classes: people don’t take you seriously because you don’t fit their expectations of what that character is, or what a dancer should be, or what a singer should be.

“There are people at my workshops who are absolutely phenomenal, and they just wouldn’t be given the time of day, because they don’t fit into that normal standard.” 

Any time either of us utters the word “normal”, we immediately flinch, before groping around for synonyms. “I hate using the word ‘normal’, because no one’s really normal!” Giorgia exclaims. But while her music fiercely rejects the suggestion that women should conform to any physical ideal, she acknowledges that certain entrenched ideas are difficult to shake off. 

Like most women who went through adolescence in the early 00s, Giorgia absorbed plenty of received wisdom about how a female body should look, along with a fault-finding inner voice that scolded her whenever she deviated from it. Some of that censorious outlook, she agrees, is still being perpetuated in popular culture to this day, and we roll our eyes at the thought of Kardashians weeping over stretch marks too small to be seen by the naked eye. Even plus-size clothing brands, she tells me, are still cushioning their models with pads rather than letting real bodies fill out the garments. 

But other things have improved. Unlike the passive experience of flipping through glossy magazines and feeling flawed, the way people engage with social media can be far more intentional, and enriching. It’s all about choosing a catalogue of people you can celebrate and who will also celebrate you: “You just need to see people that look like you, living their best life. And then you will in turn feel like you are worthy of living that best life.”

This realisation arrived during the depths of lockdown, when former America’s Next Top Model contestant Khrystyana Kazakova announced the start of her project The Real Catwalk, an intersectional programme of runway shows and workshops promoting inclusivity and empowerment. No sooner did Giorgia request a ticket than Khrystyana had placed her in a Zoom chat with other like-minded women, encouraging them to tell their stories and support one another through moments of insecurity. It sparked off friendships she cherishes to this day. 

“That was really the first time I ever spoke about my dealings with my body. Because even though I’ve had my own internal body image issues, it’s mainly been about how other people perceive me, rather than how I perceive myself,” she says. “It was other people’s thoughts and opinions that internalised my hate towards myself. And just beginning to express that really helped a lot.”

Despite all of the positivity, Giorgia makes no attempt to cover up the fact that there are difficult days too. During a recent set at FutureYard in Birkenhead, she found herself overcome by a wave of self-doubt. “I got there and no one was dressed up the way I was, everyone was kind of casual,” she remembers. “That made me feel like I stuck out even more than I already did, and living in a fat body, my entire life has been about trying to shrink myself into these spaces, to not be noticed, in case people have anything horrible to say.” 

The outfit in question featured a pink corset over a black mesh top and skirt, fishnet tights and pink ankle boots. In retrospect, it couldn’t have been any better matched to FutureYard’s colour palette, but it’s hard to reason with those inner demons when they catch you off guard. How did she power through the night? 

“It’s learning to recognise that internal monologue and then being like, shut up,” she explains. “I just try and remind myself that when I put that outfit on at home, I felt amazing. So why am I doubting myself now? Just because people are looking at me? It’s also really important to have friends around you that gas you up. So a mixture of other people giving you compliments,” she laughs, “and just talking yourself out of it.” 

Despite the deeply personal nature of her songwriting, Giorgia prefers to think of each project as a team effort, where people can feel emboldened to be themselves and support one other through setbacks and achievements alike: she wants to create “a community where we can all rely on each other and have each other’s backs.” Most of all, she says, she doesn’t want anyone to feel the way she did that day in summer camp. 

What else should listeners take from ‘Summer Body’?

“I want people to feel happy while listening to it, I want it to make them smile,” she begins. “I want the song to make them move their body in a way that’s not a punishment. I want them to take the affirmation that’s in the messaging and use it for themselves.”

You’ve certainly helped me feel more confident wriggling out of heavy winter garments and into a swimsuit, I tell her. With your encouragement, maybe more of us will stop cowering beneath a towel, and boldly unpeel our nylon tights so we can devour slices of watermelon while the sun toasts our skin. 

“That’s exactly what I want,” she agrees, with a hearty laugh. “Hopefully it will inspire people to take off their clothes!”