Body Positive Life Drawing for Teenagers

I remember being a teenager. It was possibly the most exciting, exhilarating and intense time in my life. For many years after I thought nothing could ever match it, but as I have finally matured(!) I’m at last able to appreciate an abundance from the adult life I have created for myself. As a teenager I dropped out, rebelled, and fully immersed myself. I did go back to education after a while, but I probably should have waited longer to get the most out of it (both the rebelling and the education!)

Our teenage years are a very important time, and we ought to allow more space for them, hold them in higher esteem. The brain is undergoing some epic changes – shedding old pathways to make way for new programming – and neuroscientists have only realised in the last couple of decades just how much more change is taking place than was previously thought. They can see why it’s the time we frequently take the biggest risks, and care an awful lot what our peers think of us. Some studies suggest we’d do well to focus more on creativity during that period of our lives, yet there’s still so much for us to understand – especially when it comes to the effects of social media.

This article explores how life drawing may be a potential antidote for some of the identity or image problems that young people often experience, and which may be exacerbated by over-use of social media. Issues such as negative body image need to be addressed at all levels of society, not just in school, and not just with life drawing. Other discussions, techniques and interventions need to take place, but life drawing can be a powerful way to draw attention to human issues, starting with the body.

Firstly let’s take a look at negative body image in its most extreme form.

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD) is a mental health condition whereby the sufferer is extremely dissatisfied with their appearance and/or body parts. They experience highly invasive thoughts, resulting in compulsive repetitive behaviours which serve to temporarily relieve them from their ongoing torment. BDD can be triggered by a number of causes and often begins in the teenage years. The condition also frequently leads to eating disorders, and drives an unhealthy demand for cosmetic surgery.

Many of us love taking a good selfie but you may well imagine – or perhaps you have experienced – how having BDD would clash with, or be triggered by selfie culture. We have never been exposed to so many images before, increasingly altered images and enhanced. Filters perfect our selfie ‘imperfections’ because we’re constantly comparing ourselves with each other as well as celebrities! We’ve become screen slaves.

The largely Western condition of BDD is concerned with an individual’s distorted self image – mostly physical, but the problem lies in the mind. It appears to derive in part from a perversion of society and its mainstream culture. For all the amazing positivity out there on the web, sadly a greater amount of degradation persists. One chooses what to consume and it may take some years for a young person to work through the endless distractions and temptations, to figure out what nourishes and what depletes.

Digital

Millennials have never experienced life without digital technology. They grow up at the same time as their online identity. It is pretty much a requirement for many avenues of life now so opting out, for the young, is almost impossible. This poses problems for those with body image concerns, especially girls, as society defines women more by their physical appearance. Teenage girls learn early on still that their self worth is very likely tied up with their physical attractiveness, which also has a monetary value. It may be their bargaining power at some unspoken base level, involving a contractual agreement to their perpetual self-maintenance. Sometimes it’s not so unspoken – for example, when legitimised in dress codes for work, though increasingly this is being challenged.

Analogue

When I was a teenager I was able to switch off from the judgement of people in school or college when I left the school gates, and found great comfort in discovering very different communities elsewhere. The consumption of mass media manipulations was still relatively opt-outable, looking back. In the 90s most of us weren’t online but mobile phones were coming in. I realise now how much headspace that afforded people. Getting information often involved visiting a library, borrowing books and videos, or making music tapes for each other.

With smart phones and social media we are more permanently contactable than ever. It’s harder to escape when there are scores of people potentially checking on us, all in our back pocket. We are carrying them with us – all this judgement – because we care so much about ‘likes’ and attention. If left unchecked it can consume our energy out of all proportion to what is useful or healthy. Of course there are also untold evolutionary purposes for these devices and technology, some of them indeed healing; it’s just about getting the balance right.

Life Drawing

How about if there was more life drawing in schools for art students or indeed any students? It could be the sort of life drawing that encourages discussion, making it more available to newcomers, drawing themes from participants’ diverse experiences – the kind of event that anyone would feel comfortable trying, led of course by an experienced practitioner. It’s taking advantage of the way life drawing presents the human body for examination. There’s human stuff to talk about; whether it’s about our perception of our own and each others’ bodies, caring too much about what others think or finding a greater sense of embodiment and how that gives you more personal power – all things that are actually important for living.

The Arts subjects – music, drama, dance, fine art and photography – are in danger of extinction in UK schools, but they are vital to our creative and spiritual selves. It is important to have balance and to nurture all of ourselves, as well as having a space to let go, through art! The arts are like a bonding glue that makes all the more cerebral, less feeling-based parts of life work properly.

So much significance is placed on exam results, a privileging of the academic and scientific, but real life usually seeps in via the arts… or pours in, gushing and foaming over, allowing us to process the complexity of our lives. More of that, I say, because it’s about looking after our mental health, which struggles as ever under pressure. Whether it’s to look a certain way or achieve impossible targets, we need a chance to unravel negative patterns which are easily exacerbated by spending too much time online.

I want to emphasise how helpful it can be to have dynamic, structured guidance for drawing within a life drawing session. Aside from all the body political aspects there are styles that can encourage freedom of expression and a pure enjoyment in the act of making marks. I find them very accessible, not intimidating, and I imagine there to be a primal sense of reward in gaining confidence through mark-making. If you didn’t have digital technology and you met someone with whom you did not share language in common, drawing could open up communication. A little art history interspersed with guidance on technique helps you connect to different eras and understand better others’ drawings.

I’m proposing sessions that are all about the journey, not the end result of drawing.

Meditation

Learning to focus intently on one subject for a period of time can also be beneficial for countering the often constant pull of digital devices. This brings me to meditation.

Life drawing and modelling can both help you to deal with life. You have to slow down and be in your body or in the moment of drawing. It makes you use a different part of your brain to the more usual left-brain logical stuff, and this can help you find much needed equilibrium. It is quite usual to find a meditative state in a life room; so while there’s space for people to share their thoughts, a reasonable proportion of quiet drawing time is sacred.

Real Life

There’s also the value of mixing with different age groups and, while I think that goes for everyone, there is a particular benefit for teenage girls and women. We have the answers to each others’ problems and can help each other feel connected to groups beyond our peers. That is rarely possible in school so finding sources of a ‘real life’ nature – outside rather than online can have tremendous impact. It’s about building confidence face to face, not just behind a screen. Seeing each other – real people in person ought never to be replaced by a digital interface always mediating, dividing. It’s very easy to remain opinionated or confirmed in our beliefs without actually going out and meeting others to challenge that status quo.

Before the teenage years, problems of a body image nature often begin in childhood, and more awareness needs to be raised with parents about how this may be prevented, as well as in schools and other institutions. Looking at the way we talk about our own as well as others’ bodies may shed light on how we may improve our example for children and younger people.

There are societal biases deeply entrenched in our collective psyche – as strongly as inherent racism, sexism, and so on, like – for example, ‘fat phobia’. The idea that fat is unhealthy, in fact, remains unproven yet despite various sources of evidence to the contrary, is given as fact, official and undisputed – so strong is the currency of the bias. It is a bias of our time and culture.

Why do we tend to evaluate gender instantly on meeting or seeing someone – very much in the binary mode? As if that may help us understand a person more. Finding a way to notice these patterns helps to reframe them. Is fat sometimes the way people are meant to be when they are at their best, and does it matter to us if a person looks male or female? We can’t change everyone else’s habitual internal biases, but we can work on our own by starting with ourselves. If a child displays an androgynous identity it would surely be helpful for them not to unlearn their most natural childlike instincts, but rather bypass that particular categorisation of society. In this way they may hopefully find self-acceptance.

Regarding nudity, many children are taught that being naked with others is shameful and dirty. The association with sex is not necessarily knowingly inculcated, but it lurks, the ever expanding neurosis in waiting. A result of the taboo is the hyper-sexualisation that children so often undergo, which is both wrong and harmful. It is therefore extremely important to normalise the perception they have of the human body, and the human body naked in a neutral fashion. Society and the media groom them to be physically and mentally abused whereas life drawing can help them to change their perception not only about their body, but also about their mind.

Households where families are relaxed about their own nudity, at least in front of each other, is a very healthy alternative – to grow up relaxed about our bodies instead of fearing and loathing them; to not feel ashamed or constrained to maintain rigid grooming standards.

Marinella Mezzanotte

My colleague, beautifully describes how life drawing may be beneficial for young people (or anyone in fact), not just for learning how to draw, but also as a way to address body image issues, and rewire conditioned gazes:

“I’m not a visual artist myself but I know that in order to draw something that’s in front of you, you have to stop seeing it as what it is to an extent, the brain has to reduce it to a combination of shapes so that the image can transition from 3D to 2D: for that reason I think, drawing from life models demystifies the body, and makes all bodies equal (body equality is something that Esther references in her recent blogpost about The Body Beautiful? event – and if you’ve watched that video, I’m the one talking about ‘in-between bodies’).”Working from nude models also weakens the very strong association between nudity and sex, because it isn’t about sex, it’s about drawing (or painting or sculpting) and the reason it’s one of the best ways to learn drawing is that the human body, with all its possible variables and all the different positions it can take and hold, is one of the most complicated collections of forms found in nature – and the fact that there’s a live person holding that position in front of you means that you only have it for a limited time and forces your brain to override all those associations so you can get on with the task.

“While a life model’s nudity isn’t about sex, it is about attention, which brings me back to body equality: having a variety of bodies nude in front of you over a period of time, a variety of shapes, genders, ages and ethnicities, really drives home the concept that any human body is worthy of that particular type of attention, in exactly the same way. As the brain focuses on picking up those 3D shapes and transferring them onto a 2D surface, it also does some very important rewiring: those very tight circuits between certain body shapes and sexual desire, between sexual desirability and a person’s worth, between female and passive=to be gazed at, between male and active=entitled to gaze, slacken and become contaminated by different images, different responses, and different priorities.

“We are all bombarded by visual messages, and young people have had less of a chance to develop the boundaries needed to deal with that in a healthy way: I’m not suggesting life drawing in schools as an infallible shield, but as one of several ways of disrupting those very exclusive narratives, proposing alternatives, and creating the mental space needed to develop self-awareness.”

Schools

Not all schools offer life drawing, and certainly not usually to students who aren’t studying art or design; but that is what I would like to propose – a widespread campaign to bring life drawing to as many teenagers as possible, involving as wide a selection of models as may be available, and ideally with a little speaking by the models in order to underline that they are people, not objects.

It would be a good idea if students were free to share any thoughts that the experience may bring up, either during the session or at the end, so the class would be run by a facilitator or teacher who is switched on or trained in managing an inclusive and body positive environment capable of handling the many sensitive human issues that could emerge. It’s about being able to speak openly. This is not just good for individuals; it helps everyone present to grow socially, responsibly and sensitively. This could be an art class, but it could also be PSHE (Personal Social Health Education), which will soon be incorporating body image as well as sex and relationship education.

Research

These ideas are backed up by some empirical research by Viren Swami, who measured the effects of life drawing on a group of teenagers.

Particular points of note made in the feedback of the study by the teenagers, suggest that the life drawing would be better off taking place outside the school as they were so uncomfortable with being teased by their non-art friends afterwards. They also wanted to be able to talk about how awkward they found it to be confronted by a naked person. It’s such a shock, overwhelmingly real and more than they have ever been exposed to before, especially so long in the same position! There may be many layered reactions to the experience and if they don’t have a chance to surface and be acknowledged, they remain somewhat buried. Unpicking could reveal more than they can at first see. How do we feel seeing this person, and why? The teenagers also wanted to draw more varying physical types as had only had two models.

These results align with my own beliefs, which is really encouraging.

Interviews

And finally, here I am espousing the benefits of life drawing for teenagers on Sky News and Mexican channel Televisa – with the help of some teenagers and friends!

Author: estherbunting

Performer, artist, writer

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