We arrived on the train late on Friday evening of 27th October, and after a long day travelling we were happy to walk along the river Tay to find our digs and snuggle down for the night. We unfortunately missed Jude Kelly talking to Nicola Sturgeon which is a shame, but we didn’t know about that when we booked the train tickets. Perth is a picturesque place, even at night and instantly charmed us with its pretty calmness.
This was a blessing from a fortunate alignment when in late August I happened to be in Edinburgh for an event I was running, just as Lou Brodie – WOW Perth programmer – wanted to chat with me about how best to include a life modelling workshop in their festival. We met up over coffee and I talked her through the logistics. It’s a bit niche so I was confidently able to say to her that no one else around does what I do, even if they do a life modelling workshop, it’s not feminist! Anyway, it was a huge privilege to work with Lou, whom I found to be very positive, sensitive and considerate.
Naturally I love to travel with Spirited Bodies and be part of WOW so was privately keen before I dared to imagine it might be a possibility! I was not expecting her to pick someone who isn’t Scottish, but there seemed a strong enough case for it. I decided to go with the interview format like I’ve been doing sometimes at Stories of Women recently and before that as well. I looked for models in Scotland that I knew already and two came forward though in the end only one made it – Aimee McCallum and she was very happy to speak about her experiences. I had met her in Summer ’16 and again this August so seen parts of her journey.
She introduced the event boldly and evenly with fine poses to warm the audience’s hands though the room was not cool. With a wooden floor and a very big pile of cushions within a circle of chairs looking inwards… Aimee began to describe revealing herself through her art, to her family, and continuing to be liberated. For her first degree show she had created a photographic image of her and her boyfriend nude, overlayed with kaleidoscopic patterns. It was about the ritual of covering up the body; so she was exploring the idea of being naked for art before she began modelling.
At the point of asking the women if they wanted to try there was a very high positive response rate! Certainly we had more women modelling than drawing some of the time and it was very relaxed! You could tell that the women did not mind if they were not being drawn, they were just happy to be chatting together in this liberated way. And listened to. Many women tried – about 9, and one artist simultaneously breastfed whilst drawing. Sometimes the baby couldn’t be quiet! The models had a lot to say.
Getting naked in front of friends, attitudes towards nudity in front of children, growing/shaving the bush, sex after childbirth… it’s an intimate space and not being so many of us made it perhaps cosier. The conversation was recorded – for Lisa’s podcast called The Hot Bed Collective; she was taking part as an artist and model. She had come to run the ‘Let’s Talk About Sex’ session on the Sunday, and thought my session might make for rich material for the podcast. Everyone in the room was fine with that luckily, and it’s nice to think some of our spontaneous meanderings are not lost!
WOW as a whole is an opportunity for all women to get involved and be listened to, to learn and to share and there were many platforms going on. I could only get to a fraction.
In the Teenagers with Gemma Cairney session I particularly liked how articulate some of the young women were, and very entertaining with it. Gemma is extremely positive and was helped by the audience with advice like what to do when your friends are critically bulhemic for example? The girls themselves described an inadequate education curriculum and I wondered about how to get into giving sex and relationship lessons, it could take me a while but I do feel I have something to offer.
In the Shame session they explored the horrific amounts of (toxic) shame that women experience and also the basic need to feel (healthy) shame. The fact that speaking out is so powerful and healing so we must do it more and more. The speakers covered abortion, fat and trans shaming in particular from their unique experiences. A memorable question from the audience pointed up the invisibility of age, and how that still affects us all.
It was a privilege to get so close to some of Louise Bourgeoise’s work in the gallery next door – including one of her giant spiders, most awesome. Also prints of hands and arms reaching, connecting the legacy of her handing down her egg to the next generation. As she had grown older, her artistic assistant we were told, became her carer, and the two roles fused. Literally, very touching as intertwined hand prints testified.
When I first came across WOW a few days before the first festival in 2011, I was so excited, couldn’t wait to go. I was incredibly moved by the powerful force that felt like the beginning of the more mainstream and blatantly visible feminist movement coursing through our culture at the present time. The voices in the festival rang loud with empowerment and calls to action, it was thrilling. I was able to share the concept of Spirited Bodies to an audience in the festival hall including a celebrity panel, and Jude Kelly offered to host it which made me so happy! It has been a nurturing and developing relationship spanning events over several years and has introduced me to many wonderful and enriching opportunities.
Perth is a beautiful place to visit and quiet too, I hope to return sometime and spend longer there. I also hope that WOW continues to grow in the region, as this was a very ripe and promising first festival in Scotland.
Maybe it’s because I don’t particularly have an issue with fat, body hair or food… but I AM getting older that my favourite speaker at Bodykind Festival was Suzanne Fearnside. She really tapped into my emotions regarding ageing and the invisibility of older women. I was so eager for what she had to say, for me it was the most radical politics – I felt tingles when she spoke! Her point was made more poignant because unlike many (generally younger) speakers, she does not seem to have a social media presence, and is (therefore) not popular in the relatively mainstream way that they are. So she was not billed as highly, yet I hung on her every word and did not tune out. She exuded years of experience, knowledge, humility, resiliance and strength. I am not a natural with social media myself, I tune a lot of it out though of course it’s a great connecter, the means for many positive actions, and worth harnessing.
Harnaam Kaur is very sweet and impressively strong and heroic, as well as being a powerful speaker. Still in her 20s yet so experienced, she has a unique voice. An activist who has chosen to grow her full beard and not hide it, after years of being bullied as a teenager. She also mentioned the damaging effects of social media and the need to unfollow accounts that we internally respond negatively to. Whether they are famous people’s, or friends’/acquaintances’, it’s how we respond to them that counts.
Regarding my own sensitivity to social media – the insecure feeling I get when seeing particular posts – I am reminded that I may have a similar effect on others. It’s a chain reaction and I want to sort out my end of it. I know it’s not necessarily that posts I am seeing are projecting anything negative or unhealthy on to the web, simply that their content is not what I need to see now. I need to unpick triggering elements – images usually – that make me feel less than good enough, in order to get stronger and gain more control over my vulnerabilities. I know it is not individuals’ fault that their posts trigger me, but perhaps that their online presence reminds me too much of mainstream beauty ideals that I do my best to ignore and avoid in other areas. I mean I rarely watch TV, films, play online games or read women’s magazines, nor do I have a more conventional job where the majority of people judge themselves and each other according to mainstream values. The most mainstream my job gets is when I occasionally lead hen parties, and the bride to be has a chance to pose (clothed) with the male model. So often I hear her say to her friends, “Draw me with bigger tits”, unless she already has the fashionable size.
It can come down to those in my social media field to expose me to these elements of society – even in a relatively alternative style. I may be overly sensitive but I cannot help the way I am, I must learn to work with it. I don’t want to constantly be reminded that women posting sexy images of themselves is much more popular than my body image activism! I find it demoralizing. I know it may be great for the women – owning the images of themselves – but nevertheless they often can’t help propagating a certain kind of commercial norm, and that’s sometimes the point – it’s their livelihood so it’s in their interests. And I am not entirely separate from this behaviour – I am a model too, and love opportunities to dress up, make theatre, and pose in extraordinary situations! It’s like doing some feng shui in my living space, clearing the things I don’t need, and organising better what I do. It can make me a bit more mindful of what I post.
At our session on Saturday at Bodykind at The Mansion, we had 8 participants plus me and Steve, and 3 of them wanted to try modelling. They were not completely nude when posing, rather kept their bottom half covered or wore pants. They were a bit older as it happened, and one woman did not want photos of the drawings of her shared, which I don’t think has ever happened (at Spirited Bodies) before but of course we respect her wishes. There is something powerful about having a space that is totally separate to the online world.
The other participants were just drawing, as were all the models when not posing. We started with a warm up pose by Steve, standing for 5 minutes. Then one woman volunteered to model next though she hadn’t been sure before (in the presence of 2 men within the group). She enjoyed it and did two 5 minute poses; one lying and one standing. She preferred the standing because she said it made her feel more empowered. It’s true – when she stood she looked bold, facing outwardly, in control; but reclining she had been more inward and vulnerable looking. It really highlighted the difference a stance can make to how we feel.
Then Andrew Stacey who runs a group in Totnes at Birdwood House on Thursday evening at 7:30pm, gave modelling a go after many years break and had an insightful experience. He wanted to remind himself of the model’s position as he works so much with models – it helps him to understand them better. He assumed interesting positions naturally, standing leaning, and then lying on his back, each for 10 minutes. Then another woman had a go, doing poses of 5 and 10 minutes; the first sitting on a stool, the second in child’s pose. She was also more usually on the other side of the easel, and really valued this opportunity to understand the model’s perspective in a safe, sensitively held space.
Finally me and Steve did a duo for 15 minutes with him sitting at my standing feet. It was a very relaxing workshop, with plenty of time between poses discussing them, models getting changed, and looking at each others’ drawings. At least one person was a first time drawer! She did very well, especially by the child’s pose. Some lovely work produced and I think all the models benefitted and took something very uplifting from the experience (at least I hope so!), and the artists too who were so supportive and generous, well everyone was – it was the spirit of the festival! One artist said she hadn’t drawn for ages and couldn’t miss the chance, though she also would have liked to model. She took inspiration from the idea saying she may suggest all the artists take turns at posing at her local group.
It was quite novel for us at Spirited Bodies to have the models posing individually rather than as a group. It worked well because of the small group size, and reminded me how special it is when I/we can focus on one model at a time. It is a more personal workshop!
I felt so happy and calm afterwards, such a pleasant and powerful modelling sharing with new people in Totnes. Wonderful memories and we very much hope to return. With special thanks to Dinah Gibbons – who is the Creative Director of Bodykind Festival – for exquisite organising, massive generosity and warm open heartedness! It was such an honour and a pleasure to share in the groundbreaking body acceptance vibes at the festival. It was also amazing to experience the boost from being around so many awesome people, where you meet lots of people on the same page. It didn’t feel competitive, just supportive and nurturing to connect with and witness one another.
Totnes welcomed us with a friendly embrace too – we stayed at a friend of Dinah’s. The beautiful home was a comfortable nest to settle in each night, and our hosts most engaging. There is a strong ethic of sustainability in the town, as well as new age/hippie leanings in a pretty prosperous, independently minded area of natural beauty and many listed buildings.
I am really looking forward to welcoming Hana at Stories of Women on Monday at the Feminist Library – she is an exciting speaker with many years’ experience to draw upon. She was around when life models in London first began to get organised, through the Barefacts magazine and RAM, and even held several early RAM gatherings at her home in North West London. We invite *you to speak with her, draw and maybe model too (*women only).
Older women are even more invisible in the digital era – like Hana and Suzanne. The internet/social media are not as inclusive as they might be, inevitably they are a bit ageist, which makes older people’s voices all the more precious.
At the end of the month, on Saturday 28th October I will be in Perth for the first WOW in Scotland, facilitating a workshop for women – life modelling and drawing – called ‘I am Perfect as me.’ I will be joined by two of the women who posed with us at All The Young Nudes in Edinburgh in August. They will begin the modelling whilst telling the group what it feels like to pose. Then in the second half, women are invited to try modelling alongside them. The conversation may continue – usually about all manner of body politics issues – in the supportive space. Finally everyone looks at the drawings and takes time to debrief, let some feelings from the session settle with informal chat.
It will be great to see the speakers we can get to, and it’s also wonderful to build a relationship with models, sharing in their development. One of the models first posed with us last year, and now has quite a bit of experience, and the other tried for the first time this Summer. Likewise it’s amazing to continue being part of WOW, and I am so thrilled that the idea of empowering women about their body image through life modelling, which I presented at the very first WOW, has been taken up again and again.
On the eve of my travelling to the Highlands in late July, arrived an email from Joanna of All The Young Nudes – the Scottish life drawing organisation that runs groups in Glasgow, Edinburgh, Dundee and Aberdeen. I was invited to bring Spirited Bodies to the Edinburgh Fringe festival again, as one of ATYN 4 special events there. I was offered dates and was immediately keen; August generally being quiet meant I had time, and it had been such a fun gig last year.
I first worked with Joanna in 2013 when Lucy, Thelma and I had driven to Scotland and created 3 separate Spirited Bodies events – one in Glasgow at The Flying Duck with ATYN; and two in Edinburgh – one at Marchmont St Giles Church hall, and one at St Margaret’s House (formerly Arts Complex).
Time was short as the next day I was travelling North, and for all I knew might well have poor connectivity once in the Highlands. So we quickly arranged a date, and I made the necessary bookings for transport and a room. I also put out a call on social media to let people know that I was coming – and was looking for people to try modelling for the first time, as well as for experienced models keen to join in. Steve would unfortunately not be able to join me this time due to work commitments, which he was very sorry about, partly because he likes joining in the modelling, also the social aspect of meeting all the models. And then there’s visiting stunning Edinburgh!
I had about a month to prepare, and gradually a mix of newcomers, familiar faces and experienced models got in touch, interested in taking part. A lovely variety and refreshingly all seemed most genuine. In plenty of time before the event there was a group of 10 models emerging, and I had to turn several others away. I then set to sending them as detailed instructions as possible on what to expect, especially for the total newcomers. I described a couple of poses that we would recreate from last year, and in a later email outlined the full pose schedule. There would be 4 poses in the first half, then a break, followed by 5 poses in the second half. Our venue was the light and spacious Whitespace at Norloch House.
We would begin with the chain of movement pose where the models are positioned in a circle and take turns to move a little until they touch the model next to them. At that point they freeze in a new pose, and the next model is released into motion, so that at any one time, one model is moving and the rest are still. I advised them not to leave themselves in too awkward a position at the moment of freezing, as it could be a while till they could move again. I also said they could modify a tricky position to deal with that very predicament, so there was flexibility, and the models’ comfort was paramount. This is meant to be a positive and empowering experience of being part of the creation of nude art as models, and is not the same as modelling alone for a job. The models are not being paid, so they are doing it to gain experience, whether towards getting work, for personal reasons or because it’s something they enjoy.
The second pose was a 5 minute dynamic pose where they would balance the space, which means spreading out across it evenly, rather than the relatively tight circle they had just been in.
I abandoned the pose I originally had in mind to go next. This was because the session was half an hour shorter than I had thought! So I trimmed a few poses by several minutes and scapped an idea for a court scene. I considered that this tableau would be the least simple to put across with 10 nude figures. Plus in the interests of gender equality I would have to insist on some of the women standing for the roles of judge and lawyers, but I didn’t really want to do that as they’d all been stretching themselves considerably in the previous poses.
The following pose on the agenda was a recreation of Gericault’s famous Raft of the Medusa, which we have done before at Spirited Bodies, most notably in 2012 at a Christmas event in Mortlake. This suits a longer pose, and 25 minutes was scheduled. With a more coherent tableau, artists may hopefully be inclined to draw the whole scene, however challenging in the relatively short time. Several figures are lying down as either dying or dead, on what remains of a shipwreck off the coast of Africa (the scene is based on a real life event that happened 200 years ago). Some upright figures are looking out scanning the horizon for help. There is a sense of urgency and poor weather conditions heightening the drama. Overall the picture has a diagonal trajectory which informs the gaze and gives it direction.
I asked if anyone was by chance prepared to stand the duration. I encouraged by pointing out that standing figures are often more likely to be drawn, and it’s good practice for any budding new models. A willing participant came forward and I suggested distributing his weight between both legs to make it easier, and in any case that would lend an appearance of strenth since his role was as a leading figure in the ensemble, perhaps even mimicking the position of the mast of a ship. Another new model sat by him on a chair, also looking out to the horizon. Several models were strewn across the raft, less than alert if maintaining interesting angular forms, while two experienced models took on the most challenging roles centrally. Jude from Cumbria kneeled in the poise of a desperate prayer to the heavens, holding an expression of fear and dread throughout. Behind her a male model was upright on his knees, mainly on his right knee and twisting his body to the head of the raft. Our picture was complete and a very fine recreation it was.
As the pose drew to a close, we had 10 more minutes until the break, so I brought forward a pose from the second half. This was another revisiting of a favourite pose from last year – the models imagine that someone they weren’t expecting to be there, walks in the room! Someone whom they might not wish to be seen by when nude, or who might themselves be embarressed to witness the nudity. It makes for a potentailly expressive gesture, whether the shyness of a new model, or the out there brazenness of a seasoned professional.
The break arrived and the models were most ready for it. They checked out the drawings of them, chatted excitedly, and we made use of a nice evening light outdoors to capture a group pose in robes. It was just a 10 minute break as we wanted to maximise the modelling and drawing time which already requires more time between poses than a usual session, with so many models including novices to arrange.
We began the second half with three x 3 minute poses. My direction to the models was simply concerned with their connection with each other; for the first pose they would be huddled together, the second they would break away a bit, and for the third they were to be completely separate and more individually engaged with the artists. Within that they could find whichever poses felt right for them.
After this burst of dynamism they settled into the final long pose of about half an hour. The scene was paradise, with strawberries! They could find more comfortable positions, holding strawberries which I handed out once they were in pose, and some of them were relating to each other. All The Young Nudes had brought some pillows and pieces of fabric which were made use of, as well as two large arm chairs which belonged to the venue.
It was lovely to see how the artists had risen to the challenge of drawing ten models! Some beautiful works I am sure you will agree. The models themselves had given a lot, many of them trying something completely new and very much embracing the chance. I hope they find many more opportunities to pose for art, feel comfortable nude, as well as share the joy of this liberation. It was wonderful to meet them, and also spend a bit of time afterwards together over a drink in a nearby pub. We were lucky to find enough space in a bar in central Edinburgh during festival time to accommodate our large group. Fortunately Keira from All The Young Nudes guided us towards The Red Squirrel where we quickly found a couple of tables together.
Finding out what motivates people to get involved, and how they found the experience makes the occasion more whole. A few artists joined us too, so some drawings were being shown.
This event was a lot of fun and most enriching. I hope to return sometime.
Ursula was helping me to prepare the space, and put up signage in the building where The Feminist Library is, so that women would be able to find us easily. Not many had booked so I was rather nervous that Jennifer would not have much of an audience drawing her. Jennifer herself and her partner, were sorting out her performance space with a projector, paper on the wall behind her and as well for under her feet. I handed her boxes of cherry tomatoes that I had brought for the dancing part of her piece.
Although I had been nervous in preceeding days, somehow that feeling had eased just on the day, and I don’t think this was unrelated to my period starting, on Friday. It was several days early and for that I rejoiced, as I knew that by Monday the good hormones would be kicking in like reassuring drugs to make me feel confident no matter what. I surmised that my body-mind knew well what it was doing to alter my cycle thus. I would deliver my two events this week on better form once the blood started flowing. That’s the way I roll.
by Maria Morris
by Claire Collison
I wasn’t expecting many women to come and had got a bit stuck thinking, this is no longer what people want. People are just too busy on social media to leave their homes and actually do something! I’d bought some zines the week before in the same room we were now preparing for the event, and they were made by feminists in their late teens or early 20s. I thought that reading them would give me a good chance to understand the younger generation a bit more, and was impressed at the careful crafting of their poetry, photography, cartoon, article and art filled pages. One interview with some apparently famous on Instagram young style icons, stated that they never went out anymore. They just got dressed up at home with each other, and posted images online to gain approval. This was all they needed to do to rise to success. How depressing. Dressing up can be fun, but so too meeting people, seeing live music, dancing… I felt fondness for my more outgoing youth, and also sadness that those times may have gone for the young now.
Of course, my events often attract older women, so are not necessarily vulnerable to these newer trends. Still I thought – everyone is on holiday, or, there is just too much to choose from in London. That certainly is true. For life drawing alone I knew of several alternative sessions across the city at exactly the same time as mine. I was competing with more glamorous and less complicated events. Not many artists want the models to talk while they pose! What a distraction! So my niche is feminist artists. Well I had done my best job of corralling those I know and who have been supportive before. I think some of them sensed how worried I had been feeling! The other niche is women who wanted to try modelling, and I wasn’t sure that many of those I’d been in touch with would come.
With my hormones happy, I stopped worrying, and opened up to allowing whatever wanted to be. It would be fine however small; what mattered was being in a good strong spirit to welcome women and help them feel at ease. I sent a last minute email to my life model list, offering the women to come draw for free. The added draw was conversation about life modelling. We don’t normally get to do that in person except with friends I don’t think. And women do love to talk…
I had only brought 10 drawing boards with me, fearing the worst. I knew that there are a few tables in the room, which could also be used, especially by painters. Women did start arriving, and before we begun I had run out of floor space that was covered by plastic sheeting to protect the carpet. So I asked people just to draw with pencil – no charcoal! Jennifer needed time to configure the technology, so at 7pm I began by asking women to introduce themselves – I did not know some of them, nor had I been in touch with them. They had seen the event online or picked up a leaflet. They really liked the idea of this unusual event in a women’s space – they were our people!
When Jennifer was ready, we focused on her, as she moved slowly across the back wall, whilst speaking, sharing intimate thoughts on her experience as a model. It was soon apparent; this was not light-hearted. There was some pretty dark revealing, and I wondered how that came across to those who had never modelled before but had been looking forward to it. Naturally I had discussed this with Jennifer in advance, but the most important thing was her authenticity. If she spoke of the very difficult aspects of life modelling, it is because she has done it for many years. She also had a fair few lighter anecdotes to deliver.
Women continued arriving and I had to keep weaving my way from the back of the room to welcome them, and somehow find them a seat from where they might draw. We managed, and it was joyful to see each new face. Unexpected surprises were several professional models from my network making an appearance! A couple I hadn’t met yet but recognised them from pictures. It being the Summer holidays, lots of models weren’t working much, and that turned out to be a massive plus for the event. They had time on their hands to come do some drawing instead. Morimda, who first had the idea of, and initiated Spirited Bodies nearly 7 years ago turned up. As did Claire who had been a life model in the 80s, is a writer/poet and has modelled a couple of times with us before. It was the professional models in particular who really resonated with Jennifer’s words. We have lived a lot of the harder stuff too. I am sure most of the newcomers will never take up life modelling to that long and perhaps overly sustained level that we have, but I think it was some of this challenging content that made Jennifer’s performance more edgy. We all felt some of her pain as she crushed pastels in her fists and smeared the powder across her skin. In very slow movement she drew lines across the wall and over her body. She was marking her journey, and she was in control of it. No pose times were called. Sometimes she didn’t speak for a while and I didn’t know if there was more. She was thinking. I don’t think she had rehearsed lines as such, but had certainly devised a formula, albeit freeflowing and flexible.
Jennifer Farmer by Irene Lafferty at Stories of Women
by Catherine Hall
She talked about being othered, feeling a responsibility to represent the different minorities that she naturally is – black, queer, fat… and how she’d realised, it wasn’t her job to be that person. It isn’t anyone’s job. There were other things she wanted to do with her life, but somehow she’d gotten sucked into this life model career, because people told her she was good, and she liked quite a few of them. But in the end that isn’t enough. She is also a playwright and performance artist, and I think she wants to be doing more of those things. I first came across her work in 2004 when I was taking some singing classes at Clean Break theatre company. This is a charity for women who have had experience of the criminal justice system, whether or not they have been in prison. A lot had. The company had commissioned Jennifer to write a play about the lives of women in prison, and she had created ‘Compact Failure’, which I saw at The Arcola. It was an outstanding piece of writing that drew you into the world of three disturbed, broken and in yer face witty women.
In the process of preparing this event, I came up against a few new challenges. Promoting such an othered performer, just felt wrong at times. It was like I was exploiting these aspects, after all, intersectionality is a buzz word in the feminist community these days. As a feminist, especially a white one, if your activism isn’t including enough minorities, you may be in the firing line. If you do include them you have to do so sensitively. At the same time that I was negotiating these tricky parameters; as a life drawing event, I am competing with straight forward life drawing sessions, and more commercial events – some that care not a jot for such considerations. At least not to anything like the same degree, and a few happily sex themselves up as much as they can get away with! This part of the industry naturally tends to remind me increasingly of the necessity of what I do, yet I am treading a very fine line and it feels most precarious.
In time, with a look and a few words, Jennifer let me know she’d finished the performance, and I thanked her. We applauded. The next phase would be more upbeat and we turned out the lights to watch Waltzing Tomatoes. The significance of the film for Jennifer, was that it had been inspired directly by life modelling (even if that’s not immediately obvious). It is a successful film she created a few years ago with Samuel Overington, and shows them dancing in various locations of significance to them. After the short screening, we cleared the space for a little waltz of our own with tomatoes. Ursula and I offered to demonstrate as no volunteers were forthcoming, but it only took a bit of encouragement and soon 4 couples were being paired up to balance cherry tomatoes between their bodies at the points of contact. How that makes you aware of each other, of your connection and how it is you move without dropping the fruit. It seemed a good link towards undressing with strangers and perhaps touching skin in a group pose. Women were still dressed for the dance.
Meanwhile I scanned the room for those I thought wanted to model and urged them to start getting into a robe. The time was nearly upon us! As the music came to an end, more space was cleared, and in one part of the room, several women simultaneously shed their clothes. They didn’t even need robes now. I advised that they could find positions to pose in, however they felt, and that we would be having a chat during this part of the event. If they weren’t sure what to do they could simply ask as the room contained a great deal of women’s life modelling experience. In the end it was the experienced voices that found a platform for telling their stories, years’ old memories that might not have surfaced publicly before. There were some people drawing, some talking, quite a few modelling, and a bit of multi-tasking! While Jennifer had focused somewhat on life model challenges during her presentation, Morimda wanted to tell all the new models how beautiful they are! As with last month’s edition (with Leo), tales of menstruation in the life room gushed forth. There were horrible experiences with older female artists; how some of us behave differently if modelling for a group of men; how trust with the artists affects everything – how much we will give, and that when there is trust, gender doesn’t matter. Morimda echoed Jennifer’s sentiment that, her blackness is other people’s problem. It can become an issue in the life room, due to lack of familiarity, or socially ingrained low-level racism which manifests in micro-aggressions. Life drawing is whiter than the general population; so a black, particularly female model is a politicised body without even trying.
Stories poured out. I had to interrupt more than once to check that the new models weren’t aching to say something. Generally I think they were enthralled. They might not have expected this – none of us did – but it was a very rare situation, and they got that. Real life insights from those on the frontline, from those with decades of knowledge. There are others I haven’t named because I’m not sure they’d want me to. I could not have planned it, and it might never happen again, but everyone seemed to enjoy it so much, I hope that will encourage more similar encounters.
We ran over, more than half an hour and I had to draw things to a close. I could see my friend Lily who lives miles away packing up her ink, and I didn’t want her to leave before the models had a chance to see her drawings. As a former animator, she captures a lot of expression in a short time. So we put everyone’s drawings out for all to see, and still there was a long time chatting now in smaller groups. Clearing up was a long process, but friendly folk were helping. It is a high maintenance gig, for no financial reward – it just about pays for itself, but not really considering hours gone into putting it together. A labour of love, I must time it appropriately to not wear me out, to not clash with other commitments. To feel it from the heart each time and not be going through the motions. But it is the deep content that nourishes all involved I hope, not least of all me, and that feeds out into my life in ways that keep me sane and happy. I don’t want children, but I do want art.
The power of life modelling to elevate us from our body image concerns is challenged by the pervasive tendency of mainstream beauty standards to permeate our life drawing bubble.
Before social media, life models largely existed in isolation, rarely knowing one another, merely passing each other during a break perhaps at an art school. Now our contemporary world is fixated with all things visual, and connecting us with each other too. Life drawing and modelling are in fashion again, and images of life drawings as well as photographs of models in pose, amongst other nude art shots proliferate.
Where life modelling was once the preserve of eccentrics, circus performers, sex workers, actors and other less ordinary freaks, it is now much more acceptable in society. While this is progress that may help towards gaining rights such as improving pay and working conditions, it also has a less desirable outcome, I think. The transference of mainstream concerns of the body, to this hitherto removed sphere. When it was taboo to undress for work, life models had to be immune to a certain amount of society’s judgement. Now these worlds are less separate, they are able to affect each other in new ways.
Some models have always been more conventionally attractive, with a look similar to a movie star, for example. The real beauty of the scene itself however is diversity, something we must never forget in the face of potential flooding of glamorised strains of life modelling. There is certainly a place for glamour, as another form of expression with a celebration of design and style, but if that niche dominates visually, there is a danger of a more unwholesome impact. We can’t help but compare ourselves with each other, and never more so visually. So many of us delight in displaying our prettiest selfies, making sure the light is flattering and make-up in place. We hold in our bellies and wear padded bras as we strive to be seen as attractive by others. We imagine we may be liked more if we can get our look “right”, and we are probably correct, at least in the superficial sense that a Facebook ‘like’ has.
A few years ago I observed more of the people drawing me considering trying the modelling, spurred on by my project. Lately I noticed a shift. The artists perceive that it is now more imperative for models to be immaculate, impeccable in appearance, and they sense they cannot compete.
This is not the whole story of course. Much diversity is being celebrated happily in our scene. I just want to push more of that, and personally I am keen to see fewer of the more affected, stylised images of life models. The scene lends itself well to being a site for celebrating a wide variety of beauty – including as it is not usually seen. That for me is the magic.
The merchants of body hatred – the diet, beauty, and cosmetic surgery industries – are so extremely powerful globally, that they have even resulted in affecting government legislation in some countries, and the direction of scientific research. In Brazil, the state routinely pays for breast implant surgery for young women who profess to be anxious about their lack of mammarian prowess. This solution is considered cheaper than paying for the psychoanalysis that might be needed to truly address the problem. So a plaster is applied, but the underlying epidemic is left unresolved. People become less in touch with their actual bodies, and are reinforced by the government in their thinking that their bodies are a project to be cured, altered and perfected. They are not ok as they are. Body hatred is experienced as the natural status quo; yet somehow beyond Hollywood, South America and Essex(!) many of us do manage very well without such tampering.
Long may that remain, as a society where everyone is fixing their “imperfections” in the lunch break via the surgeon’s knife, is not one I want to be part of. Let’s be proud of what authenticity we have held on to, and celebrate our uniqueness.
As I write I have just arrived at lodgings in Inverness. Across from where I write, a large mirror shows all of me as I am nude now (warm day!) Before opening my notebook I delighted a while in posturing in front of my reflection, checking the chub of my belly. I know that sounds ridiculous to people who know me, as I am slim by anyone’s definition, but also I am premenstrually bloated. When you have a narrow physique, a little extra on your belly really makes a difference, may even be mistaken for pregnancy. But, I am trying to get out of the habit of constantly holding it in. Just let it be. I still can appreciate my form, the more so in front of this revealing mirror!
I check out backviews of my bits, which artists from particular angles would doubtless have seen countless times. I see what they have stared at! Or what men see who I have had sex with. I am awash with curiosity and fascination for my own form as it moves, from different points of view. A boob on top of a tummy above a massive thigh or buttock. Combinations that alone show only part of me, but the eye fills in the rest. I am proud of and grateful for my body which is pretty healthy. Today I feel childlike joy at returning to the beloved Highlands. The constant smile on my face reminds me that what is most beautiful about me is the joy I radiate, not the tummy I hold in.
Two books I recently read inspired parts of this piece. ‘Bodies’ by Susie Orbach describes body hatred in today’s society, and specifically (in relation to this piece) the situation experienced in South America. ‘Animal’ by Sara Pascoe also discusses the problem, and mentions the high rate of cosmetic surgery operations in Essex.