Towards Gender Inclusivity in Women’s Spaces

This piece began based on my experiences of holding women’s spaces for the last 8 years, and attending them for the last 17 years. Whilst writing I discovered much more by researching. There are a lot of angles on the broader subject of transgender rights that this post doesn’t touch upon (e.g. in sport), and because my focus is on women’s spaces, I am more concerned with trans women than men. It’s also particular to the spaces I hold, mainly with Spirited Bodies, so I’m not really talking about toilets, prisons or refuges. One of the unique things about Spirited Bodies is that it involves nudity, and people who are nervous for personal reasons.

This is such a huge, important and fascinating subject that a whole book could easily be filled with it, however I merely make a starting point, trying to remain accessible and balanced. I hope more people start to long for a peaceful open dialogue, because the warfare is ugly and destructive. Meanwhile the Patriarchy continues to dominate at leisure, as we fight amongst ourselves. That is a real tragedy for all of us.

If you would like to read more about the ongoing debate over Transgender rights, this long article is worth a read – – although it is 6 years old, it is the most neutral and useful example I could find, and the same situation still prevails.

Definition of gender has been pertinent to Spirited Bodies since the off, as we began by only offering the experience of trying life modelling to women, but it wasn’t till we started doing women only events with big organisations, that the terms needed formal clarification.

First was the Women of the World (WOW) festival in 2013, though if I remember correctly, no one was bothered until perhaps 2014 or 2015, when I was asked for my definition of women for the purposes of the door policy. A lot of the WOW festival was open to anyone with a ticket, so we had to be clear who was allowed into our space.

What I said now seems dated, but the truth is, it drew a line in a way that made practical sense to me. I said, anyone without a penis. I wanted to include trans women, intersex people, other non-binary folk – as long as they didn’t have male genitalia, and that was only if they wanted to model (lots of people just came to draw and listen as long as they identified as women).

I was aware of some women participating who were survivors of sexual violence and, still in recovery for whom the unexpected sight of male genitalia in a ‘safe’ women’s space would be disturbing. One of them was a trans woman who before transitioning had suffered some of the worst male violence, and wasn’t ready to be in the presence of a potential trigger like that (she had stated as much in her interview).

At this time, I wasn’t aware that ‘trans woman’ could legally apply to a person with a penis – who therefore would in fact have been entitled to attend. Furthermore, if I wasn’t aware of the law, there was a high chance that others participating wouldn’t have been either. This delicate moment of appearing nude for the first time in front of a group of strangers would likely be the wrong time to suddenly be confronted by that.

My eyes were opened by a young woman activist who was part of a collective running a community space in my neighbourhood. I approached them about the possibility of running some women’s sessions there in 2015, and she asked about my inclusivity policy. I was caught unprepared and quickly told I was transphobic.

It started me researching, which was of course necessary, though the bitter pit of a slanging match I duly uncovered online to educate myself was far from encouraging. It saddened me (and still does) that what I do may touch upon this nasty quarrel. It is so ugly as, in my opinion, both sides go too far in their intolerance of the other; so that no common middle ground may be established to start a dialogue with.

There has been some progress in the last 5 years, however, if only a little. Since J K Rowling waded in most openly on Twitter last yeari, the matter has gained a lot more mainstream attention, and whatever one says about her manner, I believe she has done a useful thing. We inhabit a gendered world, a gendered culture, so the way definitions evolve and laws change affects all of us. If it is all happening quietly, with only the most educated and interested parties aware of the shift; a lot of people are going to be left behind.

It’s better to have more people learning about what’s going on, and what’s at stake. I am not wholly behind all radical feminist (or gender critical) politics, but I think they are right to ask questions.ii That is an important part of the process of a culture growing in a healthy way; and to deny the freedom to safely ask questions, which is what liberal “inclusive” feminists and trans activists are trying to do, is I think counter-productive. It’s not only gender critical feminists who have strong opinions about this. Before I became aware of their stance I was thinking some of the same things and feeling unjustly silenced when voicing several concerns based on my lifetime’s experience as a woman.

As I grappled with this new understanding of what legally constitutes a woman1, other considerations arose. If a person born as male can identify as female without transitioning in any physical way, that surely leaves room for wrong men to exploit the opportunity solely in order to harm women.iii I know from experience the lengths to which some demented men will go to, to reach and hurt vulnerable women; because they feel entitled. I know that attempting to vet them doesn’t always weed them out; in fact the most dangerous ones are very clever. They know how to pass tests and say the right things as I wearily discovered when I had to select ‘safe’ men for mixed events. Alarm bells were ringing in my head – even more for realising that making it easier for trans people to acquire a Gender Recognition Certificate was being debated.

It is also true that there are strong arguments against this line of thinking.iv These state that said wrong men will find ways to be wrong regardless of laws which improve transgender rights, and furthermore that the 2010 Equality Act makes provision for safeguarding certain women’s spaces according to biological sex, where there are strong grounds for doing so. My personal experience with problematic men was concerning mixed events after all, rather than women’s; but perhaps it is natural to extrapolate. What I think remains of utmost importance is the facility for discussing all our legitimate concerns respectfully, without fear of losing jobs and opportunities. Currently, while the law does allow for women’s sex-based safe spaces, that could still be challenged in court. But more likely than that is just being labelled transphobic and the potential damage that could do to one’s career.

Trans activists are against the discussing of their rights as it creates space for their very existence to be questioned, and this contributes to hate crime against trans people as bigots feel entitled to be actively hateful towards trans and gender con-conforming peoplev. I don’t think there’s an easy answer to this, because there are also very strong reasons why discussion ought to be happening. If it is forbidden, that can lead to a backlash, and also a lack of real understanding. Sometimes understanding itself only emerges through debate. There is the very real possibility that misguided individuals decide to transition because they haven’t had access to the right informationvi. Also, the active avoidance or rejection of open discussion generally tends to suggest that someone has something to hide, which may lead to them being perceived in a negative light.

Since my encounter with the young activist in 2015 (with whom naturally I was not welcome to collaborate with) I have managed to avoid the conflict area as much as possible, by treading a very careful middle ground. I have complied with several venues’ and organisations’ requests that my women’s sessions are open to all who identify as women and have included that in much of my events’ blurb for the last several years. Basically, unless I wanted to be exclusively labelled as a TERF (trans exclusionary radical feminist) and transphobic, this was the way to continue being booked.

In any case, despite my quiet misgivings, I learnt that in practice, whatever I write on the event description, however much I make a big noise online about being trans inclusive (and I’ve observed this with other women’s events I’ve attended as well), no trans women show up. In fact more of them came along before I started pre-emptively welcoming them! Were they put off by the inclusive language and like alternative music lovers after the turn of the millennium, suddenly dismayed to find themselves part of the new mainstream?

What I actually suspect is, as the trans scene developed, new ‘cooler’ places became more attractive. A trans woman with whom I worked in 2013 bemoaned the lack of suitable places just to hang out and feel accepted. Hopefully that shifted soon after. Apart from that, as I mentioned above, sometimes I have noticed that transitioned trans women feel more strongly about excluding those who haven’t transitioned, than some cis women do.

Once at one of my women’s events, a person who was in the middle of posing nude for the first time within the group spoke up about their gender dysphoria. They announced that they didn’t identify as a woman. At first I thought: that’s a strange thing to say in a space exclusively for people who identify as women! But looking past the announcement, simply at their body, it was a curvaceous female shape, more womanly than my own. I knew that whatever this person identifies as, or said, everyone in the room would be feeling safe. We knew that they had grown up in the same sexist culture, likely experienced relatable puberty issues, and had to confront their reproductive biology whether they wanted it or not. In important ways that matter, perhaps on a chemical level, certainly in some common experience of growing up, we shared what we understand as the condition of woman. This person described their story in a very intimate way and it was well received.

I couldn’t help wondering if someone with a male body who identified as a woman would have fitted in so easily. I doubted it but I am totally prepared to be proved wrong and forced to think again. It just hasn’t happened yet – a trans woman who has not transitioned, coming along at all; or if she has, she’s kept her clothes on so far, which I could completely understand.

This sensitive aspect touches on both whether a woman who hasn’t transitioned can actually fully experience embodied womanhood, and whether cis women at my events would be prepared and able to accept her as a woman. Gabrielle Bellot describes her take on this state of embodiment most articulately in Borderlands, an essay in the book ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’, published in 2018. Before she fully transitioned, the world was responding to her as a woman, so one imagines that the matter of genitalia didn’t need to align in order for her experience to be authentic. On the other hand at Spirited Bodies women’s events, there are typically a group of nude women modelling alongside one another. That’s not an everyday experience by most people’s standards and it poses a challenge to many of the participants.

There are many different kinds of women’s experience to accommodate and consider, and naturally some needs may clash with others. There are a couple of different women’s groups I have been involved with over the years, for example, both of whom were formed by migrant women of diverse ethnic backgrounds, who organised to support each other. In both cases they lived on a council housing estate, in completely different areas.

I was interested in creating Spirited Bodies workshops with both; and while one was more accessible to the idea of nudity, both were resistant to including trans women. This was outside of their experience and understanding of what a woman is. They considered that for them, being a woman was very much connected with having a monthly cycle, having children, and all the associated issues. It is a significant enough step that they are able to gather together to share their relatable experiences when they all come from different cultures.

As I explained my experience with the feminist movement and what that means in practice, it became apparent that if the idea of trans women was radical, the broader understanding of that including women who have not transitioned, was completely foreign to them. It was an awkward moment of confusion and incomprehension, and I felt that such new ideas really must take time to settle.

Furthermore, I would feel wrong being white, British middle class, telling them they need to adapt, or even suggesting change. That I think should happen organically if and when it needs to. They are very busy already, serving their communities in important ways. It would probably be different if I was black or queer for example myself. I would like to add that writing this section was possibly the most challenging for me, because of being mindful not to identify the groups in question who are dear to me, or belittle their stance; making them sound backwards instead of the awesome, whole hearted and community committed women they are. It distressed me that I felt pressure to suggest they ought to change, which would feel like betrayal. I realised how much I value the trust I built up with them, and that in some way they were a significant part of the reason I felt inspired to write this.

There are of course individuals from communities like these who identify as trans, non-binary and queer; and I imagine as they emerge, it helps to change people’s perceptions and make them more included. In the case that on the contrary, they experience exclusion and discrimination, they certainly need and benefit from the support of allies. Knowing of the presence of such intersectionally challenged people would make it imperative to take a more proactive stance I believe.

By the way, this isn’t the end of the post. In the midst of a lot of dense and intense writing, I was just ready for a pretty picture.

South East London sunrise after new moon, 19 August 2020

Looking to the Future and the Law

Let’s consider the proposition of trans activists; imagine a future normal where it is simply accepted that everyone’s gender is as they themselves describe it, and for that to be the sole basis for defining it with no gatekeepers. One thing that immediately strikes me is the indication of a system not based on fear – of wrong men abusing it, for example, or children and young people being misled into potentially harmful choices. A system instead based on trust that people are in touch with their own feelings.

I want to say that however far away from choosing that in our society I think we are, I really am attracted to this idea and think it is very powerful, as a way of imagining a better future. It is so hopeful about humanity and if the young are pushing for this, that’s not to be sniffed at. It certainly sits with the notion of innocence until proven otherwise; an honourable stance.

Many countries are very far from introducing this, but there are several who have already, including Greece, Norway, Belgium, Portugal, Ireland, Malta, Denmark, much of South America and Pakistan.vii While some of these examples may be regarded as progressive, there is unfortunately another less enlightened angle at play in others. This is where homophobia is part of the unstated reason, which also happens perhaps more subtly in the UKviiiix. Being transgender may be seen as a cure for homosexualityx, which is illegal for example in Pakistan and considered unacceptable in Islamic law (the same rationale may apply in some of these Catholic countries too).

It is more complicated than that however, as culturally, long before British rule, it was standard in South Asia to recognise a third gender. Such people whilst subject to discrimination do simultaneously have rights and particular status in Pakistan. This is evidenced there, in the way that transgender people may identify on their documents; not simply in a binary fashion as is currently the case in UK law, but can also choose to be both or neither genders.xi

It seems that the younger generation are taking this further, and will overwhelmingly choose inclusivity. At least that’s what it looks like from my arty feminist south east London perspective! Factor in most of the depressingly right wing world right now, and globally this will take them a while to roll out, which is probably why they are so hot on it in places where they can.

From what I can see, there are differences between what works socially in many cases, and how the law is defined. It is argued that the battle of women’s rights, which even in this country is far from over, may go back several decades if sex is removed as a distinct characteristic, separate from gender within the law. That might not affect most people who are driving this cultural shift, indeed as gender reassignment is a protected characteristic in the UK Equality Act, all trans people with or without a Gender Recognition Certificate are covered in this respect. It could however affect a number of women, for whom the ability to fight a case on sex discrimination may be weakened, and whereby gender equality is regressed instead of moving forward.xii xiii

At the moment there are not so many legally trans identified people in the UK (about 5000). If however the Gender Recognition Act were to be altered to make the process easier, it is estimated by the Government that there may be between 200,000 – 500,000. While that is a very small proportion of us (less than 1%), if all these people change gender, which for legal purposes at the moment means sex; that affects a few things.

Not enough is really known, so examples are based on speculation about what seem like low probabilities. That’s a bit too abstract for me, plus the rationale doesn’t tend to take trans people’s needs into consideration.

Examples include:

Discrimination cases – a comparator is always used, which is someone with the same characteristic that the case refers to. If the comparator is transgender but the person with the case is not, it is unlikely in several instances to be a fair comparison.

Figures relating to inequality of pay and positions of power between men and women. Figures relating to violence against women, and women’s healthcare priorities. Basically, where we want to measure sex difference so we can address sex inequality, be it health, education, legal representation; the results may be skewed. These are all areas where women already struggle to achieve equality, but so do trans people.

It is not known how transgender people are distributed amongst the broader population, so we have no idea for example if there are sections of society that would be disproportionately affected.

The law often seems quite removed from our everyday lives, but it can define them acutely. The way this battle actually gets furthered may be in court, one precedent at a time. I don’t personally think these reasons should be strong enough to stop trans and non-binary people from self-identifying. I just think that the UK law needs to be made clear with regard to the difference between sex and gender, because as it stands it is confused and poorly worded.

Surely people should be able to easily change gender, but not have that conflated with sex, unless they are completely transitioning. Much more clarification is needed about particular situations where it matters. I realise that a lot of trans people do want to change sex legally (and about 5000 already have), but I’m mainly thinking about those who don’t transition. I share more thoughts on this in the next section.

A serious obstacle to clarifying the law, or doing proper research into the impact of changes on people with different protected characteristicsxiv, is the fear of being labelled transphobic due to the social currency this currently holds within academia and politically. Furthermore, it’s difficult just finding neutral comment on the topic to help me understand and write about it.

There is clearly a lot more to this which is a bit beyond the scope of this post. I will add that while I don’t understand all the legal stuff, one hint I found about the effect of gender ideology on international law was in a 2015 academic article; “in a number of countries, rich and poor, governments adopt laws couched in gender-neutral language, the effect of which is anything but neutral, allowing stereotypes and traditional practices to remain untouched and exacerbating discriminatory outcomes.”

It looks like old world patriarchal power structures, take advantage of gender neutral policy and language to support their own ends (in this case suppressing women’s human rights). This suggests that within law, trans ideology may indeed count against many women globally, if that isn’t mitigated against. This isn’t the intent of trans activists, but it may be the outcome that gender critical feminists (some of whom are lawyers) are fiercely guarding against, and fighting back about.

The biggest concern cited in the article is about violence against women. About the UK it states, “the gender neutral interpretation of the Gender Equality Duty, had a negative impact on funding to women’s organizations and the provision of ‘women-only’ services.’’ This article while clearly feminist, seems to be outside of the trans debate and therefore relatively neutral. The words ‘trans’ or ‘transgender’ never appear in its 29 pages. The writers express perplexity in their conclusion, at why so many governments are adopting gender neutral policy and language, when these things are so harmful to women. Men’s rights groups are sited as a significant reason apart from traditional patriarchal structures. It is mentioned that the drive to appear gender-equal is behind the phenomenon as well.

It makes me think that co-opting gender inclusivity by governments needs to be overseen by people who won’t let it be abused, whereby women and their particular needs get erased from the figures. Obviously that requires better governments, but apart from that, a united and inclusive feminist front might help. I mean if feminists weren’t blaming each other, wasting their anger and sense of disenfranchisement on other vulnerable minorities when they should be supporting each other, that could only help, right?

There is one common enemy, and they are sorely getting off the hook while this in-fighting continues to serve the elite and deplete vital energy reserves. There may be complex legal issues to be worked through to achieve a fair system, but with so many smart feminist lawyers, I’m sure that would be possible… I recognise that there are cases of harmful behaviour from trans identified people on occasion, but that is true of all kinds of people and I don’t think it’s kind or helpful to focus on that. At least not without expressing a more balanced agenda.

Activists thrive on anger to further their cause. But only with love can we unite to make change.

Celebrating Difference

If we lived in a world without narrow expectations of sex and gender, more people would feel comfortable and accepted in the bodies they are born in. Yet, sometimes it’s easier to change a person than society…

Trans people vary enormously in terms of how they identify. Some, even as they change gender, wish to remain within the binary framework. I can’t help thinking this may be because we haven’t changed the structure of our society to properly include a third or more genders.2 Intersex people are also completely excluded from UK law and habitually had “corrective” surgery imposed upon them at birth. Our system is so binary that in order to fit in and have rights, trans people are currently required to remain within it, just as intersex people were forced to fit.

Trans activists get upset if you suggest that there is difference between trans women for example and cis women. But what if that difference where it may exist, was celebrated? Trans people are very special for their pan-gender experience and the insights they offer us. Indeed in Native American cultures they have been revered, regarded as shamen. And in South Asia, even as they are subject to discrimination, they are also feared and afforded some respect as superstition ordains them with unusual powers.

A significant difference with those older, more inclusive cultures was absence of modern technology. Those non-binary or trans people then, probably did not have the option of taking hormones or having surgery (although they were very advanced in their medicine, genital reassignment for example seems unlikely). But they had other gender categories available to them to fit into.

I realise as well that, it’s a very different thing to get nostalgic about a bygone culture which ours destroyed, and for trans and non-binary people today to make their lives work. The ubiquitous binary of our society has shaped the way we are formed, and so there are trans women who simply regard themselves as women; likewise for men. We need to (and do sometimes) accommodate them, welcome them fully where we are able. Where there are particular situations that need discussing, let’s make space for that and find the best way to work it in a context of peaceful dialogue.

I love this article of dialogue between two trans writers by Mud Howard, its reference to the divine in queer dance spaces, and Jayy Dodd’s assertion that “the sharing of space between bodies navigating similar bodies can manifest the sacred.” naturally speaks to me.

Safe Spaces

I have accessed women’s spaces since my mid-twenties, for a wide range of reasons. These include a group for women affected by drug abuse, women’s political and feminist groups, a group for women survivors of domestic violence, red tent circles, full moon women’s dances, women’s business networking events, women’s creative networking events, women’s spas and swimming pool dates, women’s self defence classes and women’s spiritual meditation gatherings.

For the last 8 years I have been running my own women’s events; mostly life modelling workshops, as well as some red tent gatherings. I know how important all these spaces are and how important it is that they are kept safe. “Safe” means different things in each setting, and I think there is room for adjusting rules according to what is appropriate.

Male violence can be a very real threat for so many women or cis women, that ideologically prioritising a tiny minority of trans women who don’t transition, over a far vaster number of women doesn’t make sense, and sounds misogynistic. But this may only apply to events involving nudity or extra vulnerability, and it could also be that sometimes the same kind of event is created to reach different women. On one occasion it might be totally trans inclusive, and on another it could exclude women with penises, making it more accessible to women of faith, for example.

It was my own experience of domestic and sexual violence I believe, that makes me feel so strongly about the need for women’s sex-based private spaces. It took me until some time in my 30s to stop attracting relationships that involved some domestic violence. It was never the defining feature, but it was nevertheless present. I know how difficult it is to break that cycle, to leave even when a situation is harmful because of perceived lack of options.

When I attended a group for women survivors of domestic violence, I saw how fortunate I am on the scale. I met women there who had known nothing else, and were in far more extreme difficulties than I was. They often lacked education and more favourable role models. While that group was instructive for me, it was a lifeline for many of them.

I know trans women suffer extreme discrimination and also require these services. I don’t know the answer to that, especially in a time when there are not enough of many services. Some of the issues trans and cis women face are very different, particularly among poorer, migrant and working class people. Women’s reproductive biology can be so informing of our life patterns and opportunities, that spaces where we may unpick those predicaments together are invaluable.

A non-binary friend of mine visited me yesterday and it was so timely as I’ve been stuck on this post. Speaking to them I realised that the right person would be able to hold inclusive and sensitive women’s space. It takes special abilities as a communicator and with all the right understanding to reach and include the whole group. It could be possible to bridge the differences between types of women – and learn from each other’s experiences. This gave me much hope, though I sensed that role may not be mine, at least for now. Partly down to my lack of LGBTQ experience, and also my tendency to identify with cis women survivors may inhibit peace making if there was a clash.

That’s an emotional identity on my part, and it’s strong. I imagine that fuels a lot of sentiment among gender critical radical feminists, along with other feelings of displacement.

What I hope is that where the youth are more LQBTQ aware, they will grow into more conscious and loving beings who are able to support the diversity of humanity. While there are extremists in this debate, there are also a lot of quieter people who understand the need for peace and cooperation.


In time, or ideally very soon, I hope that both of the extreme camps on this issue can dialogue with each other. There is truth and value on both sides, but each needs to back down somewhat in order to share intelligent conversation with the other. With trans activists I share a belief and appreciation that gender stereotypes need to be and are being exploded and redrafted, with rights given to all. With gender critical radical feminists I share understanding that those rights need to be considered carefully in the context of how they affect other vulnerable parties.

The more I read, the more strongly I feel that gender diversity needs to be fully integrated into our society. That is, the understanding that gender may be separate from sex; there are a variety of genders; a person’s gender may evolve throughout their lifetime3; it may be opposite to, in alignment or at variance with their sex. Evaluating necessary adaptations to accommodate this, shouldn’t just be based on fear, but should take the realities of sex inequality and male violence into consideration, as well as examining impacts on other groups. Defining the law carefully to protect all concerned deserves special attention. To really evolve in a mature way we need to be able to discuss all the very real issues without fear of punishment.

The most persuasive arguments for trans rights I found through trans writers exploring themes in a relaxed, considered fashion, discussing their livesxv and representations of trans people in art and media.xvi Of course activism is needed, but it is sometimes deeper reflection where it is possible to connect with someone’s thoughts in a more subtle way, that really penetrates one’s opinion forming.

It was also through reading about the broader struggle for trans rights globally, and how non-binary understanding of gender was historically prevalent in South Asia and Native America, for example. The name ‘two-spirit’xvii was coined in modern times to encourage indigenous Americans to embrace their much earlier heritage; “Two-Spirit powwows are part of a growing movement among Native Americans who say rigid ideas of gender and sexuality are unfortunate remnants of colonization”xviii.

This discussion spans philosophy, science, psychology, law, sociology… and it would be wonderful for a massive open conversation covering all its themes and nuances to develop in a healthy, respectful, intelligent manner. I’ve seen evidence that that’s possible on all sides, so it would just take dampening down the negative, over-censoring voices for a rich dialogue to prevail.

Finally, something which is very clear to me is that our society badly misses the necessary reverence for older women in order to make it healthier, just and wise. Casting an eye on our cultural landscape, some of the older, maltreated, but strong and extremely smart women we need to restore balance, are surely to be found among radical feminists, as well as in the camps of environmentalists, other social justice advocates and spiritual leaders.

1 A person with Female or Woman indicated on their birth certificate, passport or other ID including Gender Recognition Certificate.

2 Stonewall are campaigning for this.

3 I know Stonewall state that gender doesn’t change and that it is consistent from early years, but adult trans people I’ve worked with told me otherwise.


ii by Rosa Freedman and Rosemary Auchmuty

iii by Michael Mascolo

iv by Peter Dunne and Tara Hewitt



vii From by Terry Reed




xi From





xvi See ‘In Search of Gender Troublemakers’ by Juliet Jacques in ‘Can We All Be Feminists?’




Teenage Summer

Time to reflect on what has been a very different Summer. The last few weeks have been punctuated by Friday evenings in Croydon at a youth centre. I did not know Croydon before this year beyond a few life model bookings at Croydon Life Drawing close to East Croydon station, and another class in Shirley, so an extra bus ride away. That bus ride passed through a more affluent area and Shirley looked green and suburban. This year I got to know the heart of Croydon, its centre, diversity and artistic edges.

Sir Philip Game (SPG) Youth Centre is about 10 minutes walk, North from East Croydon station. There are newer smart looking high-rise flats fanning out from the station, and then an older, more urban neighbourhood characterises the walk down Cherry Orchard Road. The Centre itself is set back within a leafy residential enclave, and so the variety of housing and feel on the streets on this little route is a microcosm of London.

SPG Youth Centre

Back in December I’d received an email from Yak who helps to run SPG. He’d seen the press articles from the Summer before about how I’d like to bring life drawing to teens to help address body image issues. An artist himself he immediately got it, and thought that bringing this to SPG could help reach new teenagers. A process of proposal, safe-guarding policy and various committees’ approval took several months before we got the go-ahead late Spring. By then the Summer term was too close but I was keen to aim for Summer holidays, partly as I knew I’d have time to do marketing and promoting – Autumn tends to get busier. This would be a rewarding experience; I’d not yet had a chance to test my ideas and was excited to try.

Springtime brought another connection my way as well, and that was via The Feminist Library where I’d put on several Stories of Women workshops over the last couple of years. They were doing a collaboration with Barbican and I was brought into the loop for some life drawing in connection with a Lee Krasner exhibition coming up. It was really their Education department who were interested in a workshop for teenagers, and so another strand to this journey fell in to complement the other work already in process. These were two very different opportunities and between them I could learn more about young people who may benefit from my work. Both would be classes that individuals chose to do, so avoiding possible resistance that a school scenario may bring.

Both classes were open to any young person of a certain age to attend, though Croydon would likely reach people within a limited circumference. The Barbican class was cheaper at just £3, yet I imagined may attract people from a higher socio-economic bracket due to those likely to be part of their Young Barbican membership and generally following them (sorry if that sounds classist but I don’t think it’s a strange association).

Croydon street art

I set about on two types of preparation. One was a big job of researching and contacting as many Croydon schools and youth organisations as possible to promote the classes. Once we’d made the flyer I took it around to places in the Croydon vicinity… networked and took to the streets! This brought out the performance artist in me as I devised a means to attract attention and get my message across. I needed to tell people about life drawing for teenagers, knowing that many wouldn’t know what it is, would be horrified by the idea, or never imagine their kid would be mature enough. Wearing a simple message as a sign on my body I paraded through Croydon Centre on warmer days, not quite naked underneath! My flesh-coloured bodysuit not visible a little way off, passers-by stared in disbelief at my audacity. Then they read my sign. I beamed feverishly to disarm them, show them my own comfort and approachability. I wanted to engage not scare. Truly it worked, yet it was more the Mums and older women who congratulated me for doing something so important – they immediately got it. Younger people however were less inclined to respond positively. Especially in packs where peer pressure is strongest. Sometimes on their own they were more responsive.

This part of my promotional activities would not have been possible without the help of the First Floor Space at Croydon Art Store in Whitgift shopping centre. I had discovered them on my research mission and found them to be one of the friendliest quarters in Croydon – both art and youth focused. A few organisations including TURF reside in a block of units side by side and between them they seemed to be the most outward facing and accessible folks on my wavelength in the area. The First Floor Space is available for free “hot-desking” for local artists or those working on a project in Croydon, so that included me. I didn’t so much “desk” as change into my outfit, stash my stuff and fill up my water bottle, all with the sense of comfort and solidarity that comes with sharing space and worktime with fellow artists. Charlie leads this crew and was always supportive and understanding of my mission. Going out in public nearly nude in an area more known for stabbing, is brave. People did remark on that fact incredulously each time. In case anything happened, Charlie wrote down her number for me to keep on me safely. In the end I was fine. Just knowing there was a place nearby where I could retreat to should things get weary or hairy, made all the difference. I already felt that Croydon had accepted me.

For The Barbican and The Living Colour exhibition on Lee Krasner, a different prep was in order. I was less concerned with finding my participants – that would be taken care of hopefully be the marketing machine of such a grand institution. It was more about learning the material on Lee, and writing the lesson plan which would be more meticulous than the Croydon sessions. The latter would be more freestyle. Meanwhile I read articles on Krasner, saw the exhibition together with Marinella the model, and then read her biography. This historical journey reminded me of some of my ancestors I’d been researching recently – Lee’s family escaped from Czarist Russia in 1908 just before my Great Grandmother Rivka’s family fled in about 1912. They were both Jewish and while my folks ended up in South Africa, Lee’s went to America – New York. Born an American Lee came to reject her Jewish origins as did Rivka; they both became politicised towards the Left, attending many marches, protests and Lee was even imprisoned for her activism as was Rivka’s husband and also my American Grandfather. Lee was not ultimately a Communist as such, maintaining that her role was as an artist first, yet her leanings were very Left.

Marinella Mezzanotte

Marinella and I were fascinated to learn about Lee’s strong character which really came across in filmed interviews played in the gallery. I was then asked to do another similar workshop for young people again through Barbican, but this time at Guildhall School next door, for a Summer Arts Camp. The children would be younger and the model clothed. There was to be even more emphasis on Krasner who would be the theme of their week of activities. Since I was supposed to help instill in the youngsters a sense of being an artist themselves I thought I would ask a model who is also an artist, and that was Lily.

Krasner inspired Lily tribute collage

There would be 6 sessions in Croydon and I wanted as diverse a selection of models as I could find, whilst being mindful to book fairly local models as this was not super-well paid and Croydon is a little way out from where most live. I wanted a gender, age, size and colour balance – especially colour as Croydon is very multi-cultural. That is the biggest challenge to booking diversity when it comes to life models I find – they are overwhelmingly white. I wanted the young people to identify with the models, and cultural background can help.

Marinella was an obvious choice of model for a more structured class at Barbican, as she is so articulate about body political matters and even helped me to write a couple of significant in fact more academic blog posts. She is Italian but her use of English is better than most native speakers and she is very much on message with gender politics, as well as having experienced her own journey towards body acceptance. Both of us old enough to be the teenagers’ Mothers, we have plenty of combined experience to bring to the class, our openness hopefully bridging the generation gap.


Leo was the first model at Croydon and she opened the series boldly, speaking directly about being a fat woman, assumptions people regularly make about her, and the things that helped improve her body image as she grew up. She also spoke about what it’s like to be a model, as did the second model, Faith. The variety of jobs and unusual experiences as a life model was a theme for both, Leo recalling a job in the woods splattered with day-glo pink paint, and Faith pointing up the mixing of class outside of her usual life. As models we are literally exposed to and rub shoulders with folks from much richer and upper class backgrounds, and she felt that the art world allows us to connect more easily. That is one way that life modelling may broaden our horizon and Faith was very enthusiastic about the extra confidence it had given her too. She is aware of being niche for her colour and expressed effusively her enjoyment at being a pioneer in this way, wanting to encourage more people of colour to give it a try. Thank you Faith – I hope they do because there really is a demand. Artists appreciate and require variety and rarely is it currently available.



One girl who attended the class said that when her school tried to hold a life drawing class, they had a male model, and a huge number of letters of complaint from parents followed. It was not the model himself, simply that the nudity in particular male was deemed inappropriate in the girls school. John was the third model and mindful of this sometimes prevailing public attitude I felt cautious with regard to promoting his presence, so held back. To help ease the class into accepting a male model, John himself suggested he wear a tutu! I was happy with that and so his session began that way. One thing I have realised however with this self-selecting of students to the classes is that it attracts teenagers who are keen on drawing more than anything else. They relished the chance to practise life drawing that is not often available to them. I did not sense that John’s gender was an issue and after a couple of poses he was nude.


He spoke about owning his nudity and that stopping him from being vulnerable when naked as a model. He also described his technique of going into the zone to enable him to hold otherwise uncomfortable poses for some duration. Maria was the fourth model and she was just back from visiting her homeland Brazil. She spoke to the class about the political situation there and her activism connected with that, also her hope in the next generation to turn things around – some of whom drawing her then.


For the 5th and 6th sessions I booked male models – Peter and Rob, and advertised as such. I don’t know if it was coincidence, but numbers for both classes were the lowest, in fact we had to cancel the last session as no students showed up. It could have been other reasons, but perhaps in future I won’t let on who is modelling.


Peter’s class was small but I at least really enjoyed listening to him. I’ve known him the longest as he booked me for my first ever life modelling gig back in 2007 and we’ve become friends. I find I am ever learning new things about the models with these interview-style events. What a privilege. He spoke of learning to draw concurrently to becoming a model, and how drawing all different models gave him an appreciation of how beautiful the human body is. Also how life modelling is often a fact that is shared carefully with other sections of one’s life, in his case to avoid embarressing his daughters for example.

On the streets and outdoor spaces of Croydon I handed flyers to and chatted with a good cross-section of the public, from builders with teenage children, newly arrived migrants such as teenage refugees from Eritrea, Sudan and Ethiopia; dope smoking teens and young people in the park who “totally” got my message and one even did art… gatherings of parents, West Indian Fathers and youth workers in the Wandle Park, East European cafe workers… anyone who’d stop on the pedestrianised shopping high street. I even did a dance on a platform because I was getting achy and tired with being ignored. It went in phases… I took a little sound system and a few sketch pads for next level engagement! Street life drawing. I tried, but I don’t think any of that helped to grow the classes. It helped me to connect with Croydon and spread the word.

drawing in park by Eritrean teenage refugee

lilypads at Wandle Park

Not all the participants of the Croydon classes came from the area; some had been driven from further away in Dulwich and Surrey for example. More affluent areas methinks. The middle classes get life drawing, they know what it is and why it’s important. It’s part of their culture and going to exhibitions. For some Mums on the street, the idea of a nude model was too shocking and something their kids weren’t ready for. Fortunately at least as many adults understood why real unairbrushed, unmodified models would be beneficial.

At The Barbican we began with Marinella explaining the rules to the class as that I think comes best from the model. As well as explaining why she didn’t want to be photographed, she addressed their possible awkwardness and shyness to approach this new kind of drawing. She reassured them and invited them to take their time and relax with the experience. I encouraged them not to worry about their drawings, after all I am no drawing tutor. We took turns speaking, and covered several topics from our own body acceptance, to the male gaze and how Lee inspires us. Poses with intense subjects made me feel that in between them we would break up the rhythm with dynamic, loosening up exercises to remind the students about drawing style again, and allow us to step back.

Lily Holder

For the class with Lily we followed a similar formula but I reigned in some of the subject matter on realising how young the children were. Aged 11 – 14, most were at the younger end of the spectrum. I’d been asked to describe how Lee inspires me and I connect with her work… yet what I’d prepared felt too adult. Outliving domestic violence and alcoholism didn’t feel like being part of the mood we wanted to create! This group wanted to perform – they were gearing up for some cutting edge art shows at the end of the week, after dipping into various exciting offerings. Having explained some of the finer details of how being nude for artists (even though Lily was dressed), or drawing other models had helped us, we got them to try doing some poses.

They tentatively took us up, building confidence until one child proclaimed that he could easily hold a pose for 20 minutes. I suggested we try 10, and that turned out to be a struggle! They experimented with power and fear postures, duo and character poses admirably.

Saying goodbye to my Summer in Croydon felt sad on the day of the final session. I sat on a traffic island thoroughfare reminiscing into my diary whilst a man threw up next to me… oh Croydon! How I enjoyed performing my walk, watching your gazes, winking at awestruck toddlers and old folks, people who occupy benches all day long. Sharing the pitch with charity muggers, bible bashers, anti-knife crime campaigners, buskers, balloon sellers and english languange teachers… you were my home from home, my office, my stage and my playground for a few days this Summer. All those connections, fly-posted leaflets, refugee encounters (Croydon is the home of the Home Office), men who got too interested, and impromptu outdoor life drawing moments. I enjoyed meeting this place and people, open to all possibilities being potential. Where to go with this? We will see.

Hall at SPG

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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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!

The Male Gaze in Life Drawing

It’s 2018 and we need to call time on life drawing groups that operate too much along the lines of the male gaze. To be clear, while this is about what heterosexual men typically fantasise about, so ingrained in our society’s psyche is this paradigm (patriarchy has been dominant for the last several thousand years) that many (read most) women and in fact people have internalised it too. Even when we are aware of it, the effects of this most insidious structure are very hard to eradicate.

The Male Gaze is the idea developed by feminist film critic Laura Mulvey in her 1975 essay ‘Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema’. This says that Western art and literature have massively privileged men as active viewers, relegating women to the status of objects to be consumed by the senses, sexually. Women have value by being looked at, objectified and compliant for heterosexual male pleasure. In order for anyone to identify with this long history of art and writing, they must put themselves in the position of the heterosexual male viewer who is also white. Since this art has dominated our culture for so long, and compulsory reading materials  and works for study at all levels of our education system have been mostly comprised of it, it has hardly been possible for anyone in our society to avoid being conditioned somehow in this way. Even if you avoid all education, the same phenomenon exists in all our mainstream media. We are only really starting to see some change in relatively recent years.

Being valued mostly for our looks rather than ideas, for our bodies and not our agency, it has been very difficult for women to rise to positions of power – beyond the means of their appearance. This is further hampered by the way that we have been pitted against one another, taught to compete with each other for male attention, instead of joining forces to support one another. I know first hand how long it can take to break free of such cycles of misery. The best female friendships I have took several years to bond, with a considerable period of falling out in the beginning, before we were able to reasonably look past our differences and cease to feel threatened by each other. It is so easy to feel jealous of another’s success, when you ought simply to feel admiration and joy for your sister. I think, especially when we have been marginalised, it may be harder the more insecure we have been, to move past those painful feelings of resentment for another’s success. To stop feeling that their progress hinders our own possibility of advancement, as if there were a finite number of positions of power for women. Actually that can be a very real feeling, more than a feeling – that predicament is precisely the world we are still living in, so it is no wonder that getting past jealousy is such a bitch!

The Body Beautiful? event at The Mall Galleries was a brilliant opportunity to address issues of disfigurement, female objectification and the male gaze through the lens of figurative art; as well as how this art can be therapeutic for transforming self-perception and powerful in changing attitudes. It took place alongside the Hesketh Hubbard Art Society Annual Exhibition. We were a varied group of panelists – one (transgressive) figurative painter, two disfigurement campaigners, and one body positive artivist I might call myself. The thing I mainly wanted to speak about apart from describing what I do with Spirited Bodies, is how to decolonise life drawing of the male gaze – and by putting it that way I implicitly link the gaze with (post)colonialism. I do see the patriarchy and colonialism as inextricably interlinked in our UK culture; as historical establishment mechanisms for controlling women, people of colour, minority genders, sexualities, abilities and class… I was also asked by portrait painter Alastair Adams who was chairing the discussion, about how the rise of social media has affected the life drawing scene, and my response to that.

I spoke of the responsibility of model bookers to ensure they have as wide a variety and diversity as possible of models, especially if they are large, influential, well-established groups. Such groups are likely to have a considerable number of artists attending who run their own groups elsewhere (in London and beyond), so that models may often be sourced from the larger group, and as well artists pick up standards of practice there. Naturally this means there is a greater responsibility in terms of social conscience that lies with those who book models for bigger groups. Where naked people are being selected to be drawn, I don’t think anyone in London in 2018 can claim that this is not a political choice. Whose bodies are they? Which genders, which ages, colours, sizes, shapes and abilities? There is a huge amount of choice available here in London, and that needs to be completely recognised, and not simply left for the more politically switched on groups out there who make the effort to take risks. With a climate increasingly embracing diversity and inclusivity, the risk is less and less a commercial one, and in fact more one of being called out.

That said, some smaller groups can’t afford to take (commercial) risks as attendance of artists/drawers may drop off if they book less conventionally attractive models more frequently, or simply book male models on consecutive weeks for example. I warned that we all need to be mindful of how the male gaze can affect the decisions of model bookers as it can be insidious, within all of us, so we need to keep questionning our ‘normal’.  What is deemed normal in a lot of (slightly old-fashioned) groups is having a much higher proportion of female models than male, and this is because the male gaze (which as I said is in women as well) prefers to look at women. It wasn’t always so however in Western art, as up until about the 16th century, male nudes were far more common and acceptable than female. The other predominant ‘normal’ nowadays, is a preference for young, slim yet curvy women; so that for example if larger women are booked consecutively this may be considered remarkable, but if several weeks of slim female models go by, no objection is raised.

In our patriarchal society we have learned to live with the prevalence of some people’s presumed right to consume the female body in some form or another; in particular the body of females who need money, and that sense of power becoming encoded in a particular and often very narrow aesthetics. Then ‘artists’ are free to say, “That’s just what I enjoy drawing,” without investigating their preference. That’s something which we at Spirited Bodies very much want to question and raise awareness about.

As a group of life models, some of us jointly prepared for ‘The Body Beautiful?’ event in a discussion group. How to tackle the unconscious bias of the male gaze, and how do we want to talk about bodies – which words are we using? So often the descriptors for life modelling jobs fall into extremes of plus-size, slim, athletic, dancer, young, voluptuous… but what of the vast majority of human bodies – are they not interesting to draw as well? When we draw a person, we don’t just draw a body but the unique energy which that person has. The average, in between size, ordinary everyday bodies; these ought to be celebrated and called for if we are to truly embrace body and human positivity. The concept of body equality feels important to us, and this was something which resonated with fellow panelist Henrietta Spalding of Changing Faces as well. Despite the name she said her organisation are very concerned with bodies too, as is Sylvia Mac’s Love Disfigure.

As a model I know the places where I feel most comfortable posing – where general working conditions are positive including pay, model consideration when it comes to choice of pose, breaks, set-up (furnishings), heating, changing area… and where I enjoy a good relationship with the artists, and feel appreciated for who I am and my very real ability as a model. There are also places where I do not feel that the male gaze is influencing booking or working practice, and that makes a really positive difference to me. The atmosphere is wholesome and I can relax more. I know that such groups are only interested in drawing the best possible variety of talented models available, without exception. They are somehow neutral and unaffected by the male gaze, which is a healthy breath of fresh air. I don’t find myself thinking, “Soon this group will be bored of me and find me too old,” and I don’t feel a pressure to push myself beyond what is reasonably comfortable because of some unrealistic expectations by group members about what constitutes a decent pose. I often enjoy making challenging poses, but there are times when I can’t do them, or I just need to rest; and it’s always best if I decide when to do which poses.

There can be a lot of silent (or sometimes slightly vocalised) judgement about models’ bodies and the shapes they make. The attitude that some artists have that because they have paid money, they have a right to choose what the model looks like and does with her body, feels postcolonial, patriarchal. I am not averse to a discussion about making a pose, but I should always have the final say (and do). Me being vocal does cost me some jobs, because there are more compliant models out there, and that fits with a lot of ‘artists” agenda.

Such groups may seem driven by a male fantasy. There are models who may naturally fulfil that desire, or angle themselves towards it out of a need for income and because they can. In our super-consumerist culture, female objectification and self-objectification have become normalised from a very early age in girls. This sharp end of capitalism is responsible for a lot of problematic health conditions including eating disorders and low self-esteem, which studies have shown affects political efficacy. This means that women are readily rendered as mere objects to be consumed which amounts to the pornification of women’s bodies and contributes  subtley to the global condition of violence against women.  – Here I shall refer to the remarkable artivist (and life model) Lidia’s recent article on the subject of global violence against women.

There is the apparently unconscious sense of entitlement that some people feel about having some control over another person’s body – and that body being naked in front of them, and often of a person who depends on the income from modelling in order to make a living. This dynamic is the one we would like to raise awareness about and transform, because sometimes it is less obvious, just subtle, but nevertheless apparent. It passes for acceptable oftentimes because a tutor wants to please all class attendees for fear of losing them otherwise. Without pointing out individuals, I simply want to put this out there, to encourage greater awareness and capacity for embracing a truly empathic and body-kind, human-kind atmosphere of utter respect within the life drawing arena. I ought to add heartfelt gratitude to the artists who have always been leading the way when it comes to working with models in a positive exemplary fashion.

Sometimes groups do invite a variety of models, but it is the more glamorous and overtly sexy ones who dominate on social media, gaining the most likes, comments and shares. Which further drives the trend as artists vie for popularity and are encouraged in their choices (e.g. which models to book and images to post). While this may suit a bunch of men (and some women), there will be a considerable number of people who are negatively affected due to the comparison effect. Some will unfollow or opt out of particular platforms – or social media altogether. For others the effect may contribute to troubled feelings and behaviours. On the panel I shared that as a model myself I have stopped being so free with posting images of myself, since I noticed that I feel uncomfortable if I see too many images of other models of particularly mainstream beauty standards – and I do mean life models! I hardly consume any regular media channels so I am less exposed to fashion models and celebrities for example than many people. Perhaps that’s why I have a low threshold for consuming images of life models, although I would stress that I do mean online, not in real life as it were. Screen fatigue perhaps. I do not want to be part of the problem. I do not need extra attention for my appearance, nor do I want to feed negative comparisons in others.

What else can one do about this? Ask the organisers in question to be yet more varied when booking models. What if a greater balance of models is achieved and some members of a group leave? Nevermind; other more open-minded types may arrive. Model bookers could also do more to set the expectations of their groups, and certainly raise repeatedly the diversity of bodies in mainstream ‘recognised’ great art so that their group does not stick on the association of ‘nude means young slim female being looked at by men.’ They could discuss the role of artists in society, which is often about challenging cultural norms and raising uncomfortable topics, like ageing or flesh.

There are groups hidden from view, able to continue their old ways as no one involved wants change – neither the artists nor models. I only know because occasionally I have gotten a taste, but tend not to get favourited in such places being neither pretty, young or curvy enough, and also being too outspoken. Not everyone has this social conscience and other models enjoy the work, or need the money too much or worry about their right to live in the country post-Brexit, so effectively choose less freely. But where groups are visible and there is a chance of leverage, action may be taken.

Empowering Models?

Experiencing new confidence and being found attractive perhaps for the first time in their lives, happy to be sexualised, to have this relatively safe attention… can be empowering. But… when a model conforms to a male gaze fantasy in her pose, and she is staying still, there may be some objectification happening on at least two levels. I am suggesting that what happens on the micro level also affects the macro – the bigger picture. What we allow in our tiny London art scene may be sending a message of condoning the wider objectification of women (and people) globally. In other words – we are all connected, very much so now, and you might not be aware of it, but there is a growing underground trade of women and children’s bodies (also men, but for sex it’s mainly female).

The complicated thing is I am not saying it is wrong to express sexual empowerment through our poses; I think that to be a necessary part of some people’s evolution and to be celebrated. I certainly have and I haven’t felt that I was conforming to male fantasy necessarily at the time. What is important is that I was doing it for myself, because I was feeling it in that moment – it was me being true to myself. This opinion piece is simply urging greater diversity in representation of the human form as well as awareness about how the male gaze may affect us all.

Light entertainment on this theme; Fitness music video by Lizzo


Some models are from countries where there are fewer options and the patriarchy is more dominantly apparent. Female models of this type may find they are popular with upper middle class British artists. Typically a group of more well-to-do artists I work with, may ask me to introduce them to new models. I know now that they won’t appreciate it if I send them one of my more politicised model friends, who takes less care of her cosmetic appearance though is an outstanding model. They only want a certain prettiness and willingness to please in the ideally younger female. They prefer her to be foreign and preferably slightly darker skinned. A cute accent and enough education to be engaging, a background they can feel good about supporting, without such a sad story that it’s just too awful. The right amount of difficulty for them to patronise, foreignness to exoticise, also talent and good nature to adore, and generally not take them too far out of their old school days of the empire. Growing up in British colonies with servants is the kind of thing they know, and sometimes having a model, English or not, who observes and passes knowing comment on such matters is not what they want. Far better the grateful foreigner who knows only too well that going home may not be an option or that it would be undesirable, so it is in her best interests to accept all this ‘relatively’ well paid work and shut up.

Life Model Autonomy

On a more positive note and in favour of my many talented life model colleagues, it is refreshing to see so many groups being run by models themselves, whether they are teaching, organising or modelling, they are calling the shots and doing things on their own terms. This is a massive and wholesome development, allowing them to generate more income, develop or use different skills, exert more of their own creativity and most of all autonomy. The usual wage disparity between tutor and model may be evened out, and models themselves take an interest in the promotional side. It means that overall, regardless of what’s going on in colleges and art schools, UK life drawing is in an energised and healthy place, continually (re)engaging new people, making the papers and all forms of media. Some of the most creative and progressive events are emerging from this phenomenon and influencing what is happening elsewhere in schools and institutions. Spirited Bodies has of course been a considerable part of this and is the longest running such project if not the most frequent.

This piece was written by Esther Bunting, with some words and ideas contributed by Lidia, Marinella Mezzanotte and Lucy Saunders.

The Power of saying ‘No’

Spirited Bodies presents the next Stories of Women event, featuring co-founder Morimda, a professional life model of over 20 years experience. This will be held on Tuesday September 25th, 7pm – 9pm at The Feminist Library.



From being an extremely shy person, it was through life modelling that Morimda emerged – found out who she was and was able to express that to other people.

by Julia Thompson

Morimda did not do well in school, so her parents tried to arrange a marriage for her when she was 16. This was when she first realised the power of saying ‘No’!

She was extremely shy, and living in Paris found herself in relationships but was unable to come out of her shell, and deep down she knew that the only way to properly emerge as herself, was to be alone, a single woman in order to find her own voice. She wanted to come to England and learn English, and pursuing this dream gave her the strength to say ‘No’ for the second time, to an episode of unfulfilling relationships in France.

In London working as a window dresser, she wanted to be a mannequin! That was when she hit upon the idea of becoming a life model. The futility of continually being sacked, basically because she was shy, pushed her to actively take on becoming a full time life model. Her 3rd ‘No’ was when she refused to keep looking for a more mainstream job.

by Ray Marwyck

She discovered how liberating it was to be nude, to own her body, and learnt through this profession the subtleties of her own boundaries more clearly. For the first time in her life, she stopped feeling ugly and like a failure for not fitting with conventions. Her confidence developed as she learnt how to manage herself as a business.

Modelling helped Morimda to cure her depression, as it allowed her to be herself, to accept herself, and in this way encouraged her innate inner joy to shine through again. Through the life model network she was introduced to Buddhism and chanting which is a strong focus in her life to this day.

She is very keen to empower other women about their bodies, nudity and sensuality, as she truly feels that modelling has given her so much in these regards. It helped her to be aware of the significance of posture, and how each of us have different shapes and forms to play with. She was inspired to come up with the idea for Spirited Bodies, whilst posing at the Mall Galleries in 2010 before sharing it with Esther & Lucy.

Life modelling and drawing are a really good way to address body image issues, as well as gaining confidence and broadening our experience by stepping out of our comfort zones.

At this Stories of Women event there is also the chance to try life modelling yourself, or you may come to draw and/or listen or join in the conversation. During the second half there is a discussion about the body politics of life modelling and related matters. There is guidance for new models – no experience necessary, and some drawing materials are provided – again no experience necessary.

For more information about this event and to buy tickets online, see here.