Body Positive Life Drawing for Teenagers

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

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

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

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

Body Dysmorphic Disorder (BDD)

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

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

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

Digital

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

Analogue

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

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

Life Drawing

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

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

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

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

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

Meditation

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

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

Real Life

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Schools

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

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

Research

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

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

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

Interviews

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

Spirited Sound, Love and Life

I want to begin a while back, because this road has been a long journey. This year has been more challenging, but also finally a turning point – in my art, with Spirited Bodies, and in my love life. It all happens at once, yet in stages. I get challenged about why I am sharing the personal, in an art project which is supposedly more for the benefit of others, and I respond, because when I was a younger woman I missed an older female role model, who had the appropriate life experience. I struggled with that, until things gradually fell more into place. I wouldn’t have listened to anyone who purported to understand, and I’d know if they really did. Any more privileged woman who thought she knew best, definitely didn’t. Now of course, I may be the more privileged woman for many, but I am happy to share that it hasn’t always felt thus, and if in some way my message can reach distant others, that is what was in my heart all along.

In short since late May, this year has included several frustrated attempts at connections with venues and individuals with whom I seemingly failed to build a rapport. Trans activists (who were not actually trans themselves) with whom it was impossible to have a sensible discussion about trans issues and how they intersect with the needs of cis women rape survivors in some cases. Competitive women with similar projects to mine, who either viewed me with suspicion, or just thought they knew better. Community collectives who were not open enough to host Spirited Bodies! What could be more appropriate for a community…?

Earlier in the Summer I met Sarah Kent at Brockley Open Studios, in my neighbourhood. We got chatting in artist Gill Hickman’s studio, and something resonated. I attended Sarah’s soundbath and experienced the healing sounds on the floor of her living room. I felt at ease with her, as well as moved by the intense yet soothing vibes. She said expect changes in the next few days, and ideally make space for them.

What I hadn’t known was that my old friend Michael, had died that day or the day before… and I found out a few hours after the soundbath. Michael’s death, for me marked a turning point, a shift of focus. In the middle of Summer this news penetrated layers of the fabric of my being. It took me back to the late 90s when I knew him best, the times and the company we shared. Though I had not been so in touch with Michael in recent years, his strong uncompromising world view sank into me as I relooked at the world through his imagined eyes and the filtered lens of the girl I used to be. Somehow both introvert and extrovert, rebellious, even fearless. The power of youth! While most of us had mellowed, to be fair including Michael in his own minor way, really he had sustained a strikingly similar mentality to what we all remembered. I instantly felt tougher, unaffected by petty crises previously around me. For a while I was invincible! Untouchable. I thought of Michael a lot.

With Michael (centre) and friends at an anti-criminal justice bill demo, mid 90s
With Michael (centre) and friends at an anti-criminal justice bill demo, mid 90s

My erstwhile longterm relationship that had been faltering, now felt briefly healing again. My partner, connected to the old tribe including Michael, understood intimately my feelings, but the ending of our relationship was imminent. We had drifted apart, and I craved cohesion in my life. A nervous breakdown at one of my modelling jobs alerted me that something had to give. I could not visualise a future that felt fitting, under my current circumstances. The breakdown involved intense feelings of being violated by the artists sculpting me, when in fact I was also aware that neither they nor the tutor (who is one of my favourites) was responsible. The conditions of my life were so disadvantaging me, that I could not see light in my routine. To make a success of my art projects I needed all energies and people in my life to point decidedly the same way, otherwise it was dissipating. I needed freedom. We technically had an open relationship, so when I did find closeness with a new partner, it took me a little while to realise that I could not be so intimate with two men simultaneously. The new relationship rapidly came to mean so much more to me than I could have anticipated. So intense is this new connection that it felt prudent to break up with Aaron. Simple is better; and freshly blossoming love deserves the richest, most fertile ground in which to take root.

In my new partner I found a fellow life model and writer, as well as an enthusiast of all my projects, sharing much passion in nude art adventures, and travel, something I had missed in the past. I also found so much love I hadn’t dreamed of, expected, in one with apparently such different background. His openness, sensitivity, intelligence and understanding take my breath away. As the Autumn took hold, this new excitement grew, and grows. I am in love.

Spirited Bodies again feels in a good place. I have resolved some issues, and feel confident about the involvement of men modelling again. For Spirited Sound I didn’t take any chances with male models. I knew all of the chosen ones personally and felt 100% safe with them. With the help of my partner and other trusted male models, we are creating an exceedingly safe space for everyone. That’s not to exclude the trusted women models from this equation, or the artists, but it was mainly an issue with deceptively inappropriate male models, so feels apt to be solved first, by male models.

All artwork from Spirited Sound, 8/11/15
All artwork from Spirited Sound, 8/11/15, at the Bargehouse, Oxo Building, Southbank

The healing power of Spirited Bodies is very important to me. I have explored this a few ways; in more intimate workshops, through interviewing models (and artists) about their experience and playing their recorded voices during sessions. Now with Spirited Sound, a new, more direct, less personal but more universal model has been born. The sound instantly seemed to free up the format, necessarily instigating greater experimentation. Traditional life drawing standards according to the wants of some artists are thrown out. This is all about the Spirited Bodies, and this time we tried some movement poses which was a beautiful way to discover even greater harmony as a group. Three minutes of very slowly opening up from a closed posture into something more expansive, and five minutes of flickering gently together, moving as flames of a fire burning brighter and closer.

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The session was divided into 4 sections, each representing an element – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Shorter and movement poses in the first 2 parts, then longer poses for Water and Earth. The models connected with each other when they felt drawn to, as they collectively expressed themselves elementally. Dynamic and expansive for Fire, including a slightly longer Scene from Hell – the fallen among the devils. Light and floaty for Air, as well as being blown together in a very strong gust of wind. Flowing waves for Water where the models lay variously in a row, some interconnecting; and pure grounded connection for Earth, each model occupying their own comfortable (I hope!) space. It was a big pleasure to work with the group of models, several I have gotten to know over time with Spirited Bodies, including professionals who enjoy the deepening experience a lot. They create a warm atmosphere for any newcomer.

5 minutes blowing in the wind
5 minutes blowing in the wind

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Spirited Sound happened because I had connected with Sarah, and she was interested and happy to bring her sound art to Spirited Bodies. It was her idea to work with the elements as a theme, and she created sounds to fit each mood, to accompany and inspire the models (and artists), and weave a layer of vibrational texture into the space. There were bells, singing bowls (including one large one containing water), large gongs, a rainstick, a jingly instrument which when shaken lightly produces an array of gently tingling bell sounds of different notes.

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Spirited Bodies becomes something more layered with the inclusion of sound art; another type of art is intersecting with the life modelling and drawing. A new relationship emerges between musician and models (and artists). Is the sound influencing the models, or vice versa? A bit of an exchange for sure. At one end of the room Sarah laid out her instruments, from where she could see all the action (and stillness) of the models. Had we been in the larger attic space as originally planned, she may have arranged herself in more spread out fashion around the room in order to move about and be among artists and models, so that sounds would emerge from different areas and directions, possibly moving too. Sarah and her instruments could have been linked to the visual aspect of the artists’ attention, perhaps appearing in the art, as positioned within the scenes of poses. The attic also had a particular atmosphere which would have lent itself well to the gravitas of gongs, however it turned out that heating and lighting that space was a task beyond the electricity supply. It was great as it was, but it would also have been fantastic for Sarah to have been slightly more integrated with artists and models. Nevertheless, her presence and sound creation were deeply felt and appreciated by all. This was a joyful collaboration which I hope we may explore again.

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I feel more comfortable with the trans inclusion (to women’s sessions) now. This is very delicate, but it’s important to be open. I sometimes feel that a separate group for women only – excluding non-transitioned trans women – will be helpful (particularly for cis women rape survivors, of whom there are probably more than the entire population of non-transitioned trans women). I will tread carefully. One thought is that, if women’s events are open to all trans women regardless of transition, that gesture is what is important. Possibly those trans women themselves are not interested to come along, and may well realise that their inclusion can be tricky; without wanting to be divisive, there are very different needs at play.

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The issue of competitive women is being resolved too. I am not taking this personally, but see it as symptomatic of us women, learning how to share our power. This might seem odd to be so gendered, but I do think we are not so familiar as men are, with having power in the first place, and often if we do, we are encouraged to beat off the competition. This doesn’t make sense when our projects are about liberation and empowerment, for all, not just some elite. These higher principles must filter through otherwise projects will die.

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Leaving you with a few more pictures of artwork from Spirited Sound. We were very fortunate to have a lovely photographer with us at the event too, so there will be photos of the group of models to follow at some stage. Also, I am just planning an event for December, so keep looking out! And a blog post about the women’s event at Bargehouse will also come soon.

Watery bodies
Watery bodies

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With much gratitude to all the models, artists, and Sarah, as well as Kathy, Angie and Jenny from the Southbank Festival of Creativity at the Bargehouse

Early morning Excitement

I cannot sleep! The excitement is too much. Now I know these sessions are coming to an end, they excite me So much! Every session should be like the last one ever. Like I usually email the models a few days before the event to brief them, get them in the mood. This time I did not. Too routine. And I know. I know that the ones who want to come will be there. They will contact me if they are unsure. Then there was one I was unsure about, who doesn’t have internet, she might not have realised this was coming to an end, and I thought she probably doesn’t have money, which might stop her. But I wanted her there! She was the reason I set up the session that is tonight in Hoxton which she cannot afford to go to. I had gotten to know her via lengthy phone calls from a while back when she was gathering courage. So I called her and told her to come along, regardless of money, just be there because it will be so much easier and more rewarding than you imagine. All the barriers you build up in your mind, they are unfounded, unreal. You just need a chance to move past them, move into a new space where you reach up and out and let yourself speak through your body, tell your story that you are living today, and feel the joy of self acceptance. This comes first, and then the warm appreciation of others. Oh the liberation! It can make you high and take you far as you open your wings and take off for a while. Then you must keep learning to fly and stay flying.

Quick poses
Quick poses

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image-6This pose was a bit like a cat fight; Natansky wanted some drama to kick things off, so she and Louise began in this way to warm everyone up, as they have both posed several times before.

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I encourage models to make poses on different levels; these were closed poses, the body folding in rather than opening up
I encourage models to make poses on different levels; these were closed poses, the body folding in rather than opening up

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Negative spaces - the shapes where the body is not - are used by artists to create the form of the figure within
Negative spaces – the shapes where the body is not – are used by artists to create the form of the figure within
Figures overlayed to produce something unfamiliar
Figures overlayed to produce something unfamiliar

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'When I wake up'
‘When I wake up’
dynamic poses abounded this evening
dynamic poses abounded this evening
Mike Flight caught the tension of 'The Storm'
Mike Flight caught the tension of ‘The Storm’
this was an important announcement
this was an important announcement
Natansky's drawings
Natansky’s drawings

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A scene is enacted before us

the 'play within a play' from another angle
the ‘play within a play’ from another angle

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Beautiful postures
Beautiful postures

Quite randomly I picked from 95 photographs of the artwork sent to me by Santosh; I could not see them all at once, and did not open them all. There will be more, but for one tired night that is enough. Thank you to all who made this last Holborn workshop flow with magic. Now East to Hoxton for feminine fun and womanly wonder.

LaDawn writes; The Taught Becomes the Teacher

It is one of the oldest traditions of mankind.   The ignorant are taught by the more experienced, the more learned.

A mother teaches her son to dance and a daughter how to be a wife and mother. A father teaches his daughter to change a flat tyre and a son to be a husband and father.  I learned to model by listening and learning from other models then I learned to teach modelling by watching others teach.

I observed the individuals’ natural instincts gently guiding and supporting men and women wishing to experience the adrenaline rush and confidence boost that life modelling can provide. I asked them to sit, stand, lay down.  I asked them to hide in a bomb shelter and launch a protest.  I watched their fear and insecurity melt away.

There is that first moment when you bare your naked body, exposing much more than your physical self.  You are convinced that everyone is staring at all your perceived imperfections.  But in life modelling, those “imperfections” are the interesting bits that attract and confound an artist.

 If, as at Spirited Bodies events, there are many more than just one model, the truth is fewer people than you imagine are in fact staring at you at all.  The other models are more wrapped up in themselves than you and the artists may be looking behind you, next to you, through you, or just at your elbow wondering if they are up to the challenge of foreshortening what has been presented to them.

Rarely does an artist look at you in your entirety, preferring to capture first your shape and then your composite parts, each of which are beautiful in their own exquisite uniqueness.  They are aiming at shapes, angles, corners, shading and the relationship between all of those shapes.  All those glorious shapes and their relationship to each other.

No two individuals ever look the same nude.  Clothes hide so much of our individuality.

No two artists ever see a model in the same way.  Their vision, paper, materials, colours, and position will create a different work of art every time they craft.

And then we learn.  We learn how differently others see us from how we see ourselves.  We learn there is joy in that learning. And in that learning there is magic.  Spirited Body magic.

This post is illustrated with pictures made by artists who attended the workshop at Holborn on Wednesday October 2nd, which the text also refers to.

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Introducing LaDawn to the Spirited Bodies team

I wish I could remember with greater clarity that moment when I thought life modelling would be a good experience for me.  But the fact is I don’t.

I do remember being adrift.  I had been suffering from severe depression and my days were a jumble of hoping I had enough energy to get out of bed and then pure anxiety coursed through my blood stream all day as I tried to keep myself from returning to the comfort of the duvet.  My life was nothing like it used to be.  I was nothing like I used to be.

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For the previous 25 years, I had worked in IT.  I was a senior manager in a FTSE 50 company.  I was a mother to two children, a son who is now 12, and a daughter, now 9.  I was the wife of a man who ran his own IT consulting company.  I juggled the demands of a working wife and mother with the precision of a military operation.  I had weekly menus for our meals planned out for the next 3 months and their corresponding grocery lists just waiting for the calendar reminder to alert me to the exact time the order needed to be placed online.  I raced from office to school to home and back again.  Our social life was a whirl of engagements.  I loved hosting dinner parties.

One day it all went horribly wrong.  The doctor diagnosed me with depression and put me on anti-depressant tablets.  I was catatonic.  My husband took the children and me on holiday hoping that would help but instead of the lively, chatty, laughing wife that would normally accompany him on our road trips, he was left with a wife who spoke only to announce she needed the services.

It only got worse when we got home.  Finally, I was admitted to a psychiatric hospital and after 2 separate stays totalling nearly 4 months, I finally had the right cocktails of medication that meant I could be trusted to be left on my own.  But I was far from “cured”.  I couldn’t plan meals and I certainly couldn’t cook.  The multi-tasking required of my brain was a step beyond what my impaired cognitive abilities allowed me to process without having a major anxiety attack.  I found just leaving the house an insurmountable challenge.

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In the eternal quest to fill my days with something, anything that was meaningful I found myself reading an article written by an artist friend of mine about a life drawing event she had attended.  The models were provided by an organisation called Spirited Bodies.  The organisation was founded on the principle that life modelling had the power to redefine the definition of what society saw as beautiful.

Having been curvy since puberty and having gained several stones as I had babies and grew older, my inactivity during my depression had resulted in even more pounds being piled on.  I always found my ability to make friends relied most heavily on my sunshiney personality.  But my confidence, the place where the sunshine gained its potency, was lost; not just misplaced but dead and buried under a mountain of fear and shame and disgust and futility.  My self-esteem had evaporated as I laid in my bed and tried to come up with another plausible way to kill myself while not destroying my children’s lives.

Spirited Bodies indicated that life modelling could be a way to improve not only the image you had of your body but also your own confidence and build your self-esteem.

This made sense to me.  I mean, look at all the beautiful art of nudes hanging on all those walls of the best museums in the world.  Those women were gorgeous.  One day that might be me.  That would be cool.

This all made perfect sense to me.  Not so much for my husband.

He was quite possibly the angriest I have ever seen him when I returned home from my introductory meeting with Spirited Bodies at a pub on Lavender Hill in London.  Quite rightly, he was angry because I hadn’t told him much about it.  I hadn’t even told him where I was going or who these people were.  He was worried for my safety.  On the other hand, it’s not like I took my clothes off or anything.  Yet.  Instead I explained that I had learned about the role of nudity in art:  painting, drawing, sculpture.  I explained how you had to choose your poses carefully because you need to be able to maintain that pose for what could be a long time.

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I patiently explained to the man who had been caring for me virtually night and day that this was important to me.  He said I had never done anything like this before.  And I said, “Precisely.”  I wanted to step so far outside my comfort zone that I wouldn’t have a point of reference for my anxiety or fear or depression to take hold of me.  “But you are going to be naked” was his only reply.

I went to the second workshop and my anxiety levels were a little bit higher since there was a fairly good chance that I would need to get my kit off.  I’d brought my dressing gown just in case I was feeling super brave.

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Lucy, of Spirited Bodies, explained that we would be drawing each other.  No one was obliged to take off their clothes.  They could choose to be drawn clothed.  We were asked to take some paper and our pick of various drawing utensils.  Now this put the fear of god in me.  I can’t draw stick figures.  As I fidgeted around in my seat trying to look uber cool and comfortable holding my pencils and charcoal, Esther, of Spirited Bodies, stood in the middle of our circle and dropped her sarong and simply said “Draw.”

I looked at my blank sheet of paper.  I looked at the form standing in front of me.  I looked at my pencils.  I looked back up at Esther’s elbow, then her toe, then her neck, then her knee.  I looked back at my blank piece of paper.  As I put pencil and charcoal to paper, I struggled to transfer what I saw in front of me to the paper in a way that anyone would recognise as a human form.  I got lost in the moment and before I knew it 5 minutes was up, Esther had picked up her sarong and tied it around her neck and we were being asked how our drawings looked.

In those moments I realised that Esther had become little more than a bowl a fruit, a beautiful bowl of fruit, but a bowl of fruit nonetheless.  As more people volunteered to model I then realised that the beauty of life modelling is that everyone completely forgets that there is a naked person in the room.  The new model is consumed with thoughts of holding the pose, maintaining utter stillness, and the itch on her nose.  The artists in the room are consumed with capturing the curve of the spine, the droop of a breast, the length of the femur and those hands and feet.  Oh, the dreaded hands and feet.

One observation I’ve made is that not a single one of us looks even remotely the same when we don’t have our clothes on.  I’d be hard pressed to tell the difference between a bowl full of apples, but put a bunch of naked bodies in front of me and I can guarantee that every man’s knee looks remarkably dissimilar to another man’s knee.  One woman’s nipple looks very different from another’s.  Everyone has something rather odd about their elbows.  Shoulders are amazing.

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I took my turn that day.  For a surprisingly brief 10 minutes I joined 2 other models, both males, and we pretended to be caught in the heat of a battle over a parking spot.  As one does, wearing nothing at all.  The funny thing was, it never crossed my mind, that I was nude.  I was more worried about holding the pose, not moving, respecting the other models, and making sure the artists had something interesting to capture.

On the day of the Spirited Bodies event at the Battersea Arts Centre, I was more excited than nervous, although in that moment before we took to the stage I thought I might vomit.  I took solace in the fact that I was surrounded by dozens of people, young old, small, large, fit and unfit, of every colour, with disabilities of the bodies, with tattoos, with scars, with breasts, without breasts, shaved, unshaved, tall, short, with hair long and short and colours representing every shade of the rainbow.

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There was an audible gasp from the artists as we entered the room.  We assumed our positions like professionals.  You would have thought we had been doing this all our life.  Models interacted with each other on the various levels of the stage and created beauty.  Created art.

During our breaks and at the end of the day, the models were given an opportunity to walk around and view the works that had been created.  It was also at this point that we got to interact with the artists.

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It was at this point that the real value of life modelling comes into its own.  Artists were effusive with their praise, generous with their compliments and it was easy to dismiss them as just being polite.  But then you looked at the art.  You may recognise your bum or your breasts or your back.  And there you were:  in a beautiful, stunning, breath-taking piece of art.  The partnership between artists and model had combusted and created this incredible piece of art.

My opinion of myself, my body, my whole being changed in an instance.  I could feel the endorphins coursing through my veins.  I was bubbling over with confidence, enthusiasm, passion, and joy.  Pure unadulterated joy.

The very next day I registered with RAM, the Registry of Artists Models.  Within a week, I had a few inquiries.  I had business cards printed.  Every time I posed, I handed out my business card to everyone in the class.  Soon I had more inquiries.

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Now I regularly model for various classes, universities, and groups all over the south.  Most of my work is in London but I do travel as far as Hook in Hampshire usually once every 6 weeks for a lovely group of older artists who create some of those most creative and remarkable work I’ve seen.

Sometimes I get cold.  Most are very accommodating about turning up the heating.  Sometimes the job is 2 hours of short poses (< 5 minutes each) which is exhausting and painful the next day when you are as unfit as I am.  Sometimes the job is a couple of really short poses (<1 minute) followed by 3 hours of one very long pose for 3 weeks in a row.  Must make sure that is a comfortable pose!

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I have met so many interesting people outside my normal social demographic. Life modelling has made me aware of my body and certainly more aware of the people around me.  I have gained confidence I never had and my self-esteem has fully recovered.  I can honestly say that life modelling has changed my life.

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