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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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.