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On Sunday 10th March at Women of the World Festival, Southbank I attended the ‘Endangered Bodies’ workshop. Endangered Bodies are an international initiative who ‘challenge the merchants of body hatred who turn girls and women against their own bodies’. ‘Anybody’ is the UK chapter and is lead by feminist activist and writer Susie Orbach who was in the audience, while a team of young women presented the session.
This workshop was focussing on the language we use to describe ourselves, as women. On several seats occupied by the audience were cards with quotes written on them. The occupants were asked to read them out; they were negative, some about fat or older women (e.g. “Doesn’t she have a mirror and a scale?”), very cutting. At the same time, we the audience watched a silent woman on the platform in front, sitting as if caught looking inwardly as she overheard the comments. It was about the way we look at each other, possibly critically, without thinking, and how it makes us feel when we transfer that judgement on to ourselves, I thought. All quotes had been gleaned from The Daily Mail including the comments of readers as well as articles.
We were asked to move to part of the room without chairs so that we could position ourselves in the space on a sliding scale of positively agreeing, and strongly disagreeing as several statements (which I have turned into questions) were read to us, largely centred on our feelings about womens’ magazines. Do we read them? Do we use them as a style guide? Do we think they are responsible for women having body issues? Is talking about women’s appearance a good way for women to bond? Are women naturally more bitchy than men? Is it our duty to inform our friends if their clothes don’t suit them? Roving mics picked up audience response as we went along. A lot of it I found fairly predictable; we enjoy our turn on the mic, myself included, but we are speaking to the converted. It was pointed out that a lot of this talk focusses on negative situations without actually doing anything to improve circumstances… though by raising the questions it did, it perhaps encourages all present to take them out of the room. The ‘Anybody’ group do a lot of work in UK schools which is possibly where they are most likely to be affective.
Back in our seats, the hostesses brought our attention to several questions on screens in front;
How do you talk about your body/yourself?
How do you talk about your friends and their bodies?
How do you talk about people you don’t know and their bodies?
How do any/all of the above affect the way you live your life?
What can we do differently?
We were encouraged to tweet.
An editor for lesbian magazine Diva explained that when they tried to run campaigns using ‘real’ models, readers wrote in to complain. A marketting director confessed that part of her job was to choose images of women based on very rigid parameters of convention regarding fashion, and to talk about the figures of the women in that context. She was ashamed of reducing women to commodities.
A writer for womens’ magazines was more positive, believing that change must happen from within the industry (as well as within each of us). She had written about ‘real’ women several times and noted she was not alone. I can testify to that, we having appeared in the Daily Mail’s women’s magazine! I piped up that I am ever descibing my life modelling friends’ physicalities in order to help them get work, so I am used to talking about bodies as they are; rules of offensiveness and flattery applying in an entirely different fashion in my world.
Another woman described how her latest workplace surprised her as no one comments on the way she or others look ever. She said it gave her space to think about herself for herself, without apparently even subtle interference.
One of the workshop leaders talked about the pressure on Facebook to have a profile picture that receives a lot of ‘likes’, and how one way round this is to sabotage all photographs taken of one by pulling a silly face, thus undoing the possibility for the usual ‘stunning’ comments – the rush of typical affirmation which may in fact be damaging for us psychologically. Instead of playing up to idealised standards of beauty, find your worst angle and celebrate that!
The cult of creating our online profiles can encourage all sorts of editing of appearance, which may especially affect young people negatively.
The high proclivity of especially young women dieting was discussed, and how bringing up the subject when one is concerned about a friend dieting unnecesarily is fraught with tension. A teenage girl mentioned that in her school, girls were doing the ‘diet coke diet’ which included just that ingredient. On bringing up the topic as a concerned friend she got told she was bullying.
Older women reminded us to be grateful for what we have, and that true confidence does oftentimes come with age. Someone advised us to practise saying ‘I love you’ into a mirror!
Another woman talked of embracing appearance as self expression, a part of communication and a way of projecting ourselves in new ways beyond negativity. It is after all a privilege to choose how we look .
All images in this post are by artists (and models) who attended the workshop last Tuesday in Telegraph Hill; Rade, Francis, Dijah, Geoff, Donald, Mattie and several others.
This was a super workshop with 4 female models and 4 male, plus several artists. Poses covered various themes.
In response to an overwhelming majority of applications we receive to model coming from men (at last night’s workshop, 13 out of 15 new models were men), we are going to drive an initiative towards finding more women. To do this, we will programme some Women Only Life Modelling Workshops. The first 2 will lead up to International Womens’ Day – March 8th, and our event at Women of the World Festival, Southbank which will be on Saturday March 9th, 3 – 5pm in the Blue Room, Spirit Level! We can confirm that you will need a vagina to attend.
Possibly our most exciting event to date – it’s been 2 years in the making. At the 1st WoW festival I told the celebrity panel about Spirited Bodies in a bid to suggest the best way to improve womens’ lives (i.e. make them happy with and in their bodies). At this time in Spring 2011 Spirited Bodies was still just for women as it was when we started it. Jude Kelly, the artistic director responded immediately promising to host Spirited Bodies at Southbank. Annie Lennox however thought it ought to be for men too, as they had lots of pressure on them as well to look a certain way. Sandi Toksvig felt nervous about modelling herself, being in the public eye, and suggested other celebs would also. I had possibly confused the matter by stating that ideally we would find famous artists to draw so that we could auction their work to raise money for women in developing countries. Too many ideas all at once… I had 5 minutes to speak to some very influential people and I didn’t know how to contain myself.
So it’s finally happening. We are inviting some of our female Spirited Bodies who don’t mind talking about their experiences and demonstrating the modelling before we invite the audience to strip off too. We discussed the possibility of having men present and decided this is the one most appropriate place to try out just having women – and we mean artists as well this time. Men have become a big part of our events and we love it that way. But there needs to be a space to redress the imbalance. Lots of cultures segregate sexes at certain times, and sometimes this is empowering for each.
On Thursday 28th February in Stoke Newington will be our first Women Only evening (see Events) followed by a second in Brockley on Tuesday 5th March. You might want to have a go to practise in time for Southbank, or you may just fancy a friendly, comfortable place to explore femininity in all its glorious form without the distraction of the male gaze. Lucy and I cover a vast female landscape between us; please join with us to expand our womanly horizons with all your uniqueness. We welcome existing Spirited Bodies and especially new recruits. You don’t have to get your kit off, but you will be stuck with the task of drawing curve after curve, bump after buttock until your arm aches if not. Female artists are of course requested, and joking aside, posing with clothes on is fine too. We normally charge £10, but in Brockley as we are part of the Telegraph Hill Festival, we operate a ‘pay what you prefer’ system; in any case if money is a problem, do ask for an alternative. We will for example need assistance at the Women of the World Festival in (wo)manning a stall for the duration (this could actually be done by guys equally).
Here follow pictures of artwork created at yesterday’s workshop.
Returning from a workshop of ours I mused that we are teaching people how to be naked! It ought to be natural. It is!
Today I took a Spirited Body to work and I don’t just mean my own. James couldn’t make any of our workshops but through emailing I could tell he was pretty nervous. He wanted a chance to try out on a smaller scale and talk about the experience face to face which can make all the difference. I checked my schedule and thought my session with ‘Arts For All’ in Shoreditch might be just the ticket. I asked fellow life model Lydia Julien who volunteers at the charity, running the session what she thought, and after checking with boss Caroline Barlow she said they welcomed the chance to have 2 models for the price of one! They also fully supported my initiative which matches their own to make art available to people who might not otherwise get to it.
“We believe strongly in inclusion and, at Arts For All, people from many different social and cultural backgrounds unite in friendship and creative exploration.” http://artsforall.co.uk/
The class really enjoyed the opportunity to draw from 2 models and were a lovely supportive environment for James’ first time. Lydia let me plan the pose schedule according to my requirement to best instruct in life modelling.
James was incredibly nervous at first and it took a bit of prodding from me to get him to remove his clothes! He didn’t want to draw and just looked awkward at the side so I did push him, knowing that once he got past the first hurdle, it would start to get easier.
After the 1st pose he quickly got his shorts back on again, probably worried I would lure him into some further trickiness should he remain unguarded… so he stood out while I rocked on alone for 10 minutes. For the 15 minuter I had an idea to make him more comfortable, offering him a seat while I again stood.
From 15 minutes we went straight into half an hour, so that by midday (tea break time) James had experienced a variety of poses. I asked him to lie down however he wanted for this while I took a seat.
In the break we caught up with the artists who were very encouraging, pointing out which parts of James they liked to draw.
The main event after tea was a long pose where I lay and James sat.
Lydia was ecstatic by the end – she is always very happy but I could tell she loved the ambience as much as I had of initiating a newbie in the art of the pose. She’d been showing him her work as we went along so he could understand how well he was doing and see what was coming out well. Caroline too was really enthused by the experience and James was invited to model on his own some time! He couldn’t quite believe it, it felt like such a big leap.
We went for coffee after to pick up the bigger picture of the event and James’ background. He is depressed in a full time ‘proper’ job which drains him and leaves him feeling a mug. There have been major body issues of a particular kind in his past which I have asked him to write about separately, as I think this will resonate with many men. It was great to get to know another of the new cast of Spirited Bodies for Saturday’s exciting event. What a brilliant morning and I feel positive that James is so much closer to feeling confident about the 20th.
Caroline Barlow said that Spirited Bodies are welcome to try out at Arts For All life drawing sessions in future, with or without me. If they approach her alone she will want to meet them first. She has given many new models their first opportunity, already aware that her group is the perfect environment for welcoming and putting at ease a nervous model.
To attend the group to draw; it is on Mondays 10:30am – 1:30pm, at The Tab Centre, 18-20 Hackney Road, E2 7NT at a very reasonable rate – Unwaged/Student £2.50, Part time employed £3.50, Employed £5 and they provide materials
For those of you who were not at the last event we did at Battersea Arts Centre, there are a few aspects of this event which I need to inform you of.
Timing of Poses at the Drawing Theatre
Poses are not timed; this is an experimental life drawing session which is more like a performance than usual. Models change poses of their own volition. This has the positive that no one need get uncomfortable, and the possible negative that models may have no idea how long they are holding a pose for. In practise – we did this before – it worked beautifully with models naturally changing position when they needed and not all at the same time. This has the visual advantage of a seamless continuity of pose, which only has small changes happening as it goes along, no big scene changes.
Artists are expecting this and in case of new comers, will be warned on the day! It is a challenge, but they often thank us for it afterwards.
Tableaux Created from within
An additional element for this our largest of events will be the presence of several more experienced models who have modelled with us before. Following the success of recent events where we have directed tableaux, I am encouraging our returning models to take the lead this time and suggest themes to those modelling near to them so that various pictures may emerge on the platform. These will last as long as they want to and may evolve as they go on, with some models who took a trickier pose needing to change sooner than others. We will aim to do some 20 – 30 minute poses, but shorter more adventurous group poses are also possible. Artists can see when a pose/tableau will be hard to maintain and it pushes them to work fast. We know that some of them can do it!
Obviously models won’t know if they have sustained a pose for 25 minutes so this is partly an experiment
This is a naturally flexible format which any model may opt out of to pose alone if preferred.
A theme may be as simple as ‘a picnic’ or ‘a wedding’ or be more visual like ‘a circle’ or ‘a mountain’.
Quick Poses to begin with
Each session – morning and afternoon – begins with the chance to try shorter poses which would be from 1 minute to 10 minutes. This warm up period will last for about half an hour and the end of which will be marked by Lucy.
These poses needn’t be connected but give a chance for everyone to acclimatise. Models make their own timings and we encourage them to try bolder more difficult poses in this section. The presence of more experienced models will again help as they will show the way by example. This is one of the benefits of modelling for the 1st or indeed any time at Spirited Bodies – you learn by seeing others.
Whatever wants to Happen
In practise we have no idea how we will all feel on the day. If people don’t feel like communicating verbally on the platform and would rather intuit their own moves without the interference of ‘leaders’ we can easily return to the format which worked so well the 1st time we did Drawing Theatre. This was completely freestyle and by the end models were naturally forming a few poses with each other and connecting in random ways. Fantastic results.
My plan to encourage ‘leaders’ is more of a fall-back and to overcome possible issues relating to having a larger model group. We will be in the Grand Hall this time – 3 times the size of the theatre space we worked in at BAC last time. Tableaux seem favourable as they can make it easier for artists to concentrate on a group of models, as well as giving models an enhanced sense of creating something together.
In addition, last time round by the end of the afternoon models were tired and many had stayed all day. They got very cosy and wanted to have a chat. We loved that they bonded and several are still friends now, but visually there is an imperative to curb this. With a little instigation we can push the energy further for more dynamic results.
This is tricky. Men are far more reliable in their commitment to model it seems. They respond quickly and are less likely to bottle it. Women may contact us initially then get cold feet. We have no idea how many models there will be, we can just aim for lots. We have to turn away men from this point unless they are highly unusual – i.e. non-white, massive, minute, have a reasonable disability or an excellent story! Just being honest.
Women – we want you! Up to the last minute, we want you. In future I may change the angle and refocus it to a ‘mainly women’s event’ if that will help. My suspicion is men do not have body issues to the extent that women do. Women have been told they are too fat and unattractive so much from many quarters that it will take more effort to reach them.