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.

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.”

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!

Stories of Women ~ the journey so far


The idea came as a way to develop the interview format where I would record models and artists speaking about their experiences relating to modelling and drawing, and play this while the models posed. With Stories of Women I chose to focus on one model each time, and give her the chance to lead and inspire not only with her body, but through far greater agency than is usually afforded, by letting her deliver her narrative too. There was also the fact that I could not reasonably afford to pay more than one model with this experimental and risky new venture. The Feminist Library has been an ideal new home for the project and introduced us to a wonderful, vibrant wider community of feminist activists. I am most grateful for their generous and accommodating support without which the events could not have run.

As part of a life model community I have gotten to know many amazing models over the years, each very different. Usually they pose silently and Stories of Women seemed a wonderful way to unleash another side of them; the mind behind the poses and inside the body. It gives the opportunity to address many issues that naturally relate to each of us; including size, race, age, illness, surgery, disability, Motherhood, sexuality and gender for example.

I have also encouraged fellow models to come along and join in the discussion which has made for a rich sharing of experience and a frankly much needed live forum between us. So much happens online and it is great when we can actually meet – so rarely do our individually busy schedules allow for this.

It has given me the chance to get to know some of my fellow models better too, as the invitation to share a story necessitates more communication than is usually required between model and booker. Typically a meeting happens and some further batting back and forth of ideas. It makes a pleasant change in the general routine of dashing between jobs with minimal interaction. It may put down a marker of what is important to the model at that time, gives them a reason to take stock. What does modelling mean to them? Why do they do it and is there anything they would like to change?

 

 

Two of the models so far have not been feeling that modelling will be so much in their future, so there was the sense of drawing their work to a close and celebrating a long career that is now ending, certainly with Jennifer and Hana. Jennifer revealed some very profound feelings about the work, which may have jarred with newcomers simply hoping to try it out, because it’s very different when you model full time for years on end. But this did spark intense and animated discussion as it happened among a number of fellow professionals who were present. Even if newcomers were shocked or surprised, they also learnt a great deal of inside information!

Hana Schlesinger

Hana has retired she says, but still likes a little work here and there as the pleasure remains, but she is much older now and suddenly finds there are so many more things she wants to be doing. I was given her number by a tutor Eric who I model for in Hammersmith. She was the oldest model I could easily contact that I knew of in London, in her mid 70s. It was a real treat to get to know her and visit her in Harlesden, her decades of experience through different life drawing eras and stages in her own life were fascinating to hear of. A lovely woman who radiates confidence and liberatedness, a joy to behold.

With Claire it was more of a retrospective look at her modelling career as she no longer does it much. In fact she only does it at Spirited Bodies in recent years specifically to explore her relationship with her body post mastectomy, having been a life model prior to that. It links up with various pieces of writing, poems, artworks and photographs she has also created on the subject over a number of years, and lined up with an exhibition she put on at The Women’s Art Library at Goldsmiths (part of her residency). So each event has a unique content and flavour, sometimes an edge.

Leo

Leo and Natasha are very much in their element now as models, even if Natasha can’t always do as much as she’d like due to full time work commitments. Valentina modelled at Good Girls Reveal All with me, and while this wasn’t called Stories of Women, it was a very similar format so I shall include Valentina here. She also is really enjoying a fantastic life model career now, and it’s a pleasure to connect with this energy in all of them. These younger women took up modelling in the last 6 years and expressed the changes they’d felt as a result of their nude career. It was overwhelmingly positive what modelling brings to them, even if sometimes the affects are so strong that you make some very massive changes in your life that have serious consequences. It’s not uncommon when we become models that it shifts something in our intimate relationships. Suddenly we are being appreciated physically (and more as this is about personality too) by others, artists; and we don’t necessarily need that from our partners any more.

Leo expressed her devotion to celibacy and the empowerment she finds that way. As a larger model her experience of the world is shaped somewhat by how society regards her (as it is for all of us in our own way). I am a slim model and appreciated for different qualities, fat hasn’t been such a thing for me but for so many women it is. How fat becomes a gift in the life room may be the most obvious example of how life modelling can enhance body positivity.

Natasha has become in touch with her own sense of independence and confidence not just as a result of modelling but also various other nude activities, including the World Naked Bike Ride; Spencer Tunick, Matt Granger and her own outdoor photoshoots; and blossomed in that regard. She started her own life drawing group in Upminster called LeNu with her sister a few years ago which runs weekly sessions and where Steve and I will be part of a Spirited Bodies – Stories type event, hopefully in the Summer term! Natasha also very much looks forward to creating a new photographic project in the Summer, similar to her outdoor group nude shoots in 2015 (Project Naked).

 

 

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Valentina and I enjoyed a luxurious amount of time to prepare together. Because I would be performing as well, there was much to discuss – how our narratives would blend and intersect. We wanted to memorise parts of our speech for a more dramatic effect, and tried out ideas with each other over several meetings. For her, the body positivity element was very strong, and moving to listen to. The painful experiences that preceded our lives as models, are the drivers for passionate immersion in a new world of self exploration and expression, with a guaranteed audience! This gig was a new departure, a collaboration with Good Girls Eat Dinner founder Jo Wallace, who drew me in Hoxton the term before when I announced one of my events. She was interested and came along, as well instigated Good Girls Reveal All with me. A new direction for her, and a different audience for a Stories of Women type event. As creative director at an advertising agency in Knightsbridge, she arranged the event where she works. Most of the drawers were her fellow creatives from a number of professional fields. They didn’t try the modelling (it didn’t seem appropriate with many of them working with each other), but listened and drew avidly. Jo asked us questions which we had prepared, and also we delivered a couple of learnt set pieces. I found it very liberating to have this platform too, and greatly appreciated sharing it with Valentina. There was strong solidarity between us, and a chance to bond as women as well as models. Our audience were pretty new to these ideas and drew a lot from our insights. Thanks to Jo (and Valentina) who helped make this transition to a new territory especially smooth and welcoming.

 

 

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Our next model will be Lucy Saunders who helped to found Spirited Bodies with Morimda and myself, in 2010. This is an exciting prospect for several reasons. Lucy enjoyed a hugely popular and decent length life model career which mostly came to an end a few years ago, as she decided to focus on teaching and then PR work. There have been health issues too more recently; an operation last year left her somewhat disabled, but relieved her of a great deal of pain. Nevertheless she is rapidly regaining her mobility and is determined to demonstrate the full variety of her posing repertoire. Truly I know that even if she can’t create poses with her body as nimbly as previously (much physio is on the cards), she will have no problem enthralling an audience (of drawers) with her life modelling tales and the way she informs her posing from a number of inspirations including great masters’ compositions.

 

 

The story Lucy always tells about her initiation into life modelling and what gave her hope that it was worth pursuing despite her size – she was modelling at a RAM audition alongside a young student; slim, long red hair, perfect in the way that young people can be carelessly perfect. She knew nothing about good poses and made some fairly mad shapes. In the break, she wandered round looking at the artists’ work. One man had done a competent A3 drawing of the young woman sitting on a chair. Up in one corner, the size of a playing card, he’d done a quick sketch of Lucy sitting on the floor from behind. ‘He made my arse look like a smile, and I thought, I can do this.’ says Lucy. ‘What looking at images made of me by hundreds of artists in all sorts of mediums, from charcoal to paint to clay to collage, has made me realise is that I truly have very little control of how other people see me or what they think of my body. It is a huge relief to lay down that burden of trying to live up to expectations that I have learnt are largely internalised dictats of the culture I live in.’

 

 

It is a rare opportunity for a model to demonstrate posing with some disability, in this case one who has enjoyed a long and full career as a celebrated model. She worked at various institutions including Morley College, Kensington and Chelsea, The Prince’s Drawing School, the Hesketh Hubbard, Richmond Art School as well as many other formal and informal life drawing groups and meetings. ‘I love seeing what the artists create and while I might think my pose expresses one thing, it can be enchanting to see it turn into a completely different story through the artists’ work.’

 

 

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Lucy was I think, the largest female model I was aware of on the circuit in the early days (10 years ago). Then I got to know some more, but they have generally been a relative rarity, greatly in demand for their shape and size. At Spirited Bodies we have always wanted to encourage everyone to feel comfortable in the body they are in, especially marginalised bodies, but as margins can be internal, this really is anybody. Whether your body is judged unfavourably by a critical society, or further controlled by harsh cultural practices imposing limiting behaviours; or it is at war with itself for whatever reason; if you can find self acceptance, and let go of feelings of shame, that can benefit a person immeasurably. From that place of self love, one may be better equipped to address further issues that invariably arise.

It has been very rewarding to help people come to terms with bodies they did not feel at home in, and to reclaim them, sometimes through modelling as a group at our sessions; and in some instances helping them further into life modelling careers of their own. I have probably gotten to know an unusually high number of partially disabled models due to Spirited Bodies’ inclusive body-embracing aims. Sometimes the warm appreciation of artists serves as a healing energy that goes a little way perhaps to redress the discomfort of a body/mind that may be struggling.

If you would like to join us for Lucy’s Stories of Women event, it will take place at Hampstead School of Art (HSOA) on Friday 18th May 2018, from 6:30pm – 8:30pm. The cost is £20 and you can buy tickets online here, or book a place by calling 0207 794 1439, or email info@hsoa.co.uk

The address is 2 Penrose Gardens, Kidderpore Green, NW3 7BF, London. 

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It is an enormous delight to return to HSOA – in 2014 they generously hosted my Girl in Suitcase performance with live musicians and fellow model and friend, Ursula Troche. I have been modelling there recently and they got wind of my events in December and asked me about putting one on there, in the Summer term. They are keen to host exciting new life drawing and art related events at the school, where they fit with their programme. It means a great deal to have friendly collaborators who make you feel very supported, indeed you need that in order for a project to survive. Artists supporting each other is what it’s all about and we are very grateful to have such company. Looking forward to presenting Stories of Women for them and whoever fancies coming along. This is a mixed event (unlike The Feminist Library ones) and there will be the chance to try posing as well, alongside Lucy, and with her direction and guidance. Drawing materials provided and naturally easels, boards, tables – for the first time this type of event is happening in an actual life drawing studio! What a gift! We are excited and honoured, and hope to inspire the artists with a new understanding of a muse. Many thanks to Isabel, Anat, Caitlin and all at HSOA – their kindness is much appreciated. And how happy I am to be working and creating again, with my one time project partner. We step easily into the groove, familiar enough to get straight to the point in what are sometimes challenging personal matters. In the depth we find strength and closeness renewed. I have every hope for a most successful occasion.

 

 

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With special thanks to all our friends who have turned up, helped and joined in; it is all greatly appreciated.