Project Unbreakable, & Walking the Walk

Today I visited Sylvie who modelled at our recent event. She has described how participating has lined up with her own journey of transformation ( with regard to healing from the trauma of childhood sexual abuse. She recently started her own blog for her art and poetry, and felt inspired when through the world of blogging she came across ‘Project Unbreakable’. Started by Grace Brown in the US, it is for survivors of sexual abuse to come out perhaps, by means of being photographed with a sign stating a quote of their abuser.

Sylvie’s powerful idea is to take part in the next Spirited Bodies – on 21st March at Telegraph Hill Festival – and make such a sign for herself for the occasion. When nude she will pose with the sign at least for a photograph to send to Grace to join the thousands that Grace receives. We don’t know if anyone has done this nude before, but it seems to make a lot of sense, since such difficult experiences can affect the way we feel about our bodies in a huge way. It may be quite subtle, yet highly destructive, making someone ashamed of themselves somehow. To confront this issue any which way how is surely empowering for any soul. In some pictures the person is not identifiable, the face not visible, but it is the act which demonstrates strength, and solidarity since many others are participating.

I am getting a sense that our upcoming event is about healing the heart. I felt upset when following the joy of the last event, an issue about photographs possibly spoilt some people’s experience. I never want that to happen again; it goes against the whole ethos of Spirited Bodies. In future if there is photography I will communicate much more clearly with every model about that in advance, and take pains to stage any photos taken so that no one is upset.

There was a flip-side to the mishap, in that some models who had not been so keen on being seen in a photo, once they saw the results, did change their minds remarkably, especially in the light of the unexpected levels of joy they experienced when participating. The photograph was a happy memory. But for any who trusted us less afterwards, I am sorry. Overall it was a valuable lesson.

One of Alex B's images from 'The Drawing Theatre', Spirited Bodies

Living and learning must be key. And fate gave me a suitable nod shortly after the photograph debacle. Having been body painted by my friend Caroline Young for the Paradise Jam in Broxbourne on 16th February, with one particular glitter tattoo on my back, I then had occasion to model nude on a catwalk in London Fashion Week for a hat designer on the 21st. The tattoo still intact, press photographers snapped my bottom avidly which was highlighted by the glitter. It, minus the hat, made it to page 3 of the Metro the next day much to my and Caroline’s delight!

Robyn Coles, the designer, fared better with her other models for her campaign, who served her purpose better from the front. A pregnant glamour model glowed sensationally, and Alex B strutted regally, amongst our number.

Backstage at the show I did not feel a big sense of belonging. I was not uncomfortable about my body, in fact the opposite. We had been told ‘basic make-up’, and I wore none. I think it is that I struggle to get excited about fashion and that showed. I did enjoy the catwalking however, which was to the tune of Lana Del Rey‘s ‘Born to Die’. Reckon body painting is more my thing!

I enjoyed posing with Caroline Young's body paint - photo by Alex Eve

Back in Drama School, at Rose Bruford 8 years ago I made a piece of theatre about facing demons of the past. I asked an old friend to take part as his story was powerful and had moved me. He portrayed in some theatrical form his tale of childhood sexual abuse. He said it was cathartic to stand up and perform this painful part of his past. To come out and say it, and actually be real on stage, in front of strangers. The audience were young and they laughed at first, but in the end we felt victorious for doing the performance project our way. In a way that felt most meaningful.

He said recently that he has gotten much reward over the years from connecting with other survivors who have had similar experiences. Once they have reached a certain stage in processing the damage, there is something about them which resonates clearly as they lack a more usual layer of bullshit apparent in so many people. They appreciate the value of things, life, better perhaps. And processing one’s struggle with others is part of what stops the damage from being heavily internalised. The easiest way, he points out, for the abuse cycle to continue and be passed on by one who has been abused becoming an abuser him/herself, is to not truly connect with others about the matter.

What I find becoming apparent is, 20 odd years ago there seemed to be a minority of victims, but now a growing awareness suggests  more likely a majority. So by joining up with Project Unbreakable for example, there is a strength in numbers. A knowledge of being far from alone. A power to let potential and actual aggressors know that they may be outflanked.

The next Spirited Bodies will welcome survivors and those who want to support them. Life modelling in a group can be healing in various capacities, and I will focus on this aspect of the event to drive it forwards.

Feeding back: Domitilla Bau @ Spirited Bodies

When I decided to join life modeling for Spirited Bodies I wanted to experience something new, because it sounded very interesting, but I did not know how I could have reacted. The day before coming I was asking myself how I normally feel when people look at me and generally I assume a defensive pose and start to agitate. I thought that staying naked in front of lot of people would have been a little strange for me but finally I found it totally normal and natural and this surprised me.

I liked to see real bodies becoming something different, losing their common shape and colour. I had the feeling that artists through us were finding space to something new, abstracting us, looking beyond what was there and having inspiration and challenging their imagination.

I liked the atmosphere and people. The room was very silent and productive, everyone was literally in what they were doing.

I don’t think that there was something missing or lacking; the heating was great and sometimes I was even sweating; there was water, tea, coffee and biscuits, the place was clean and most of all nothing was forced or imposed. The organisation worked perfectly, I have nothing to complain  and also doing the meeting in advance was better. Just to make sure with who you was dealing.

Yes I would like to do life modelling again either in a group or alone. It helps you to listen to your body and feelings and you have time to think a lot about whatever!

I do not think that interaction is the proper word to explain what was involved between the artists and me. I am not meaning that the process was passive but there was not communication – instead a silent agreement of being the object that they were looking at  and then becoming the subject of their work. For me it was a kind of lateral place where artists through the visual impact of the scene in front of them started their creative process. Yes, I did feel appreciated.

Late in the afternoon on Saturday 11th February, 'The Drawing Theatre' at Battersea Arts Centre: Spirited Bodies 4, photograph by Alex B

The Principle of Love

Spirited Bodies is always a learning curve for me and our latest event brought the addition of photography to the challenge.

Some models were fine with it, but others highly sensitive, and most somewhere inbetween, only really able to say once they had seen the images. There are considerations of being discovered online and this conflicting with standards in a career of a very different nature. There is vanity; and there may be cultural taboos. Of course images are often without names, but faces (and bodies) may be recognised, and some software links the two.

I have decided that this is my career and whatever I do will work with this. I am naked and named and proud. The point of Spirited Bodies is to share some of the benefits of this with new people, to share the joy of hang-up free nudity.

The project was started by Morimda ( as a community one. It is partly to make more of the community of artists’ models and artists drawing them. It has not been funded as such so far, but has operated on love and trust, enjoyment and sharing. I looked into making money with it last year, and concluded it was not immediately suited to this. I needed to find my way with it more first, as it is a new thing. I would not feel right selling something until I am sure I have it right. I believe the project will let me know when it is ready to make money!

At the heart of the project is nurturing love and friendship, of us the organisers, as well as our growing community of models and artists. We want new people to feel extremely safe with us for a very brand new and exciting experience. If they are worried that we may breach that trust, then we have failed. We cannot be responsible for their fear, we can only take care that everything we deliver is sound and in order.

I am apt to make mistakes being human; and will do all that I can to rectify them. In this case, photography will be dealt with differently in future. Models will be staged a bit, so that no one is in shot who may be upset by it. At the same time models who are able to appreciate a beautiful memento will have the chance, and we will be able to show more people more clearly what the experience is like, visually. Not that that is needed. The artwork speaks for itself, as do the models’ comments. But photographs will reach another audience.

I enjoyed Spirited Bodies 4 immensely, and not least because it brought Lucy and I closer, and then when we met the groups of models in advance, they liked each other very much, and we liked them etc. On all meeting for the event there was a very warm feeling, and there was a large changing area to hang out in. It was all day, for the first time, so the models bonded over lunch. They started quickly to pose together with very little direction from me, creating scenes and tableaux. They enjoyed such a magical unique day and so did we.

I also enjoyed trying out giving a life modelling workshop for the first time. Actually I got all panicky afterwards thinking I had not done so well! But it had been a very busy time just before the event and I was losing sight of things. It transpired the models had gained a great deal from the session, and just them meeting each other, as well as the practical exercises, was an incredible feeling. How they loved meeting each other! Knowing they were not alone! That they were in the very best company. It didn’t matter much what I did at that point; they were in it together and it could not fail. Success! 🙂

‘Little Pieces of Me’ by Sylvie Rouhani

One of Sylvie's 'Little Pieces of Me'

It was my first time joining the Spirited Bodies as a model. I wanted to be there in the morning but as I overslept so I only came for the afternoon session.

I was rather calm and reserved sitting on my own after getting into my dressing gown…I was very much into my own bubble for the last two weeks going through very painful things. Esther was great in encouraging me because she knew I wasn’t in a good place.

When it was time to get in and pose, I first put myself in a corner in a very simple pose sitting down at the bottom of the “stage”. I wasn’t sure what I was meant to do…I just started to change position as I felt it or when I got tired and then I went with flow… It was then a beautiful feeling of freedom…I was trying a lot of different poses to get to know my limits.

'Little Pieces of Me' are Sylvie's self-figure portraits

There was this wonderful warmth coming from the group, everybody seemed to be so happy to be together and we were communicating with each other very easily. There was definitely a strong connection amongst us and we were all moving smoothly, in harmony.

Each one of us was beautiful, in our own ways. It was a celebration of our individual beauty!

My reasons for joining in was to give myself/my body a loving and gentle experience…As a child I was physically, sexually and emotionally abused and I recently had a struggle with treasuring myself and my body.

I wanted to be in the mixed group to experience a gentle closeness to the men around me. They were all beautiful in their own ways and it felt safe to be here together.

It was a liberating and freeing experience for me to be with these wonderful and beautiful people. We created bonds of friendships and I definitely look forward to seeing some of my fellow models and being creative with them.

Sylvie has a blog;

Spirited Bodies follow-ups Part 2: All The Rest Is Drag

It was serving tea and biscuits that had got me into modelling. Who’d have thought? Here I was l cast amidst all these artists and naked bodies, seemingly devoid of shame. It wasn’t meant as an apprenticeship but it served me well in the end.

People had hinted that I might give it a try and artists were always asking if I modelled, as I proffered fig rolls and chocolate digestives, but I always slightly recoiled when I thought about the idea – I mean really, me? Whilst I was no stranger to acting before a crowd of unknowns, how could I do the same with no clothes on? Then I thought, hmn, but on the stage you are still naked out there, performing, acting, being. Wasn’t modelling just the same?  Wasn’t it also a performance, conveying a look, a feeling an emotion just as an actor would? The only difference was the lack of costume.

My biggest hurdle was that I had forgotten how to love my body. The possible reconnection with it that I felt modelling would bring excited me. I would say it was my primary reason at first for doing it.  The world of men has changed in my lifetime. Now we have make-up for men, semi nude images of men on giant billboards are commonplace and body fascism has crossed over from gay club to straight gym.  As a gay male I can say that I felt this more acutely than most and had ended up embarrassed of my body.

I don’t know if I would have become a model without the assistance of Spirited Bodies, events like theirs help you find your feet and even had I not liked it, then at least I’d given it a go.  I arrived at the gallery at the allotted hour, making a couple of casual jokes to friends of mine that I’d got involved, about member shrinkage (as well as the opposite problem). It calmed our nerves a bit. But no time for that, suddenly it seemed we we’re on, cue lights! Then all done, exhilarated a touch bewildered, we models swapped stories in the changing area – this time no bashfulness. We were naked but we weren’t. It all seemed so normal.

That must be some six months ago now. I still remember the initial advice we got at that event: understanding what poses can be maintained comfortably and what can’t, understanding the power you have being the naked one, and working with the artist. I still get it wrong on the poses of course, but it’s all the fun of the fair. You learn from experience. I even surprised myself with how knowledgeable and experienced I sounded when meeting artists for the first time.

As Ru Paul once said: ‘we’re all born naked, all the rest is drag’. We talk of being ‘naked’ as a metaphor and it has only been through modelling that I have truly understood it. To remove your clothes to a public audience makes you feel vulnerable, but this vulnerability has helped me gain strength. I’ve all but lost my feelings of my body letting me down. It’s funny, I don’t know when I first noticed it but I suddenly thought that it didn’t matter what I looked like. I started to like myself from the inside out. The drag that we wear because of convention is just that. My experience of modelling and now being a professional model has literally stripped away much of my negative bodily associations. I always knew that modelling would do this for me. I just didn’t realise how much.

Male models posed with a horse sculpture at Spirited Bodies 3