Stormy Nights of Transformation

In 1987 I was 10. About this time of year there was a very memorable storm, you may recall, not dissimilar to the one on outside tonight (in London, UK). Trees collapsed, cars were smashed, gardens were destroyed, and I felt a fascination with this touch of wildness in our city and indeed beyond.

I wrote a story inspired by that night, for creative writing was my favourite outlet for self expression. In the fiction I was preparing for a Halloween fancy dress competition, which seemed fairly significant at the time, not least because my arch nemesis would be competing with me, and to me at any rate it might as well just have been me and her in the contest. I knew she was hotly tipped as the favourite; being richer and possessing finer garments standing her in perhaps better stead. I was unperturbed, and created for myself a unique costume fashioned from bin-liners, and rolled a black cardboard cone hat, adding some details by sticking on old scraps of material. Nothing fancy but the best I could muster. I reckoned further points may be scored for originality and style, the way an outfit was worn as much as the clothes themselves.

I laid my costume out before I went to bed, the night before the big day. That was the night of the manic storm, and nothing was the same after. In the morning I discovered that our back garden had been blown several blocks away and a tree fallen on Dad’s car. What more despite being apparently safe inside, my carefully crafted costume had been shredded, crumpled and broken beyond repair. I was distraught and could not conceive how this might have happened. The rest of my room was ok; it was most alarming. I thought I could no longer enter the competition and felt utterly disappointed, with a sense of void as to how this came about. Sighing and tearful I left the room to tell my Mum who was busy getting my brother ready for the day and making breakfast. There was no hope for this day I had so looked forward to.

But on returning to the bedroom I saw an unfamiliar object in my midst, positioned where I might have missed it before, high up on the cupboard. A shiney white cardboard box sat quietly and expectantly, with considerable promise. Tentatively I approached, reached for it and took it in my hands, examined it and removed the lid. What was this! A brand new beautiful black velvet and lace ensemble, complete with sparkly hat and shiney pointy shoes! I was flabbergasted, gobsmacked and temporarily frozen in disbelief. Everything was going to be all right after all. But how? Never mind that, the important thing was, did it fit? What do you think? It was the best fit since my Grandmother had stopped making handmade clothes for us because she was tracking down her first husband on the other side of the world. From the starry hat, lacey gloves, velvet frock and cape to the snug ankle boots, I was perfectly decked out. There was even a wand, but I was not sure about that and thought it might get in the way; I was a witch not a fairy, so I tucked it into my left boot. Over the moon, I set to shadowing my eyes and heightening my lips. My parents were contending with immense loss – you could just about spy the remnants of the shed and eucalyptus tree a few gardens away. The insurance line was jammed, in fact I don’t think the phone worked at all. I easily persuaded them I’d be fine on the bus.

I was still nervous even though I was better dressed in the new cloak than possibly I ever had been. I think the unexplained element of arriving in this attire put me a little on edge – not only was I not used to it, but also, part of me questionned my right to be in it. What if it was a mistake, or worse a trick? But who could hatch such a plot? I was flummoxed. Broken into by my arch-rival Gwendoline’s steely intent to trip me up and foil my desire (since our last run-in at the fairground when from high up on the wheel I poured some noxious concoction on her head)? We had been very good friends once, but she resisted strongly when I suggested we open up our friendship to others in the neighbourhood. While she might have motivation the practicalities did not support this. She could not have the keys to my home, and all the windows were tightly closed in this time of storm. The beautiful outfit could be a sign of her original devotion to me, but there would have to be a catch… Maybe more weirdly, I had been visited by fairies in the night, performing magic? Either way I barely dared entertain these thoughts further which had been lurking in my adrenaline fuelled glances on the top deck of the 43 bus. I arrived at the town hall, sounding my heels on the steps and escorted myself into the tall brick building to register my participation. What would the others be wearing? What would Gwendoline be conjuring? Could it be as incredible as my dress? As a final touch, on the way out of my house I had grabbed a broom which was scattered in what was left of the front garden to complete the look. I walked into the hall and found a place to watch others from, leaning on the broomstick nonchalantly.

The speeches and parades went by in a bit of a blur as I found it tricky to focus on the formalities. I could make out Gwendoline on the other side of the room, though really she ceased to be as important now I had arrived. It seemed that everything was out of my hands now anyway; the unusual events of the night and morning had taken care of that, and this awareness started to settle. My Mum and brother arrived shortly before the adjudication was made, and I was grateful to not be alone. This place was a little way from home so I didn’t know many others there particularly well. I just knew that Gwen would take part as we had talked about it and planned it before the split transpired. I think when the mayor or whoever he was announced my winning, I was no more stunned than I had already become accustomed to. I glowed nonetheless, overwhelmed with pride and joy to have succeeded in my special quest. Why did I want to be the best? Probably because I was tired of Gwendoline behaving like she was superior all the time. I wanted to shut her up. And winning is fun. I’m not sure if there was money, a prize or a crown, but not long after being acknowledged as the winner, I got on my broomstick, quite conscious that miracles or magic were entirely possible, and flew off before everybody’s incredulous eyes, and out through a high window!

A few months later in early February I sat an entrance exam to a girls grammar school. For the English section I basically rewrote this story as one of the titles was ‘The Stormy Night’, and that was what got me into the school I spent the next five years in as my maths was fairly basic.

It gives me great pleasure to remember the story (and the story of the story), unfortunately I do not have the original with me, though it’s possible that it is housed in my parents’ attic.

Apart from this reminisence I wanted to tell you that Spirited Bodies is going to have a break soon. We will cease events and workshops for some months as the routine has taken hold and its grip is lethal. We were meant to be less predictable, for therein lies the most potent magic. What ought to be extraordinarily remarkable occasions, were in danger of being overlooked, become commonplace in my spectrum. I don’t mean the extravaganza just gone, but the monthly sessions where in fact more new people come to celebrate some milestone, than at the recent biggie. Each of those moments deserves more attention, and the time to regard each potential participant; who will benefit most, and will the group bring out the best in each other?

Managing men has been an ongoing matter. So many want to take part, but who has the most honourable intentions? You cannot tell from a simple questionnaire, or even necessarily meeting. But the most nervous women involved and sometimes our team who are less immersed than I am pick up on energies once the nude proceedings are in action. Artists too remark of male models not in it for a purpose befitting us. Meanwhile I am so preoccupied with replicating ‘The Raft of the Medusa’, and everybody’s comfort that much that is important eludes me. And while I do all the admin and run the show, I cannot be all things to all people.

So clearly we need time to change. We have a good strong team, and we will work more as such in the coming months, refashioning the Spirited Bodies experience. Newer team members especially Thelma felt strongly that we must return to our core, what the original mission was. This was about the models’ transformation, and it was about women modelling for the first time to experience a remarkable transition towards confidence. We reconnected with the founder, Morimda to hear in her words what inspired her, and as well she took the time to join in a little.

Meanwhile I want some time away from the overwhelming admin; I want to travel a bit and get back to writing and performance. I have felt like I was doing the project more for others and no longer so much for myself as it used to be. I need to give back to me. But I know Spirited Bodies will keep calling me back too, and at the right time, something magical will emerge again. Happy Halloween fellow spirits!

If you would like to join in an all female event coming up very soon before we take our break, click here for more details on how to get involved and do not hesitate to get in touch. Making the decision to refocus our mission has freed me up to feel appropriately enthused about our final events! There are 2 more sessions at Holborn (see Workshops & Events) as well as the aforementioned new opportunity for women. In addition a small exhibition of some of the Spirited Bodies art work will be on display in the Sh! shop in Hoxton throughout November. Please note this shop is a women’s shop and men may only go in accompanied by a woman, except on Tuesday evenings between 6 and 8pm which are ‘Gents Tuesdays’. As we come to the end of this season we celebrate Spirited Bodies’ 3rd anniversary.

IMAG1324Magic shoes from a recent costumed session Thelma & I did in Tadworth!

Thelma & I being ladies who lunch
Thelma & I being ladies who lunch

Life Modelling as part of (re)Discovering Life!

Today I spoke to Liz who modelled with us at Mortlake. It was her first time, and is as she describes part of a journey of transformation for her.

“I had never heard of life modelling before, until I met Morimda.” Morimda is our friend who 1st came up with the idea for Spirited Bodies. She started the 1st event with us in October 2010 then had to leave it in our hands due to personal commitments. Now she is ready to rejoin us as we prepare for a big event at Battersea Arts Centre with London Drawing for The Big Draw – http://www.bac.org.uk/whats-on/drawing-theatreOct2012/

Morimda explained to Liz how artists require life models in order to learn and practice drawing, and sometimes this is nude modelling. Liz was curious and Morimda advised her to get in touch with us and try it. Liz is a health care professional who has no background in art apart from some recent drama classes where she met Morimda which are part of a big change in her life. For some years, Liz, now 39 has not been happy in her job. It pays the bills but leaves a deep chasm unfulfilled in her. When she moved to the UK 4 years ago Liz was on a journey of self discovery. It started with acknowledging that she was not happy and this was in part due to the people around her – her friends. She felt they were generally only concerned with material things and knew they would not accept the new her who changed to part time to give herself time to discover new things.

Liz checked this blog and saw images of groups of people drawn by artists which attracted her, as well as reading their comments. At Mortlake she liked what she saw – a room full of artists who were very serious about their practise, as well as a big variety of models – different shapes, sizes and ages in particular. Seeing older people in the mix made her feel at ease and encouraged that this really was for all. She thought how brave the older models must be as she herself had been worried it would be full of very young people which was not the case.

She liked that this was an area of life she could engage with in a totally separate way from her job, which she feels is necessary as if her colleagues or boss knew she modelled nude even for artists they may judge her. She also enjoyed the professional atmosphere of silence and concentration which the models and artists work in. She understood that modelling is not ‘doing nothing’ but in fact actively being present for artists and being very conscious of how you pose. Where she had worried that artists may be perving on models she felt reassured as she understood now how artists get inspiration from models. To be present in the room with them and see their art work it all made sense.

Morimda had explained to Liz how artists look for light and shadow, curves and lines, and that if you draw yourself you may understand best what it is a model can give.

This piece will be continued. Here are some images from the recent event in Notting Hill Visual Arts Festival:

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 (https://spiritedbodies.com/2012/02/12/little-pieces-of-me-by-sylvie-rouhani/) 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.

Opening Up To Transformation

We ask participants to tell us why they want to try life modelling, what it means to them. Sometimes we find it arresting and we ask if we may share their thoughts.

“There are 3 main reasons.

Firstly, the aesthetic ambition: I am fascinated by the idea of the gaze. I spend a lot of my time gazing, spectating, and absorbing art – and indeed life. I want to see how it feels to be on a different side of the arrangement: how I will feel, what kind of emotions it will stir in me, and how I will view myself while being viewed by others.

Secondly, the empowerment. The first time I ever felt truly comfortable in – and confident about – my own body was when I was in some communal showers, surrounded by other women, suddenly realising that we are all different sizes and shapes, and that if you are not a magazine beauty, you can still be beautiful. I loved the sisterliness of that; after many years of a painful and difficult relationship with my own body, it was almost dazzlingly liberating.

Thirdly: after a lifetime of being single, and three years of self-imposed celibacy, there is a frivolous side of me which thinks it is a pity, when I work so hard on my body (maintaining my figure through healthy eating, exfoliating my skin, toning my muscles with exercise, etc) that nobody ever gets to see it except me! I suppose I also hope that, if I feel more confident and empowered, I might have more courage to try to accept relationships in the future – rather than just reject all offers, as I have been doing, for the last seven years, thanks to one bad experience in the past.

So – no pressure! 🙂 “

Breaking the Muslim Tradition & Celebrating Transformation

Anita was brought up in Malaysia as a Sunni Muslim, where women have some freedom of choice about whether to cover their heads and faces.

As a young person her parents brought her to London and throughout her 20s she chose a conventional path; marriage, university, career in a bank and the birth of her daughter. At 30 she felt the need to reassess her circumstance; she knew she wasn’t happy and wanted to address who she really is to find her true happiness. Divorce and a desire to celebrate her body with tattoos and piercings followed, as well as taking a step towards one of her dreams – she joined an amatuer theatre company. When she took on the role of director there a couple of years ago, she chose the play ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’. Anita felt strongly about pushing boundaries and didn’t skimp on the nudity, indeed she took on the part of the courtesan who appears naked, herself.

She met her partner Steve at the drama group, and a mutual friend Julian invited them both to take part in Spirited Bodies. They each individually decided to try it, and feel glad that their interest in this activity is naturally matched in the other. It will be something to share.

Steve has been through quite a physical and indeed internal transformation in the last few years. He used to be a large man but lost a quarter of his body weight in a fairly short time, though this he explains is a minor matter compared to the real shift that took place within him. He had become very tired of being an underdog who lacked confidence in the extreme, and decided to do something about it. He wanted to come out of the shadows, and once he held this vision of certainty and strength in his mind, the rest followed easily. Anita thinks taking part in Spirited Bodies will allow him to acknowledge this powerful transformation in his life and share it with her. For herself, Anita wants to embrace expressions of independence and liberation. Her next ambition following Spirited Bodies, is to perform burlesque.

I ask how it is to be a Muslim woman with a Western lifestyle and what it’s like going home to Malaysia, seeing her female family and friends. She says she likes to have a chance to talk to them on their own, because then she gets hints of their independent aspirations, which are starting to show themselves more in the younger generation. Anita doesn’t think they may truly assert their womanhood in all its fullness whilst in Malaysia as the dominant culture is deeply embedded and restricting. She is grateful to live in England and bring up her daughter here. Anita still considers herself a Muslim, and appreciates that women gain a great deal from covering themselves and communing in single sex groups. It is the choice afforded her by living here that gives her the best insight, however. She is in the enviable position of experiencing the best of both worlds! While she cannot be truly open with her own Mother about her lifestyle now, she endeavours to foster a relationship with her daughter that nourishes truth and speaking freely.