Women of the World and Beyond

Our event at ‘Women of the World’ last Sunday has moved me profoundly. Having recordings of interviews with models was very powerful, as some of those women would have been too nervous to say those things live or even turn up. I am copying a message I received from one of the models, Niomi, as it expresses well some of the passion felt by those involved. I am also posting images from the event.

To summarise; ten women with varying levels of experience started the posing. They were aged about 30 – 63 and had a wide range of body types between them, as well as reasons for participating. From being an experienced professional model disillusioned with it all and wanting a different more empowering space in which to model again; embracing a new body post-op transgender; to stop feeling invisible as an older woman with MS and mostly paralysed; or wanting to engage with a wider discussion about body and sexual politics as we consider how best to move forward with Spirited Bodies.

Whilst the models posed I played the recordings of four of them as well as two others by women who did not pose on the day. Each testimony told a different story – from the relatively light-hearted journey of embracing one’s body in a new way through life modelling, to the more intense reality of wishing that one day you might be able to move your limbs again and your degenerative disease go into reverse. Where I could, I asked the model who was talking in the recording to be in the centre of that pose. One bit of feedback I got from one of the women drawing, was that hearing the models’ thoughts whilst drawing them, affected the way she drew. The model instead of relatively silent was expressing her innermost thoughts, fears and ambitions.

About half way through the session I started asking members of the ‘audience’ if they would like to try posing, and some of them did, so that was lovely to have some total newcomers.

When I was interviewing models, the conversation sometimes moved towards the future. When and how will we invite men back again? Could we have a post-event discussion session to allow models to process together as a group their thoughts, to make an event more complete, and beyond the act of modelling itself? How open can we be towards men when we have had a few tricky experiences with male models being involved in the past? Would we just work with the ones we know and trust? After all, the safety of vulnerable women must be our priority.

Here is some of the artwork from Sunday; the poses lasted from about 6 to 17 minutes.

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Here is Niomi’s letter;

HI ESTHER.

 
I was very touched with the experience that I had yesterday – the way you facilitated the event – went I thought very well – with the life models you knew starting off – then the new girls who wanted to have a go – then back to the Spirited Bodies life models – and your Mum was just amazing at the centre piece of it all.
 
I was very touched by your interview with her – she is a brave amazing person – and I can see that she has had some deep emotional issues to work through in her life – it touched me so much when she was talking about how she would love to get her active and functioning body back. 
 
It was a nice surprise for me when you called me up to do my 17 minutes life model pose – I found listening to my interview with you deeply touching – I was able to hold my pose regardless of being emotional and tears streaming down my face.
 
I hope that we will be able to carry on this dialogue within an open minded and safe space together – feeling free to explore all sides of the debate from the female side – and being open to listening to and hearing the men’s side of the story too – in connection with exploring and being together in Spirited Bodies Life Modelling.
 
Thank You again for this amazing opportunity to explore My Life – My Journey – My Body – Within the context of being in a safe and comfortable environment – in the way of working together as a group and team work – to share together in our body form and presence in connection with each other – to embrace – be open – and enjoy the bodies that we have been given and feel comfortable in our own skin.
 
This of course would not be possible without the artists – and I saw a lot of art work on the floor at the end – so I hope that the photographs will go on the Spirited Bodies website for us all to see.
 
If you find any of me I would be so grateful if you could send it to me.
 
I also do not know if it is possible for you to give me a copy of the recording the girl gave to you – I have an elderly couple I am friendly with – I would like to play it to them one day – as I think it is so touching.
 
With My Best Wishes To You.
NIOMI GABRIELLE
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With thanks to all the artists and the models, and as well Jude Kelly and Domino Pateman and all the staff who helped at Southbank Centre

Model Interviews at WOW; part 1 ~ Arleen & Emma-Jane

At Southbank’s Women of the World Festival 2013 we had a Women Only event which was also a presentation. Some women who have modelled with us during the last two and a half years took part to model as well as talk about their experiences. In this first section we talk to Arleen, an 82 year old who has had a mastectomy and been a life model for the last 30 years, and also to Emma-Jane, a younger woman who joined us very recently. Whilst Lucy and I were talking to them on one half of the platform, 3 other models were posing and being drawn on the other half.

by Kate Hardie
by Kate Hardie

Esther (EB): When did you start life modelling? Arleen: In the 1980s EB: How did you get into it? Arleen: Oh well I met a young man who was an artist you see and he somehow detected that I would make quite a good model. EB: It’s amazing how they do that … Arleen: and that was the very beginning really. It was Daniel of course. This was the early 1980s, and we’ve lived together, after a few years, for all that time, so our lives have developed. His parents have died, my daughter emigrated to New Zealand, I had cancer and a mastectomy and I’ve grown older – he has too but I mean, well he’s still under 60. But he didn’t paint until he knew me, until he lived with me. Because his mother, although she was an artist, both his parents were very artistic, she couldn’t stand the mess that painting made in the house you see, so although he drew there and she encouraged him to produce, but painting no, that was out of the question. And she had a wonderful sense of colour. EB: Is it Daniel that keeps you modelling or is it another reason? Arleen: No it’s Daniel, I’m sorry to say it. I was trained as a dancer but I had TB which I caught off my mother in my teens, my mid-teens, so I was in bed for 12 months then. That was the end, professionally anyway. I mean I always went to some sort of keep fit or exercise of some sort or pilates or … I can’t help but go to something like that. When I was quite young, I would see these glorious dancers, Margot Fonteyn, Moira Shearer, Pamela Mayne, and they’d got these wonderful figures, and they were older than me, and I thought well, so can i. I’ve never been the sort to over eat and I’ve always taken care of myself. But it was partly really about the TB that made me take care of myself, and I’ve never had a lot of energy, so I’ve had to conserve what energy I have had, and in point of fact, my modelling means I can just sit, instead. [One of the models posing, LaDawn, had chosen a very tricky pose on one knee and leaning somewhat, is sweating, and has to change pose] Arleen: So you say you’ve got to put up with pain? EB: Well, sometimes we choose to. We all pose for different reasons and something I get out of it is I like the challenge, so I’ll put myself into a difficult pose because I kind of get bored doing the same poses and when it’s painful, I like overriding that and you move beyond the pain, and you go into trance, but that’s something that is not going to appeal to everyone. Other people prefer to keep it simple and they’ll go into a meditative state in a more relaxed way. It can depend on which day of the week it is, what time of the month it is; sometimes I will be really pushing myself because that appeals to the part of me that likes to work out, that wants to feel my muscles aching afterwards, and other times I’ve had enough, I’ve been to 3 jobs already that day and travelled all over London, and I just want to flop and I’ll zone out that way. I just wanted to ask you Arleen about when you became a model, so it wasn’t like a big deal for you to pose nude, and did you pose for groups or did you just pose for Daniel? Arleen: Well, I started off just posing for Daniel, but that very quickly led to the classes that he went to. He introduced me and then we had a few people come to our house. EB: After your operation, were you at all concerned about posing again? Arleen: No I wasn’t, not at all. You see, by that time, I was very happy in my own skin. EB: So it was no issue Arleen: No, no. I was working at a technical college where there were quite a lot of German students, and I did go back fairly quickly after my operation but the teachers used that as a catalyst to talk to these students … EB: What, about breast cancer? Arleen: Oh yes, so I was delighted that I could help them in that way. EB: Thank you.

Drawing of Arleen made at this event
Drawing of Arleen made at this event
a drawing of all the models in pose before we interviewed them
a drawing of all the models in pose before we interviewed them

Lucy Saunders (FLS): It’s very new to you, Emma-Jane; what made you think this would be an interesting thing to try? Emma-Jane: Well do you know what I’m going to say? Arleen talked about Daniel, and I feel really awkward at this wonderful feminist day to say that I probably wouldn’t have walked through the door on Tuesday if it wasn’t for my new partner Davide, who is this wonderful curious man not at all an artist who came along to an event that Spirited Bodies ran back in October. I think since Tuesday I’ve really been interrogating why I went and why now at this time in my life and I think it is about key events. I think this new relationship really has been a bit of a catalyst. When I came on Tuesday, I thought, I was there because I have this wonderful flatmate who is really into fashion and as I left she was flicking through Marie Claire and she said, “I think you’re mad going to this thing,” and I just looked at the content of her magazine and I thought that was mad. As a larger girl, probably a size 18, size 20 on a bad day – or a good day – … I feel like there are not enough images or connections for women to make to the real world of feminity because we are saturated with that kind of media image. There is a woman at work who weighs just under 6 stone. She’s really really really poorly with anorexia and I just feel like, for both of us, that is the idea that we’re supposed to aspire to and its making both of us unhappy and in some ways unwell. And so I think for me coming here – one – one reason for getting into it was a curiosity and to see real women, different shapes, different sizes, colours, and just to remember what a woman looks like, because you don’t get that opportunity, really, outside of the family to see these shapes. I think another – this is what I’ve been interrogating – another very personal element to it which is what connects really to the new relationship is that I had spent a number of years with somebody who was very abusive and had lost my relationship with my body beyond it being a sexual tool and so being here reminded me of its function, its biological function, and just connecting with it and other women in a completely non-sexual way was actually …. That was the after shock that I’ve come to realise now a few days later and I was only here to volunteer on the stall. I arrived this morning and Esther said, “Oh no a model’s dropped out,” and I said I’ve only got till half past four. My colleague said, “Are you going to get your kit off again today?” and I said “No no definitely not, I’ve got to be somewhere by 5pm” – here I am and there’s my boobs so … (pointing to a drawing on the floor in front). FLS: It’s interesting because we’ve had several functioning anorexics come and model with us, obviously anorexia gives the most dramatic difference between how someone sees themselves and how anybody else would see them in reality. We’d see the skeleton and they’d see a fat person. That can be a very interesting process when they come and work with us. There are also those who work very hard on their body. We had one woman once, a young woman, good job in the City, very lovely, as she said, “I spend a lot of time, energy and money on keeping my body perfect, and then I don’t share it with anybody. I’ve been celibate for the last seven years and I’m hoping that coming along to SB will help me relax that and maybe be more open to a new relationship in the future.” I don’t know whether she’s got a new relationship yet, but I thought it was an interesting reason for coming. LaDawn: Especially since I’ve got the perfect body. FLS: Absolutely and me too LaDawn, let’s face it, between the two of us, Helen of Troy’s way out the shop. Emma-Jane: This is the thing, this is I think what I learnt from Tuesday and here today and looking actually out at you as artists is – we’ve all got the perfect body. It functions, it carries you around your day, it allows you to do the things that you want to do even if it is physically very very limited, if you are wheel chair bound, it is a perfect body, it’s your perfect body, and I think owning it and appreciating that, this really facilitates that. EB: Right, very well said. Emma-Jane: You can have that on your business cards! FLS: Emma-Jane, any ideas how you are going to take this forward? & are you going to get your partner to start drawing? Emma-Jane: Well, actually we were having a chat when he popped in this afternoon and he was very jealous because I drew, I posed and drew, on Tuesday, and he was really jealous of the pictures. He said, when he went, he went mainly as a model. And so we had a little chat and we’ve just made an agreement that he’s going to practise, um, he’s going to practise drawing me, and we’ll see how long that lasts. FLS: Well hopefully you get to draw him. Emma-Jane: Yes, yes and we did actually talk about maybe sharing it together. So far I’ve only done it within a women only environment but he did a mixed session. FLS: We have had a few couples in the past who came to model together to get a remembrance of themselves as a couple at that time. EB: And you said that possibly having tried it in a safe environment of just women you might feel more comfortable to do it in a mixed one soon. Emma-Jane: Absolutely absolutely. IMG_1616

charcoal drawing by Cloe Cloherty

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LaDawn's precarious pose on one knee clearly shown here
LaDawn’s precarious pose on one knee clearly shown here
a pregnant woman took the plunge when the audience were invited. By Cloe Cloherty
a pregnant woman took the plunge when the audience were invited.

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artist at work
artist at work
first pose with a couple models from the audience
first pose with a couple models from the audience

IMG_1625 All photographs in this post are copyright of Sophie Stanes, www.livinglifethroughalensphotography.co.uk

Guestblog: Sabine Zoellner reports on the Porn debate at Women of the World Festival, 10/3/’13

The panel consisted of:

Julia Long – feminist activist and academic

Martin Daubney – journalist and former editor of Loaded magazine

Chitra Nagarajan – Black Feminists UK

Helena Kennedy –  chair and lawyer for human rights QC

PORNOGRAPHY – Sunday, 10.03.2013

After the introduction of the 4 participants it became clear that the nature of the talk was set up in a controversial and provocative nature on purpose: a radical feminist (for whom porn starts with a topless model on page 3 of The Sun), a playboyish former editor of a lads magazine, a black feminist and a human rights lawyer as the chair lady to keep things under control.

Chitra from Black Feminists UK expressed her points in the least radical but more informative way than the other two. It turned out though quite quickly that the introduction of the racial aspect overloaded the already complex and unfocused subject of pornography so that unfortunately she remained a rather marginal figure throughout the entire talk.

The discussion involving the audience formed the main part of the talk and started already after about 20 minutes.

Helena Kennedy came across as slightly patronising in picking the speakers claiming that she “can see very well who came first” and the audience remained quite noisy and tense throughout.

She kept ignoring a gentleman sitting behind me raising his arm patiently for most of the 90 minutes though (which I found was a shame as I think it is highly interesting to hear what men who join a feminist festival have to say…)

As a summary of key points and facts that evolved after a while we learned for example (unverified in some cases):

– porn functions as substitute for sex education due to easy availability via the internet

– porn is a euro american capitalist oppressive experience

– there is an increase in problems with erections with teenage boys (all of them admitted they’d watch porn frequently)

– there is no proof of connection between porn and sex crime

– the media in general is 95% driven by men

– in capital crime investigation there seems to be an increasing number of cases where pornography is found when searching suspects’ homes

– there is more acceptance of homosexual porn nowadays

– porn has become more extreme nowadays

– there is an increase in human trafficking – men have a higher desire to practise what they see in porns (which is often only possible with prostitutes)

– the porn sector has a turnover of £97 billion per year

– there must be a focus on legislation to make porn less available for under 18s; credit card payment was mentioned as an option

– there is a lack of space in sex education at school – it needs to have a massive makeover to integrate the current porn consumption by under 18s

– there are observations that young girls are being pressured into anal and facial sex because of boys wanting to experience what they saw in porns

Questions raised:

– is porn watching related to class/privilege/poverty?

– can a woman watch porn and be a feminist at the same time?

– should porn be made illegal?

In summary it seemed obvious that it is difficult to capture the gist of this versatile subject within 2 hours of discussion.

The impression remains that the discussion got no further than scratching on the surface of the subject as too many different aspects were thrown in – starting with the definition of what pornography really is (spectrum went from a topless lady on page 3 of The Sun, people enjoying having sex and being filmed, the erotica of the early “Emmanuelle” movies up to movies showing violent and humiliating sexual practices).

I also have to say the way the talk was held slightly wound me up. The emotions that were triggered by the organisers on purpose prevented people from being objective.

The subject of porn was kept too undefined and generic from the beginning as if a real focus point that could have lead to a consensus and/or conclusions was not intended to be created by the organisers.

Therefore I feel that everyone came in and also went home with their same own opinion.

At least this applies to myself:

My first key point was and is that pornography must not be available for under 18s (at least in a similar way as it was before the internet era).

I feel relief that I am not a teenage girl in this day and age that has to face first sexual and relationship experience with boys who ask for sex the way they see it (mostly unmonitored) in pornography.

I also think that there should be a ban on violent and abusive forms of pornography in general, eg where one of the parties involved is subject to disrespect and humiliation. I do believe that this type of film has a bad impact on people’s (adults as well as under 18s) minds and therewith society.

And a finishing note:

At the end of the talk I turned and told the gentleman behind me that I felt gutted that he didn’t get to speak and asked him what he was about to say.

To add to the complexity of the subject he said he thought that sending porn videos via mobile phones could spice up the love lives of long term relationships. Oh well…

By Sabine Zoellner

Sabine first modelled with Spirited Bodies over a year ago, before that she had always been on the other side of the easel. She was helping on our stall at the Women of the World Festival, and stepped in to model as well. Here follow some of her drawings.

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For a recording of the discussion, check here:  http://wow.southbankcentre.co.uk/events/pornography/

Women Only Life Modelling Workshops

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.

we spread the pictures on the floor at the end
we spread the pictures on the floor at the end

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I take the 1st pose to warm people up. Luckily the room is very warm as well
I take the 1st pose to warm people up. Luckily the room is very warm as well
Iain captures Gil's complexity
Iain captures Gil’s complexity

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group pose improvisation given theme of 'family', and using levels including one of Richard's cane's for Grand-ma
group pose improvisation on theme of ‘family’, and using levels including one of Richard’s cane’s for Grand-ma

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experimenting with form
experimenting with form

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connecting
connecting

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Francis' sketches
Francis’ sketches
the penultimate pose saw several of the guys creating this pose simultaneously, inspired by a Greek vase. With just a few minutes, it was very hard to capture, but looked impressive
the penultimate pose saw several of the guys creating this pose simultaneously, inspired by a Greek vase. With just a few minutes, it was very hard to capture, but looked impressive

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The final pose; the three Graces
The final pose; the three Graces

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it happened that the two female models were not dissimilar to me physically
it happened that the two female models were not dissimilar to me physically

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Conspiracy uncovered

I did call myself a conspiracy theorist for a short while!

I really believe the world is created in the way that we look at it. So if we want to change it…. we need to change the way we look. That may begin with the way we look at ourselves.

So if I’m standing nude in front of a bunch of artists, and I’m feeling ‘I should have shaved, it’s a shame I’m not more curvy, and did I pluck my nipples?’ then what may be reflected back to me is some endearing self-consciousness.

If I think, ‘You know what – I just want to get laid’, then going to the pub with them afterwards will likely produce a desired result.

If I’m wondering, ‘How the hell am I going to get this project to take off?’ then I think it’s tone of thought that applies. I guess the advice would be ‘Consider that it already is. It is alive, active, organic, and it happens because people – not just me – want it to.’

Of course I need to let people know about it, and somehow get freed up to connect with the right people. Katherine Baldwin (JustasIam40 blog) informed me of  ‘The Endangered Species Summit’ in New York, which would have been an ideal opportunity. Katherine has given up negative thoughts about her body for lent.

At least I made it to the ‘Women of the World Festival’ on the Southbank – London. And even more magically, had an opportunity to tell a high profile female panel about Spirited Bodies. That I came across as a raging feminist conspiracy theorist may require some styling out! But not all of my message felt fearful; just an urgent passion to release women from the bondage of image may have sounded crankily religious, almost power-mongering and downright out of touch with the celebrities present reluctance to take part themselves.

So following my own advice, I WILL(!) stop worrying about this; and think many blessed, abundant and liberated thoughts as I pose, when I swim, as I pedal and while I breathe.