How life modelling changed my life

Posing naked for art classes made me happier, healthier and more grounded than I’ve ever been

The first time I life modelled was at an event called Spirtied Bodies. It was women only. The model would talk while she posed, letting her body speak her truth and her truth speak her body. Models at Spirited Bodies spoke about their breast cancer and masectomies; their activism as they watched their home countries slip into dictatorship; their experiences being black; queer; fat; old; their loves and heartbreaks; and what modelling had taught them about themselves and others. The first half of Spirited Bodies was spent drawing and listening. During the second half, if you chose to, you could model for yourself.

My body had always felt like an object I had to awkwardly puppeteer. It was something to fold my arms in front of. As a child, I couldn’t cartwheel or climb or ride a bike. I was told by adults that I lacked coordination. I was told by kids, with bold conviction, ‘you run funny’. I also decided from a very early age that I was ugly— bullies and even some friends seemed to agree — and that this was something I would have to carry with me and try my best to overcome. My body was an inevitability, something that did not represent me. If I could have shrugged it off, I would have.

Starting to life model helped me to stop viewing my body as separate to my personality. I started to become my body, and my body became me. Modelling that first time, I thought it would be about body acceptance, body positivity. It was so much more. It was about being with my body, taking up space within it.

Around the time I first attended Spirited Bodies, I received a diagnosis of Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD). The diagnosis was both a relief and a deep source of shame. BPD is a serious, chronic mental health condition characterised by difficulty in managing intense and hypersensitive emotions. It is also one of the most stigmatised and misunderstood mental illnesses. I made the mistake of googling my diagnosis after receving it. I had attended therapy for years for depression and anxiety, where I was told over and over that I had to challenge my negative self-talk and stop being so hard on myself. Now I was reading that all that self-talk was true. I had BPD, and that made me a terrible person. Deep down, I knew this simply wasn’t the case. But stopping that narrative when it was fed so eagerly by the multitude of inaccurate and hurtful commentaries I saw about BPD was extremely hard.

In Dialectical Behaviour Therapy — one of the only treatments thought to be effective for BPD, and which I would go on to complete a year of — they talk about radical acceptance. You have to be still with your body and emotions, notice where it hurts, and just be. You have to be fully present within yourself, observe yourself, and be yourself more than at any other time, even if it is intensely painful to do so. Without knowing it at the time, life modelling gave me the grounding to do just that. It’s the shaking, tingling, sensing of every movement more acutely than you have all day, while seeming perfectly still. It’s the deep, slow breathing through a difficult pose, and the choice to commit to it fully. Life modelling wasn’t so much about body acceptance for me as it was about acceptance full stop.

It was also a surprising source of joy and creativity. Not long before I modelled for the first time, my husband asked me what my favourite part of my body was. Like many women, I didn’t particularly like much of it. I said I liked my breasts and my eyebrows best. When I asked him what his favourite part of his body was, he said without hesitation, ‘my hands.’

‘Why?’

‘Because I can use them to make so many things. I’m good at that.’

I was speechless. It hadn’t even occurred to me that this conversation was about anything other than appearance. I hadn’t thought at all about what my body could do, or create. As a woman you are always encouraged to consider what you look like to others, but not to be truly seen as who you are.

I think sometimes people get life modelling all wrong. They think the model stares vacantly into space, an object to be consumed by the artist, the true creative who will make something of you. In fact, every time I model I am making and remaking myself, creating a reality the artist only has to reach out and capture. I take great pride in using my poses to convey what I want to show on any given day. Better still is seeing how that has been interpreted differently by each artist, and the wonderful drawings created through this joint enterprise. Make no mistake — life modelling is hard physical work that requires strength and endurance. The reward is tapping into a deep source of creativity and working in dialogue with the artists.

There’s a vulnerability and ferocity in life modelling which go hand in hand. No matter what the day has held for me so far, as soon as I model I find myself anew. Honest, raw, modest, unflinching. Speaking a truth I couldn’t have put into words. It isn’t always perfect, but it’s something I’m happy with.

Of course, some of it really is about acceptance and positivity. Women artists especially are sometimes quick to apologise for their work when I’m admiring everyone’s drawings during the break. The most frequent apology is that their drawing isn’t good enough, as if they’ve somehow done me an injustice as its subject. Actually, my favourite drawings are usually the quick and dirty ones, the cartoony ones, the not-quite-in-proportion ones. They have such charm, warmth and sincerity. I feel so honoured that these artists were willing to take a chance and show themselves. The courage and vulnerability works both ways.

The second most frequent apology is that they have drawn me ‘much fatter than I am’ — strangely, people draw me much thinner and conventionally prettier than I am just as often, but no one ever points this out! Life modelling makes me feel okay — happy, even — to see my body flabby, unflattering and real. Seeing a drawing rather than an image in a mirror gives me the distance needed to silence the negativity and notice the good stuff — an awesome curve or pose of strength. It’s like looking at a friend’s body rather than my own — and as we all know, it is much easier to see the beauty in a friend than it is to see it in ourselves.

In life modelling, taking off or putting on your clothes is the part that it’s poor etiquette to let anyone see. All life models should have access to somewhere private to get changed, and to transition themselves. That’s made me reflect on how getting in and out of our clothes can be a real point of vulnerability. It’s never that you don’t fit the clothes. They weren’t made for you. But sometimes the clothes don’t fit you — whether that’s in terms of their size, or the role they are asking you to play. I was surprised the first time I modelled how much I felt at home, as myself, and it still surprises me.

I got my period right before my first ever paid life modelling gig. You tuck the tampon string up inside and carry on. I was very self conscious and nervous, but everything went smoothly. At first, I was very strict about my grooming and worried about things like my tattoos and if people would notice and judge the light scarring on one of my arms, from old self-harm, as if every modelling session was a date. If I was going to be naked in front of someone else, it meant I needed to prove something about myself.

But then I asked myself, are these people here to draw a human body, or are they here to draw a human body? Bodies are complicated, and something I love about the life drawing community is how this idea is welcomed and celebrated. At first I thought I had to hide my scars, but then I embraced them. I no longer worried about perfect leg shaving, carefully painted toenails, or possible bruises, stretch marks or scrapes. While good hygiene is clearly a must for any life model, so is the physicality and reality of the body.

Since the coronavirus pandemic, I haven’t been able to model. Many life models have embraced working online, but it wasn’t something I felt entirely comfortable with, and I am also fortunate that my sole income isn’t from life modelling, so I could afford to take a break. I deeply miss it though, and look forward to a time when it will be possible for me again. For now, I try to take the skills life modelling has taught me, and the power it has given me, into my everyday life.

This means: I let myself be laid bare a little more often, and I allow myself to be seen.

Exploring art, activism, adventure and radical compassion, while finding my way as a parent and person

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