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in the nude

ARTICLE

22nd February 2018
Tallulah Harvey 

I have always wanted to try life modelling. The first woman I fell in love with was a life model and she was so embracing of the experience that I was thoroughly captivated by it, though far too terrified and ashamed of my body as a teenager to try. My most recent partner is what can only be describe as “a nudist” and has shown me how liberating nudity can be. However, it is something I hadn't practiced outside the comfort of my own home until I saw an event pop up on my Facebook timeline. ‘The Stories of Women’ gave me the opportunity to give life modelling a go, with the support and encouragement of professional models and life drawing enthusiasts. The event run by Spirited Bodies differs from the conventional life drawing class because the emphasis is not on the artist, but the model. This is significant for two reasons: firstly, because it allows us to challenge and explore the somewhat voyeuristic function of the artist in the life drawing class, as we are all guilty of capitalising on the naked body in the art room. Preoccupied with our desire to make something beautiful, we often forget the fact that the model is a person with feelings, insecurities and opinions—and that this person’s leg might be numb after twenty minutes in one position and that they might need to move, even if we haven’t quite finished perfecting the curve along their calf. Secondly, it creates a space where women’s bodies are being celebrated rather than scrutinised. The safety of which I have rarely experienced outside the female changing room at my local gym. Women can barely step outside their houses without being sexualised, and it becomes a daily burden to walk around with a women’s body. ‘The Stories of Women’ is a female space for women of all ages, shapes and sizes to feel safe and comfortable with their bodies, and to begin to unload the burden of objectification. The life drawing class consists of two halves. In the first hour, a professional life model sits for the class. The setup is similar to the usual life drawing class except the model speaks and shares her experience as you draw. The second hour is a chance for the audience to strip off and have a go at modelling. There is no pressure for a model to take everything off, or to pose for the full hour, and there is plenty of instruction by the pros to help you hold interesting poses. This part of the session is also interactive, and the models and artists share their stories and experience about their bodies, nudity and creative endeavours.

Claire Collison was the guest model at the most recent instalment of ‘The Stories of Women’. Claire is an artist, writer and model who gave a performance that shared her experience of having a mastectomy and choosing not to have reconstruction surgery. Claire transitioned through pose and poetry, confiding in us her memories, conversations and intimate moments that influenced and punctuated her decision to remain single breasted. It is hard to describe the sensation of hearing a model speak as you draw her. I have been life drawing since I was sixteen and I am fond of the therapeutic sound of pencils scratching against paper. Like in a church or museum, speaking in a life drawing class is somewhat taboo, and it took a moment to adjust to the sound of speech. However, Claire’s stories were so remarkable that I soon became entranced by her life experiences. I had to draw snippets of movement, because each pose was fleeting, sometimes five minutes, other times five seconds. I found myself writing down quotes or words, and felt like each line I drew was part of the larger narrative. I was participating in this performance by sharing the space with her and absorbing her words. In drawing her body, I began to understand her struggle. I could identify with her fears, of wanting the cancer gone from her body. I too was infuriated by the assumptions made by doctors, as if there was no other option but to have breast reconstruction after a mastectomy, and that not doing so somehow makes you less of a woman, less “feminine” or “natural”. I felt like I understood the strangeness and weight of the eyes of onlookers watching her swim naked in the ocean. There was such beauty and dignity in her poses and I often got so engrossed in her performance that I stopped drawing and simply watched her dance from gesture to gesture. Sometimes she paused after a choice phrase or idea and let it linger in the air, let the audience chew on it. It was a beautiful piece, and an emotional one for me. I went in without any expectations about the speaker, focusing instead on the fact that I was about take my own clothes off in a room full of strangers. Then Claire removed her gown and I saw the single breast. 

When I was thirteen, and my own breasts were beginning to form, my mum was diagnosed with breast cancer and had a mastectomy. I was listening to Claire’s beautiful performance and all of these memories came flooding back to me, details and traces of memories that I hadn’t thought about since I was a teenager. The strange experience of going through puberty while my mum went through chemotherapy. Both our bodies were changing rapidly in ways we had no control over and that terrified us. The treatment caused my mum to gain weight, lose her hair and forced an early menopause. She once told me that losing her hair dehumanised her, and when given the option to have chemotherapy again after the cancer came back four years later, she decided against it. Unlike Claire my mum did decide to have breast reconstruction surgery, but they made them several sizes bigger than her pre-mastectomy breast size, and I remember the strangeness of this. One of the last memories I have of my mother is crying into her chest, a normal thing for a child to do, especially one who knew her mother was dying, and yet I remember vividly how hard they were. It was both a surreal and tender experience. They felt artificial, they didn’t feel like part of my mum’s body, and yet it was still a moment of intense, overwhelming maternal love. I wonder how it would have felt if she had chosen not to have the surgery, whether it would have changed that moment, for better or for worse. Having felt and experienced that, and hearing Claire’s experience, I couldn’t help wondering why women would ever consider getting their breasts reconstructed. However, perhaps this is not a fair assumption coming from someone who has often thought of getting her breasts removed for reasons other than breast cancer.

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When the time came to model, I was more concerned with the practicality of changing. Being naked on stage made sense to me because I had attended so many life-drawing classes, but inhabiting this strange place in between the artists’ easels and the model’s podium was more disorientating then the thought of being naked. I chose to get it over with quickly and stripped where I stood, approaching the front of the class almost at a run. Talking with other people was another strange thing; I hadn’t quite gotten over the idea that models have voices, even after Claire’s stunning performance, and I nodded awkwardly in response to questions about my comfort or whether I wanted to sit or stand. When it came down to it, sitting there in front of everyone, my main concern was not being nude or how fat or strange my body might look. Instead, I was scared about whether I was interesting to draw. What would be the point of trying life modelling if no one wanted to draw me? I kept looking at the other models around me for tips and sat right next to Claire and I tried not to look too pathetic beside her. There was a lot of enthusiasm from the women drawing us, so I relaxed a little bit and focused all my energy on remaining still. The room was nice and warm and after ten minutes of sitting still I felt something wet drip down my side. I was sweating. I had sweat pouring down my torso and dripping onto my leg. This was a worry that hadn’t crossed my mind, and I was horribly embarrassed by the basic functioning of my body. I tried moving very slightly to wipe it away without being too obvious, though it wasn’t the easiest thing to do when fifteen pairs of eyes were looking in your direction. I could feel my legs going numb underneath me and an itch creeping across my face, and the more I tried not to think about it, the stronger the urge to scratch it became. The combination of these sensations shattered any ideas I might have had about the work of a life model being glamorous and leisurely. It’s hard work, and not in the way I was expecting. It’s hard to concentrate on staying still when everyone’s looking at you. I didn’t feel nervous, the reason I struggled to concentrate was because I was curious. I wanted to see what they were drawing and whether they were drawing me. I thought the experience would be more liberating, but it was strangely normal. (This might be because I spend most of my time at home butt-naked, something I highly recommend to all). I was completely content being naked in front of everyone and was actually wondering why there aren’t more spaces where women can just be naked without feeling sexualised. It felt so right to be there.

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In this part of the class, the life models shared their experiences of modelling too. Some models had been doing it for a long time and others, like me, were brand new. The audience also shared their stories and asked questions. Several women had also had mastectomies and had come explicitly to see Claire’s performance and not to draw; and there were other women who had been drawing for years and encouraged us to share our experiences of modelling. As everyone shared their bodily experiences I found myself confessing about my own insecurities. I don’t actually identify as a woman, although I was born one, and prefer the term non-binary. As a teenager, horrified by the lumps of fat growing out of my chest, I thought long and hard about getting a mastectomy and transitioning into a male. All my friends as a child were male, and when I started secondary school I was told boys play football at lunchtime while girls, which apparently also included me, sat and talked about boys and make up. I was completely confused. I still have trouble speaking to women and it’s only in very recent years that I’ve been able to form strong female friendships. As an adolescence I didn’t know how to communicate how I felt. To be told to be someone that I couldn’t identify with was traumatising and has caused, quite understandably, a lot of body dysmorphia. It’s something I’ve only discussed with a handful of people in my life and it felt good share this with a room full of understanding and supportive strangers. It was such a cleansing experience and we were all thanked afterwards for sharing our thoughts and stories. Time was allotted at the end of the class to share our drawings, and the artists and models alike wandered around the space admiring the variety of pieces, styles and techniques on display.

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I can’t vouch that everyone’s experience of ‘Stories of Women’ will be quite as emotional or impacting as mine. However, I think everyone has a story share about their relationship with their bodies, and ‘Stories of Women’ provides the space for women to tell their stories or hear the experiences of other women. I highly recommend all the events run by Spirited Bodies, not just the ‘Stories of Women’, as well as the work of Claire Collison. For an opportunity to see more of Claire’s work, please check out her exhibition Watch This Space at Goldsmiths, University of London, running from 19th February-13th March (featuring work from the ‘Stories of Women’ event). There will also be a workshop hosted by the Women's Art Library featuring Claire Collison, Pippa Davismoon and Charlotte Morrison on Saturday 3rd March (13:00-18:00), where you will have the chance to see Claire’s life modelling performance (14.00 - 16.00 booking essential, females only). 

The next ‘The Stories of Women’ event is coming up on 12th March at the Feminist Library.