Now, reading this you might write me off as some art hippy who’s an exhibitionist and loves being naked, but hear me out.
Nudity is a complicated subject. Unfortunately, in contemporary culture it’s often weaponized and used as a means of degradation and objectification—but somehow I’ve always felt like nakedness, in the right context, is empowering.
I don’t have what society would deem an amazing body. I’m a UK size 14-16 and have stretch marks, rolls, the whole package. As such, having a steadfast sense of confidence and comfortability always seemed a little out of reach, and so I would attend life drawing events and admire the women who could model nude without batting an eyelid. Little did I know I would soon be the one to model for a group of artists completely naked… but first, a little context.
Earlier this year I took part in an artist residency in a town called Skagaströnd, in Northwest Iceland (an artist residency is basically like a work and research trip for artists, where we can discuss new ideas and make use of provided studio spaces). The residency was called Nes, and ran off a strong sense of collaboration and community.
One weekend, a fellow resident and experienced life model, Ryan, organised an evening of life drawing in the communal studio's freezer space (the studio was a converted fish factory, and the freezer space was a huge concrete-floored room with sliding doors at the back—intensely Icelandic). You could call it a group bonding exercise, or just a typical way for artists to pass the time in an Icelandic village, but we were all excited to have a few drinks and hone our figure drawing skills.
Being a Saturday, Skagaströnd's hot spot cafe/bar Bjarmanes was open for business! The cafe was only open during the evening once a week, and being the only place selling alcohol within a 14 mile radius, the place may as well have been Studio 54. After a few very expensive imported beers we headed back to the studio (since we had access to the space 24/7, we ended up staying in the studio space until about 5 AM) and set up for life drawing. Ryan was the headline act.
I've been to life drawing events loads of times before, and I honestly think there's no better way to learn how to draw the human form. I went as part of my University’s art society, as well as individually organised local events, and what I always loved was how genuine the events were. People there took their work seriously. Artists would attend with a genuine desire to learn more about proportion, positioning, and shading, and also probably because life drawing classes are much cheaper than taking a series of formal drawing classes.
I think a lot of people have this image of life drawing as being reserved for pervs or exhibitionists. I've never been to a class and witnessed someone being openly creepy, or giggling at the sight of a nipple. The whole experience is about celebrating acceptance and diversity—after all, the more unusual a body, the more interesting and challenging it is to draw.
Anyway, back to the main event. After Ryan had modeled a set of excellent poses, we all compared drawings, then at some point I got swept up by the great playlist and the room's excellent lighting and decided to model, too. It was definitely a "when am I going to get this opportunity again?!" moment. Along with another fellow female artist and Nes resident, we decided to model together. I think I've seen paired life modelling before, but not with two women. Had we just invented a new thing?! Probably not, but I was all hyped up on beer and body positivity.
The confidence you have to fake to get naked in the first place seeps into your mind and becomes actual confidence once you realise no one has even flinched upon sight of your saggy boobs.
I think it was one of those things where if I had stopped to think, or if I had planned on doing it beforehand, it wouldn't have been so significant. I remember at the time I was feeling generally uncomfortable after spending a month wearing leggings every single day, and existing on Iceland's finest breads and cookies (not that there’s anything wrong with that). I'd just drank about four beers, so was definitely feeling puffy and bloated, but once I was sat naked on a plinth in a room of about 12 people, I honestly didn't care.
The very act of deciding to model on a completely spontaneous whim felt like the best way of saying "f*ck you" to the insidious messages that comment on the conditions that need to be met before a woman’s body can be shown in public. In that moment, I was the complete antithesis of what popular culture would deem acceptable for a naked woman. I had not been on a bikini diet, had a bikini wax, or done my hair. I don't think I even had make up on. I felt as if I was I was rebelling against all those standards and expectations, all at once.
'The Life Model II,' Gouache on Paper, 16.5 x 23.4 in
The amazing thing about life modelling is that you're in a space where there's an unspoken ethical code saying you must not judge another person's body, and the room appreciates the guts it takes to stand there exposed. The confidence you have to fake to get naked in the first place seeps into your mind and becomes actual confidence once you realise no one has even flinched upon sight of your saggy boobs. Having people look at your body from an anatomical perspective—a simple interaction of shapes to be interpreted in a painting or drawing—detaches them, and yourself, from the web of never-ending associations related to the human body.
It’s no new realisation that women are bombarded by incessant comments on how we should look. We see videos on Snapchat of Kardashians praising each other for "looking anorexic," watch films that center around weight-loss makeovers, and buy magazines that promote "bikini diets" and weight-loss plans. Living in the ethos of “I’ll be happy when…” is extremely damaging and in my experience just leads to frustration and self-loathing. I’m certainly guilty of pandering to these ideals—I used to wax literally every part of my body (including my non-existent mustache), eat diet cereals for main meals, and obsess over magazine articles like "how to lose 10 pounds in 10 days" and other horrendous clickbait titles. Until my mindset started to shift and I realised that the power trip of deflecting this media garbage and refusing to conform is way more satisfying that the fleeting sense of achievement after completing a detox diet.
People might say life modelling takes guts because it exposes your vulnerability, but for me it was more about leaping over the mental hurdles. Hearing the mental chatter that says I shouldn't do something—then doing it anyway. Being naked in public is considered the ultimate embarrassment—or on the other side of the coin, seedy and weird. Yet I did it and it was none of those things. Instead I felt like a strong, powerful woman free to do whatever I wanted. Stepping into that sense of agency made me feel incredibly powerful, and I wish for every woman to experience the same, if not every day, then some day.