Model drawing & modelling when you’re not a model

Do you have that recurring nightmare about being naked in public?

What’s that about? I’m pretty sure it’s about vulnerability. Fear of being judged if you were to find yourself completely unprotected and fully “seen”.  And sometimes, it’s about body shame. And the difficulty with healing body shame is that you can’t do that without involving the body, when all you want to do is hide it!

For ten years I ran figure drawing workshops, which usually involves hiring nude models to pose, so that people can practice drawing the human form. But our group did it all backwards. We started in my living room, with the bravest among us offering to be the model. As we were just beginners slowly forming a group, we didn’t want to charge those learning to draw, so we didn’t pay those modelling.

And we discovered that there was a subtle difference when the models were not paid; instead of it being a job, it became a gift they offered to those drawing… a gift of their vulnerability.  They were there because they wanted to be, not to be paid. So we continued that way intentionally. We called it a “figure drawing workshop for body acceptance” and invited people who wanted the challenge of finding themselves nude in front of others to model, even if they had no previous experience. And it worked!

It allowed people who were uncomfortable in their own skin to start working through their shame. They gave us the gift of their vulnerability, and in return received the gift of discovering that the artists were really only there to draw their body, not to judge, exploit or even necessarily admire their bodies. And that was a gift in itself. With time, the artists started making a point of showing their work to the models, and to offer them one of their drawings to thank them for posing.

I was never particularly strong at drawing models, and I was not a willing model! I preferred to find models and run the workshops, but that also put me in the hot spot if models cancelled at the last minute. It’s scarier to think about it than to actually do it, so who could blame them! When this happened, we asked for a stand-in in the room. If nobody responded, then it was me.

This is a drawing I received from an artist at a session I posed at. It helped me see myself differently than I usually do… definitely with less judgement. It’s just another body… unique as they all are…

To know your own beauty

The good thing about growing older, is that we truly do get wiser. Experience is the best teacher and after many trials, errors and a few successes, we do learn to do things differently and to see things differently. While there is something enthralling about youth, newness, guileless energy and strength, we must learn to see the beauty in maturity, in fragility, in slowness and in vulnerability, particularly in ourselves as we slow down and ripen into middle and then old age.

If disordered eating and negative body image are truly forms of mental illness, I never really understood that I was sick. Although I sought help, no real help was to be found other than prescriptions for anti-depressant meds, which I tried, but didn’t get good results on them. So I just kept wading through my own mental muck, thinking everyhing that was wrong with me was my own fault.

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After at least twenty-five of years struggling, striving and battling with myself, I think I have reached a place where the self-acceptance is finally greater than the doubts and the self-harassment. Finally. I can’t look back without thinking “what a tragic waste of energy…” and wondering how my life would have been different had my inner life been gentler.

But here I am with my process to share. Reaching out to see if I can possibly grab on to the hand of someone else who is suffering like I was, and help show them the way home to themselves through this simple practice of drawing the body.

When I was in my twenties, I was not that aware of my beauty, or my strengths. I didn’t yet know how powerful I was as a woman, as a human being, with a heart full of compassion. I thought appearing beautiful on the outside was extremely important.  Now I  see so much  beauty everywhere I turn in life, and I wouldn’t have it any other way, because I see myself as part of that beauty too, and I’m not trying to change myself any more.

No matter what size, it’s my body

I have been photographing myself nude for almost two decades. Daily during some periods, while other times I stopped for several years but always started again, because even if I was hugely resistant towards it, I had to admit it helped improve my body image. It made me stop hiding from myself and really look at the body I have. Drawing the photos afterwards was a further act of acceptance, and often became a process of very peaceful contemplation.

This series was taken when I was at my heaviest; perhaps not obese, but not very comfortable in my own skin, and well above a weight that felt healthy for me. I was not happy with myself in general during that period of time, and I think my compulsive eating habits and lack of activity were simply being reflected in my body shape.

This is how the drawings look in process. I choose an image, maybe crop it or fix the contrast, then print and trace it, and finally, sketch in the highlights. These photos of the drawing in progress were just taken with my cell phone. Look how much softer it appears when the contrast is adjusted; the drawing looks more skin-colored, like I’m gently hidden in the shadows.

During this photoshoot (a close friend was behind the camera), I felt shame and disgust with my body. I was trying to kneel down in this image and was struggling to bend my legs and sit on them. It is not a natural position for bigger bodies to get into, and although there is nothing wrong with that, I was embarassed. Seeing these drawings later, I just see softness. I see lovely curves and a roundess that is full of life, like an abundance. The abundant body gives much to those it envelopes. The abundant body, to me, is a shared body, a beautiful body, a gentler, softer body that is inviting and available in a way that a firm body isn’t. That was me at one time in my life, and it was okay. I wish I had known so at the time. I was SO hard on myself.

Seeing ourselves nude is of course very revealing.

Being “stark naked” means being extremely vulnerable.

biggerbody1-c I think we all prefer to be strong and in control. Ideally, Instragram perfect. But we’re not just that, and we can’t always  be strong and in control. Accepting our vulnerabilities, our nakedness, our weaknesses and our doubts is the best way to recognizing our strengths, even if it means going against a society pushing us to perform and improve, no matter what.