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…

Waist or no waist

“Who I am is certainly part of how I look and vice versa. I want to know where I begin and end, what size I am, and what suits me… I am not “in” this body, I am this body. Waist or no waist.

But all the same, there’s something about me that doesn’t change, hasn’t changed, through all the remarkable, exciting, alarming, and disappointing transformations my body has gone through. There is a person there who isn’t only what she looks like, and to find her and know her I have to look through, look in, look deep. Not only in space, but in time.”

building positive body image with aging

“There’s the ideal beauty of youth and health, which never really changes, and is always true. There’s the ideal beauty of movie stars and advertising models, the beauty-game ideal, which changes its rules all the time and from place to place and is never entirely true. And there’s an ideal beauty that is harder to define or understand, because it occurs not just in the body but where the body and the spirit meet and define each other.”

– from the wonderful writings on aging by  Ursula K. Le Guin

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.

The beauty in vulnerability

People say I draw well, and of course I appreciate hearing that. I love to draw, and I have put in alot of hours doing it, and we get better at anything we repeat. But being good at drawing is not the point of this blog. It’s about the process.

It’s about slowing down, taking the time to really look at the human body, your own or someone else’s. It’s about feeling what you feel and contemplating what you see. The overall picture, the details, and all that’s unseen. So many functions keeping us alive are completely invisible!

Drawing the body is the complete opposite of looking at yourself in the mirror and believing the fourteen critical thoughts that pop up in the first three seconds.

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In this image I see many things. This time it’s not a self-portrait, it’s of a friend. I was taking the photos. I remember the room we were in, the mood, her discomfort yet absolute determination to face her fears and do this, our laughter, and the sense of accomplishment we both had when the camera was put away and she dressed.

I see strength in this body, and I see light. In that frozen moment, I see something pure and tender that is not trying to hide or cover itself up or embellish itself in any way. I see the humility, the trust and the courage required to be vulnerable and be seen. While drawing, I did not see my friend’s ego, her personal issues or her health struggles, I just saw her, very simply, and I felt love and compassion.

I know that if she were to see the actual photograph, she would probably wince, like I do when seeing images of myself, and she would probably find something wrong with her body. I hope that when I show her the drawings made from that photoshoot, she’ll see the simple beauty that I saw as I drew.

Write to us at madaboutmybody@gmail.com if you’d like to try this practice.  We can correspond to coach you on how to do an easy photoshoot, or supply silhouettes of bodies similar to yours that you can trace from and then draw, colour, or paint. Everyone can get something out of this process, even if you have never drawn in your life.

To draw is to see deeply

When you look in the mirror, are you usually examining your flaws or fixing your make-up?

When you see a photograph of yourself, how many seconds does it take before you you’ve decided/judged whether it’s acceptable, gorgeous, or positively horrid? When you look at yourself, do you really SEE YOU?

This simple drawing practice is contemplative, because like a yoga session or a period of meditation, you are slowing down, stopping, and taking time for you. And whether it’s facing the fear of having your nude body photographed or sitting down to choose one of the photos and then trace it, you are taking time to face your most vulnerable self.

But I’m not an artist!” you may say… well you don’t need to be an artist.

But I don’t have nude photos of myself!“… then you can start with your face.

But it won’t turn out as good as your drawings“… well, if you do as many drawings as I have done over the years, your drawings will get better, like mine did. AND it’s the process that’s important, not the results.

To begin, print a photo on yourself on a full 8.5×11 printer page in black and white.

Next, use a lightbox, or a window, or a light bulb under a glass table (whatever you have!) to trace the silhouette onto a blank sheet placed on top of the printout.

Finally, work with the images side by side to highlight or color the images.

Sorry for the mediocre photos, I just took them using my cell phone because it’s important for me to show how easy and accessible this practice can be! Anyone can do it.

The point is, the time you spend drawing and looking at your own body while drawing is time spent learning to see differently. To go beyond the instant judgments and get past the glaring flaws that you are used to zooming in on to see something in yourself, perhaps maybe eventually everything about yourself, that is simply what it is. And that just may include acceptable. Maybe weak too, or strong, broken, rebuilt, in process, in progress, in hiding, in coming out. It might even eventually include beautiful.

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. 

A bouquet of forest in my soul

The winter is long, and I feel sad and tired some days. Insomnia is my most intimate partner right now and I have difficulty embracing it. Morning brings light and hope, even if I feel rough. Drawing is my meditation, and settling in at my desk in the early hours to draw, even for a few minutes before leaving for work is as much an act of observance as is it a choice.

I trace my body in the forest, again, ten years ago, before I gained all that extra weight. Even if the shape of me then is pleasing to my eye now, I imagine faults in my character as I trace myself. The mean voice is never far away. There is always something wrong with me.

It’s the leaves that bring me peace, their subtle life force, the burst of a thousand different greens. The affirmation of the forest that growth and renewal are always possible. That what is firmly rooted in the earth will always allow something beautiful to spring forth.

Leaves. Beautiful, gentle, tender sprouts of simplicity… I trace another one, and another, and suddenly the tears well up and my breathing is laboured. I don’t cry easily, it scares me, overwhelms me, but I try to let it be, to let the emotion flow through me and let the tears fall, even if they’re ruining my eye make-up and I have to go to work soon.

I feel sad for all the difficulties in my life, in everyone’s lives. I feel the weight of the struggles in the world. I am touching my brokeness and the vulnerability I feel that makes me strive to be perfect, to show my worth to someone, anyone, everyone, to convince them, and eventually, hopefully myself, that I really do deserve to be loved. Convinced that I have to earn it. I am crying for all the pain I’ve felt and that I know so many other people feel when hating myself has been easier than finding what’s lovable in me. For all the years and opportunities lost in self-sabotage. For all the darkness I’ve fed rather than turning towards life for light.

Thank you forest, thank you leaves. Thank you my body for still being there with me no matter how nasty I have been to you. Today I will carry a bouquet of gratefulness and soft green leaves in my soul and remind myself that Spring always, always follows the Winter.