When I was in my early teens, I remember my sister, Sarah, returning home from school and recounting the latest ventures of her A-level art class. She depicted the scene: a middle-aged man sprawled across a wooden plinth, encircled by a group of seventeen-year-old girls behind easels. The whole concept was beyond me. I couldn’t fathom the idea that this man’s work involved stripping down to his birthday suit for the educational purposes of a group of teenage girls, nor that there was any pleasure or learning to be gained from the process of drawing him. At that age, the image of a naked male body was borderline repulsive to me and, I was certain, would not evoke any sort of creative inspiration.
Fast forward to age eighteen and I am attending weekly life-drawing classes with Sarah, at a community arts centre down a discreet backstreet of Covent Garden. This was at a point in time when it felt as if every thread of my life was coming undone. I was in the crux of an aggressive, unforgiving eating disorder, which consumed my every waking minute – my mind a cess-pit of toxic, unrelenting thoughts. I had been forced to take leave from dance school, and my days involved little beyond battling with my mental health. Sarah has suggested I join her at a life-drawing class, to see if it might oﬀer some respite and distraction from my inner chaos.
One class, and I was hooked. Life-drawing quickly became the most highly anticipated part of my week; it was two hours when my mind was wholly in the present, absorbed by pen and paper. Experiencing it for myself, I realised there was nothing uncouth about the naked models that lay in front of me; in fact, there was something refreshingly matter-of-fact about it all. I noticed the way I was engaging with their bodies was devoid of any judgement, comparison or scrutiny — such a stark contrast to the way I was engaging with my own body at the time.
I revelled in the endlessly diverse expressions of the human form — the range of shapes, sizes and specificities — and was able to, so eﬀortlessly, see beauty in each individual. I found it inspiring to be in the presence of female models who seemed so unapologetic about their bodies and comfortable inside their skin; I longed to feel that within myself.
“I revelled in the endlessly diverse expressions of the human form — the range of shapes, sizes and specificities — and was able to, so eﬀortlessly, see beauty in each individual.”
My sister and I had a running joke that life-modelling was so clearly the profession for me. I’ve always rejoiced in taking my clothes of (evident in the earliest of baby videos), will seek out any opportunity to skinny dip, and nurture dreams of joining a nudist community in later life — when I will wear Birkenstocks, and nothing else. So the prospect of making a living whilst being naked (in a non-exploitative situation, it must be said), seemed like a perfect fit. But with my body image bound up in complexity, and in a generally fragile state both mentally and physically, Sarah and I agreed that it wasn’t the right time to pursue the idea further.
Five years on, and life drawing had continued to be a weekly aﬀair, but I had got myself back to a much better place. The prospect of life-modelling now presented itself in a diﬀerent light: as an opportunity to acknowledge and aﬃrm how far I had come, a positive challenge.
Before I could talk myself out of it, I got in contact with a life-drawing group, who had moved online during the pandemic; two days later I found myself naked beneath my pink, fluﬀy dressing gown and clicking on a Zoom link. I had spent the hour prior (dare I admit it) practicing some poses and reorganising my bedroom to create the appropriate feng shui. I had positioned a wooden chair in front of a white wall, with a desk lamp casting light on me from the side; the floor was covered in a blanket of candles, the incense was aglow and Joni Mitchell was humming softly in the background.
I was relieved to see my screen filled with the faces of fifteen women; the absence of the male gaze eliminated a great amount of weight that I had been unaware I was carrying, replaced instead with a trust that I naturally instil in fellow females. On cue, I slipped oﬀ my dressing gown and draped myself delicately over the chair. Within a matter of minutes, my heart rate had settled, the goosebumps on my arms had disappeared, and the scenario felt strangely normal.
The session floated by in a gentle haze as I danced between poses of varying elaborateness, growing more confident with each one. The way the participants were observing my body felt novel to me: neutral, free of criticism, loathing or sexualisation. To them, I was simply a mass of colour, curves, lines, and shading, the stimulus for their creativity — it was liberating.
I was sharing a raw, honest version of myself, making no attempt to commodify, angle or edit my body, in the knowledge that it would suﬃce. I felt enclosed in a protective bubble, shielded from all of the toxic body ideals that fester in our society. I was not overcome with a feeling of self-love, per say, but a feeling of neutrality within myself; the ability to exist within the vessel of my body and not be itching to alter or escape it. Through shedding my clothes I felt able to shed so much of the negativity that, as a woman, I’ve layered upon myself over the years.
The session concluded with each of the women holding up their artwork to the camera. I was faced with fifteen diﬀerent depictions of myself, captured and abstracted in charcoal, pencil and paint; each completely unique, and completely magnificent. On admiring their creations, I noticed I was able look at my body objectively, to see it as more than just a sum of imperfections, as something complete. I was consumed, not in the details of my own appearance, but by the artwork itself. My body was simply there to serve a purpose, to inspire art, and – going by my Zoom gallery – I think it did its job pretty well.
© Gaby Conn, 2021