Learning to Love Your Body: Lessons from Life Models
We talked body positivity, self-love and naked selfies with three life models who subvert dominant ideologies, and unapologetically bare all to a room full of strangers on a regular basis. Amy, Caitlin and Olivia all make a living posing nude for artists; they tell us what it is really like to be the muse behind a masterpiece.
DTL: What motivated you to become a life model?
Amy: I’ve suffered with disordered eating, most acutely between the ages of about 19 and 22. I started life modelling when I was 20 as a conscious attempt to change my perception of my body, to try to see it as something to be used rather than as just something that was there to look a certain way, to conform to arbitrary beauty standards.
Olivia: I’m pretty disproportionate. I have quite an odd body shape and a life drawing class, I feel, is one of the few places where that’s a good thing. I spoke to other artists and they told me I would be good to draw, so I thought I’d try it out.
DTL: How did it feel the very first time you stood nude in front of a class? How did you build up enough confidence in order to do that?
Amy: I think when people ask me this they want me to say it was really scary and difficult, but it honestly didn’t bother me because I was so positive that doing it was going to help me love myself. In that moment, it didn’t matter whether or not I was happy with my body, because that wasn’t the point. The point was to do good poses with the body I had. Despite having had a bad relationship with body image, in the context of the life class, getting naked just felt so right.
Olivia: I’ll be honest, it didn’t really bother me. It’s an entirely different context from say, sex or burlesque or some kind of steamy fashion shoot. You’re there to help people and they’re really appreciative of that. People are so kind and grateful that you’re willing to sit for them. I went away from my first session feeling better than I’d ever felt about myself.
“Nudity seems to be okay as long as you’re skinny and tall but if you’re nude and your body does not comply with those standards, it is seen as controversial” – Olivia
DTL: Has your perception of your body changed since becoming a life model?
Caitlin: Yes! As a cis-woman bombarded with terrible, unattainable standards, the relationship with your body can be bitter, confused and isolating. To do something, any remarkable thing with your body; whether that is modelling, dancing, swimming or pogo jumping – provides you with a sense of wonder that we should all feel for our incredible, glorious, capable bodies. The body becomes an important part of the self when you model; it’s your instrument of expression and you come to realise the instrument may have some wonky keys and dusty bridges but it’s beautiful and valuable just the way it is.
Amy: My perception of my body has definitely changed since becoming a life model. I can’t say that it was life modelling alone that helped me overcome my fraught relationship with food and my body, but it has played a huge part. Now when I think about the parts of my body that I used to try to shrink and change, I see them as unique shapes and lines and textures that I can use to inspire people.
DTL: How do you think nudity is perceived in today’s society? And do you think those perceptions vary depending on gender, age, race, disability?
Olivia: I think nudity is pretty normal. It’s everywhere. Unfortunately, it’s a very specific kind of nudity; whitewashed, overtly sexual and unrealistic. Nudity seems to be okay as long as you’re skinny and tall but if you’re nude and your body does not comply with those standards, it is seen as controversial. It’s so ridiculous. It needs to change. My friend’s 8-year-old daughter came up to her and asked if she could go on a diet because she thought she was fat. That is not ok!
Caitlin: There are socially acceptable and non-acceptable bodies. There are bodies we should be ashamed to walk around in, and some that we should flaunt. There are things we should do with our bodies and there are things we shouldn’t. And of course those perceptions are rooted in patriarchal, racist, ageist, ableist ideas that have been perpetuated by the whitewashed skinny media. Perpetuated because sex and shame sell. Dash that, and be nude in a safe place. We come as we are! And I think that’s worth celebrating. It’s also worth disregarding the guilt trip that makes you feel like you should be buying another god-damn yogurt product. You don’t need it.
“If a company can profit from your self-hatred, you can bet they’ll do anything to incite it!” -Amy
Amy: Where do I start?! The way we see nudity is absolutely contextual – women’s bare ankles were once perceived as obscene but now we don’t care about flashing a bit of skin below shin-level. Instagram has recently come under fire for deleting pictures of fat women in underwear under their anti-nudity policy, but not thin ones. And of course, our perception of nudity is gendered, you only have to look at the Free the Nipple campaign or the public breastfeeding debate to see that. What we see as the female body is sexualised in ways that our idea of the male body is not. Because our idea of nudity is so rooted in the sexual, it’s hard for anyone who isn’t young, thin, white and able-bodied – ie. conventionally attractive – to be naked without being shamed, ridiculed or attacked in some way.
There’s a perceived obscenity in naked old bodies, or naked disabled bodies, or naked fat bodies, because of the sex aspect that’s so tied in with nudity, but then when someone conventionally attractive like Kim Kardashian bares all, she’s slut-shamed. No one can win really.
I think life modelling really takes the sex out of nudity. You have to take the sex out before you can put it back in (if necessary)! When you life model, you’re not posing to be sexual, you have a body with breasts, genitalia, a bum – why is showing these things any different from showing your nose or your elbow?
DTL: What is your opinion on naked selfies?
Olivia: I take a lot of them because they make me feel good about myself. I don’t tend to share them, I just keep them to look at when I feel a bit rubbish about myself. It might sound a bit sad but it works for me! I see no reason why people shouldn’t do something that makes them feel good about themselves. The only worrying thing, is if they fall into the wrong hands. That’s why I don’t share mine, I don’t want them used for anything without my consent. I think that’s what people have to watch out for. If you are going to share them or send them to people, good on you! Just make absolutely sure that they are in the hands of people you trust. Your privacy is important and if someone is privileged enough to see a naked selfie of you they should know to treat you with respect and you should be sure that they’ll do just that.
Amy: This may sound pretentious but I do think selfies are a form of artistic expression, especially when women and girls and non-binary people do it, because in a patriarchal world that strives to tell you you’re not thin or pretty or otherwise conforming enough in order to profit from you, to love yourself is a revolutionary act. People can say it’s vain if they like, so what, I’m vain! Vanity is radical when you don’t fit the aesthetic status quo. I think taking naked selfies can be a great way to have fun with your body and your identity, whether or not the pictures are sexual.
There is a lot to be said for the desexualisation of nudity, but I don’t think it’s productive to demonise naked selfies that have a sexual connotation. As long as the picture is taken for the right reasons – for fun, for self-exploration – and the sharing of that selfie is consensual, I fully support the rise of the naked selfie!
“To love yourself is a revolutionary act” -Amy
DTL: What tips would you give to our readers who may be struggling to embrace their body?
Amy:I’m privileged to be able-bodied, and to earn enough money to feed myself, and it’s important to be aware of those privileges if you have them. I also think it’s important to realise that a lot of the time, the voices that tell us to hate ourselves aren’t our voices, they’re put in our heads by the diet industry or the fashion industry, the film and magazine industry – capitalism basically. If a company can profit from your self-hatred, you can bet they’ll do anything to incite it! Remembering and resisting that is radical.
Caitlin: Embrace your body as an instrument of fun and adapt your relationship with it. It is not easy to accept the parts of yourself that you do not like, but the effort to do so is worth it.
Olivia: Fake it till you make it. You may not feel wholly confident but if you act like it after a while you’ll start to feel that way too. It takes the same amount of work to hate your body as it does to love it. Body confidence is so important, not just for yourself but if other people see someone who loves themselves unconditionally then it will spur them on to do the same. I’ve found people who are the most confident in themselves to also be the most kind, the most giving and the most supportive. And, the most beautiful. Regardless of their size or age or the colour of their skin – they glow, they radiate goodness. You can’t buy that, no matter what the adverts say. Don’t get me wrong, it takes a hell of a lot of work but it’s so worth it.
DTL: Final thoughts?
Amy: I think life modelling and life drawing is a good chance to celebrate body diversity. I think any way that more people of colour, disabled people, trans people, fat people and older people – anyone who isn’t the same white, young, thin, able-bodied cisgender person that we already see represented everywhere – can be encouraged to model is a step towards universal body positivity.
Thanks to Olivia Hancock, Caitlin Mckeon, Amy Squirrel, Mary Martin and Draw Brighton.