It wasn’t until recently as I stood behind an easel loaded with several blank sheets of paper, and a naked lady on a chaise-longue before me, that I realised just how few naked women I have seen in real life. Not ‘in the flesh’ at least, in all of her world-wise, life-giving glory. This wasn’t a gender-reversal Titanic remake, this was a life drawing class, and there were fifteen or so other students around me, all witnessing and part of the same ritual. In a room filled with mixed artistic abilities (and probably varying levels of comfort at being confronted with a reclining naked lady we’d never met before) we were given one directive by our instructor: to draw what you see in front of you. Ignore the proportions you think an arm and leg should have. Don’t succumb to how you would hope your tummy looks when sitting down. Essentially, don’t draw anything you’ve been convinced to think a nude body is supposed to look like.
To say that I have only seen a handful of completely starkers women in person is probably not such an unusual thing for a heterosexual 25 year old female, nothing to be concerned about at least. But ordinary or not, as I stood there, charcoal in hand I couldn’t help but think what a shame it was, followed by the uncomfortable truth that the female body, other than my own, has largely remained a mystery to me. Sure, I have ideas of what a female body should look like at various stages of life - the most propagated ones being your ‘healthy young woman’, ‘heavily expectant mother’ and ‘frail elderly lady’ stages that some consider a full representation of the life-cycle of a woman’s body. Still, those have mostly been delivered to me through rectangular screens and glossy pages (with clothes on top), hardly representative at all.
Truth is as I reflect on my own experiences, I just haven’t ever had the reality-check of close female friendship groups where bodies are shown and shared as casually as items from your wardrobe (another thing that TV tells me exists, as if how much of their body they’ve revealed to you is a solid indicator of how strong your female bond is). Coupled with my own shyness meaning that the gym changing room provides its own mini-workout balancing hiding my own body from onlookers, and making every attempt not to accidentally see another woman caught in the nude - even if she is entirely blasé about the whole thing! Without these reality checks, I only have the idealised versions to go on.
That’s not to say that I assume men are surrounded by or more comfortable with the reality of a male body - though, if I were to hazard a guess whether typically men or women have seen more of their own sex naked in real life, I would guess men. Maybe I’m unfairly thinking that every male changing room from adolescence onwards through to old age is full of ‘lads’ who have experienced the communal team showers after rugby or other sports at university, or that (like a large volume of males I know) there is always a funny story that includes ‘and then he got his knob out’, suggesting to me that nudity is not something that men are as unaccustomed to amongst their own kind.
Perhaps it even helps that men only have one so-called private part to keep in check in order to stay ‘decent’, whereas women tend to have two (three if you count each breast). At least by the Instagram algorithm’s standards - the silent dictator that governs most of our lives - a woman’s exposed breasts do not conform with community guidelines, whilst topless men are free to run rife without abandon. It was only last year that Facebook relaxed its ‘no nipple’ policy - which is actually a no female nipple policy - on its platforms allowing female breasts to be featured in the form of paintings and artworks, but otherwise still limits them to the context of breastfeeding, health-related situations or an act of protest. Well, Facebook, I think you’ll find that everything is an act of protest nowadays, ever heard of #FreeTheNipple? As long as female bodies are censored in ways that male ones aren’t, we’re propagating a culture of inequality and insecurity.
In the spirit of optimism, it’s at this point I think it would be appropriate to say: Praise be! At least some progress is being made to rebalance the scales, and art is a key player in that. It’s not just participating in the drawing that is educating me in the ways of the female form - Alexandria Coe, Venetia Berry or Andrea Kollar are just a pick of the female artists reimagining how we are exposed to the female nude using contours, curves and lines to create drawings and artworks that carry equal measures of the personality of the model and the owner of the hand that drew them. Each time one of their sinuous pieces appears in my Instagram feed it acts as a balm to the silent but violent algorithm. Not to mention, they’re just bloody talented.
I can only aspire to produce sketches in a life drawing class that exude as much life, energy and personality as theirs, but fortunately for all of us novices the real joy of the experience doesn’t lie in the end product. I’ve no doubt that for many the concept of holding a pencil and trying to draw anything isn’t an appealing one. Let alone trying to draw a naked person; let alone a naked person who is right in front of you who you have never met before. And yet I cannot express enough the immediate remedy to world-weariness that the ritual of simply ‘drawing what you see in front of you’ brings. Whether as a distraction from the 9-to-5 or a catharsis to the frustrations I’ve almost finished ranting about, consider this my directive: get your clothed butt to a class, stat.
If I were being didactic I would say that life drawing classes are so aptly named for reasons beyond the living subject of the artwork. They breed an attitude of curiosity, of (as a woman) not being embarrassed or ashamed of that curiosity, and of turning that curiosity into something formed and beautiful. I’m thrilled to be ‘growing my number’, so to speak - with every irregular curve and foreshortened limb of a naked female that I draw, I feel like I’m contributing to remedying the injustices that have been done to it one imperfect line at a time. So next time someone asks you to send nudes, why not send them one that you’ve drawn instead?
Interesting reading for the curious: