A Life Model on Reclaiming our Bodies

This month, Bristol SU’s Women’s Network have been Reclaiming our Bodies, Reclaiming our Power, and finally Reclaiming the Night at the annual march which took place on the 25th November. This was the last in a series of events which have been taking place all month to bring together and empower women, and to challenge some of the issues we are faced with. Earlier this month, Reclaim teamed up with Helicon Magazine to host a life drawing workshop as part of Reclaim our Bodies. Frankie Roe was one of the models at the event, and I asked her a few questions about the experience.


Was this the first time you’ve modelled for a life drawing workshop?

No, I've modelled for the SU a fair few times and for the Helicon life drawing sessions at the Arts House as well.


How did you get involved?

At the beginning of each year I message round a few student societies that might be looking for models, and I knew Helicon ran life drawing sessions so I got in touch. It's decent money, and it's something I enjoy so it's a bit of a no brainer. I didn't actually know the Helicon session was part of the Reclaim the Night events until quite late in the day.


I can see how the experience would be really liberating but I know most women, including myself, would find it terrifying too. Was this something you got over easily or did it take a while to build up the courage?

I've never found it especially difficult. I studied German as an undergraduate and the nudist culture in Germany is far stronger than in the UK, though there are fewer young people who visit nudist areas today which is a shame. I've always been interested in nudism because I felt like normal beaches were far more sexualised. If you're wearing a bikini, some men get the idea that because you're technically covered it's ok to letch. And there's the sense that because something's concealed it's more exciting and alluring, so I was just a bit sick of having my arse stared at on normal beaches. The great thing about nudism is that it completely demystifies the human body. There's nothing particularly erotic about a German nudist beach (at least not the officially designated ones) - it's just people of various shapes and sizes having a BBQ or swimming or sitting with all their rolls hanging out having a chat, everything is out there for you to see so it quickly loses any subversive connotation. So I didn't have to build up the courage to take my clothes off because it felt completely natural. And swimming naked is a lot nicer than wearing soggy polyester.


And how did it feel when you got naked for the first time in front of a room of strangers?

It was slightly different to the nudist beach because all eyes are on you, and obviously you're the only one naked, but very similar in the sense that it's extremely matter-of-fact. As far as the people drawing you are concerned you might as well be a living mannequin. It's essentially a form of objectification, but I don't mean that in a negative sense - it's just that you basically become an amalgamation of fleshy bits and shapes that someone has to try to recreate on paper. I like that because it's very non-judgemental; I've gone to life-drawing classes to draw as well as to model, and I've never heard anyone complain about the way a model looks. It's nice that the emphasis isn't placed on how attractive the model is but on how their body has a function as an artistic aide. 


Has the experience improved your self-confidence?

I'm pretty happy with my body in general but it's nice to think about how a bit of flab that I might otherwise frown at could actually add a bit of much-needed texture or shade to a life drawing. Actually, having a bit of flab can make things easier - I've lost a fair bit of weight over the past year and I find I have to work harder to be an interesting model. Anecdotally I hear a lot of people saying they prefer bigger models because having the extra fat means the drawings are less anatomical, they're less classical. But I try to think of interesting positions and I get satisfaction out of knowing that my body is fulfilling a useful artistic function.


Have you experienced any misconceptions about life modelling?

I remember I ran into a fellow life model in a bar and she was saying how irritating it is when men assume it's some sort of weird sex party with bonus crayons and chalk. Literally just after she said this one of her drunk flatmates came up and when he found out how we knew each other he was all like 'you can model for me anytime', which was stellar timing. You do also get the occasional weirdo. Beware anyone asking you to model in private - it can be totally legit, lots of professional artists need private models. But there was this one post-grad student a few years back who would try to get women to model privately for free, and he even had a weird website where he talked about his life-drawing philosophy and it was basically just 'women are so beautiful, god I love women, rare, delicate creatures, oh you lovely women'. He never drew any men. He turned up at a life drawing session I was modelling at and I seem to remember he wasn't too keen on the fact I hadn't shaved. He didn't say anything, he just left when he was confronted with my hairy fanny.


Have you seen any of the drawings from the event?

Yeah I always try to look at a few. What's funny is how they mostly look nothing like me. 80 per cent of people concentrate so much on the body they forget the face. I do the same thing when I go to life drawing, you can draw faces anytime you want but it's the body you need to practice. Occasionally you'll get someone who captures your facial features and that's always fun to see. But it's equally fun when you get people who aren't great artists and they've given you size ten feet and a microscopic head. People always apologise when they can't draw but there's no need. The bad drawings make my night.


Why is it important that we Reclaim our Bodies in your opinion?

Not to get too academic but there's a bit in John Berger's documentary Ways of Seeing where he talks about how women are brought up to possess a split consciousness - the man watches, and the woman watches herself being watched. What I took that to mean was that women are brought up to perceive ourselves not only as individuals, but also as objects of the male gaze. Sometimes I'll be walking down the road and I'm intensely aware of how I appear to strangers, and particularly if I'm walking past a group of men who look like they might be about to catcall me. So you're always aware that you're under external scrutiny, and you internalise that gaze and end up watching yourself and monitoring your behaviour as if you were an outside observer. I think this means women can end up feeling alienated from their bodies because there's the sense that they don't really belong to us, which is the reason that a Reclaim our Bodies theme is important. The nice thing about life modelling is that you're still presenting your body for other people but you're calling the shots, you decide the pose, if someone's being weird you get them kicked out. Life modelling is a form of objectification on a really basic level, but it's not sexualised, and it's something you choose to do rather than something that's being done to you. I think that can make it quite empowering.