Bare-assed: escaping the male gaze

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Life drawing has long been stigmatised; inspiring fears of vulnerability and discomfort where, rather, it should be promoting freedom and enlightenment. The form found its roots in 18th-century France, where it was considered a compulsory exercise for students to master. But if it’s been around for so long, why is the concept of posing in the nude still cause for alarm? Our bodies house intricate subtleties designed to prod at our fascination, so why should they not encourage our artistic expression?

The female body is done being censored – and many others agree. For International Women’s Day the St. Chads, FEMSOC hosted a life drawing class to raise money for Strut Safe, in memory of Durham Alumni Sarah Everard, and Lets Get our Knickers in a Twist, a charity supporting vulnerable women set up by Durham student Serena Chamberlain. In conversation with organisers and models, I got to hear from change-makers themselves about how they view freedom and feminism.

Have you life modelled before?

 “I’ve life modelled a couple of times before since I’ve really started embracing body neutrality as a concept! I think for me that stems from a place of healing and has just been something which has come from growing up, maturing, and finding peace with the way I look. Not to inflate my own importance but if seeing me also helps someone struggling with their self-image or encourages them to step out of their comfort zone, that’s an added bonus too.” (Dite Bagdonaite, Life Model)

 “I’ve never life-modelled before!.. Applying to take part was definitely a toss-up between the physical vulnerability of having my tits out in front of a paying audience, and the liberation of just existing in my body, and how empowering that would feel. And I’m so glad I took the leap; it was so rewarding!” (Anonymous Life Model)

“Having been a part of the organisation of St. Chad’s FEMSOC Life Drawing, I am more likely to take part in nude modelling than I would’ve previously thought. I can see now how alongside the fears and reservations that come with nudity in life drawing, it can also be an empowering experience.” – (Sophie Sherratt, FEMSOC)

Life modelling is a reminder that our bodies can exist for more than just sexual satisfaction, instead, it can be about performance, conveying emotion, creating shapes, and excelling in pride.

How would you educate anyone plagued with misconceptions about feminism and International Women’s Day?

“I would encourage them to step away from Twitter and to actually come to the events that Fem Socs are putting on! I know I’ve historically shied away from calling myself a feminist because of radical and exclusionary spaces which don’t align with my views but coming to discussions when I can leaves me feeling very empowered.” (Dite)

“I listened to an awesome podcast (Changing Our Minds from TED Radio Hour), that encourages the listener to ‘call people in’ rather than ‘calling them out’ in regards to cancel culture etc. I think this is a great idea to transfer to our discussions around feminism. If people have misconceptions or questions about feminism and what it stands for, we should offer a space for discussion and understanding, rather than shunning those who might not yet agree with our views. And it goes without saying that this idea comes with a lot of privilege, and sometimes people’s misconceptions/ views may be so damaging that it isn’t possible to create this dialogue with them, but wherever possible, I think this is a great route.” – (Anonymous)

“I would begin by attempting to get to the root of the issue by asking what exactly their misconceptions are, without judgement. When this is understood, I think educating individuals is about kindness and empathy; these assumptions may not be present due to malice towards or dissatisfaction with feminism, but simply because one has not been subject to such thinking before. Thus, I would provide the individual with the facts about feminism without placing my subjective viewpoint upon these facts, allowing others to formulate their own perspectives.” – (Sophie)

 Do you think art is a good way of expressing freedom?

 “For sure, even if you don’t end up getting (nearly) naked. On a small scale, there’s freedom in art’s ability to convey something innate and personal and that’s why I write and paint – and that desire to do so exists within everyone, o I think getting to exercise it is being free. On a larger scale, art and the way we interact with it can obviously catalyse a lot of discourse and discussion on issues within society, like my favourite contemporary piece Love is the Message, The Message is Death. Art is being heard and that’s freedom.” – (Dite)

“This is a great question. New dissertation proposal unlocked? There could be so many ways to respond to this, but in my personal opinion, yes, it’s a great way of expressing freedom. I think because art has no objective standard, no good or bad, no better or worse, it’s a great reflection of ideal freedom. I think that freedom has to have something to do with rejecting the negative like prejudice, judgement or influence, and this is exactly what art does. In terms of life drawing, this is even more prominent; the very essence of the craft is to embrace the human form in whatever way it exists, and this has to be synonymous with freedom, for both subject and artist.” (Anonymous)

“I think art is a great way of expressing freedom, because… we do not have to work within the confines of any artistic margins, Art can be whatever one wants it to be.” (Sophie)

What other ways would you encourage confidence?

“On a basic level, self-care – and not necessarily in a superficial way. As an able-bodied person, figuring out ways I like to move has helped whether that’s yoga, sports, dancing, lifting weights, or just going on long walks. Having struggled with my mental health, I appreciate the difficulty that can come with some basic self-care tasks but it really, really helps. Pushing myself by modelling in a fashion show last year genuinely had such a significant impact on my confidence and I was very grateful for the opportunity to take part. Oh, and of course a good song while you walk around town always helps – mine’s usually 100% Pure Love by Crystal Waters.” – (Dite)

The liberation of just existing in my body

“You have to be your biggest fan. Affirmation after affirmation after affirmation, tell yourself you are valuable and loved because you are. Nothing good ever came from guilt or shame so encourage yourself in everything you do.” (Anonymous)

Women have been conditioned to think that their bodies are inappropriate, and the over-sexualisation and oppression that the body, particularly the female body, has faced has led to a mistaken assumption that the drawing is of a naked body, and not a naked person. At first, women were not allowed to be involved in life modelling.

What was supposed to be a celebration of the human form excluded the female body; the body responsible for creating new bodies. The rise of pornography has also contributed negatively to the stigma of the naked body, replacing the natural with the idealisation of the male gaze.

The female body is done being censored

 Do you think we will ever fully be able to escape the “male gaze”, and is life modelling/ life drawing one of the ways to do that?

“I think it’s an uphill battle but not an impossibility. While we can work against our internalised thoughts which exist because of the male gaze, it’s so pervasive across the world we live in and the media we consume. I guess it can get a little depressing when you notice it literally everywhere and when the overarching toxic masculinity monolith which fuels it targets and impacts everyone, no matter their gender. I think we can do our best to tackle our own thoughts and behaviours and those of our friends, but I feel like it being truly eradicated would take some unprecedented upheaval..” (Dite)

“I think life modelling definitely draws a fine line with this idea. To some extent, it is the very epitome of the male gaze. To be a subject/ object, solely for the sake of being perceived through an artistic lens, seems to be a pretty relevant paradigm of the commodification of women. But, does this mean there is no space for this art? If we reprimand life modelling, are we not falling into the trap of labelling women as those who need to be protected etc and re-enforcing misogynist rhetoric? I’m not sure there’s any right answer, but certainly, an issue I will be thinking on. .” (Anonymous)

 “…I think escaping the “male gaze” is a difficult thing, for many men see female-presenting bodies as intrinsically sexual… life drawing can aid the appreciation of the body as just a projection of sexuality.” (Sophie)

A lot of people think being naked equates to vulnerability. Where do you think this has come from and do you think that it always has to mean this?

“I think the bible says something to that effect and that’s probably how the idea became ingrained within our culture. And then it got reinforced through emotional metaphor and whatever else. I think as a personal act, absolutely not – since vulnerability is inherent to something or someone – and I’m sure people feel little risk walking around an empty house naked. While naked around other people, there are more variables you can’t control like their opinions and observations about your body but I think in the right context, being undressed in a free and comfortable way indicates that vulnerability has been overcome. In a situation with someone you trust, in a neutral environment like life drawing or with a doctor, or, more broadly, in a culture which hasn’t stigmatised nakedness!” – (Dite)

“This is such an interesting distinction. I think firstly to be vulnerable is not always a negative. For me, vulnerability feels synonymous with intimacy, emotion and trust, and this is especially true when it comes to being nude. I think that being naked (in Westernised culture) will continue to come hand in hand with vulnerability, just because it is imperative to the way our society functions. But! This doesn’t mean we can’t simultaneously feel exhilarated, liberated and empowered by our nudity, I don’t believe these feelings are mutually exclusive with vulnerability. If anything, you must at some point feel vulnerability in order to feel the full motion of these other ‘positive’ feelings.” (Anonymous)

“I think the association of nakedness and vulnerability comes from nudity being perceived in society as something to be ashamed of. Furthermore, the differences in our bodies creates a certain anxiety; there is a definite fear in young people (in particular) that their body is not “right” or is unattractive.” – (Sophie)

What is your favourite part of your body?

 “Maybe weird to say but probably my hands? I like to experiment by wearing different rings and nail varnish, (Dite)

 “My waist to my hips. They are big, soft and curvy and I love the way my favourite trousers rest on the top of my hipbone.” (Anonymous)

“My favourite part of the body is the hands. There is a certain delicacy and elegance to the hands, especially displayed in artistic forms like ballet.” (Sophie)

 Self-expression should not be criticised or villainised and owning the rights to use and appreciate our bodies as we see fit should not be a debate. Life models should not be classified as victims or whores but as art. So, give me a warm room and an eager artist and I’ll bare it all. I’ll let you feast on my form and then, when you’re done, maybe you can tell me what language my body is speaking.

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