Old Fashioned Subtle Sexism and Implied Body Shaming

I’ve been a life model for a number of years now and fancied a change. I’d like to work with children but have no such qualification beyond babysitting as a teenager and modelling occasionally. One option is Teaching Assistant, so I looked it up and (a) the job description wreaks of “normal” job in a way I’m not sure I can handle any more. (b) The pay rate is low. I mean I often refuse that rate as a life model. I can earn a lot more as a life model, and to some extent being freelance can negotiate my own terms.
There is so much freedom and variety in my job and this mere cursory glance at another option made me appreciate that again. For a job looking after children, committing to regular hours for weeks on end, only minimum wage (or London Living Wage?) applies. Disgusting!

On the other hand I was thinking about what’s been bugging me as a life model recently. Certain jobs were making me uncomfortable. Even if I felt appreciated for my talent as a model, I also felt judged, subtly. These are jobs where I happen to fit into the artists’ idea of attractiveness in a body for them to draw. I am slim, a bit curvy, young(ish!), fit, reasonably flexible, not bad looking… and I know how to behave as life model in the way that is desired. I don’t just mean turning up on time and holding poses. I know how to engage with the artists and make suitable conversation. They want something reflected back to them which is how they see themselves as artists. They want to feel appreciated and to feel at ease with you.

What was bothering me was, these jobs while often better paid, do not always feel ethical. I know that they never book a fat model, an old model or a male model for example. They have asked me to recommend models and I’ve connected them with various. Not all have gone down too well. One was too old, too political and possibly opinionated. Another was an astrophysicist by day and they didn’t find her conversation stimulating in the way they wanted from their life model. Perhaps she hadn’t switched off yet from the day job!

At another such group I enquire what their other models are like. “Oh we don’t have any horrible bodies here,” I am told, and now I know I have completely strayed from the land of the politically correct. Which is partly a relief for the honesty, but in this case it smells of elitism, and I ask myself what is the appropriate response from me? At the time I say nothing as the conversation meanders on, and she speaks of their appreciation of fit bodies, with the strength to hold more ambitious poses. The woman I spoke to is not an organiser, just a regular punter. It’s true that when the model is really exerting their self, it can make for more compelling poses. But that wouldn’t rule out lots of older, male or larger models.

Is it for me to question who they want to draw? Is it a matter of aesthetics? And personalities? I am grateful to sometimes be among the chosen, but as someone who has run my own groups for all body types (to encourage body confidence) and gone to other groups to draw, I know of brilliant models outside of the obvious mainstream norms, and many of these would automatically be excluded from the jobs I described. Part of this it seems to me, is perpetuated by us models, picking up on the standard and only recommending similar types. After all, we want the work.

Posing one on one for an artist can be like a mini-relationship, an affair, a courtship. It might last days, span over weeks, months… Unless it’s for a commission or similar endgame, it’s very much about a connection of personalities. An exchange that is more than time and physical effort, rather an energetic connection. Sometimes it exists artistically alone, a musing inspiration, but other times I sense a girlfriend experience of sorts. Male artists with disposable income and space in their lives.

I used to be a hostess in Soho clip joints. Male clients paid excessively for time in my lingeried company, sipping expensive drinks. They likely entertained ideas of further/sexual developments. My job was to keep them there. Of course now “art” is occurring, so a higher purpose is implied, or at least perhaps a more acceptable relationship/activity. Several muses may be simultaneously on the go, alternating weeks, months, or exclusivity may be preferred for an intense period. Sharing an interest that the wife doesn’t (any longer), if she ever existed. Sometimes I am a cheap counsellor for their woes as well as indulging or reprimanding their neuroses, and providing conversation with my body to be looked at, submitted for inspection.

It can feel like that with a group of artists too. They fall in love with me a little, collectively, unanimously, and hopefully I with them. We bond for a while, over years at intervals. It is loose, casual, but they know me so well. I share brief intimacies in passing and they enjoy glimpses of my truth. Being able to be with artists in this way, to organically make this relationship work, is perhaps an unwritten skill, talent in the job description. It’s such a personal thing that is more than about looks; though I think often those talented in this context seem to share certain traits. A kind of physical beauty, and inner charm, genuine sharing without being too shy, or domineering. Exuding happy, contented, feel-good vibes. Being comfortable in this slightly old fashioned at times role.

I am sure more varied models could take on the position (and surely sometimes do) if they wanted it, but does the fit feel so natural? Do they feel accepted? Or is it just that I don’t know, and out there actually all variations coexist, with some artists choosing less typical muses, or even being less typical (and male) themselves? I hope so. I would love to hear about that. It would make me feel less like an anachronism!

I have modelled for female artists individually, but only a couple of long series which were both for committed projects where I had the desired form.

There are other groups and artists, not of this type, and fortunately now many so, who feel wholly ethical. They employ all good models and enjoy full diversity as much as is available. Every group has its own vibe to a certain extent attracting models and artists who fit in, though this is a broad spectrum. My feelings in this piece reflect my realisation that I felt more comfortable in these more I think ethical work situations. Yet there is also a place for more intimate encounters of the muse variety if not being outright physical or overtly sexual. These can be a healthy transaction, an exchange of ideas and growing friendships. It’s positive and it’s a privilege to explore connection outside of the romantic sphere (and be paid for it). It can run parallel to other relationships, offering other avenues to learn about ourselves. It’s the sort of job where you negotiate the boundaries, in terms of conversation as well as poses. What they are, for how long and when to take breaks. Do you also share meals, or go for a drink with them? Sometimes, but it usually stays professional. I mean it always does, but sometimes you become friends.

In Hammersmith, by Barry

In Muswell Hill

At Lauderdale House, in Sharon’s class

Above are some recent drawings of me from various classes. Posing with Goddess props at Cody Dock, in Tim’s class.

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Wild, naturist and free ~ Brighton Rock

Body painted at the World Naked Bike Ride, Spencer Tunick’s Sea of Hull, and last week with the Neo Naturists at the ICA. Also of course in my 3 Girl in Suitcase performances. Guerilla nude photoshoots during each visit to Venice, and as well twice on Hilly Fields. This year has been exciting for me for a proliferation of artistic naturist opportunities, surely not unrelated to having a partner with similar leanings.

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WNBR 2016 © AntwoneWalters.com

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part of the Sea of Hull (photo by Steve)

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Backstage at the ICA Steve and I painted each other Neo Naturist style. Photo by Cy Wol

I have been getting back to where I was 3 years ago it seems. Revisiting Scotland with Spirited Bodies, renewed enjoyment of the nude art community, and finding my way towards playing a role with WOW, as a mentor for girls once more. In 2013 I took part in speed mentoring school girls on the London Eye on the Day of the Girl. When asked for feedback afterwards I responded that I felt slightly misplaced in the role as no school girl aspired to be a nude art model! It wasn’t the point; it was all the other things about what I do that I need to share. Spreading the message of body confidence and empowering women, developing art projects, and surviving unusual pathways. A 12 year old might not imagine where I have come from, but you never know. I signed Laura Bates’ petition this week demanding that sex and relationship education become compulsory in all schools. The availability of violent porn to youngsters has led to a rise in teenage rape, largely due it seems to ignorance. The young people don’t know that this isn’t normal because they haven’t been presented with another way. There need to be healthier examples and people who aren’t afraid to speak about these issues. That could be me.

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at the Lido beach Venice, February 2016 photo by Steve

This month I felt strongly the need to shed a layer (again). To embrace more the light, and cleave less to darkness. Those parts of my past that I am separate from now I do not shun. I just need space to grow my own way without old associations limiting my path. Then when I have created new patterns, it becomes ok to revisit the old without fear of undue influence.

My blood rituals; often signifying shedding a layer; marking myself with an old (waste) part of me, then rinsing it off. Yesterday in Brighton the sea was choppy and I saw a rock I could sit on for the act so to be steadier, yet still close to, sometimes within the water.

I arrived at the naturist beach in the afternoon with my partner, Steve, and our long-time friend, Rodger. We undressed, though it was brisk at first, and had a cup of wine. Toasting our capers and Rodger’s 60th year, cameras were readied and my menstrual supply was by my side. Although a private moment, the ritual gains significance for being captured and shared. Psychically knowing it is out there increases my sense that this will change something within me. It gives me a chance to share a message with others too.

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photo by Rodger

The pebbles under foot were uncomfortable to tread on. I reached the water which was charged and rushing even at the edge. I was moving forward commitedly and successive waves kept splashing me more. Any sense of coldness was lessened by my pumping adrenaline, my effort to remain upright in the face of uneven painful footing; the force of the enormous sea pushing me back as I lurched towards the rock. I was focused; I had to be; there was no being casual here. It was set for drama. There was the potential of a calmer sunshine in the gaps between the clouds, but nothing sure and I just felt to seize the moment.

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I gripped the seaweeded rock and pulled myself on. There was to be no standing on the slippery  wave crashed and submerged platform; too dangerous, easily knocked off and blown about. No I sat, still clutching my tiny full pot of blood. I unscrewed it and poured it liberally around limbs and torso. The intense elements hastened me, so little time was spent just enjoying this moment. Quickly blood dripped then splashed off by waves. The smell of menstruation from April I believe, was strong, but hardly did it stay on me. I bathed, lowered myself surfing the rock (part of a groyn) on my belly. All wet with the sea I faced the expanse of water, then turned back and sat astride. At once ready for the walk to shore I attempted to climb down but was pushed off the rock by another wave. Knocked under water I became more involved in my scene than I’d planned but knew the immersion was good. I stood again, finding feet to make the walk. More than refreshed this felt quite raw and wildish, beyond health and safety!

Back on the stony beach out of the water I found a new cut in my foot flowing fresh blood. My friends stopped filming and helped me stumble back with a towel. We discovered more scratches grazed in the backs of my legs and right buttock, presumably from the point of being pushed off the rock. I’d not felt sharp edges but who knows underneath the powerful water what marked me, maybe barnacles under the greenery. I’d shed old blood, washed it off then opened fresh wounds, to make more memorable perhaps my encounter with Brighton rock.

With thanks to Rodger and Steve for recording my cleansing ritual.

 

Positive Behaviour, and reclaiming the Erotic

Topical at the moment in the London life drawing scene, is dealing with sleaze, namely, The London Life Drawing Society. This is run by Tony Picano/Picanto/Pianco – he has various guises not limited to these. For many years he has been known for behaviour that has upset and offended many women, with inappropriate advances in what was meant to be a professional context. This mainly affects female life models. It’s also true that he has run events that have been straight forward and unproblematic too.

One model, new to London, recently called Tony out on Facebook, and the response has been overwhelming, with many other women coming forward, and a police investigation launched. It is no surprise to many of us veteran models, who spotted him years ago and stayed well clear. This new development is however a very positive thing for women and the life drawing scene, as while Tony may have made himself obvious to us who are in the know, for a newcomer that may be unclear. ‘The London Life Drawing Society’ sounds quite proper, and could be mistaken for being representative of a recognised standard, which is not the case at all. Most life drawing groups here are utterly appropriate, so it is very misleading. We don’t know how many women have been affected or to what extent, but we do know that Tony made a lot of people feel very uncomfortable.

When I say that Tony made himself obvious, this was from his email messages and online notices looking for models. Without ever actually meeting him, he gave himself away to a lot of us. His messages often mixed up the role of the model, with someone offering more intimate services for example, or suggested that models might not need to be paid. Indeed he has also been known for refusing to pay models, even when it was agreed beforehand. His reputation has unsurprisingly been notorious for a good number of years. Please get in touch if you have been affected and would like the police detective’s contact details.

I have had my fair share of dodgy guys to deal with whilst running Spirited Bodies. For the most part they never made it beyond emailing me, but occasionally in the early days one slipped through the net and got into a session. This led to me not inviting new men to pose for Spirited Bodies more recently. I am slowly working out how I may incorporate new men again, after serious vetting of course, and in very controlled conditions.

Following posts I made on Facebook outing Tony, my Facebook account was suspended for 24 hours, apparantly because of nude pictures I had posted. Those pictures had been there for quite a while however, so I suspected a disgruntled man getting revenge.

When my account was reinstated, I took the opportunity to celebrate by sharing a beautiful image recently taken with my partner, which while totally nude, and sensual as well (considered soft porn by some!) shows none of the forbidden body parts. We had done an intimate photoshoot with a friend and this image felt timely and apt.

With Steve Ritter, photograph by Lidia, www.lidialidia.com

With Steve Ritter, photograph by Lidia, http://www.lidialidia.com

The Tony case sparked much positive discussion in the life model community, about safety, and also some about the morality of erotic life drawing. There were voices attacking this art form as an afront to our profession. I don’t see it that way however. It is a personal choice, and in the right conditions where boundaries are clearly understood, and the practice is consensual, can show another aspect of the human form, from life. Sex is a part of us, and to deny that and its relevence to artists is bizarre I feel. I wouldn’t pose with anyone else, the way I do with Steve,  but that is my preference, and others are more open.

Posing as a genuine couple offers a glimpse into our real life intimacy and affection for one another. The emotions we feel while we are connecting physically go way beyond arousal, and may entirely be of love and mutual appreciation. I think that is a very rare and beautiful opportunity for artists.

Because this is WordPress and not Facebook, here is another of Lidia’s photographs of us.

The joy of feeling comfortable with my partner and fellow life model, Steve

The joy of feeling comfortable with my partner and fellow life model, Steve

Steve will be sharing more images of us soon on his life model blog, and has created a page for us! https://charoigne.wordpress.com/esther-and-steve/

We look forward to posing together again, and to promoting healthy attitudes and behaviours within our community.

Spirited Sound, Love and Life

I want to begin a while back, because this road has been a long journey. This year has been more challenging, but also finally a turning point – in my art, with Spirited Bodies, and in my love life. It all happens at once, yet in stages. I get challenged about why I am sharing the personal, in an art project which is supposedly more for the benefit of others, and I respond, because when I was a younger woman I missed an older female role model, who had the appropriate life experience. I struggled with that, until things gradually fell more into place. I wouldn’t have listened to anyone who purported to understand, and I’d know if they really did. Any more privileged woman who thought she knew best, definitely didn’t. Now of course, I may be the more privileged woman for many, but I am happy to share that it hasn’t always felt thus, and if in some way my message can reach distant others, that is what was in my heart all along.

In short since late May, this year has included several frustrated attempts at connections with venues and individuals with whom I seemingly failed to build a rapport. Trans activists (who were not actually trans themselves) with whom it was impossible to have a sensible discussion about trans issues and how they intersect with the needs of cis women rape survivors in some cases. Competitive women with similar projects to mine, who either viewed me with suspicion, or just thought they knew better. Community collectives who were not open enough to host Spirited Bodies! What could be more appropriate for a community…?

Earlier in the Summer I met Sarah Kent at Brockley Open Studios, in my neighbourhood. We got chatting in artist Gill Hickman’s studio, and something resonated. I attended Sarah’s soundbath and experienced the healing sounds on the floor of her living room. I felt at ease with her, as well as moved by the intense yet soothing vibes. She said expect changes in the next few days, and ideally make space for them.

What I hadn’t known was that my old friend Michael, had died that day or the day before… and I found out a few hours after the soundbath. Michael’s death, for me marked a turning point, a shift of focus. In the middle of Summer this news penetrated layers of the fabric of my being. It took me back to the late 90s when I knew him best, the times and the company we shared. Though I had not been so in touch with Michael in recent years, his strong uncompromising world view sank into me as I relooked at the world through his imagined eyes and the filtered lens of the girl I used to be. Somehow both introvert and extrovert, rebellious, even fearless. The power of youth! While most of us had mellowed, to be fair including Michael in his own minor way, really he had sustained a strikingly similar mentality to what we all remembered. I instantly felt tougher, unaffected by petty crises previously around me. For a while I was invincible! Untouchable. I thought of Michael a lot.

With Michael (centre) and friends at an anti-criminal justice bill demo, mid 90s

With Michael (centre) and friends at an anti-criminal justice bill demo, mid 90s

My erstwhile longterm relationship that had been faltering, now felt briefly healing again. My partner, connected to the old tribe including Michael, understood intimately my feelings, but the ending of our relationship was imminent. We had drifted apart, and I craved cohesion in my life. A nervous breakdown at one of my modelling jobs alerted me that something had to give. I could not visualise a future that felt fitting, under my current circumstances. The breakdown involved intense feelings of being violated by the artists sculpting me, when in fact I was also aware that neither they nor the tutor (who is one of my favourites) was responsible. The conditions of my life were so disadvantaging me, that I could not see light in my routine. To make a success of my art projects I needed all energies and people in my life to point decidedly the same way, otherwise it was dissipating. I needed freedom. We technically had an open relationship, so when I did find closeness with a new partner, it took me a little while to realise that I could not be so intimate with two men simultaneously. The new relationship rapidly came to mean so much more to me than I could have anticipated. So intense is this new connection that it felt prudent to break up with Aaron. Simple is better; and freshly blossoming love deserves the richest, most fertile ground in which to take root.

In my new partner I found a fellow life model and writer, as well as an enthusiast of all my projects, sharing much passion in nude art adventures, and travel, something I had missed in the past. I also found so much love I hadn’t dreamed of, expected, in one with apparently such different background. His openness, sensitivity, intelligence and understanding take my breath away. As the Autumn took hold, this new excitement grew, and grows. I am in love.

Spirited Bodies again feels in a good place. I have resolved some issues, and feel confident about the involvement of men modelling again. For Spirited Sound I didn’t take any chances with male models. I knew all of the chosen ones personally and felt 100% safe with them. With the help of my partner and other trusted male models, we are creating an exceedingly safe space for everyone. That’s not to exclude the trusted women models from this equation, or the artists, but it was mainly an issue with deceptively inappropriate male models, so feels apt to be solved first, by male models.

All artwork from Spirited Sound, 8/11/15

All artwork from Spirited Sound, 8/11/15, at the Bargehouse, Oxo Building, Southbank

The healing power of Spirited Bodies is very important to me. I have explored this a few ways; in more intimate workshops, through interviewing models (and artists) about their experience and playing their recorded voices during sessions. Now with Spirited Sound, a new, more direct, less personal but more universal model has been born. The sound instantly seemed to free up the format, necessarily instigating greater experimentation. Traditional life drawing standards according to the wants of some artists are thrown out. This is all about the Spirited Bodies, and this time we tried some movement poses which was a beautiful way to discover even greater harmony as a group. Three minutes of very slowly opening up from a closed posture into something more expansive, and five minutes of flickering gently together, moving as flames of a fire burning brighter and closer.

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The session was divided into 4 sections, each representing an element – Fire, Air, Water and Earth. Shorter and movement poses in the first 2 parts, then longer poses for Water and Earth. The models connected with each other when they felt drawn to, as they collectively expressed themselves elementally. Dynamic and expansive for Fire, including a slightly longer Scene from Hell – the fallen among the devils. Light and floaty for Air, as well as being blown together in a very strong gust of wind. Flowing waves for Water where the models lay variously in a row, some interconnecting; and pure grounded connection for Earth, each model occupying their own comfortable (I hope!) space. It was a big pleasure to work with the group of models, several I have gotten to know over time with Spirited Bodies, including professionals who enjoy the deepening experience a lot. They create a warm atmosphere for any newcomer.

5 minutes blowing in the wind

5 minutes blowing in the wind

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Spirited Sound happened because I had connected with Sarah, and she was interested and happy to bring her sound art to Spirited Bodies. It was her idea to work with the elements as a theme, and she created sounds to fit each mood, to accompany and inspire the models (and artists), and weave a layer of vibrational texture into the space. There were bells, singing bowls (including one large one containing water), large gongs, a rainstick, a jingly instrument which when shaken lightly produces an array of gently tingling bell sounds of different notes.

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Spirited Bodies becomes something more layered with the inclusion of sound art; another type of art is intersecting with the life modelling and drawing. A new relationship emerges between musician and models (and artists). Is the sound influencing the models, or vice versa? A bit of an exchange for sure. At one end of the room Sarah laid out her instruments, from where she could see all the action (and stillness) of the models. Had we been in the larger attic space as originally planned, she may have arranged herself in more spread out fashion around the room in order to move about and be among artists and models, so that sounds would emerge from different areas and directions, possibly moving too. Sarah and her instruments could have been linked to the visual aspect of the artists’ attention, perhaps appearing in the art, as positioned within the scenes of poses. The attic also had a particular atmosphere which would have lent itself well to the gravitas of gongs, however it turned out that heating and lighting that space was a task beyond the electricity supply. It was great as it was, but it would also have been fantastic for Sarah to have been slightly more integrated with artists and models. Nevertheless, her presence and sound creation were deeply felt and appreciated by all. This was a joyful collaboration which I hope we may explore again.

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I feel more comfortable with the trans inclusion (to women’s sessions) now. This is very delicate, but it’s important to be open. I sometimes feel that a separate group for women only – excluding non-transitioned trans women – will be helpful (particularly for cis women rape survivors, of whom there are probably more than the entire population of non-transitioned trans women). I will tread carefully. One thought is that, if women’s events are open to all trans women regardless of transition, that gesture is what is important. Possibly those trans women themselves are not interested to come along, and may well realise that their inclusion can be tricky; without wanting to be divisive, there are very different needs at play.

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The issue of competitive women is being resolved too. I am not taking this personally, but see it as symptomatic of us women, learning how to share our power. This might seem odd to be so gendered, but I do think we are not so familiar as men are, with having power in the first place, and often if we do, we are encouraged to beat off the competition. This doesn’t make sense when our projects are about liberation and empowerment, for all, not just some elite. These higher principles must filter through otherwise projects will die.

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Leaving you with a few more pictures of artwork from Spirited Sound. We were very fortunate to have a lovely photographer with us at the event too, so there will be photos of the group of models to follow at some stage. Also, I am just planning an event for December, so keep looking out! And a blog post about the women’s event at Bargehouse will also come soon.

Watery bodies

Watery bodies

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With much gratitude to all the models, artists, and Sarah, as well as Kathy, Angie and Jenny from the Southbank Festival of Creativity at the Bargehouse

Life Art & Therapy in Highbury

I had been busy working on my play – Girl in Suitcase – in recent weeks, and left editing new interviews a bit last minute. I wanted to hear how they would flow with the material from March which was being reused, so naturally I gave each model’s interview a listen. Getting to Mum’s on Thursday afternoon left me with a heavy impression. The power in her voice is so disarming, to appreciate life so readily when one’s experience has been shockingly limited. I was reminded of the caged bird. My heart moved, and when I arrived for work in the evening, they knew something was up. Luckily they’d requested a Tank Girl look, so I was wearing stompy boots (and stockings) without anything else. They took a while to prepare their easels but some hiphop was playing and I just had to dance in my performance space. My way to release, to express, to flow back into a safer, happy place from where I can observe my emotions without being too caught up. The boots helped to ground me, as well as swing me around.

I just about managed to organise the interviews in time, but I was nervous. Every little thing – replenishing art materials, briefing models, instructions for how to maintain the pristine haven of a venue, biscuits, suitcases full of kit to charge across town by bus… and why had so few artists booked places? Would there be more models than artists? Turned out I had sent out a faulty link to the online booking  in my invitations and on the flier! Well it is the first time I have sold tickets that way, and now I know.

People showed up regardless. The right people. Not too many, but enough, definitely enough.

The planning for this event happened just before I was set to look after Mum a few days back in May. I planned the Girl in Suitcase performance then too. I needed a focus to make my days as a carer ok. Sounds terrible when some people like Dad do that all the time, but nevertheless, so it is. So there was a little urgency in the planning, which is great for making things happen, though bound to be a few hiccups.

One of the main models I had planned this event with, had dropped out last minute, due to a very important court case she was involved in out of town. Couldn’t be helped, but I guess it threw me a bit, seeing as she’d been a driving force previously. But hey, she helped get the ball rolling, and, I am so pleased with the outcome. For sure there are improvements to be made; interviews which need more editing mainly, and the possibility of some models doing a longer pose, while others move more often. What worked really nicely was Niomi’s (the absent model) idea of having a post-event debriefing session for all who cared to stay. There had been considerable discussions a while back about how we would ensure that the right people stayed, but in the end, it just happened organically. By that time, with the intensity of all the interviews fresh in the air, the people who can and want to stay on know who they are.

I tried to make sure everyone who wanted to, contributed to the discussion, and it was rewarding for me to discover how much people enjoyed hearing the interviews. As they played I had felt painfully aware of background noise, and parts of interviews which made the model in question (and me too) squirm inwardly as s/he heard her/himself. It was remarked that it was refreshing that it was not overly edited. Made it more authentic, genuine, to hear that I’d caught them at teatime, and this must have been my only opportunity to interview them, so I had just pressed record whilst kettles were boiling, cutlery chinking, or people shouting across a hall in the background. Not all the noises could be edited out, if the words were very important.

There was a difference in the way some interviews were received at Southbank Centre in March, and then at Skylight Centre now. In March at WOW the room was packed to bursting, and women at the festival had spent much of the weekend building the feminist momentum listening to talks, taking part in discussions about the female slave trade, getting more women in top positions, and getting rights for women in the middle east. By the time they got to us at the end of Sunday, they were ripe for each and every woman’s voice at our women only event.

I only invited one male model to Highbury as I was playing it very safe. I knew others would come to draw anyway and they would have a chance later in the session to pose, but I wanted to be extra picky at this stage, for this event. I won’t explain who he is or why I chose him here, as that might compromise his privacy, as with other models. But he stood out in a few ways, and I knew he wouldn’t come otherwise. My main objective might be to offer the Spirited Bodies experience to people who would otherwise not find it, and who may gain the most, as well as contributing most meaningfully to the ensuing dialogue and others’ experience.

One artist mentioned that he was amazed to hear how the interviewees expressed such hatred towards their own bodies, and that it made him realise there were likely a lot of people going round with those negative thoughts in their heads. Tragic. It was news to him (he’d been brought by a friend) that the model might be experiencing therapy whilst modelling. He wondered if all models gained in this way. I explained that for most regular models, after a while one is relatively free of body hang-ups, but that modelling may continue to offer valuable insights due to its meditative energy sharing nature, even for the seasoned model, and that’s part of what can keep its appeal. Another artist who tried the posing stated that modelling raised his energy in a trance-like way, took him to a higher place. I totally agree.

I am aware of a block I might have towards applying for funding. I guess that (funding) has never been a reason for doing the project, as my drive is born more directly of passion, a need to create and to share. I mean, funding might be great, but I would not wait for it. When I need to make Spirited Bodies or a piece of theatre happen, I just do it. I loathe the idea of fitting my plans into boxes for others to judge if my intentions and methods fit with their criteria. On the other hand, at some point I may cross that threshold as I know this is worthy of funding. It just has to happen before I get the itch to be doing the event, because then I have no time for forms.

On Friday evening there were 8 interviews, including one from an artist. There was going to be music too, but due to a technical hitch early on we only got the sound started a bit later, so no extra time available. At least 5 of the artists tried the posing. Mum received a round of applause after her interview! Revealing her identity is a little controversial as she is shy about people she knows knowing that she modelled nude. But I have this feeling it’s like worrying that someone from work will see you at a fetish club. If they are there too, surely you’re in it together? Moreover Mum’s voice is too powerful and my connection to her too strong for me to present this less personally. A middle-aged woman with advanced MS who is paralysed from the neck down poses and tells you about how in her dreams she is in her 20s and can walk, but in waking life she requires anti-depressants in order to feel ok about everything. She would hate it if the people on her street knew about the modelling (but some of them do as she’s proud enough to have some of the pictures from her previous sessions up in the kitchen). Her voice is slow, and would be quiet without volume control. Normally it’s lucky if one person can hear her, let alone an audience. She tells it like it is, and she almost has nothing to lose. Women in the audience who may be too worried about the size of their behind to pose, or think they have a big nose, rethink their concerns when they hear what Mum has to contend with. It puts everything into perspective to have an elder (63, but in a condition more like a 90 year old) like that. She hadn’t thought she could be a role model, but it dawns on her during the interview. By the end we are all extremely grateful to be able to move independently, to pick up a piece of charcoal or remove our own clothes unassisted. Life takes on new meaning.

model Liliana

 

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All pictures taken from the event. There were many more good ones I missed, but hadn’t got that far in my planning. All the same, brilliant memories.

On Sexuality, Disability & Mental Health; or Sustainable Living

From when I was a child, I can remember wanting my Mum to be better, wanting to make her happy. It was perhaps the strongest emotional drive in me. Long before she was diagnosed with MS, I knew she was deeply unhappy, which was expressed mainly through her anger. I wanted her to be ok. It was what I wished for when I blew out the candles, or the tooth fairy visited.

So now I attract partners, sometimes friends that I would like to fix. Habit.

Mum did get better. Not physically, but emotionally she is the most reliably happy person in the family. Definitely not angry. To be fair Seroxat has a lot to do with that, but so does my Father’s unerring loving care towards her. Truly in my experience anti-depressants have never suited a person so well. I think knowing she will never move her body again by herself, gives her conscience clear reign at accepting the drugs. Inside she is very sad at what has become of her, but that is successfully suppressed, and she shows immense gratitude for all she does have, always professing sheer joy in her state of being. As well as the suppression of pain, there is the countering effect of transformation, and I do mean spiritual. Mum knows that in the height of her youth and health, she was unable to appreciate what she had, so dogged was she by anger and lack of confidence. Now that she has lost the use of limbs, sometimes eyes, sometimes mind; she knows more keenly what she had previously, but much more than the value of these physical aids, she is now open to love in her life in a way which she never was before. Most people I know on anti-depressants still get depressed, but not Mum. They really work with her, year after year.

from a recent Drawing Theatre session I did with Paul Kindersley

from a recent Drawing Theatre session I did with Paul Kindersley

On Wednesday 7th August, Mum will be modelling with Spirited Bodies, and this time (she took part before clothed for portrait with Dad) she will be nude. She is really excited about this, saying that although she doesn’t particularly think her body is beautiful, the idea that people will spend time drawing her is very incredible and uplifting. She says it feels like a gift, and she recognises she may be a role model for other disabled people to take part in future. She may not have a wide pose range, but my Goodness can she hold still.

I still have issues on occasion about being asked to look after her. Doesn’t happen very often. I am busy in my life, the other side of London, whizzing this way and that, my parents have their routine and I don’t see them a lot. My brother and sister are much closer to home. I would resent caring for my Mother as I felt I lost a number of years due to her earlier negativity, lack of love for me. On top of this, I have in recent years felt as if I have lost my Father for the enormous task of taking care of Mum. He is exhausted and needs every bit of free non-family time for himself. So I raised this point not long ago, and now we are in the process of reclaiming that forgotten Father/Daughter relationship which may be the precedent for some of the most crucial relationships I form.

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Spirited Bodies is a challenge to keep flourishing – sometimes I recognise in writing the familiar spiel in emails and documents, I have lost some of the necessary passion and zeal to lift this off the ground. Become normal, ordinary, I forget how magical it is! Others in the team get judged by family for putting so much time into life modelling and this project, when before they held high earning jobs, keeping their families in the trappings they are accustomed. This is a real test on relationships, for loved ones to see past the financial value, and appreciate what it is that makes them happy. In our case life modelling and taking that further to others.

model Kayleigh

model Kayleigh

This societal/monetary pressure is a most damaging force, an unfortunate reckoner, and in this respect I am grateful for my rebellious youth which long ago set a precedent for not being expected to achieve or earn in a certain way. And I surround myself with people who understand that and do not judge me for my nude activities. It can be a harsh shock when I find myself in less than usual territory in the company of ‘normals’! But I am getting better at it.

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Attracting a damaged mate has opened up a new vista as I retread the possibilities of more open relationship. I am a dynamic being full of expression and desire, so a physically weaker character with whom I fell in love, cannot hold permanently my capacity. I was getting desperate, thought of splitting up – but we didn’t really want that. I entertained the idea of becoming a surrogate – offering myself for the (sexual) healing of others and my financial gain, but it didn’t quite click. I thought of exercising after long, long pause the lesbian in me, and here I hit a note. I realised my experience of cunt has been so much more limited than mine of cock, and all related hormones. I thought how empowering to feel comfortable with cunt, to know others’ and their ways, not just my own. To know them intimately. Last time I investigated I would have been on drugs or pissed; there was room for so much more exploration. And breasts – if you do not have large ones yourself, how wonderful to feel another’s pendulous pair!

Kayleigh is not my lover, but I love these pictures and wanted to use them

Of all the possibilities this seemed least threatening to my boyfriend, or most reasonable. There is also a feminist argument for it. Men remain so tightly bonded by comparison, and we women must catch up if ever we are to match status. My boyfriend is appreciative of this sentiment.

And so I found myself another lover, and what a difference it makes. She has a delicate touch, so sensual; I feel new with her and myself opening with abandon. I feel such gratitude for this amazing opportunity to be intimate with two people, and I am much more thoughtful and peaceful with my boyfriend as a result. I want to cherish him more and show appreciation for his understanding. Before he felt burdened to try to keep up with my numerous social activities which of course he could not begin to; now this obligation is shared! Both my boyfriend and my girlfriend have varying degrees of social phobia, but spurred on by the prospect of keeping up each of their sides of the bargain, we find harmony. Finally I might not turn up almost everywhere alone (despite having someone at home for me), which sometimes created an awkward impression. Now I can really keep my friends guessing!

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On Mental Health: (because recent events have brought me closer to the realm of mental health concerning others)

I learnt young that falling into the system could be damaging. I saw my Grand-Mother drugged in a corner, barely present, except on wild occasion as she stopped her meds, and released the wacky conversations with ghosts in the room. Decades of drugs, Electric-Shock Treatment and institutionalisation took care of her (paranoid schizophrenic) but she looked so innocent to me. She had been the first woman in her town in Lancashire to get into Oxford University where she read English, and met her husband, a colonial type of the old boys network. She had once been very intelligent, not at all ‘mad’, but something had driven her to insanity. After my Grandparents died, old family friends revealed that Grandpa’s blatant affairs had been the trigger; whilst they were living out in Africa, far from her home, and her alone with the children.

As a child I considered; if I was mad and I probably am, I never wanted any authority to get hold of me. The world is mad obviously, so I’d rather take care of myself. I appreciate this doesn’t work for everyone, and that the system though far from perfect, has moved on from ’50s strategies.

I’ve never been attracted to men of a certain class either.

I just wanted to use these lovely pictures which have no direct relation to the post

I just wanted to use these lovely pictures which have no direct relation to the post

Spirited Bodies is proud to be part of The Sex Maniacs Ball in September, which is a fundraising event for The Outsiders Trust to enable disabled people to meet partners and celebrate their sexuality. There may be a life modelling workshop, as well as a nude disco along with various other nude activities and therapies.

Naomi Wolf & Women of the World festival, Southbank

Wolf got in trouble for revealing too much of herself in her latest book entitled ‘Vagina’. Controversy, talking about her own vagina. She says that word a lot, as well as describing its different quadrants, outer and inner labia, clitoris, G-spot and perineum. She learnt a lot about vaginas since she had a spinal injury which cost her sensation in that area, and also layers of consciousness she says. She felt sad and didn’t know why till the injury was diagnosed, then corrected and sensation returned. This made her aware of what she missed when normal use of her vagina was restricted. The incredible euphoria accompanying orgasm that added meaning, direction to her life. She got to researching vaginas and found some hidden material, which explained something of our sexist culture which loves to mock the vagina. About how there is a brain to vagina connection or relationship, and that the range of euphoria and energy that the vagina may release is immense. The clitoris and G-spot are opposite poles of an axis simultaneously capable of reaching each other. The suppression of this research speaks volumes.

It is well known and addressed that erectile dysfunction affects or is related to many areas of a man’s life, altering his performance. Naturally there is a similar relationship for women and their vaginas, but that is less discussed.

When a woman seeks out sexual pleasure and is supported by her culture in doing that, dopamine is released in her, she becomes more confident and her oxytocin levels rise. Creative hormones move her forward with positive energy. Dopamine makes a person less easy to push around, to subjugate. We have internalised the idea that women’s sexuality is ridiculous. In her book ‘Fire with Fire’  Wolf asserts that women are on the route to equality, and to achieve it they must stop being victims. During the ‘sexual revolution’ in the ’70s, a survey in which women self-reported, showed that 30% of women did not reach orgasm when they want to. It seems there has been a sort of plateau reached as this statistic has hardly changed in the last 40 years.

So the bottom line is female sexual pleasure makes a woman powerful, so information about how to maximise this is not popular with patriarchal systems like religion. Hence sexuality and also Love can be very subversive.

In the rape culture of war people are dehumanised, and women’s bodies respond negatively to rape reducing their chances of enjoying sex. The autonomic nervous system which leads to activation of good orgasms, is inhibited by anti-erotic impulses such as fear, stress and anger.

Wolf grew up in San Francisco around her lesbian Mum in the ’70s. She observed how her Mum’s friends became shining and integrated in a culture that supported their sexuality; she’d seen the same people previously more withdrawn, before they found their place. This was an environment which emphasized women’s fulfillment as an entitlement. It ought to be on the national curriculum!

What else did I take from Naomi Wolf’s talk at Women of the World festival on Saturday evening? That western feminists have a lot to learn from our sisters in developing countries because she reckons they are at the vanguard of feminism today, really pushing boundaries. That we ought to be kinder to each other – it’s not about judging others because they have had surgery or don’t wish to call themselves feminists. That women hold emotional trauma in at least one quadrant of the vagina and this can be released through sexual healing. None of us are heterosexual, we all respond to a variety of stimuli despite what we say (well I knew that anyway!) And finally women generally need to learn how to receive pleasure better, as this has been suppressed in favour of male sexuality for too long. I resonate strongly with this, finding it hard to really let go most of the time. On the few occasions when I have been least inhibited, either alcohol, drugs or sometimes the euphoria of love have facilitated it. But to reach that high on a more regular basis, I am still working on that.

Going to put up some recent pictures from classes I have modelled in. There is a lot more to say about the WOW festival Lucy and I were at last weekend, like how many celebrities Lucy failed to realise she was chatting up because we’d reached that point in the weekend where she could no longer recognise faces. And how everything worked out for the best despite several drop-outs, because we had so many Spirited Bodies models present to help at our stall so some were able to step in and model too. That when the plan to film the event collapsed this was a blessing because our models gave the most precious and powerful testimonials we could have imagined which might easily have been inhibited with the presence of a camera. Similarly when I asked the audience how many would like to try doing a pose there and then, about half of them put up their hands, no doubt encouraged by the models’ words. The artwork will be up soon.

I went to a workshop about body image by the ‘Endangered Bodies’ group which I also want to report on, and the last event – Alice Walker introducing her film – was the perfect finale, so moving and inspiring. We will be following up our WOW contacts for some time and learning from some of the advice suggested. Becoming a charity may be a good choice for us, but so too might a business which is a social enterprise. The atmosphere at WOW is electric with so many women on fire!

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a glimpse of vagina! I think these pastels are by Jo Parmenter from the session at Richmond Adult Community College

a glimpse of vagina! I think these pastels are by Jo Parmenter from the session at Richmond Adult Community College

quick poses

quick poses

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by model and tutor Hugh

by model and tutor Hugh