Naked in front of strangers
You can tell a lot about a person from the way they undress. Life models often have a silk robe that sort of sighs to the ground before they take their pose. Some walk out of the toilets stark naked making small talk with the class. Others never make eye contact. I remember one sitter who took her clothes off item by item and sat glowering at us from her bar stool for a full hour. I’m wondering, when my time comes, what I will do. How I will expose my average, totally naked, 40-year-old body to a roomful of strangers. How would you?
My fellow sitter has just left the platform. Young, bearded and heavily tattooed, he high fives all the artists on leaving and does not strike me as naturally bashful. I go to the toilet. I apply some translucent powder – about the only thing I’ll be wearing for the next 30 minutes. It does nothing to cover the vivid blush spreading from my cheeks to what used to be my cleavage when I wore clothes to hold it together. And now? Now I walk into the studio in front of eight men and two women, say hello and drop my shirt in a rather apologetic way.
I am part of illustrator Mike Perry’s global pop-up experiment: his appeal to the public to ‘Get Nude. Get Drawn’. In cities around the world, he gathers together the artists and illustrators he admires and stages events asking members of the public, via social media, to pose for them.
“It started in 2011, I wanted to get back into life drawing but I didn’t have the patience to sign up to a regular class,” says Perry. “I thought it would be cool to see if some strangers would be willing to come out and pose. We did it as a one-night pop-up and put the word out through Twitter. We honestly didn’t expect anyone to come. But the response was awesome. And the drawings were so exciting, much more so than with a model.”
The project has had an enthusiastic response, with volunteers for events in New York, Amsterdam and London. Sitters have included a couple on their first date, a sleep-deprived mother of two, tourists on a stag do and a girl who had been advised by her therapist to come along to get over a pubic hair phobia.
“You get all sorts. You get the person who doesn’t care at all, you get those in the middle ground – ‘yeah I’m uncomfortable but only because I’ve never done this before’. And then you get the ones who are incredibly, excrutiatingly uncomfortable and are almost trying to prove something to themselves … you really get the bravery it’s taking and you can tell that they really want to do this thing.”
Has he noticed any cultural generalities? British prudity? American exhibitionism? A normalising of nudity in the Netherlands? “There’s nothing noticeable,” he says. “People are people – there’s the same mix here as anywhere.” The only difference, he delicately hints, is that we Europeans might still be more hirsute than our American sitters. And he’s not talking about a fashion for beards.
The audience’s beard count is high at this evening’s version of Get Nude. Get Drawn hosted by It’s Nice That’s Printed Pages. I sit, unsure and naked, in an open-plan East London studio with white curtains for modesty. The people around me are drawing on pieces of A4 coloured paper in pen and ink and, when I adopt certain poses, I can see exactly what they are doing. In one sketch my belly is bigger than my boobs.
I lock my gaze onto the pot plant. I tell myself I can do this thing. I’ve been on the other side of the easel for more than 20 years. I know that where I’m standing is hallowed ground. Sacred. A life drawing discipline is non-judgemental; no body fascism here. The droop of a breast, the swell of a stomach – these are all friends to the artist. Think the dimpled flesh in the paintings of Lucian Freud or Jenny Saville. The best life models I’ve ever drawn didn’t have the honed bodies of dancers; they were the ordinary ones with their ordinary details – the bite of a bra strap, fallen arches from years of bad shoes – this is what I love to draw.
I strike a pose which I hope is interesting while revealing absolutely nothing. I have stopped breathing. I notice that my stomach is clenched. Mike offers some direction and mutely I obey. I hope I’m doing it ‘right’. At one stage I worry that a particular artist is bored. I realise that, although there is no judgement in the field, I have brought my own – 40 years of critical body image and British shame.
I try an experiment. Six minutes after the session begins, in a collapsed standing pose – head lolling down, legs crossed – I decide to look at my naked body with a simple curiosity. I notice the contours of my body – a set of interlocking shapes – and the different tones of my skin. It is interesting, nothing more. But my breathing relaxes. I notice that there’s music playing. I raise my gaze from the pot plant to one of the artists and slowly, tentatively, begin to take my space.
The naked truth
There are unwritten social contracts as to how we – women in particular – should get attention. To ask for it too directly is considered gauche. The idea of not being seen, painful. Instead, I have used a range of secondary manipulations: be clever, be funny, be coy; cleavage, heels, seduction. To suspend all of this, even for 30 minutes, to take the spotlight wordlessly and be appreciated for my form alone, is different. To stand in my vital and imperfect, ageing and alive body and be witnessed by strangers feels liberating. It’s the ultimate no make-up selfie.
A drawing of Tanis by Will Edmonds
No longer do I feel demure and distant, I feel totally involved – inviting, curious and challenging. The experience is not erotic. I can feel the attention of the artists on me now: their eyes on my body and their pens scratching furiously, trying to express the bends and grooves of my curves, and I feel almost architectural.
Once the session is over, I pull on my shirt and with it all of the social conventions (and sexual tensions), eclipsed for the last half an hour. But in the following weeks, subtle effects remain. Taking the spotlight – suffering the scrutiny until I began to feel its warmth – felt like a direct and honest way to receive attention; something I can practice, with my clothes on, in my life.
Much has been written about the therapeutic effects of being witnessed by a non-judgemental other. Artists like Ellen Fisher Turk use nude photography with women to challenge the historic views we might hold of our own bodies, encouraging subjects to write journals about their images. I buy a small picture of myself from the exhibition. I like it. It doesn’t look like me but it captures something that resonates.
Artists are always, really, drawing themselves even when they are drawing someone else. Lucian Freud talked about the model serving “the very private function for the painter of providing the starting point for his excitement”. I would argue that that excitement works both ways; that the act of being seen rather than watched is in itself remedial. I would thoroughly recommend it.
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Photo by Sian Richards
There are nude drawings of me on the internet — and I gave permission for them to be there.
I listen to Katy Perry, live in the suburbs and read a lot of Margaret Atwood. I mean, I drive a station wagon.
Yet there I was on a chilly fall evening, posing and prancing naked in front of 10 total strangers. For three hours, I was a life-drawing model. I’d promised myself I would honour my body and my commitment and do it without being bashful — or throwing up.
A few weeks earlier I’d stumbled on the sketches of Toronto-based artist Kagan McLeod online. I grew up thinking that with my looks, I should have been born smarter — and modelling had never crossed my mind. Yet I was intrigued about what it must feel like to be studied (and drawn) this way. Back in university, I had a friend who supplemented her income as a life-drawing model, and I remembered her telling me they were always on the hunt for “interesting” body shapes.
So I sent Kagan some fan mail, praising his work and asking shyly about becoming a model. Apparently, if you own a dressing gown that you’re willing to take off, you’re in. Less easy was owning up to why I’d want to do it. But I’ve spent an enormous amount of energy tackling enormous body image demons (shouldn’t I be thinner, firmer, perkier?), and this just seemed like the next challenge. After many frantic questions for Kagan — “Will there be men and women present?” (“Yes”); “Can we do this by candlelight?” (“No”); “Has anyone ever fainted?” (“Not even once”) — we arranged a date for me to model.
I was curious about what my husband would think. He likes to see me in the buff, but I wasn’t sure how on-board he’d be with me baring it all for others. Turns out he was pretty cool with it once he understood how important it was to me, or maybe he just reckoned it would lead to more spousal nudity. My boys, aged 11 and 13, thought it was #sogross. Exactly what I’d expected from them, really.
Once I’d committed to the idea, there was some body prep to consider. First, I needed to deal with my bikini line. (I chose the heart-shaped option because it seemed the friendliest.) I also paid more attention to what I ate. As much as this was not about my weight, I’d recently shed 40 pounds, and if I was going to be honest, I knew I wouldn’t have gone through with this otherwise.
As prepared as I felt, there was a moment the night before when I freaked out, unsure if I could go through with it. But then I remembered that when my mom was just seven years older than I am now, she faced her first mastectomy. Her figure was about to change in ways she had no control over. “Yeah,” I thought, “I’m just going to honour the shit out of my body.”
My plan was to sit comfortably at a café before the session and sip on a steamy mug of lemon water. Instead, I found myself in a local pub drinking a glass of pinot noir. And then another. Just like a real model, I told myself.
The studio was in a funky industrial building. The lighting was soft, and there were chairs set up in a semicircle around a white backdrop. Kagan was a friendly, calm presence, and it occurred to me only later how important trusting him was to the evening’s success.
I stepped into the bathroom to undress and threw on an oversized hoodie. I looked at my reflection meaningfully in the mirror and realized I secretly loved what I was about to do, and there was no point in lying to myself about it.
I walked out and introduced myself to the group, and then there was nothing left to do but whip off my sweatshirt and stand naked in front of strangers (many of whom would post their drawings online later). There was nothing to do with my hands and nowhere to rest my gaze. I was nude in a room full of strangers, and now they expected me to pose? What on earth was I doing? I thought, “What if I can’t do this?” But I took a deep, loud breath and found my first pose.
The first part of the evening was broken up into several one- and two-minute poses, which helped get the artists warmed up. As they frantically filled their pages I slowly found my footing and even shared a few awkward smiles with a few of the women in the group (while still actively avoiding eye contact with the men). I started with some yoga-like stretch poses, but my repertoire of poses was quickly exhausted, and I invited the group to call out ideas. “Pretend you’re smashing a car.” “Walk through a creepy haunted forest.” I dissolved into a fit of giggles as I tackled each pose. I felt very young and very old at the same time.
As the night progressed, I became more relaxed. I was awkward, but not unhappy. I was both better and worse at it than I thought I’d be. I felt my cheeks flush and dampness under my arms, behind my ears, between my legs. But I felt seen. And it was thrilling. There was nothing sexual about this, but it was intimate. I went into it thinking it would be one of the most challenging things I would ever do, but it was incredibly liberating.
The last part of the night was far more relaxing, as the poses lasted anywhere from 10 to 20 minutes, and I did them sitting and lying down. By the last pose — on my back with my arms resting comfortably above my head — I had been there for three hours and now had to make an effort not to doze off.
And then it was over. Except not quite.
I threw my hoodie back on, not even bothering with the rest of my clothes, and invited the artists to show me their work. Some of them were just as self-conscious about showing their work as I had been to show my nether regions, but many were happy to let me take a peek, and one even let me grab a bunch to take home.
Looking at the sketches was jarring at first. Some made me feel beautiful and rich and complex and voluptuous. Others left me less sure. Is my brow really that furrowed? Surely that isn’t my stomach? I think I finally get that I will likely continue to fall in and out of love with my body over and over again.
But for now, I’m happily naked on the internet. And I love what I did. I’ve been at the mercy of my body almost my entire life, tiptoeing around it, spending an inordinate amount of time and money cloaking it, and in three hours, with nowhere to hide and under the scrutiny of 10 pairs of eyes, I took back ownership of it. Not only would I do this again (heck, I made $90) but I may even drag everyone I know with me.
Illustration by Kagan McLeod
What It’s Like Being Naked in Front of Strangers All the Time
Public speakers are often told to imagine that they are clothed and their audience is naked, in order to bolster their confidence. So the opposite—being naked when everyone else is clothed—is a nightmarish prospect for most people. We spoke with pro life model Biara Webster to find out exactly how it feels to stand for hours on end in your birthday suit while strangers pay very close attention to every inch of your exposed body.
VICE: Why’d you start life modeling?
Biara Webster: I got into it through a friend who did it. A lot of people get into modeling because they start drawing, but I’ve tried it the other way around. I needed some extra cash.
What was your first time like?
I was extremely nervous. Basically I just tried not to look down, so I didn’t know that I was naked. I was just in a room—on the same level as the artists. There was about 12 people all standing up around me.
What do you think about when you’re standing there for hours?
Sometimes I try to practice meditation—so I’m trying not to think. I’ve been modeling for about four and a half years and it was really good when I first started because I was studying and working elsewhere—and the modeling just gave me a chance to relax, and I got paid for it. I was allowed to relax. So I try to meditate. Or I make lists of things I have to do. With the quicker poses I try to think of the next pose.
And the long pose—ideally laying on the ground I guess?
It’s a bit of workout, so you learn to know what your body can handle. When you do it often enough, you can handle a bit more. For 5-10 minutes I can stand quite comfortably. Obviously it’s important to be hydrated and well fed. But the longer ones—past 20 minutes—you’ve really gotta get comfortable. But it’s a bit tricky because you also want to provide twisting so they have something interesting to draw.
Do the artists get mad if you move?
They’re pretty supportive. The artists will sometimes be like, “Oh you don’t look like you’re going to be comfortable,” so they’ll provide an extra pillow. I don’t have to stand exactly still all the time. If I feel like I need to move, I’ll just do a little stretch then go back into it.
Have you practiced more flattering poses in the mirror?
I probably shouldn’t! When I first did it, I definitely checked. I try not to moon people too much. Some models are more comfortable doing that, but I definitely try to keep that area down.
Have you ever been insulted by someone’s likeness of you?
I don’t take it to heart, but I’m a bit sad that’s what I look like. Sometimes it’s good the other way—like automatic Photoshop. So they cut down a little of the gut and make the breasts a bit perkier. And sometimes they do it a bit more realistic, and I think I better work out.
Do you get cramps?
Definitely. When I first started I had a really bad hip cramp and was like, I’m never doing this again! But the artists were so lovely. So I obviously came back. You’ve got to learn what positions you can do. I get pins and needles; so I push through it and tell them after I’ve got pins and needles and I’ve just gotta get it out first.
Any awkward moments?
I did a photography session with an art student. And it was just me, the student, her teacher, and her parents, just wandering around in the forest. Passersby would walk by and be curious. The most awkward session was at my old school—it was about a year and a half after I’d been modeling, and I modeled for the art class at the school I used to go to. It was awkward, because when I looked up, I’d see people in my old school uniform.
What’s the hardest part of the job?
Definitely trying to hold it in when you need to fart. Or trying not to laugh when the artists tell jokes. Or trying not to fall asleep when you’re doing a long pose in a comfortable position next to a fireplace!
What if you have to fart?
The first time I did it, when I was so focused on looking up, I actually really had to fart as well. So you have to hold it in really tight. I’ve never farted, luckily. But I’ve definitely needed to, and it was very uncomfortable. I tense really tight and try not to eat too much fibre before modeling. I’ve also been advised to not eat too much Indian food beforehand.
What about when you’ve got your period?
I still model. Because I can just hide the tampon string. It’s not too bad. I prefer modeling fully nude. I haven’t done much draped, but that’s also an option when you’ve got your period.
What’s a big misconception surrounding life modeling?
The worst thing I had was an ex—he accused me of doing modeling for sexual reasons; like it was pornographic and he thought I got a kick out of it or something.
Do you ever get hit on while modeling?
I’ve never had any awkwardness. During the break you’re expected to re-robe. I’ve been doing it four and a half years and I’ve never had anyone look at me the wrong way. No one has hit on me. I’ve never had a bad experience. It’s kind of weird seeing someone later in the shop and thinking, Where do I know you from? Oh I know! You’ve seen me naked! It’s a tiny bit awkward, but it is what it is.
Were you always so comfortable being naked?
I went to a class to see what it was like before. And you see that no one is judging you, they’re just focused on the shapes and the lines. I’m definitely more comfortable with my body—obviously there’s things I want to change, but I’m not judging myself for them.
It’s fun being immortalized. All the artists focus on different things and they all have different styles, so it’s definitely helped my confidence in my own body. Just seeing that everybody is looking at different things. Realizing that everybody has a body and every body is different. It’s made me more accepting of myself.
I think we are too focused on being clothed and therefore people are scared of nudity, and I think that encourages the sexualization of nudity. The body doesn’t always have to be sexualized. There’s a lot of shame. In general, people are scared of nudity—or it’s only for the bedroom, it’s only for sexual things, or the beach. improved my confidence as a person—I don’t think I was ever closed-minded, but I’m way more open-minded in accepting being nude. I’m more pro-nude now.
Follow Tiffy Thompson on Twitter.
What It’s Like To Strip Totally NUDE In Front Of Strangers For Money
The one without her clothes on is the one who holds the power.
I’m not really sure what made me decide to take my clothes off in front of a room full of strangers, all of whom would be looking at me as if their lives depended on it. (Well, their college lives sort of did, actually, because looking at me and attempting to draw, paint, or sculpt me was exactly what they would be graded on.)
I was a figure model when I was a law student. I needed a job. Preferably something I could either sleep or study during, preferably something that paid well, and preferably something that wouldn’t tax my body or my brain any more than the being awake and studying constantly that law school required.
Maybe being in law school was part of it. Everyone was so conservative. I was studying at TC Williams at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I was never particularly wild or out there. But compared to the students there, I was basically Lady Gaga in a meat dress emerging from an egg.
I was too liberal. Too feminist. Too Yankee. Too loud. Too unapologetic. I had my circle of friends, but I had an even bigger circle of haters. Women who couldn’t bear to lose to me in mock court or on the curve because I didn’t fit their tidy little mold.
So maybe it was no surprise that I ran into the arms of the art department. I loved the paint smells and the students in their bohemian attire, sprawled along the hallways and classrooms, debating the value of Impressionism in the 20th century and the meaning of Modern Art in a world without meaning.
I was an Art History minor in college. I was an actress when time allowed. These halls felt much more like home then the stately study carols and formal classrooms of the law school.
Photo: Steph Grant
I saw an ad in the university paper and I called the number that was listed.
“Have you ever nude modeled before?” the voice on the other end of the line asked.
“No,” I said.
“Are you comfortable being naked in front of strangers?”
“Yes,” I lied.
I had no idea if I was or not. And I had the all-too-common love/hate relationship with my body that many, if not most, women have. I had a beautiful body. I would kill for that body now, in fact. But I thought I was fat. Or at least not thin enough. But I come from the “fake it ’til you make it” school of thought, and for some reason I really wanted to do this. So I did.
I showed up on the first day with a robe in my bag as I had been told to do.
“You can change in my office,” the professor said, guiding me into the space. I thought for sure he would leave at that point. Instead, he sat behind his desk. I asked as many questions as I could think of just biding my time until he left. All of my questions had already been answered by the person on the phone who had hired me.
“Will it be cold?”
“There will be a space heater for you.”
“How long will I have to hold a pose?”
“For as long as you can. The longer you hold it, the better it is for the students.”
“What if I freak out?”
“You won’t. Everyone thinks they will. No one does.”
“What if someone behaves in appropriately?”
“They won’t. Because they have been told what is appropriate and what is not. If they do, you report them immediately. And if you want someone to walk you to or from class at any time, let us know. Although no one has ever ended up feeling the need to do that.”
I kept waiting for him to leave. He never did.
“You’re going to be late,” he said.
“You’re right,” I said. I looked at him, looking for a sign of some sort, a sign that he understood what my eyes were saying — get out! But I didn’t get any sign. So I figured, what the hell. He’s going to be looking at me naked for the next two hours anyway.
Photo: Steph Grant
So I took my clothes off and slipped into my robe as if that’s what one does all the time. As soon as I did it, it seemed far less strange then I imagined it would. He acted perfectly normal, so I felt perfectly normal.
I walked out into the classroom and sat in my robe on a high stool at the front of the room. The professor went over some classroom housekeeping and the assignment with the students, and then he turned to me and said, “OK. Let’s begin with gestures.” It had been explained to me that gestures were short, dynamic poses that would call my dance training into use.
I stood up. Took off my robe. Laid it on a chair off to the side. And I posed. The class took to drawing. I changed every minute or two for the next hour. I took a short break at the hour mark, and then the last hour of the class was one long pose that I did my best to hold for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. And that was that.
The weirdest thing that happened was that the frat boy in the center of the front row who was nudging his buddies and grinning the whole time the professor gave the intro, looked only at my feet the whole time. My feet. He drew my feet all semester long. I don’t think he ever did actually look at me.
That, of course, was only a little weirder then the students who made my legs longer or my breasts bigger or my waist tinier or any number of other distortions. We don’t see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. Isn’t that how the saying goes?
I came back the next week and the week after and the week after that for more of the same. I began sitting for other classes and privately for painters, photographers, and sculptors. I even went to an art show where paintings of me naked covered the gallery walls. And one time, an artist covered me in paint and then pressed my body onto a piece of paper to create a piece of art.
At one of the gallery shows at the university, a parent came up to me and asked, “Which one is yours?” “They’re all me,” I said with a giggle. I’ve never seen anyone turn redder. And I was the one who was naked in the paintings.
And that was the most amazing thing about all of the times I posed, and still rang true when I was a Naked Girl Reading or went to a nudist resort. The one without her clothes on is the one who holds the power. Being comfortable in your own skin puts you in control, because not enough people are — not enough women are.
In those classes, in those studios and galleries, all of that time, sitting so still and so exposed allowed me to settle into my skin. It allowed me an incredible amount of time to think and to meditate. It was a chance to practice a level of self-discipline that I don’t believe I have experienced before or since. Try sitting perfectly still for twenty minutes, naked on the floor in a cold room with a space heater blowing on you intermittently turning on and off.
As I said, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with my body. I love it. I mean, I want to love it. But all the signs around me are shouting about how I’m too short and too heavy. And sometimes, the noise drowns out my own self-knowledge.
But nude modeling helped me a great deal with learning to love my own skin, the one home in which I was given to dwell, the one thing over which I have complete domain that belongs to me and only me.
And nothing, nothing could be more powerful than that.