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The Naked Truth

Opinion | December 7, 2015

My painting professor likes to tell our class that when she first started learning to make art, it was like someone had taken a blindfold off her eyes. She couldn’t believe how much more she noticed about the world around her—the way light fell on an object, or how many colors could coexist in a single image. At first, I didn’t really feel that my experience in her class had been quite this profound or enlightening. That is, until my focus was no longer an object or still life, but rather a living person.

Studying the human figure in painting forced me to confront an issue that’s been on my mind more and more often: body image. It has become a societal standard, especially for women, to fixate on the parts of ourselves we wish we could change, for our eyes to be automatically drawn to the extra fat on our thighs or the curvature of our stomachs. I don’t consider myself to be someone who is overly body conscious. However, lately, I have noticed that the bodies in my life, particularly my own, are being criticized more than appreciated.

But this semester, many of the common attitudes surrounding the human body that I had accepted changed in a way I had never expected.

When I signed up for Laura Fischman’s Foundation Painting course at the beginning of the semester, body image was the last thing on my mind. I had never done any kind of serious art before and wanted to try something new.

A couple of weeks ago, Professor Fischman informed our class that we would be painting a nude model. While I knew that this was a common practice for many artists—even at the college level—I’d never done it myself, and was unsure of what to expect. I had seen plenty of nude art in museums and books, but had never really thought about the person behind the painting and the process of creating the depiction. Wouldn’t it be awkward to have a naked stranger in a room of students for hours, being scrutinized and measured down to the very last detail?

In our first class with the nude model, I set up my easel and sketchpad and waited anxiously as my professor explained the assignment. The model, who was introduced to us as Cally, wore a thin green robe. She moved to the center of the room. The feeling of uncertainty in the room was palpable, and I could tell that my classmates and I were wondering what would happen when room and woman would no longer be separated by flimsy cloth.

Yet when my professor nonchalantly asked the model to disrobe, there was no change in Cally’s demeanor. I was dumbfounded by the fact that this young woman, an art student not much older than me and my classmates, could display such poise, maturity, and professionalism. She remained unfazed as she bent her limbs this way and that to expose different angles: first in a half twirl, then a hunched squat, then an arched backbend. She glided from one position to the next, fluid and without hesitation. The class grew focused and intent. Any awkwardness from the start of the class dissipated once we started working. Cally even began to chime in throughout the process as my professor continued giving instructions. “I call this one the naked archer,” she joked as my professor handed her a bow to pose with, releasing a relieved round of laughter from the class.

My classmate Belle Newman echoed my surprise at the experience: “I think that at first when we see a nude model we’re all a little taken aback and uncomfortable…because we don’t know the person well and nudity is…very personal,” she said. “But it’s interesting to see how comfortable everyone gets once they start painting her. You can connect with someone you don’t know by appreciating them.”

What was most surprising to me was how the tranquility that settled over the room during our painting sessions seemed to come entirely from the model’s confidence. As I began the assignment, I realized that perhaps one of my first misconceptions came from the very nature of thinking about who a “model” is. It’s easy to associate the word “model” with photoshopped celebrities on the covers of magazines flaunting perfectly taut, glowing skin, zero body fat, and ageless faces. Despite my better judgment, it’s easy to internalize the notion that women have to have these bodies in order to be comfortable exposing them. Studies show that many young women have come to believe the same thing. The Dove Real Beauty Campaign, for example, found that only 4 percent of women around the world consider themselves beautiful, and only 11 percent of girls are comfortable using the word beautiful to describe themselves. The campaign attributes this finding to our society’s unrealistic standards of beauty.

Knowing numbers like these, I was astounded to see a young woman so apparently comfortable exposing her body to be permanently drawn on canvas. While at first I was rattled by this unfamiliar experience, when I started working from her figure, I realized why there was nothing strange about this at all.

On our first day working with Cally, the assignment was to draw her in very short time blocks, starting at thirty seconds and working our way up to a few minutes. I scribbled as fast as I could, but it was impossible to capture every detail of her body. My professor encouraged us to draw the essence of her posture and the movement in the shape of her body. Sometimes, this came with just a brief slash of a few continuous lines curved to embody her shape. Many of my drawings came out in chaotic jumbles of black strokes. But the spirit behind them was clear, and more than that, it was the most honest representation of a body I’d looked at in a long time. These were the real breakdowns of a person—all the details that we normally fret about were abandoned.

Reducing the human body to such a bare linearity, the lines twisting and turning in a delicate charcoal path, left nothing to be embarrassed by or self-conscious of. And that’s really all a body is—lines and shapes and shadows that create a whole person. Putting that down on paper gave me a feeling of truly being in charge of how I approached the idea of bodies. Before, if I was just looking at someone, I might have unconsciously compared their body to my own, or thought about how it could be “improved.” It’s easy to forget what a wonder the human body is, and recreating it made me consider the sophistication and beauty not just of a person, but of all the structure that goes into them.

I continued to ponder this as the class moved on to more detailed drawings and paintings. Professor Fischman constantly reminded us that people often have ideas about the human form that are removed from what the body actually looks like and how it works. But, when trying to render it, we must look closely and focus on what we see, rather than relying on previous assumptions.

One might think that having to render a figure exactly as they see it would cause them to zone in on its “flaws.” For me, this was not the case. The hard part wasn’t necessarily resisting the reflex to slim some parts down or tighten others up; often it was just trying to replicate a body part like a nose, and realizing that it may not conform to the idea we’re used to. Laura warned us that the traits we would tend to exaggerate when drawing another person are the ones we’re most self-conscious about on ourselves, a clear reflection of the bias in our own insecurities.

The renowned portraitist Chuck Close once echoed a similar sentiment. “I like the warts-and-all approach,” he said. “The things I like best are the things that other people hate the most. I find that stuff interesting to paint because it’s the road map of your life.”

This idea reminds us that what makes us beautiful—what makes us people—is not what we expect or believe we should be, but simply who and what we are. Artist or not, this must be understood. Even Cally herself remarked that for her, the actual modeling process was what changed some of her body views. “I actually had a lot of body image issues throughout high school and college, and modeling helped me work through all of them. I don’t know any better self-confidence booster, really,” she said.

For me, acceptance of my body didn’t come through positivity campaigns, but rather through action, which allowed me to see beauty for myself. Taking the matter into my own hands by creating art was what gave me the power to be comfortable with my own body. It was one thing to be told “everyone is beautiful,” but it was another to come to that conclusion through my own creative process. By looking at a figure in its simplest form—through an unembarrassed, brutally honest lens—it became possible for me to appreciate the complexity of a body, embrace its imperfections, and truly behold all the beauty it possesses.