Body positivity sweeps London’s life-drawing scene

Against diet-culture and the rejection of the majority of body-types as unhealthy or unattractive, activists turn to art.

Slipping off their robe and stepping under the gaze of a crowded east London bar, Teddy adopted their first pose.

Glasses tipped and wearing nothing but a deep purple lipstick, the 26-year-old life model stood tall, encircled by the eyes of those about to transform their bumps, breasts and bravery into their own paper interpretation.

But this was no ordinary life-drawing class, since Teddy’s modelling has become a form of activism, encouraging a growing online movement against diet-culture and the rejection of the majority of body-types as unhealthy or unattractive, into the offline realm.

And it was on the night of April 2, that Teddy’s modelling marked a collaboration between Art Macabre – a life drawing club encouraging the exploration of the ‘darker side of arts’ – and the newly-formed Anti-Diet Riot Club (ADRC). Before taking up their materials, the audience was asked to really look at the models’ bodies – to draw what they saw and not to create an idealised version for fear of offending them. This was a space to celebrate the diversity of human bodies.

Becky Young, fonder of the Anti Diet Riot Club. Copyright: imogenforte.com

‘The rampant objectification of women’

“I felt that London, and the UK generally, was lacking in body positive spaces and platforms that could counteract the body-shaming, diet-obsessed, fat-phobic spaces that exist everywhere…in our homes, our offices, on the streets,” said Becky Young, ADRC’s founder.

“The shame and preoccupation that comes with diet culture can be quite lonely or isolating and hearing personal stories and bonding over shared struggles can be an antidote to that.”

Recognising that poor body image, unattainable body ideals and eating disorders affects all genders, the 28-year-old Londoner said it was the ‘rampant objectification of women’ that was reducing them to bodies.

I think that, quantitatively, diet culture predominantly targets and affects women, because within our society the obsession with female thinness seems to be omnipresent.”

“The majority of women feel deeply dissatisfied with their bodies from a young age and after years of obsessing over fat, trying out ridiculous fad diets, feeling constantly guilty around food, it’s no wonder that now many have had enough and are searching for a new path.”

This ‘new path’ is based on self-acceptance as a prerequisite to creating a healthy lifestyle, emphasising the importance of mental health.

“No body is ugly in art”

But what drives someone to volunteer to have their body scrutinised in the name of art?

Teddy explained why they signed up eight years ago: “I was going through grief and a lot of mental illness at the time. It worked as a distraction at the time and became a way for me to love my body and feel much more comfortable in myself. That is what I still get out of it now, a sense of self love and a feeling of being at home in my body that I don’t get any other way”.

“Older bodies teach you how to draw wrinkled skin and show how age changes the physical form, fat bodies teach you how to draw soft curves and rounded shapes, bodies of colour teach you how different skin tones affect light and shadow and disabled bodies teach you that not all bodies will look like a standard mannequin. No body is ugly in art so therefore no body is ugly in life drawing and once you learn that, you can apply it to life.

Teddy Valentine began modelling eight years ago in order to feel ‘at home’ in their body.

 

‘Silent muses’

The collaboration with Art Macabre, which explores themes such as sexuality, death, fantasy and horror, is to be one of many to come.

“We were originally called Swallows and Amazons Life Drawing Salons, said Art Macabre founder, Nikki Shaill. “We wanted to present a range of strong, larger, proudly space-occupying and more diverse models to be drawn. Like the legendary Amazons!”

“We had roller derby players pose athletic and fierce on their skates, yoga models, mexican wrestlers, fat burlesque performers, butoh dancers, women clowns and folk music singing models. We wanted models to be able to express their personality, not be silent muses.”

The event was a sell out, and encouraged the mainly-female audience to consider aspects of their bodies they were not quite at ease with, and why that might be. While Teddy posed throughout the two-hours, holding plants, books and even eating a doughnut, new-time models from the audience joined in.

It ended with comments from the artists on their own battles with eating disorders and negative body image, which brought them to the life drawing scene in search of self-acceptance.

“I’ve always tried to bring in music, poetry, narrative, theatre, history, politics and other art forms into Art Macabre, not just visuals/drawing,” Nikki said. “It’s what excites and interests me.

Gender fluidity

Her own experience of the body-positivity movement has been through radical queer politics and feminist arts communities, as well as through zines (small circulation publications of original work).

“I found people with whom I felt I could be myself in London. People who taught me lots more about how to be more confidently queer, fat-positive, feminist, intersectional and introduced me to new ways of thinking and being. They were inclusive, difference-embracing communities.”

As gender fluidity and the examination of femininity and masculinity as social concepts further enters the public psyche, inclusive spaces and better understanding of how body pressure affects men and trans people is needed.

“I really want to address this,” Becky said, “so I am currently looking into panel discussions on male body image and the intersection of trans issues and the body positivity movement.

“Having spoken to men interested in ADRC, it’s clear there’s a need for a space for them to open up about their relationship with their bodies.”

For Nikki, it’s personality and what a model can bring to a certain role, rather than gender, that takes precedence when booking models. 

“I do find a lot more women and gender-queer people tend to get in touch to model with us than men. Why is that? You’d have to ask the men! I hope men know they are welcome to model with us. They very much are”, states Nikki.

“We also have a lower proportion of people of colour getting in touch to model with us or accepting invitations to model with us and therefore not as often represented on stage.

The group is also popular with many non-binary and trans models and collaborators, including trans and gender-queer/gender-fluid/androgynous people.

“We rightly treat these models the same as any other models,” said Nikki. “We don’t differentiate or promote these people’s gender as distinct, the same way we wouldn’t say ‘we’re having two cis models pose for us next Monday’ or announce it on stage/in event listings. So people may have drawn models and not been aware that the person is non-binary. People are people. Bodies are bodies. Individuals are individuals”.

 

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