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How nude figure drawing helped me find myself
A personal account of self-expression and connection through nude figure drawing
This month, my figure drawing group Defining Bodies will be seven years old. The group’s setup and membership have changed a LOT in those seven years, far from our humble Facebook origins, but I think today we’re stronger than we’ve ever been. As of this writing, I just recently finished taking down our first ever group art show, and am counting down the days before we get to meet up again on a private farm where we can be nude and make art outdoors.
It’ll also be the seventh anniversary of my first time modeling nude, an experience that still feels like yesterday to me. While I’ve thought of myself as a nudist for most of my life, outside of romantic partners I’d never really been nude around other people, and the thought was more terrifying than I thought. I was blindsided by everyone at our first meetup looking at me and asking if I would model next, something I’d offered but didn’t think anyone would take me up on. I undressed in the bathroom, stared at myself in the mirror for several minutes, then loudly shouted that I wasn’t sure if I could just step out nude, and did anyone have a robe? I did a couple poses in the robe, took it off for a few more, and was hit with an indescribable, exhilarating feeling of vulnerability.
For a while there, I confess I struggled modeling at future meetups without the aid of alcohol to feel a little more relaxed. Posing nude is tough, and when you have social anxiety it can be even harder. But every time I’d finish a pose and get dressed, a thought in the back of my head would ask “why do we have to do this? Couldn’t we just stay nude if we wanted?” I didn’t tell anyone how much I enjoyed being nude because that felt weird at the time. I was worried they’d judge me, or leave the group, and besides, in the classes I took the models ALWAYS put their robe back on when they weren’t posing. But this wasn’t a class and these were my friends. If they enjoyed my modeling, if they liked drawing me, then surely staying nude wouldn’t be much of a problem, right? I didn’t want to make anyone uncomfortable, and I didn’t know what to do.
At some point, I stopped being fully dressed whenever I hosted, stripping to my underwear whether I modeled or not. I noticed that nobody really cared, which was a relief. For my 30th birthday party I was in my underwear the whole night and it was fine, even shedding that when it was late and only a couple friends were still around. I realized I COULD be nude around my friends without it being a big deal. One night, buzzed and warm, I was standing in a friend’s kitchen during a break from modeling and said out loud “I want to take my robe off.” The two friends who heard me said go for it, and when I did, one of them gave me a hug. That was it, I knew I could do it. I started opening up more about being a nudist from then on.
Something changed after that night, and I started thinking of Defining Bodies (which had a different name at the time) as more than just an excuse to get together, drink, and do some drawing. I think of it more as a little community now, a safe (clothing optional) space where we can be ourselves, as vulnerable as we like, with the goal of creating together and growing as artists. On top of being the place in which I opened up about being a nudist, it’s also where I realized I’m nonbinary, feeling comfortable enough and trusting to play with gender in my modeling as I figured out who I am.
Lately, I’ve been trying to run the group with certain principles in mind that I’ve picked up from nudism: the comfort, safety, and autonomy of our models is the number one priority, because without models we wouldn’t have a group at all. Respect for each other is paramount, and ongoing consent is mandatory. Comments are to be as body neutral as possible, unless someone specifically wants us to tell them their ass looks good, which is totally valid. I’ve since quit drinking too and while alcohol is fine, it’s not something I encourage anymore. I want Defining Bodies to be a place where everyone feels safe to be themselves and hopefully form a stronger relationship with their own bodies and feelings as we grow.
One of the drawings I found for our group show was a rotation exercise where, in short increments of time, we’d draw a pose before moving to the next person’s sketchbook, rotating in a circle around the model. The end result is a drawing that everyone contributes to, and we usually try to each draw with a different color so that we can tell each other’s lines apart. This drawing in particular was done by eight of us altogether, quite a big gathering that night. After taking down the show, I decided to hang it next to my bed. I think it really represents who we are and what we do as a community.
I’m so excited to go back to the farm. 🪐
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