The View From Both Sides Of The Easel By Tapati Amber Sarasvati
The Model: Five years ago I would have laughed at the suggestion I might be doing nude modeling for an artist. Nothing could have been further from my mind. I was only beginning to work on changing my body image. I was just beginning to appreciate my wide hips, powerful buttocks, smallish breasts, and round belly with its network of stretch marks like ribbons of fine silk. The only parts of my body I had always liked were my blue-green eyes and my soft, thick brown hair.
It was a major step just to go to a beach or a pool in a swimsuit. First I had to know that I deserve access to the water just as much as any thin person. Then I had to use that knowledge as a shield when I ventured out in my bathing suit. I met shocked stares and the occasional rude remarks, but it was worth it to be in the water again. Still, it took a lot of work.
Early in my exploration of body image, I did a series of visualizations with body image educator and hypnotherapist Ruah Bull. The first visualization involved going inside a house--representing the self--and finding the "body room." I was to enter and take note of what I saw and how I felt about it. The first time I did this exercise, I could not see anything but pitch blackness. It was too scary, this body room. I could not confront it.
Months later, after much work with Ruah, I was able to see into the body room. I saw a room that was much more pleasant than I had expected. It was homey and welcoming. Ruah asked me what changed I might like to make, if any. I said that the windows needed to be bigger to let more light in. When Ruah asked what that meant to me, I said that I wanted more freedom to wear clothing that was revealing, such as shorts and swimsuits. I was tired of being expected to hide myself away.
Years later, I unexpectedly found myself posing nude for an artist's sketch. I had been swimming with friends in a mountain river, dressed in shorts and a top. I found a natural seat formed by a projection from a cliff wall and sat on it to rest. Everyone remarked that I looked like a mythical Earth goddess and wished someone had a camera. Our host, artist Heather Lee, decided to run home and get her sketch pad.
Excited, I thought about how the sketch might look and decided that I could not imagine a goddess wearing shorts and a top. All of the fat goddess figures I had seen were unclothed. I decided to risk posing nude. I figured that if anyone came down the trail we would hear them long before they could see us, and I would be able to duck into the water. I was surprised to find myself getting as excited about skinny dipping for the first time as I was about being sketched.
My friends giggled with me as I undressed, knowing that this was out of character for me. Heather began to sketch me, and I encouraged my friend Rebecca to pose with me, on the seat just below mine.
The resulting picture of us helped me view myself in an entirely different light. Although I had placed images of large women all over my house for years as part of my work on body image and had learned to find them beautiful, I somehow had not quite seen myself in the same way. Something about seeing myself in a drawing, looking as regal as any woman in a Renaissance painting, changed me. I knew I had to find ways to model again, and I knew I was no longer satisfied with having only pictures of other women on my wall. I wanted artwork of myself there as well. I had come far enough in my recovery from self-hatred that I valued my image as I increasingly valued myself.
Because Heather seemed so eager to do the first sketch, I believed she might be willing to sketch me again. We had originally met through a discussion group on spirituality on the campus of the University of California at Santa Cruz. I knew her well enough to know that she was a feminist who believed in fat acceptance, so I felt comfortable sitting for her. She had also complained that only thin women volunteered to model for her art classes. She wanted to draw larger women, but it seemed the fat women did not feel comfortable enough to sit for a classroom full of strangers. I couldn't imagine myself sitting for strangers, either.
So I contacted Heather, and we discussed a regular sitting schedule. My primary motivation was to obtain images of myself for my work on self-acceptance. Heather could not afford to pay a model. So we agreed that I would take some of the finished drawings of myself as compensation. As I saw that both artist and model were getting something valuable out of the sittings, I also began to realize that we can't very well criticize modern artists for not providing enough large images of us if we aren't willing to post for them. Judging from the images I've seen in Radiance, more and more of us are beginning to model.
My confidence in my beauty has grown at a phenomenal rate since I began modeling. This body that was despised and laughed at in the high school shower room, this body that I was afraid to show to lovers, this body that people have jeered at in the streets, is lovingly appreciated by the artist who spends so much time gazing at it. I remember asking Heather if there was anything I needed to do to prepare for our first sketching appointment. She replied, "No, just don't change your body between now and then!" What a different message from what I'd been hearing all my life!
The sessions took place at my apartment in the family student housing complex on campus. I was a little nervous the first time even though Heather had sketched me the previous summer. I made sure the blinds were closed, and then I undressed. I didn't really know what to expect. What if she wanted me to hold a position that was difficult for me? I nervously asked her how she wanted me to pose. Heather immediately assured me that any position I found comfortable would be fine and that I could take a break any time I needed to.
I figured that lying down would be the most comfortable position possible, so I stretched out on the couch. Heather sat cross-legged on the floor and began her sketch. I've always been fascinated by artists and their work, so I watched as she made the lines and curves that gradually came to resemble, more and more, my body. I have trouble drawing even a stick figure, so her work seemed like magic to me. I think my awe of the process helped to take my mind off of my nudity; I don't recall being self-conscious after the first few minutes.
Heather seemed a little frustrated that she didn't get my whole body into her drawing, but I thought it was wonderful. Our spirituality discussion group just happened to meet at my place right after the modeling appointments. Heather would be putting the finishing touches on a drawing as people arrived. Fortunately it was a very open-minded group of students, who had learned to admire the fat goddess figures of earlier ages. So they too would contribute to my positive body image as they admired the drawing of me. It was a heady experience, again directly contradicting the kinds of comments I had usually heard about my body. In terms of my "body room" visualization with Ruah Bull, I was definitely letting the light shine on me. In fact, it was a spotlight of attention and validation.
Ultimately, that is what changing body image is all about. We fat people learned to hate our bodies based on messages from people around us, as well as images from the media. If we are to unlearn that, we have to surround ourselves with new images and people who will reinforce our positive self-image. The old memories will never be erased, and we will be re-exposed to fat hatred in society, but we can turn out attention away from those negative messages and focus on the message of self-acceptance and love. It takes time, but it does work.
I have discovered that lurking beneath my shy exterior is an exhibitionist. I have also sat for a friend who sculpted me. She later gave me the sculpture as a present, to add to my growing collection of art with myself as the subject. I can't wait to see how I might look in other mediums or portrayed by other artists. I guess I'm hooked on the excitement of seeing my body as a work of art. Heather made greeting cards out of some of her drawings of me. I go to the local bookstores now and see myself happily naked revolving on a greeting card rack! People I've never me know what my body looks like--and they've appreciated it enough to buy these cards! It's a curious kind of celebrity, but one that I'm enjoying immensely.
I suspect that somewhere inside each of us is a little girl dying to be noticed, and being sketched, sculpted, or painted is a kind of concentrated attention that most of us rarely get for long.
I have resolved to seek out other artists by advertising in a local feminist paper. I specify that the artist must be "fat positive" and "anti-dieting." I interview artists over the phone before I decide to sit for them. I also prefer female artists, because I feel too self-conscious sitting for men. For women who are interested in posing, I recommend finding friends to sit for first. Failing that, design an ad listing your specific needs. If you feel you are up to it, local colleges or adult education classes may pay you to model. But you are less likely to get copies of sketches that way, unless you get to know some of the artists and negotiate with some of them.
In making your agreement with an artist, be sure to decide how many pictures you will want for yourself and who gets to choose them. I suggest that you choose half of your "payment" and let the artist select the rest. That way, each of you will have some of what you want from the total. It's also a good idea to put your agreement in writing to avoid confusion later.
If you find that you are not ready to do nude modeling, you can start by modeling clothed. The process of changing your body image can't be rushed. You need to honor yourself for having the courage to confront your body image and for having the wisdom to let that happen at its own pace. Trust yourself. There will come a day when you are ready to take new risks, either the risk of nude modeling or some other risk that will be right for you.
I salute all of those beautiful large women of all shapes, colors, and sizes who are discovering their beauty and sharing it with the world. I hope to see many more of them, in all sorts of artistic and media images. Maybe someday there will be so many images of us in public spaces that the sight of us in bathing suits at the beach will be unremarkable, and we will be free to enjoy the water in peace.
[There was a companion piece by artist Heather Lee but I need to get her permission before sharing it.]