From the Archives. I wrote this post in 2015. So much more can be said now that my body has gone through cancer.
“Mom? Can I see your fat?”
“Can I see your belly? It’s so fat. I love it. It’s so warm and soft and wonderful. I just want to kiss it.”
I lifted up my shirt a little and my daughter touched my midsection and kissed me on the navel. “It’s so beautiful.”
In a culture obsessed with women’s bodies, it’s hard to hear from another person how fat your belly is, even if that other person is your own child. But she’s right. It is beautiful and soft and warm and wonderful. Making art taught me that.
When you attend art school, part of the formal training is figure drawing. Here is how it works: A group of artists gather around a model with easels, paint, charcoal, pastels, and pencils. The model at the center removes their robe and holds a pose for twenty minutes at a time. The artists study the figure carefully, making marks on their papers where the top of the head will go and the center line moves through the body here, culminating at the feet. They look and mark, look and mark.
The way an artist looks at a model is unlike the way we look at one another in any other context. There is no judgment for the way a model compares with glossy magazine images or how they measure up to cultural beauty standards. The only judgment in the studio is judgment on your own paper. Is this arm that I have drawn too short? These shadows need to be darker. The proportions on my paper just aren’t right.
The artist sees the model, no matter her size, age, or shape, to be the ideal to which the artist aspires to capture on paper or canvas.
In this way, my eye is trained to see beauty, not as it compares with unrealistic beauty standards, but to see how the light falls across the form, how the folds create a beautiful pattern of convexities and concavities, how the shadows cause places to recede while others protrude. I have spent time with models who are young and fit and others who are older and whose bodies are worn from bearing children. I love the way my arm feels when I make the arcs to describe the large curves of a rotund model’s backside and the gentleness in which I render the shadows on her breasts.
After years of starving myself as a young woman and fretting over each pound and each roll, I began to see my own figure as I see the models at the studio. Beautiful lines, soft shadows.
You don’t have to attend art school to learn to love your body. Spend time at museums. It is difficult to deny the beauty in Giorgione’s Sleeping Venus. She would not appear in a magazine, but she is soft and feminine and sensual.
Stand completely nude in front of a full length mirror. Spend ten minutes being present with your body. Look at it without judgement. Pretend it is a painting by Ingres or Manet. Do you notice the way the light hits your curves? Are you angular and the shadows make an interesting shape? What would Degas say about your figure?
A step further: If you are so inclined, draw a self-portrait in the nude. You don’t have to show anyone, but spend at least 2.5 hours with it. See if your perceptions shift. Take a life drawing class or stop in at an open figure drawing group. See how it changes your life.
Have you ever taken a life drawing class? Has it changed the way you see your own body?