What art taught me about appreciating the naked body

How painting the human figure teaches us to be more comfortable with the female form


By Elspeth Walker


The first time I took a life drawing class I was not prepared to see a naked woman. She was not a bowl full of fruits that I was used to coming across in the supermarket, she was real – a human, not wearing any clothes. I was seventeen, living in rural Suffolk, and had not been comfortable with any female form that wasn’t from TV, adverts or other people’s art work. However, during my art studies, it became important for me and my peers to learn to draw the human figure. So, to solve this problem, an after-school class was set up by my art teacher. It seemed she knew the remedy to our drawing issues: to be able to paint the human figure, you had to go to the source – and for us that meant life drawing classes with a female model.


My art teacher, Ms Chacksfield, was one of the first feminists I had ever really met. She helped me to understand that the term ‘feminist’ wasn’t just for women who were overly sensitive or extreme. It was a term for women helping other women. She taught me that there was something to be celebrated in being yourself, even when yourself wasn’t its best version at times. We were people, we were women and we should be able to do anything – and this included going to bars with bras hanging off the ceilings and rocking a leopard print jacket, no matter the occasion. But, most importantly, she taught me to be comfortable with the female form. This was all thanks to her life drawing classes.


By Elspeth Walker


During the first session I was surprisingly nervous. I had never been good at drawing bodies (a fear cultivated out of previous art teachers’ reactions to my portrait paintings). But there I was, awkwardly sitting in front of an easel and waiting for the lesson to start. Then, suddenly, a middle-aged woman walked confidently into the room, heading to the small photography dark room to get ready. Minutes later she came out, except this time, she wore only a dressing gown. As she took the seat prepared for her in the middle of the room, Ms Chacksfield debriefed us on the first task. Then, she turned to the model and told her how she wanted her to pose.


The lesson started and the woman was naked. This surprised me. I knew what life drawing was – I knew I would be seeing a nude woman – but I didn’t realise she would be naked until she was right in front of me. The first few minutes I didn’t know where to look, if I was even allowed to look. There she was, a woman with no clothes on. Two minutes in and I was begging that my cheeks wouldn’t turn red. I assumed everyone around me didn’t care: they all looked so calm and collected as if this was something they did everyday (despite only one of us in the group having ever done this before). Soon Ms Chacksfield had set us on our first exercise. This meant I had to look at the woman in front of me and face something I hadn’t realised I was uncomfortable with: the female body.


“This woman was real, her body one actually lived in, not touched up by a computer – she was perfect for art”

However, despite my initial reaction, three exercises in the model had metamorphosed into something new: a fruit bowl. A fruit bowl is something that is often wheeled out in art lessons and whether they’re used to teach children how to use coloured oil pastels or to explore the impressionists, they’re everywhere. The configuration of oranges, apples, bananas and a wooden bowl is so ever-present it becomes nothing but a lump in front of you, used to learn to paint, shade or any other technique. The fruit bowl is nothing and everything. In these sessions, two hours after school, this model had succumbed to the fruit bowl effect. She was no longer a woman but a series of curves and lines, shades and marks, posed in various positions. That’s when it hit me. She, this woman, this mass in front of me, was perfect for art because of her curves and lines, her marks and shades.


At over thirty, post-two children and occasionally flustered after a long day’s work, the model’s form may not have been something I’d seen in a magazine, but it was beautiful because across her body were the signs of life. This woman was real, her body one actually lived in, not touched up by a computer – she was perfect for art. Before today’s trend of hour-glass bodies formed by waist-training devices swept the female consciousness, this era was overrun with the desire for slim, bony bodies. It was a shape many of my female friends coveted and shamed themselves in comparison to. A shape, I realised subsequently after our sessions, that would have lacked something in those moments. That is not to say that every body type should not be celebrated, but rather the one I was taught to hide, the natural one, had so much more to offer than I had ever been taught.


By Elspeth Walker

Those life drawing lessons stuck with me for that precise reason. I may not have been the next Lucian Freud, but what I took away from those sessions was so much more than the art work I produced. In them I had found an appreciation for a female form that wasn’t societal perfection – something that, over time, was translated into my own body. My naked shape wasn’t something I should avoid, the bathroom mirror was no longer a thing to fear and my body certainly wasn’t something to apologise for to the boy who saw it. 

Heading to university and out of the artistic realm I still had the drive to create. I wanted to paint and draw bodies, but I had nothing to model it off. The only body I had was my own. So, using the propped-up halls mirror and my low-grade camera phone, I began to act as my own model. Through this process, I found that the only angles I wanted to paint were the ones where I had stomach rolls and thick thighs. All the lumps and bumps and hair that ‘beauty’ companies had told me I should want to erase suddenly became things I wanted to keep. I began to recognise that the shape of womanhood was not anything I would find in media validation. I would only find it in coming to terms with the natural way my body wanted to be.


“If Botticelli’s Venus can have a belly, then so can I”

From life drawing I learnt how to appreciate my naked body for what it was not what is ‘should’ be. This is not to say I don’t have bad days; days where I want a flat stomach or my leggings not to cling so tightly to my lower back. But through the diets, self-shaming and comparisons, one thing has stuck with me and helped me not to sink into the all-too-common damaging cycle – my life drawing lessons. My body has a womanly form, something I should feel proud enough to sit in front a room of strangers and let them draw. The end result being that now what I try to fit into my own art is this appreciation and a refusal to edit any female form to something that is an airbrushed version. If Botticelli’s Venus can have a belly, then so can I.