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Why the female body needs the female gaze

Baring all about the experience of modelling for a life-drawing class

By Eloise Moench

In 2018 I did something I never thought I would do... I modelled for a life drawing class. It was a class I had been attending for a few months, run by an unconventional artist in North Amsterdam. My teacher, an eccentric man with an infectious smile, asked me one day if I would be interested in modelling. I hesitated, staring at the blatant nudity of the woman who had provided us with her body that week. She worked as a professional burlesque dancer – the differences between us were almost as stark as she was. Her job involved working with her assets, regularly presenting her body for an audience and I imagined the serene gaze of mild-mannered artists must be an easy switch up from the more boisterous crowds at her shows. For me, however, it was slightly more terrifying.

Nevertheless, I found myself agreeing to being a nude model – mainly because this ramshackle little art studio had become a safe space for me over the last few months. Over homemade soup and cheap red wine I had whittled away many easy hours, refining my own artwork here. From the giving end I had discovered that the only judgement I bestowed onto other bodies was judgement of my own work in relation to what was before me. When drawing, I agonized over whether the lines I sketched had captured the smooth curve of the model’s hip, whether I had made her facial features too abstract, whether I was drawing her neck in disproportion to her shoulders. The person in front of me was a subject for placid inspection and imitation – they were not an object of comparison, prejudice or desire.

Image by Eloise Moench

After living in Amsterdam for two years my body had certainly changed. I had stopped taking the contraceptive pill a few months after moving because, as many women eventually conclude, it made me irrational and unhappy. My boobs had become smaller – no longer pumped with engineered oestrogen. I had also started living a lifestyle devoid from many of the rigid regulations placed on myself before.

One of the beautiful things about moving to a new country is the upheaval of your normal routine. Going on runs three times a week in order to shed a skin of calories was no longer a priority. It was trumped by nights in local bars playing pool with friends, evening spent at gigs and galleries. My arse and thighs expanded, my stomach bloated out, my boobs shrunk away. I was bigger, I was happier; yet I was still feeling a sense of shame about “letting myself go”. I felt like I no longer belonged to the mannequin ideal of the female form, one that I had been working so hard to maintain before.

“Regardless of the complete lack of judgement I bestowed on other artists, I felt like my own body didn’t deserve the same liberal treatment”

So, lying naked with a body that, in my mind's eye, had gained calories and lost sex appeal was a nerve-wracking prospect. Regardless of the complete lack of judgement I bestowed on other artists, I felt like my own body didn’t deserve the same liberal treatment.

The day of the class came, however, and mostly as a challenge to myself I got on stage. Juddering with nerves, I dropped my gown and lay down. The class was made up of a handful of artists, including three of my female best friends. For two hours I posed in various positions, accompanied by a chorus of scratching pencils and female affirmations. My friends told me that I looked great, that my poses were really working. Any fear I had melted away by the radiating warmth of their praise. Afterwards I looked at the colourful array of their handiwork and smiled. My body stared back at me, drawn with care and consideration by women I loved.

Image by Eloise Moench

Media is still dominated by the male fetishization of women’s’ bodies. The highest grossing actresses are still the voluptuous Scarlet Johansson or the pert Jennifer Aniston. The most successful directors worldwide are still an assortment of men in different shades of white, gazing down a lens and capturing women of one kind. The dominant voice is still one that booms “small waist, big boobs, skinny legs”’. So, in this storm of male expectation, we should note where the female gaze exists.

From my observations, it exists in the works of Tracy Emin or the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe. It is there in the writing of Sally Rooney or the screenplays of Phoebe Waller-Bridge. It also exists in other places, small places, like the fire emojis of an Instagram comment or the lending of a flattering top. It is in your joyous proclamations of praise as your friend dances in a club. The constant, subtle ways that women choose to celebrate each other’s bodies is where the female gaze can burn most bright.

My life drawing class showed me how body positivity flourishes most when nurtured by female support. Through the appraisal of the women around me I made peace with my changing body. Breaking through the antiquated size 8 mould needs to happen from the inside out; from the network of support and love women can choose to show bodies of all shapes and sizes.  

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