I’ve been thinking a lot lately about body image, thanks to Kimber’s workshop. She made me aware of a great set of interviews at bodyloverevolution.com (register there to get free access to the interviews until the end of the month); I’ve been listening to talks from people like Linda Bacon, founder of the Health at Every Size movement.
I think a lot about body image when I’m drawing. When I was in high school I swallowed the supermodel ideal — hook, line, and sinker! — and would draw all my people impossibly tall and thin. In the stylized images we see around us (in magazines, ads, TV, movies), the vast majority of female bodies we see are young, white, tall, and thin (and often with big boobs too); the male ones are young, white, tall, and muscular. So it’s no wonder that many artists draw their figures this way. It drives me crazy to see male artists, especially, draw women who are clearly modeled after porn stars or models: gigantic super-high breasts, tiny ribcage and waist, narrow hips, long legs, and more often than not, either a brainless or a come-hither look in her eyes. Augh!! But I’ve done the same thing (maybe for different purposes). We’re just so bombarded with photoshopped images of the single body type that it naturally gets into our perception of what a human body looks like.
It has taken me a very long time to recognize that the bodies we see in the media actually have little relation to real bodies — and I’m not even taking into account the photo-twisting tricks that are the new “normal.” Tall, thin people’s bodies have different weight distribution and proportions than everyone else; clothes and hair look different when they’re being professionally styled. And this is before we even get into age and ethnicity! You’d think that because we see real people every day, they’d have greater visual impact than the pictures we see in magazines, but no; it’s the posed, staged photos that stick in my mind rather than the faces and bodies of those around me. And I suspect that I’m not alone in having spent so much of life hoping so desperately to resemble one of those “ideal bodies,” that I deliberately pushed that silhouette into my mind again and again, until I was unable to actually see real bodies around me except as they conformed (or usually didn’t) to that ideal.
Even now, when I’m adamant that my art will depict diverse and realistic human bodies, it’s still a challenge to represent the full range. I’m not yet skilled enough at drawing from my imagination to be able to draw rounder or heavier bodies in a way that doesn’t look caricatured, so I try to find reference photos whenever possible. For the two paintings in this post, I used figure photos from my file of magazine clippings (and my stash includes stuff like university alumni publications as well as fashion mags), but even these mostly showed only two kinds of bodies: muscular and athletic, or fashionably thin; all are young. Now that there’s no longer an open figure studio at the RAC, I might have to start using photos from this website just to learn where skin folds on normal women!
As for myself… when I came back from Kimber’s workshop and looked at myself in the mirror, I realized that I do think my body is beautiful, but only if I’m able to set aside that societal ideal. My knee-jerk reaction to seeing my body is to wish I could magically mold it into those proportions; I think, “my breasts should be higher, my stomach flatter, my thighs smaller.” But since Kimber’s workshop, I have had occasional moments where my perception actually breaks through the lens society has placed upon my eyes, and I realize that I have a very beautiful, soft, full, curvy shape. It’s been hard to see it because I used to have an also beautiful and curvy, but firmer and smaller shape — so I’ve not just been judging my body through society’s eyes but through the lens of how I used to look.
In Linda Bacon’s great interview (linked at the top of this post), she has a brilliant piece of advice: channel our body dissatisfaction into action toward our ideal life. Instead of wanting to be thinner (or sexier or whatever), we should ask ourselves why we want that — what do we think we’ll get out of it? Then ask: how can I get that, without changing my body? I know what my “thin” goals would be: looking good, feeling fit and capable. I can absolutely do all that without having to lose weight. I can change the way I see myself, so that I see the fuller-body beauty without thinking it has to be smaller, and then I can shop and dress in a way that flatters that body and makes me feel happy. And I don’t have to become a marathoner to feel comfortable and easy in my body; I suspect just 20 minutes of walking or yoga a day would give me that feeling. And, as I told the ladies at Kimber’s workshop, there’s no better way to learn to see the beauty of all human forms — including my own! — than to draw them. So I will keep doing that, for sure.