Body image for myself and my art

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 (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.

Dignified Diva

A drawing I made in high school

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.

More bodies

More bodies

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!

Lisa smiling

This was me in 2003!

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.


Erik and me, Labor Day 2010

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.

Tomorrow: the Open Mic will be another open discussion, just like last week, so tune in then and let’s talk about manifesting creativity! See you in the comments!


15 responses to “Body image for myself and my art

  1. Oh, so much to say! This is a great post, and I love getting to see your artwork with your writing. This is an issue I have wrestled with for so many years. I’ve come from a place of never being comfortable with my body and looks to almost always being comfortable … not a quick journey! (An essay of mine that charts part of that journey is about to come out in an anthology about women’s bodies and education.) Thanks for posting this!

    • Thank you so much, Stacie! I’m so glad this spoke to you. Yay for body love. 🙂 I’d be really excited to see your essay if it ever gets online!

  2. By the way, for anyone who likes YA/sci-fi/dystopian reading, Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies trilogy is a wonderful, vivid exploration of beauty ideals and what happens when they take over society. Chad first recommended it to me, and Erik and I both loved it.

  3. Great post, Lisa! I’m in the same boat as you, in that I love my curves, but I loved them more when they were smaller and firmer a few years back. I have learned that, in terms of dressing, if I feel confident, then people respond to that. But I have to find that confidence in myself first, which is often the hardest part!

    In terms of life drawing, it is hard to draw people realistically. In my life drawing classes, there were people who would adjust what they were drawing to fit what they thought was attractive, saying that they didn’t want to insult the model. But that is so ridiculous in a life drawing class! I agree – if we saw more “normal” people in the media, we’d be able to appreciate ourselves, and real people as beautiful more often. It’s part of why, on those weight loss shows, I wish they’d tell the person’s height as well as their weight, to give a little more perspective on things.

    • Sorry, I forgot to say, too, that on the Photoshopped celebrity images, I often find the original versions much more attractive than the physically improbable/impossible retouched versions!

    • Thank you, Chelsea! I’m totally with you on confidence — it’s the sexiest accessory for sure, and when I’ve got it going for me, it doesn’t matter what size I am. 🙂 But yes, it’s tough sometimes!

      When I took figure drawing as a teenager (we modeled for each other, fully clothed), I made everyone skinnier than they were, and often adjusted their facial features too, to make them “prettier.” I really don’t know now whether this was intentional or unconscious; I think it was a bit of both. I agree that we should celebrate the normal, which includes everything, after all!

      I like a lot of the “before” Photoshop images too. It’s nice to see people looking like people, and not like plastic dolls!

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  5. That was great! I can never figure out how you always manage to be just as great a writer as you are an artist. Cool:)

  6. Well written and very timely.
    I am a life model and regularly witness students in particular elongating my legs! (I am 5′, 4″ tall) Also men enlarge my breasts sometimes.
    However, I have found that being a life model allows me to really be at one with my body, and I find it very beautiful.
    I notice how few women are as comfortable with their bodies as I am, so now I invite any women who want, to try life modeling in a group, orchestrated by myself with a couple other life models, just for 2 hours. The results have been very positive, but unfortunately many women are scared to take part. They are horrified at showing themselves, or fear what their peers may say.
    I also admire the lay-out of your blog, and must make mine more easy to follow.
    Thank you for a lovely post.

    • Thank you so much for reading and taking the time to comment — and of course for your very kind words! I wish I were closer to where you are; I have often thought that I’d love the experience of life modeling, but I doubt I could keep it up as a regular job. Your two-hour group session is an opportunity I would jump at if it were offered in my area!

      I love your blog, too, and have subscribed to the feed. 🙂

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