Drawing a pregnant model, and further thoughts on self-doubt, gender, and otherness

I’m so distractible today, my greatest accomplishment of the last six hours is that I made a small pot of simple soup (chicken, onions, ginger, wine, soy and fish sauces, miso). And I have maybe decided on an outfit for the Chicago panel. And there you have my state of mind: I have not packed, I have not prepared what to say at the panel, but I have a maybe-outfit. I wonder if someday they will find a cure for these scattershot states. Maybe I need a walk. I walked five miles yesterday; maybe I’ve got unspent energy today.

On Tuesday evening I went again to the life drawing meetup and this time the model, Anjuli, was extremely pregnant; her due date is in three weeks! I don’t know how she held the poses, but she did, and even said she found them a nice stretch. I enjoyed drawing her — and spending some more time with my Japanese scroll.

two-minute poses

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five-minute poses

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ten-minute poses

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twenty-minute poses

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a fellow artist commented that the colors here were Toulouse-Lautrec-ian

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yellow lines inspired by the music (though I can’t remember now what it was)

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Longtime readers, do you remember that time — almost exactly a year ago — when I spent a life drawing session utterly consumed by insecurity and negative self-comparisons with my fellow attendees? That time, it was a remark about my use of colors that set me off; this time, three people remarked on my colors, again in terms that were entirely neutral (and therefore open to interpretation). At first I felt very proud of myself for not reacting with instant self-doubt. I thought, “Hey, look how far I’ve come!” As it turned out, though, I’ve merely progressed from instant self-doubt to a more gradual self-doubt. That’s still progress, but I was dismayed to feel the self-doubt creeping back in, long minutes after the last of the color comments. It wasn’t just the fact of the self-doubt that bothered me, it was the quality of it; it felt so exactly like the self-doubt of a year ago; it was just as mortifying, just as wretchedly anxious-making. But I guess it wasn’t really the same. This time it came up more slowly, and only after several comments (rather than just one), and I felt more open to the possibility that there were other interpretations besides “I suck and everyone can tell.” I guess this is the work of undoing our knee-jerk reactions to things: the reaction is still there, but we diffuse it, hold it at a distance, offer up obstacles to slow the piercing into our hearts.

I also notice that this self-doubt comes up particularly strongly in certain company. There were about sixteen artists at this session, and I think seven of us were women. That’s almost half, but it didn’t feel like half, because the men talked more, and more loudly, and most loudly to each other.* Somehow, over the course of my life, I have been conditioned — either by my family or by general society, or both — to assume that men have more authority and validity, even when their qualifications are unknown to me. Earlier in the week I was reading this article, in which Stanford biologist Joan Roughgarden (previously Jonathan Roughgarden) says, “Men are assumed to be competent until proven otherwise, whereas a woman is assumed to be incompetent until she proves otherwise.” I’m convinced this is true, because I’ve internalized it so deeply in my own life. It is a terrible thing to admit, but when I see a woman in a drawing session, I tend to assume she is a hobbyist, whereas I assume the men are professional artists; I also assume that being paid for one’s art is more valid than doing it as a hobby. Likewise, when a female artist comments on my work, I tend to assume she is speaking from her individual experience, whereas when a male artist says something, I react as if he were an art instructor or critic — in other words, an expert. Of course I fight these assumptions, but still, they are my first assumptions, and I can’t check them all the time.

Additionally, I was the only nonwhite person in the room (or, to be more accurate, the only person who couldn’t pass for white). I don’t know how much this registered to everyone else — I was really surprised to learn, recently, just how much people’s notions differ on what constitutes diversity (though this goes a long way toward explaining tokenism) — but I certainly noticed, and wondered how that affected the way people saw me. I’m a sensitive and self-conscious person under any circumstances, but even more so when I feel visibly different from the rest of the group (as I observed while traveling). So being the only obvious POC in the room, being one of the less-represented gender, being new to the group, and being an untrained artist, I’m in a heightened state of potential self-consciousness and alienation.

I wrote not too long ago about the difference between systemic and individual oppression/prejudice. My self-consciousness here is a perfect example of how these two things collide. On the systemic level, there is patriarchy, there is sexism, there is racism (and “diet” racism!), there is a need for greater inclusion and representation, there are meaningful differences (that need to be acknowledged, if not changed) in the way men and women act and speak and are recognized in social groups, and so on into infinity. But on the individual level, in a group like this? Everyone has been welcoming and respectful, people remembered me from last time, and I didn’t notice that anyone else got more or less (or qualitatively different) comment on their work than I did. I like the group a lot. I plan to go again. I wouldn’t say they need to change anything. But I am so sensitive, in situations like this, not just because I am a neurotic person in general, but because I’m so aware of my vulnerability and (in)visibility vis-à-vis the systemic imbalances that are always present. Another way of putting it is that in company like this, it’s never only my artistic validity that I’m worried about, but everyone else’s ability to see me as a whole person rather than only a representative of my race, gender, age, or other quality that I would not choose to serve as my own self-definition.

By the way, this is completely not the post I thought I was going to write; I was just going to show you my latest drawings, but I guess all this was wanting very badly to come out. And that is fine. Sometimes people complain that other people make everything “about gender” or “about race,” as if there were a way for things to not be. Maybe, for some people, there is the illusion that one can escape these things, but it doesn’t take very many hurtful incidents for the rest of us to realize that these things will always be, for the rest of us, inescapable — and one reason for the inescapability is that we can’t fight what some people will not acknowledge to exist. So this is me, acknowledging one facet of my reality, in the hope that it may illuminate something for those of you for whom this reality seems far removed.

—–

*Not that men can’t talk to each other, or that the men didn’t talk to women; I’ve found everyone at this meetup quite friendly, and many of the artists — men and women alike — have known each other for a long time. But it seems to be mostly men who call out to each other across the room, and therefore it’s their voices we hear in conversation, not the voices of a mixed-gender group. go back

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12 responses to “Drawing a pregnant model, and further thoughts on self-doubt, gender, and otherness

  1. Wow, as a model, I thought I was the only one feeling insecure! I can’t speak for other artists but for what it’s worth, I’ve never had a sense that female artists were less professional than males. I also completely get that sense of insecurity about being the only minority in the room… it doesn’t happen to me when I model, but it has frequently in other parts of my life. I was eating at a high-class restaurant just this weekend and realized that the only other black people there were the servers.

    Props on your courage to talk about your vulnerabilities! And your drawings are quite lovely!

    • Hi IceBreaker, thanks so much for visiting! Sorry for the long delay in replying to your great comment. I checked out your blog and enjoy your honesty and your photos! You look like a wonderful model.

      There must be so many insecurities floating around those studios when we draw (or, in your case, model). 🙂 Part of the process, really, being with all our vulnerabilities like that.

  2. A lot to absorb and think about in this post, but my first reaction is that I don’t think we ever lose those feelings of inadequacy and self-doubt. I have come to believe over years of this, that I simply am learning how to set it aside. Maybe. It’s not that we grow thicker skin and don’t react, it’s that we learn how to continue in an art form that gives us joy the majority of the time, in spite of those comments, or those reactions. I believe (or maybe it’s hope) that we slowly learn that our creativity is more important to us, and that allows us to put distance between us and the self-doubt moment. I’m expressing this badly, but I think what I’m trying to say is that we learn which we value more. As in, a year ago, maybe you put more value in those comments and feedback and now you put more value in your artwork. I’ve seen your confidence take off in the past year, I see that reflected in your art, and I think it’s reflected here, too, in the delayed response. I wonder: did your reaction stick with you as long as last year? Yes you felt it as strongly, but were you able to move past it sooner?

    • Thank you so much for this, Lisa, and as I said to IceBreaker above, I’m sorry for the delay in replying! I like what you’ve said about learning which we value more, the self-doubt or the creating. I do feel I’ve reached a point where they mostly coexist in peace — and yes, I do think I moved past my reaction sooner this time; last time it felt so all-consuming, but this time it didn’t. Although some of that was probably also the welcome shown to me by the members of this group, whereas last year it felt like everyone was pretty unknown to each other. I’m not much of a group person normally — even if I’m in a group I like to be a little bit separate — but camaraderie can go a long way when it comes to massaging away the self-doubt.

      And thank you for the vote of confidence on my confidence as well as my art. 🙂 And thank you for being here through all of that process!

  3. I was reading along and thought wow Lisa has improved since she started drawing so much. I love her bold color. It works, It is balanced with the rest of the picture. And yes men seem more self confident and were “trained” to speak out. That certainly doesn’t mean they are better than we women are. Have you read Lean In ?

    • Oh thank you, Carla! I have indeed read Lean In — wrote a review of it here a year ago, actually, though that focused more on the reaction to the book than how I found it personally helpful.

      I am so glad to hear you love the color because when I’m in a room full of people working in charcoal and neutrals it can feel like I’ve regressed to preschool… but I love the colors so much, I’m not giving them up for anyone!

  4. Dear Lisa, I like your sketches, they are expressive and unique. Creating is an act of love in some way, feeling self doubt is completely opposite. accepting and being happy with our work is another act of love which I still need to practice too. You are beautiful and unique artist Lisa! As a person and artist you are extremely inspiring!
    Big, big hugs!

    • Thank you so much, dear Aga! It’s true, I feel so much tenderness when I create something. I suppose that to love makes us vulnerable too and that’s where the self-doubt comes in; we make ourselves tender and then our inner critics swoop in. I send love to you and your art too. May you be glad with it. ❤ ❤

  5. Great drawings Lisa! I especially like the drawing of the pregnant lady on her back over a yellow shawl. Hope that you feel better after letting it all out and continue to have confidence in yourself and your work!

    • Thank you so much, Angelina! I do always feel better after letting it out — and then reading everyone’s lovely comments. 🙂 And thank you on the drawing. I like that one too. There is a repose to it that I enjoy, and then of course there are those bold colors as a counterpoint. (This is something I’m only able to articulate a month after making it, after doing other drawings in the meantime!)

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