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Image: John Carlin (supplied)

In a weatherboard church hall soaked in the soft glow of fairy lights, I attempt to sketch the round curve of a buttock, and despair. My proportion is out and I’m sure the angle of the leg is wrong. Around me, others press charcoal to paper, creating lines and shapes that morph convincingly into the form of the naked women reclining on a cushion in front of us. 

I find life drawing meditative but can’t help but wonder about the model sitting at the centre of our circle of easels. I marvel at the pose she holds, shins crossed, arms draped over her knees so that her hands hang languidly either side; head up, chin out, haughty and statue still. She seems contained and strong, and it strikes me that this strength is the thing I should be imprinting on the butcher’s paper in front of me. That it is the polar opposite of how the mainstream media depicts women. And that it might be simpler to write about this realisation than sketch it.

In an era where the human form is too often misrepresented, edited, surgically enhanced and negatively objectified, life models present an alternative message about the body. It is a profession that not only celebrates physical diversity but fiercely protects its right to promote it. 

The Life Models Society (LMS) in Melbourne, which turns thirty next year, prides itself on promoting the welfare and dignity of life models by advocating for their rights, including the right to look the way they want. 

The model seems contained and strong, and it strikes me that this strength is the thing I should be imprinting on the butcher’s paper in front of me.

Model and LMS executive committee member Fleur Blum says that, unlike other forms of modelling, life modelling is about, ‘exposing people to what bodies can do and celebrating the differences. It’s about strength as opposed to weakness… It’s more about empowerment and less about commercial gain.’

This is reflected in the description list the LMS makes available to artists and art institutions. There are no body measurements; instead there are references to Amazonian, Classical, Voluptuous, Dynamic and Dramatic figures. Words that spark the imagination and suggest vitality and physicality, despite the fact models generally remain still, for up to twenty minutes, during sessions.

Image: John Carlin (supplied)

For centuries life models have posed for artists. Without them, great Renaissance masterpieces such as The Birth of Venus by Botticelli and David by Michelangelo wouldn’t exist, and generations of art students would be doomed to drawing endless bowls of fruit and rows of crockery.

They continue to serve as muses, inspiration and performance artists but historically were often women without power, poor women or sex workers, who were exploited and mistreated. Today, organisations like the LMS set standards so that models are treated with respect.

Despite this, life model and LMS member Alison Mayer says the profession is still often misunderstood. ‘People think that if one removes the social boundary of clothes, then all other boundaries are down.’

While unwanted sexual attention may be one end of the stick, eliciting empathy is the other. According to Alison, who is also an artist, life modelling is a performance that encourages kindness. She believes humans are intrinsically interested in human stories, and that our bodies are full of them.

‘After twenty-six years of drawing models and sixteen years of being one, I’ve seen the affect it has…we can teach things about compassion and consent through life drawing because of the kinesthetic interdependency it engenders.’

‘People think that if one removes the social boundary of clothes, then all other boundaries are down.’

I think about this as rain patters the arched windows of the church hall and John, the life drawing facilitator, gives me tips on how to keep my figure on the page (her feet are missing). Compassion for the body, in art as in life, is empowering; it is also contrary to what social and mainstream media tells us we should feel. The act of life modelling inherently rejects the message that our bodies need improving, and encourages us to possess them instead.

There is a certain joy that comes from truly inhabiting your own body. I’ve experienced it during the birth of my two children, a marveling at what I could do, and again as I’ve ridden my bike, jogged, had sex – a sense of agency and pride, of love even.

In my early twenties, I felt it as I flung my clothes off one cold October morning with 4,500 fellow Melbournians. We posed nude in several city locations for renowned photographer Spencer Tunick, who had recently returned to town. Apart from the overwhelming warm, earthy scent of naked human, and an initial fit of giggles, there was a sense of liberation.

All around me, people stopped shielding their bodies with their hands and let them be. There we stood, wobbly, weird and wonderful examples of the human form – fat and skinny, hairy and smooth, lopsided and symmetrical. A few minutes naked and none of it mattered anymore. The vulnerability made us powerful.

Life modelling helps Alison break down negative stereotypes. Her poses often require physical strength and athleticism. She climbs furniture, hangs upside down and stands on one leg, ‘to defy the notion that fat women are static and sluggish, and also because [she] enjoys it’. A few years ago, she decided to stop to removing her body hair so that the high school students she poses for could see that people can be confident in whatever body they’re in.

We, and especially the young among us, need ‘warts and all’ depictions of the human form – aging, changeable, hairy, disabled and multi-racial. We pride ourselves on being a progressive society while still succumbing to the dark arts of advertising; we are bombarded with images designed to make us feel just bad enough that we spend on improvements – weight loss programs that promise instant abs, creams that take ten years off our faces.

Young people are especially susceptible to the diet of unattainable forms the media feeds us; a lack of variety in the media contributing to poor body image and mental health conditions, such as anxiety and eating disorders. The more images of ‘perfect’ bodies they see, the more difficult it is to believe these are not the norm. Or, that their own bodies are fine.

Life modelling challenges this message, promoting strength, inclusiveness and collaboration instead. During a break in sketching I wander the hall, wine in hand, to check out my class mate’s sketches.

According to Fleur, translating the human form is particularly difficult. The body is structurally complex and ever changing, depending on your vantage point. Artist and class facilitator John Carlin believes life drawing is about more than simply putting pencil to paper. ‘It reflects our understanding of the human condition. [Models] connect us with what is essentially human.’

Today, many professions appreciate this complexity and employ models to improve their work. Surgeons-in-training examine their muscle definition, architects explore how they interact with built space, and animators attempt to replicate their movements.

Unlike other forms of modelling, age is not an issue here. Lived-in bodies are interesting. Loose skin and slack muscle creates interesting landscapes.

On the easels around the hall I notice that, despite each artist’s level of skill, the drawings are infused with life. Even my own, sometimes limbless creations, seem to be caught mid-movement – as if their missing legs are more to do with the fact they are about to walk off the page then my own artistic shortcomings.

Our drawings detail the model’s body; the fold of skin on her belly as she twists to her side, the muscle tone on her upper-arm, also the scars and shadows that mark her history and the passing of time. Unlike other forms of modelling, age is not an issue here. Lived-in bodies are interesting. Loose skin and slack muscle creates interesting landscapes.

This extends to piercings, tattoos and scars, which are sometimes self-inflicted. Alison says these bodies send a powerful message. We have members who have been cutters or have scarification, and I’m comfortable sending those people into high schools – to say, you can recover from this. This is part of a history that you don’t have to hide.’

Despite this talk of acceptance, I can’t help asking Fleur and Alison a question that rises up from some shaky part of me. A part that thinks maybe, just maybe, I would like to feel this brave about my body too.

So, I ask the obvious… what is it like to get your kit off in front of a group of strangers?

Both women answer with a nonchalant shrug. ‘I had half a butterfly in my stomach for about half of a second…’ Alison smiles before telling me a story that seems to sum things up.

‘There’s an LMS workshop convener who does this wonderful thing [at sessions for new members]. She’s there in her robe and slippers, then she steps out of her slippers and drops her robe and steps onto the platform and says, and now I’m dressed for work. And I am wearing dignity and professionalism.’