Body concious? Life drawing could help

15 December 2015

Interview with

Professor Viren Swami, Anglia Ruskin University

90% of us have experienced moments of low body confidence at some point; and life drawing class these feelings are linked with the development of depression, anxiety and eating disorders. One way to boost body image is by participating in physical activities, such as dance and martial arts. But, for the more artistically-inclined, new research has shown that attending life drawing classes has similar benefits. Viren Swami, from Anglia Ruskin University, sketched out the findings for Felicity Bedford...

Viren - We had two studies; in the first study we look at attendance at life drawing sessions and the association with women's and men's body image, and we found that greater attendance at these life drawing sessions was associated with a higher body appreciation or positive body image among both women and men. 

In the second half our study, we followed a group of women who had never attend life drawing classes before, and we measured their state body image, their current feelings about their body image, both before and after the class, and we found that attending the life drawing class for about 2½ hours had as significant effect on their body image.  They felt better about their body image immediately after attending the class.

Felicity - That's great news for anybody considering going to life drawing classes, that you can have a fairly immediate impact upon attending just a few classes.

Viren - Exactly, so we think that the effect is both short term, but also is you continuously attend a life drawing classes, it seems to have a long term effect as well.

Felicity - How did you measure people's feelings about their bodies?

Viren - We measured three different types of body image, both women and men.  We measured social physique anxiety; this is how anxious they feel about showing their bodies in public.  We measured body appreciation, which is a measure of positive body image, and we measured in women's drive for thinness, this is how much they feel a drive to be thin, and in men we measured the drive for muscularity, which is a drive to feel muscular.

Felicity - You were looking at the attitudes of people attending the classes.  How might drawing somebody else naked, make you feel better about your own body?

Viren - Well I think it's about embodiment.  So a theory in body image research is that any activity that promotes embodiment will result in a more positive body image, so embodiment is any activity that promotes greater respect for your body or greater feelings of love and openness towards your body. 

Typically embodiment is looked at in terms of actually doing something so, for example, you might actually do dance rather than just watching dance, but life drawing might be one activity where you can experience embodiment vicariously.  In life drawing sessions, in particular, you're not just looking at another body, you're also to experiment with that body in terms of reproducing it in a form of art.

The other thing that life drawing sessions might do is that they might provide a safe space in which to explore your own feelings about your own body in relation to other people, or just in relation to yourself.

Felicity - What about if the models are really attractive?  Could this have the opposite effect?

Viren - It's possible but I think one of the things about life drawing sessions is that you are exposed to a whole range of different types of bodies; it's not just attractive people who are life models. 

I think given the nature of life drawing, I think even if the model was particularly attractive, the function of seeing that body and experimenting with that body in an artistic sense would probably have the same effect. But over the course of a period, say if you went to life drawing classes say for a year, you'd be exposed to a whole range of different bodies - some that you might find attractive, some that you might not find attractive - but it's that process of seeing those bodies and absorbing what those different mean, I think that is the most important.

Felicity - Could it be any drawing, not just life drawing, that's causing this improvement in your body image?

Viren - I think that's an interesting question.  I think it is something about life drawing that promotes embodiment.  I think if you can find a different art form that has the same effect in terms of embodiment, you might find the same effect.  I don't think you would find the same effect if you were just drawing a tree, for example.

Felicity - But generally should we be exposed to more nudity, whether it's our own bodies or other people's?

Viren - I think there are different forms of nudity.  You have nudity in everyday life when you see your partner or when you see yourself, there's nudity in pornography, there's all sorts of nudity.  I don't think it's just being exposed to nudity that matters; I think it's the process of engaging with nudity and exploring what that nudity means, either in an aesthetic sense or in relation to your own self; that's probably the key point here.

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