Reimagining trauma: how life modelling helped me love my body again
Falling in love with the art of my body in the most vulnerable and empowering way.
Nivetha Tilakkumar and Editors
21 Mar 2022
Content warning: sexual violence.
There were times when I was younger when I’d stand in front of the mirror observing my naked body. I felt a certain power. I would arch my back and push my chest out, turn to the side and suck in my stomach, lift my arms above my head and slink my body to one side. With each movement I made, I felt my body dripping in sexual allure, and I loved it.
I’ve always had a strange relationship with sex. I’m a Tamil woman, and since a young age, I’ve ingested the idea that South Asian women are meant to be submissive and cute. In my quest to resist these narratives, I grew into someone who spoke openly about sex and preached sex positivity whilst also being stuck in a cycle of using sex with men to validate my worth. It was then that I began to solely see my body as a sexual vessel for men’s pleasure and naively found the power in that, despite it being unhealthy. But over time, as various men had sexually assaulted me, I felt this power diminish.
“It became hard to see my body as anything but a sexual object”
There came a point when instead of looking at my naked body and seeing something sexy, I saw something tarnished and abused. I suddenly saw sex as a bad thing. The unhealthy narrative of ‘would this have happened if I wasn’t so sexually open?’ began to play over and over in my mind. I began to feel hypocritical for speaking about sex positively, when behind closed doors, the sight of my body made me feel sick. I linked my physicality to the act of having sex so much over the years, that it became hard to see it as anything but a sexual object that men had taken advantage of.
I knew I had to do something about these internal conflicts, so I decided to turn to life modelling. The opportunity presented itself to me before I’d started feeling the delayed trauma from sexual assault. Two years ago, a Leeds-based collective for women and non-binary people of colour hosted a life drawing session and I thought I’d offer to model. The date for the life modelling session was fast approaching and though I was nervous, I thought I’d go for it anyway as a way to process what had happened to me.
“It was the first time in my life that I felt people looking at my naked body and not seeing it as something sexual”
I was anxious and felt like I could go into a panic at any moment, but the day came and as soon as I entered the space, I felt my nerves quell. I was surrounded by a group of women and queer people of colour, and I felt that the people around me could hold me through this experience. I remember the feeling of taking off my robe and having numerous pairs of eyes fall on my body. I felt them all over my curves, my brownness, my trauma and as soon as the timer started, I felt a sense of therapeutic peace.
My mind went blank and as my eyes skirted around the room, I didn’t see a single person scorn at the sight of me the way I had been doing so for months. I didn’t see anyone look down on me or look disgusted by me. I saw everyone studying my body as if it was a piece of art. It was the first time in my life that I felt people looking at my naked body and not seeing it as something sexual. It was surreal – something I’d never experienced before. I didn’t need to arch my back, suck in my tummy, or stick out my bum because these people purely saw me amidst all my insecurities, as art.
After the session, I walked around and saw people’s interpretations of me. Seeing everyone’s artwork gave me a new perspective of myself. I was amazed that someone could see my body and draw me as a cartoon, or draw me as a Picasso-esque figure. If a group of people could see me in my truest and rawest form with all my insecurities and trauma on show and still see the art and beauty within all that, I wondered: what’s stopping me from doing the same?
“I feel like a sculptor moulding myself into different poses where the art and beauty of my body shine through”
The journey to reimagining my trauma is a long one and life modelling has helped me along the way. I often find it funny when people say things like: ‘you must be so confident to get naked in front of everyone’ when in reality, the times when I’ve modelled were when I’ve felt at my lowest. Yet doing so has allowed me to re-examine my relationship with my body.
Unlearning this sexualisation of my body won’t happen overnight. Reimagining my trauma won’t happen overnight either. I’m learning to have a healthier relationship with sex and the people I have sex with. I have been able to enjoy the act, as well as being naked and vulnerable with the people I have sex with. I can see now that my body can serve different functions and be interpreted in a multitude of ways.
There are times now when I stand in front of the mirror observing my naked body. There is a certain power I feel. I wrap my arms around my torso and feel my belly rolls on show, tilt my head to the left and push my shoulders back, trace my fingers down the side of my hips and feel the warmth of my hands on my skin. And with each movement I make, I feel like a sculptor moulding myself into different poses where the art and beauty of my body shine through. And I love it.
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