Normalizing, not stereotyping


Male nude, conte on newsprint, Carson 1988

Male nude, conte on newsprint, Carson 1988

I teach figure drawing. Let me answer your first three questions:

  1. Yes, they’re naked.
  2. Yes, they get paid.
  3. Yes, it’s weird… for the first five minutes, the first time, for us and for the model. Then it’s such difficult work that it stops being weird and turns into work.

I teach students anatomy, too, to give them some expectations of what proportions and characteristics of the human figure they should generally expect to see, and depict. That sometimes helps students recognize what’s gone awry in a drawing: Shouldn’t that arm be shorter? Shouldn’t the eyes align like so?

The problem with that is stereotyping. We’re in danger of forever drawing the average, and overlooking all the specifics and variations that distinguish us from one another. We’re in equal danger of thinking that the stereotype is Right And Good, and the variations are Wrong And Bad. For instance, if we treat the male body as the default, we can end up with some peculiar-looking representations of women when we depict them as male-plus-breasts. (Yes, Michelangelo, I’m looking at you right now.) If we treat the adult body as the default, we can get some pretty weird infants. Now, what about race, pregnancy, hair, weight, age, injury, disability and other visible variations?

If all we learn to do is reliably reproduce a stereotype, we perpetuate stereotypes. Furthermore, we’re going to produce a lot of flavourless look-alike drawings, and we will never capture a convincing likeness of the person we’re drawing. When we draw stereotypes, we can’t represent diversity and the stereotype becomes a false prototype.

I always wish I had more time in the studio, and I wish I had 500 models. I wish I could show my students so many different people that they learned to appreciate and draw the vast variety of bodies around us. I want my students to see so many breasts and knees and heels and earlobes that everything human is normalized for them.

So let’s start with this. The British TV show, Embarrassing Bodies, wants everyone to have a better idea of how much perfectly natural variety there is, especially in the parts we normally hide. So they’ve got web pages dedicated to lots of pictures of penises, vulvas and breasts. Embarrassing Bodies is trying to help people to accept their own bodies; I’m committed to helping people to accept everyone’s bodies. These pages are a not-very-fancy way to see lots of variation without having to leaf through a lot of dodgy porn sites:

“WARNING: The Embarrassing Bodies website contains images of an explicit medical nature and nudity in a medical context.”

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