Have I get nudes for you: Emer O’Toole on the art of being naked

7 months ago

After her underarm hair caused a stir on national Tv, the writer was asked to pose for a nude painting. The experience resulted her to wonder why were still so shy about the naked human form

Towards the end of a bizarre period of my life when I was famous for having hairy armpits, the artist Camilla Cannon got in touch to ask if I would sit for a nude oil painting. Camilla, who runs her own art school, was then in the final year of her degree at the Heatherley School of Fine Art in London. She wanted to paint me for her end of year show.

Due to the aforementioned armpit renown, after a 2012 appearance on ITVs This Morning to talk about body hair, I had been asked to collaborate on dozens of projects over the previous few months: everything from writing a childrens book about feminine grooming to get my kit off for the Sunday Sport. Mostly I said no. Kids should be reading about dragons, fairies, time-travelling ice-cream vans and talking bunnies , not the nefarious machinations of global capital on female bodies. And if I wanted a load of teenage sons laughing at my tits, I would simply hop in my time-travelling ice-cream van and set the dial to adolescence.


The few darker brushstrokes under the arms of Manets Olympia have been interpreted as, if not quite armpit hair, at the least womanly stubble. Photo: Corbis

But Camillas idea was right up my street. She wanted to paint a traditional subject in a traditional medium, but include something that continues to be erased in western art: female body hair. As person prone to puzzling over the fact that painted dames are as hairless as baby hamsters, even in art from eras when women didnt shave, I was intrigued. Sure, Goyas La Maja Desnuda has an seducing clue of pubic hair, Courbets LOrigine du Monde is a shrub detonation, and the few darker brushstrokes under the arms of Manets Olympia have been interpreted as, if not quite armpit hair, at the least womanly stubble. Overall, however, our museums and galleries are full of women who have been plucked to the pores. So I said yes.

I am comfortable being naked. I attribute this to my mother, who thinks it necessary to be fully clothed in a domestic define only if male guests are due to arrive. She will cheerfully answer the door to her girlfriends in her knickers and bra. Once, an ex-boyfriend and I lived with her for two months after we came back from travelling. A few weeks in, he confessed, The first time I saw your mum naked, it was weird. And the second hour, it was weird. But now, its not even weird any more, which is genuinely weird. All of which stimulates her sound like some kind of free-love, earth-goddess hippy. She isnt. Shes one of that breed of practical, commonsensical Irish farm women who thinks squeamishness about bodies is nonsense. Sure, dont we all have bits?

These genetic credentials, combined with the fact that, unlike Mum, I am a bit of a hippy, have fostered a strong predilection for naked art projects. When Spencer Tunick came to Dublin looking for volunteers to take part in a mass nude photoshoot, I signed up the moment I could persuade a friend to buddy up.


Spencer Tunicks mass nude photoshoot in Dublin in 2008 was too enticing for OToole to defy: she signed up as soon as she persuaded a friend to join in, too. Photo: Niall Carson/ PA

One Christmas, I asked a partner to draw me in the nip as a gift. I thought it might be sexy, like Rose and Jack in Titanic. Paint me like one of your French girls, I would sigh breathily, initiating two solid hours of saucy eye contact and sex tension.

In actuality, sitting for a life depicting is sexy only if you have a Euclid fetish. Imagine someone squinting at you for two hours as if you are a baffling series of circles, triangles and geometric lines. I fell asleep. When I woke up, my ex was muttering about foreshortening and giving the impression that my naked body was the last thing anyone would want to look at ever again. The depicting is lovely, though. Its hanging in my foyer. Occasionally, someone will ask, Is that you? I take refuge in ambiguity and answer, Does it look like me?

Camillas studio was in her home in Brixton, south London. She greeted me at the front doorway, open-faced and with an easy manner. We went up narrow, creaky stairs to a bright attic room, rays from a skylight falling across bare floorboards, a couch for the subject, an easel for the artist, and the whole place crammed with colourful canvases.

I quizzed Camilla about what its like to be a female oil painter: a woman working in a medium that has historically been a boys club. Apparently, it feels very good indeed. When she started out, she worried that she had internalised the male gaze and was, unwittingly, replicating idealised young, white, slim, conventionally attractive female nudes. This is something she continues to grapple with: thus the decision to paint a hairy feminist. She also likes to paint women in power poses; she has painted her sister in a man-spreading stance, unapologetically taking up space, her elbows held high and cocky, legs swung open. And, Camilla feels , nothing balances the scales quite so satisfyingly as beautiful, nude humen, painted by women.

Having arranged myself comfortably on the lounge, and adjusted slants under her direction, I dozed and listened to the radio. Its really very relaxing to know that you have nothing to do for four hours but stay still. And it didnt seem in the least bit odd to be unclothed under the aesthetically scrutinising eye of an all-but-stranger. It helps, I believe, that Camilla has been on both sides of the brush. As a twentysomething, she used to model herself. Once, she was booked for an over-6 5s art class at a community centre. She turned up, stripped and pottered out starkers to the room full of pensioners, only to be informed that this was not a life-drawing session and politely requested to put her clothes back on.

We took a breach halfway through for lunch. I told Camilla that I was astonished at how relaxed I felt, and asked if shed had any awkward sittings. Not truly she tries to find nude models who are comfortable in their bodies. There was one male friend, however, who acknowledged after the session that it had been hard work to keep himself in check. He maintained guessing sexy thoughts and getting a semi. Camilla didnt even notice.

Back in the studio, I thought about the relationship between nakedness and sexiness. Perhaps because of their own families, or perhaps because I have expended much of my adult life in and around the theatre, where people are never happier than when taking off their clothes, I have more or less separated nudity and sex. I dont automatically sexualise other people naked bodies, and I dont was of the view that Im behaving in a sexual route just by virtue of being naked. If I suggest to my partner that we have a naked hula-hooping competition, thats because I think it will be funny , not sexy. If it were socially acceptable to propose naked hula-hooping rivalries to all my friends, I would. In short, life modelling did not give me a semi. Still, it was good to know that Camilla wouldnt have noticed either way.

Right, she proclaimed confidently a few hours later. Thats it. Done. I arose from my semi-slumber, padded barefoot around behind her and looked at my body, my face, translated through someone elses perception. It was unexpected, even startling. It is such a pleasure to have a painting tell you that you are beautiful.


Goyas La Maja Desnuda has an tempting clue of pubic hair, but museums and galleries are full of women plucked to the pores. Photo: The Gallery Collection/ Corbis

The Hairy Feminist, as the portrait was instructively entitled, won first place at Camillas degree show, and went on to be part of the Royal Society of Portrait Painters exhibition at Londons Mall Galleries, where it received a commendation from the RSPP. Alastair Adams, the then president of the society, said the portrait determined its own painting language that defined it apart from more academic, established modes of painting. The judges didnt mention my awesome armpits but, amid a ocean of smooth female nudes, Im pretty sure they noticed them.

In her memoir Bossypants, Tina Fey says she has no feminist objections to Photoshop, because everyone knows its fake, and that aesthetically altering our bodies is just something humans do. If youre going to be angry at Photoshop, she says, you also have to be mad at earrings for inducing our lobes unrealistically sparkly, at people turning sideways in photographs and at oil painting because nobody actually looks like that.

Fey, we all know, is funny as hell. And also self-aware: she admits that, in the main, shes arguing for the feminist credentials of a computer-generated thigh gap because being digitally nipped and tucked makes her feel good. But her Photoshop defence is objectively incorrect. There is a plethora of studies linking exposure to idealised publication images with lowered self-esteem in girls and women. Oh, life would be so much simpler if the culture we ate did not affect our thoughts, notions and behaviours. Propaganda would be powerless. The advertising industry would collapse. Blurred Line wouldnt stick in my head for hours every time I hear it.

Being painted is a little like being Photoshopped. Except that it doesnt erase or enhance the bits of your body that our culture has taught you are too big/ small/ pale/ dark/ blotchy/ hairy/ droopy/ scaly/ green/ lizard-like/ terrifying. Rather, the medium itself announces that you are art, and art is beautiful and, ergo, you are to be interpreted as such. And if artists such as Camilla choose topics that actively challenge beauty and gender norms, then their work has the potential to redefine these things to build them more inclusive, more diverse, more feminist. Petroleums stimulate the subject beautiful , not by prodding and poking the body until it matches up with an unrealistic ideal, but by framing the body in a way that allows people to see its beauty.

After our success, Camilla posted a snap of the portrait to Facebook and tagged me. I had a brief oo-er moment, but then decided only to be cool with it. Sure, dont we all have bits? I went for a pint with my friend Dan that evening. Did you see the nudie picture of me on the internet? I asked. It built me blush, he replied.

A few friends of a less bashful temperament also considered it and asked me if, as a feminist, it felt liberating to model; if I felt empowered by the results. I had to say no. Dont get me wrong: I think that Camillas art is doing feminist work. However, if you, like me, are already at the phase where you try to convince fellow academic conference delegates that skinny-dipping at three in the morning is a perfectly acceptable and professional activity, then “youre supposed to” dont need to be any more liberated when it is necessary to nakedness. Further freeing might lead to actual arrest. And that would be counterproductive.

As for empowering and Im speaking only for myself I dont associate feeling beautiful with being powerful. This might be because the times in my life when I described the most confidence from what I looked like were hours when I wasnt genuinely confident at all. I feel empowered by, and deeply grateful for, my education. I feel empowered by my write, by the love in my life. By get my tits out? Not so much.

Being painted was, however, fun and pleasurable. And thats OK, too. Im pretty sure Im have been able to do things with my body because they are fun rather than because theyre empowering. And now, if youll excuse me, I have a naked hula-hooping competition to win before bedtime.

Read more: www.theguardian.com