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How a nude portrait of myself helped me learn to love my body

In a wave of confidence, I sent the artist a message (Picture: Anya Ryan)

As a teenager, I hated seeing myself naked. 

In changing rooms, I was forever conscious of the space I was taking up. I picked apart my appearance in my head in social situations. When I looked in the mirror, all I saw were flaws. 

Though I’ve managed to overcome much of this negativity in recent years, I still feel a sense of unease when I’m standing, unclothed. I’m not entirely comfortable. When you’re naked, there is nowhere you can hide.

So, when I decided to order a personalised nude commission last month to hang in my room, I surprised myself.   

Since moving into my house share in October, I’ve spent hours searching for the perfect picture to frame. Distractedly scrolling through Etsy has made me miss key moments in TV shows. I’ve added items to my basket too many times, but not found the strength to press confirm. 

But during one aimless online search, I found what I wanted. Painted with dark curved lines and splashes of block colour, my fingers stopped on a portrait of a naked body. 

One click and I was directed to the artist’s page. My screen flashed with spiralling depictions of arched backs and abstract shapes that made staged poses – each one different but beautiful. And the more I read about the artist, the more I liked. 

The painter, Ruby, did nude paintings on commission and pledged not to edit the bodies she worked with in any way. Instead, she’d draw the physical form exactly how she saw it. ‘Don’t ask me to edit your body. You’re gorg,’ she wrote to anyone looking at her website. Body positivity and acceptance shone through each of her careful brush strokes – and I was sucked in.

Looking at the pictures felt natural and easy, but I didn’t know if seeing my own body in a painting would feel the same. The figures seemed fearless.

The idea of being judged on my physical form alone by someone unknown was intimidating (Picture: Anya Ryan)

The process of getting a portrait wasn’t quite so simple. With no access to a studio because of the pandemic, the artist required self-taken photos to base her drawings on. That meant, to get one commissioned, I’d have to send nude pictures to a stranger.

The idea of being judged on my physical form alone by someone unknown was intimidating. In person, I could hide behind a shield of pleasantries and smiles – but in a photo, my body was the only thing on show. I didn’t know if I could put myself through it. 

Overcome by awkwardness, I considered buying a painting of an unspecified figure. But how could I hang someone else’s body on full display when I couldn’t even, really, look at my own? 

Despite my best efforts to forget the personalised pictures, I kept coming back to them. I’d indulge myself with another look at the artist’s page after a bad day. I’d tell myself I was just window shopping. Until, I did the unthinkable. 

In a wave of confidence, I sent her a message. I transferred a deposit before I had time to talk myself out of it or feel too nervous. And in just a few hours, I’d been sent a set of drawn positions to put my body in and photograph. 

Posing for a naked photo takes confidence. Even if you’re alone in your bedroom, you really have to look at yourself. For years I’d avoided my reflection; now I was forced to stare right at it. But rather than focusing on my imperfections, seeing myself as something worthy of a painting made me feel empowered. 

Still, pressing send on the WhatsApp message with the photographs attached filled me with dread. I couldn’t look at a picture for too long without doubts lingering. The prospect of my images being forever sealed in paint made me want to stop. 

But after corresponding with and receiving encouragement from the artist, I pushed myself to let go of my anxieties about my body in a way I thought I never could. When we talked about the painting, we spoke about angles and colours, not my body’s defects. I thought about my physical form analytically, like I would with any other piece of art, not personally. Even though I was naked, I didn’t feel exposed. 

The artwork was done in a week, and soon after that it arrived at my door. As I unwrapped the thick A2 paper from its packaging, I was amazed by the painting’s charm and individuality. I searched for the positives about the picture – and they were easy to find. Splashed in colour, the way my arms fell didn’t seem as awkward. The curves on my body gracefully sculpted the page. I couldn’t believe I felt so at ease looking at my own physical form. 

When I see my portrait now, I’m just lines and shapes. The figure in it seems strong and confident – just like the others. Looking at it day to day has become normal, but the process of my body being memorialised in paint is not something I’ll forget. 

This experience has made me appreciate my body for what it really is – a physical home that has carried me this far in life. And though I have a long way to go before I’m truly comfortable, it is a constant reminder of what I’ve already managed to achieve.

Now, if I feel negative thoughts creeping in about my body, I can remember that it will always be worthy of being art. Each time I look at it on my bedroom wall, I’m still surprised it is me depicted, and that I managed to overcome my past fears. 

Do you have a story you’d like to share? Get in touch by emailing jess.austin@metro.co.uk 

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