What I learned when I posed for a naked 'pandemic portrait'

Aisling O'Leary
·6-min read
Like increasing numbers of women, Aisling had a nude portrait of herself painted -  Christopher Pledger
Like increasing numbers of women, Aisling had a nude portrait of herself painted - Christopher Pledger

It was late on a Saturday morning in early December when I knew I couldn’t put it off any longer; I’d have to get naked. To take a nude selfie - my first ever - and send it to someone I had never met.

Above my bed sits Modigliani’s painting ‘Female Nude’ so I found myself looking to her for guidance on how to pose. The sitter’s peace with her body is reassuring. But I didn’t want to be sleepily passive in how I presented my body, but rather completely awake and in control.

Why was I doing this at all? I blame my sister. After I saw her post her own nude portrait on Instagram (by artist @_in_the_buff__), I had texted to say how much I loved it. Not just the Hockney-esque electric blue and pink, but her confidence in saying to the world “this is my body”. It reminded me of the Sex and the City episode in which Samantha Jones announces that she is going to get naked portraits taken. There’s a stunned silence. “Isn’t that a little narcissistic? asks Miranda.

It’s been nearly 20 years since that first aired and the conversation has most certainly changed.

Like many women, I have a complicated relationship with my body. As a teen, I just wanted to be as tiny as Audrey Hepburn or Carrie Bradshaw, and controlled how many calories I ate. By the age of 17, I was so underweight - a doctor told me - that I was only having one period a year.It was a pivotal moment. I didn’t want to be so thin that I was doing my body damage.

It would be some years yet before my relationship with food normalised and oddly enough, it was during the first lockdown when I noticed that it had relaxed. The pandemic acted as a bit of a reality check. And a part of me wanted to commemorate that shift in paint.

And so, after much humming and haahing on my part, I decided to press ahead with my own naked portrait; taking selfie after naked selfie to send to the artist.

Shirt on, shirt off; jeans on, jeans off…turns out that taking nude photographs for yourself isn’t half as nerve-racking as it might be for a lover. There was no need for posturing, pouting, or saucy thrusting.

Artist Jaz Moodie has created portraits for women who have just gone through the menopause, or a mastectomy
Artist Jaz Moodie has created portraits for women who have just gone through the menopause, or a mastectomy

Flicking through the photos, seeing what worked and what didn’t, I slowly found myself growing accustomed to my own body. It turned out to be far more of a psychological process than I had anticipated; in confronting myself over and over, I stopped looking for flaws. Why had it taken me so long to do this? I hadn’t realised that I had been hiding from my body until now. That I hadn’t been kind or respectful to it, and that I may have given it to people who were undeserving. This portrait, I realised, would be both a love letter and an apology to myself.

When I sent artist Franchi Webb, my photos, however, I was still concerned that they weren’t “right”.

“They’re gorgeous! I am so happy to do any of them,” she wrote back.

Two women complicit in acknowledging a body from a purely objective standpoint is a powerful thing. “Painting nudes and helping people on their journey to loving themselves and their bodies is massively inspiring,” Webb told me.

Nikki, 47, a wheelchair user with spina bifida, also found getting her nude portrait painted a way of reclaiming her body, motivated by medical issues that had confined her to six months of bedrest. When she recovered, she wanted to capitalise on her newfound freedom.

“What started out as building up my confidence and learning to love my body has turned to be more about my disability. Nudes aren’t just for the thin able-bodied people but anyone with enough courage,” says Nikki, who has since commissioned portraits from 13 artists.

One of those was with Jaz Moodie of Mude Threads. Jaz paints women of all stripes, including her own mother Sheena, 55, and grandmother Ann, 77 - the former when she was going through menopause and felt she had lost her sense of self; the latter after her mastectomy. Such major life and physical changes, the artists find, are often the triggers for women in particular to want to capture a moment in time, embrace their changing bodies and find self-acceptance.

“People came back to Jaz with stories like ‘you changed my life, I now don’t look for the flaws’, and in the back of my mind I thought I want to do that,” agrees Sheena. “I didn’t know whether Jaz would agree to it or not. But when I eventually asked her, she was thrilled.”

Aisling's finished nude portrait, which cost £40
Aisling's finished nude portrait, which cost £40

There has also been a surge in demand since the start of the pandemic, with Jaz reporting a 60 per cent increase in sales and Katy Pryer of @_draws_nudes noticing an increased demand with each lockdown.

“People are buying art from me as a way of connecting with long distance lovers, while others are attempting to rekindle some excitement in strained lockdown relationships,” says Pryer. “ But a huge proportion are simply buying them for themselves. At a time when everyone is feeling introspective and lonely, seeing themselves as a beautiful piece of art is a small win when we all need as much cheering up as possible.”

Like many of the female artists I spoke to, Pryer explains that her clients are predominantly women and that the majority of “requests” she receives from men online aren’t genuine, and can even be abusive. “Which is a shame, as I love drawing men,” she says.

The nude portrait process is a collaborative one. In addition to taking my own pictures, I choose the colour scheme. Once Franchi had made a draft, she sent it to me to check I was happy. The whole process, from sending her my pictures to getting the finished portrait, took around 10 days - you can’t even get an online supermarket delivery sorted that quickly these days. And it was cheaper… mine came it at £40 but prices can stretch into the hundreds.

As for the result? I’m overjoyed. It’s gorgeous. “When have you ever looked at yourself and said that with so much passion and belief?” Franchi asks.

Not until now. All that’s left to do, is decide where to hang it.