This story was written and performed by Allison Hatfield for the live, personal storytelling series Oral Fixation (An Obsession With True Life Tales) at the AT&T Performing Arts Center in Dallas, TX on December 16, 2013. The theme of the show was "When In Rome."
Oral Fixation creator Nicole Stewart says, "Allison's singular writing style draws you in with its unique mix of vulnerability and humor. Her deeply self-aware insights toward the end of the piece are breathtaking. If only all of us could learn to love and embrace ourselves as she has."
When my friend Julie told me she was thinking of hosting a nude sketch party for her 39th birthday, I was finishing my second glass of champagne. She announced this over dinner, at the end of a long day. Our friend Jennifer was also there. Without much discussion, and with the kind of thinking that comes from alcohol on an empty stomach, we both replied enthusiastically that we thought it sounded like a great idea. Then we ordered our entrees.
But when I arrived at Julie's house in Richardson on a Saturday night last June, my thinking was clearer. I'd had months to decide that a nude sketch party was a ridiculous notion. I'd also decided that the only way to face the awkward situation ahead was in disguise. Which was why I was wearing a long, luxurious, red wig. I may as well have been wearing a t-shirt that read "This Is Bullsh*t," for though I was once a wild thing and quite free with my body, in the last decade, I have become a person who would prefer to shower with her clothes on.
As I barreled up the highway to the party, my thoughts went like this: Strip down in front of a strange man and let him draw me? I don't think so. Not tonight. Not these jiggly thighs, ever. Not this fluffy 40-something tummy in a million years. Getting in touch with your inner sex goddess (Julie's words, not mine) is for other people. Confident people. People who are into things like "Fifty Shades of Grey."
It was with that attitude that I reluctantly walked into the house with my bottle of wine and my wig, the last guest to arrive.
There were 14 of us girls, and we were a marvelous mix. Single ladies and married ladies, we ranged in age from our late twenties to middle forties. There were women who were size 2 and women who were size 12 and every size in between. There was a marathon runner, someone who worked out feverishly several times a week, and those who didn't know a Pilates reformer from a Cowboys linebacker. An intermittent diet and exercise enthusiast, I fell somewhere in the middle. Each of us was beautiful in our own way, but none of us were models. Except that was the plan: to be a nude model for the night. There was a part of me -- the dirty hippie deep inside -- that wanted to do it, but the more conservative part of me was winning the debate and petting her wig. I had started saying to my pals, "I don't think I can do this."
The wine flowed like a river, as wine does when you get a bunch of women together on a Saturday night. At the bar, bottles of red and white and bubbles stood like cheerleaders at a pep rally. We filled our glasses with spirit and made pyramids of Caprese salad and olives. We vowed to save the birthday cake until after our turn with the sketch artist.
Ben Vincent normally does the kind of caricature sketches you see at Six Flags; colored-pencil drawings that over-exaggerate nose or chin, that make you feel slightly embarrassed, and get shoved to the bottom of a desk drawer the moment you get home. Julie found him on the Internet. He had never drawn a party full of nudes before. Yet there he was, a slight, middle-aged figure in eyeglasses and a vest, tucked away with his easel and box of charcoals in a guest room at the back of Julie's house.
The birthday girl went first. When she returned to the group, she dangled her picture in front of us. It was a tasteful, topless pose that reflected her interest in flamenco; her most private parts were covered by a flowy scarf. To my surprise, it was absolutely lovely. After Julie, a lady I didn't know had a turn. When she shyly showed the group a sketch of her bare back, with a long pearl necklace trailing between her shoulder blades and an inch of butt crack peeking above a bed sheet, we fell into silent awe at her grace and beauty. I eyed her picture, gulped my wine, and thought, "Maybe."
While each lady was back with Ben, the rest of us were drinking, snacking and working up the nerve to show our tits to a stranger. We pored over the Internet, looking at images turned up by typing "nude sketches" into the search bar, discussing which poses would best showcase our assets (Oh, we have assets!) and disguise our wobbly bits (So. Many. Wobbly. Bits.) One friend would lie on her stomach, with her knees bent and her head propped in her hand, to be sketched from the side. Another would sit on her knees and drape her lower body with a sheet, showing off her perfect store-bought D cups. Absolutely no one would spread her legs and use a house cat to cover up her kitty. (This exists in several iterations. Feel free to give it a Google.)
And me? What would I do? By now nearly three hours had passed. Fueled more by the conversation than the alcohol, I'd begun to think, Oh, what the hell! When in Rome! Waiting for the brave souls who went to be sketched before us to return and show us their stuff, we talked openly and honestly about our bodies; without false modesty, without shame and without the harsh critique we women so often heap ourselves. The bonding was real, and it made me feel safe. I snuck off to the master bath to find my best angle.
When it was finally my turn to be sketched, I boldly removed every stitch of clothing, flung my long, red wig over one shoulder, threw one arm over my head, crossed my legs at the knee and told Ben to work fast. In my wine-soaked state, I wasn't sure I could hold my complicated pose very long. Ben tried to make small talk, but standing still with a belly full of Pinot Grigio and all my weight on one foot required concentration; soon my back began to ache and my hand grew numb. And then, Ben handed me a charcoal sketch of myself in the buff.
When I saw it, I gasped. I nearly cried.
It told no lies, offered no flattery. It conveyed the reality of heavy breasts, hips built for child bearing and the stomach of a 42-year-old who has made cupcakes a religion. And yet, instead of appearing lumpy and fat, I looked like Alexandre Cabanel's Venus. I was completely exposed -- the full monty, people -- and I looked gorgeous. The experience of seeing myself through the eyes of an artist was exhilarating.
The next weekend, I proudly framed that sucker and hung it on my bedroom wall. When I see it each morning I am reminded that my womanly curves are beautiful. Which is a sharp contrast to the feelings I have held about them for so long.
I do not love my body. I cruelly blame it for my recurring unhappiness. I have made it the culprit for my failures in love. I spent years starving it and then stuffing it and certainly talking horribly to it. I have piled hate upon it while simultaneously piling cheese onto my Doritos. I have not been kind to this flesh, and changing my destructive attitude is the work of a lifetime.
I have considered myself too fat from the moment I was aware people could be too fat. I can tell you with disgust how much I weigh in every single photo that's been taken of me since I was 15. I even spent a couple of years (not long ago) obsessing that my muffin top was unlike other muffin tops and was instead a grotesque deformity, and that no one had the guts to tell me.
But in the course of trying to find peace with this 5-foot 5-inch package, I have let some of that go. I no longer get on the scale every morning to decide whether I should feel good or bad that day. I hardly eat processed food at all. I can buy a pint of ice cream and forget for a month that it's in my freezer. Last year, I bought a two-piece bathing suit -- and I wore it in public. These days I laugh when a man I date comments on the junk in my trunk, and I focus on being strong and healthy instead of two or four or six pounds lighter.
And when I am invited to a nude sketch party, I go. And I take off my clothes in a well-lit room with a person I have never met and let him sketch every inch of me.