Body image and mental health: leading a life art class

26th Apr 2019
Mental health in later life

This content mentions body image or generally discusses weight, which some people may find triggering.

This blog was written by Jolie Goodman, Programmes Manager for Later Life & Empowerment.

The Mental Health Foundation works across the life course. Concerns about body image and appearance, while often associated with younger people, are not exclusive to being young. Though our appearance and our relationship with our bodies change as we age, we do not stop valuing our bodies, and in later life, adults are still concerned about body image.

The theme of Mental Health Awareness Week 13 to 19 May 2019 is body image - how we think and feel about our bodies.

A space for conversation about the body and later life

Facilitating a life class seemed an interesting and direct way to explore issues of body image with people in later life and those who work with them. I still attempt to be an artist some of the time, the chance to look directly at a naked body, in the flesh and reflect on that experience creatively was very exciting. The launch of the Standing Together Cymru project was an excellent opportunity to do this.

A space for creativity

Initially, people were a little reluctant to sign up for the class, but it ended up being oversubscribed. It’s always strange to be faced with a naked body to draw, though quickly it becomes quite normal. People made several quick drawings from standing poses and then a longer drawing from a seated pose. People drew in charcoal because it’s versatile and you can make bolder images. There was general surprise about what people drew from with their eyes shut!

I’m 80, I haven’t drawn since I was 15. Never life drawing. It’s been a very interesting class.

Sketch in a notebook of a nude male model from the life art class

Talking about whether how you feel about your body impacts your mental health

The general feeling was that it does.

In a culture where the imagery that surrounds us is mainly ageist portraying young, slim, airbrushed images, it can be hard to be visible in later life. As you get older, everything goes south. It’s very difficult to lose weight. It’s all up and no legs. Old people are portrayed as negative but the body is beautiful.

We don’t need to conform to the stereotypical view of a ‘nana’. It’s still possible to be in good shape and attractive in later life.

One sketch of a nude male model from the life art class

Our life model and other's perceptions of his body in later life

"The session did make me examine my own preconceptions about body image & ageing. I was expecting to draw someone with lots of wrinkles. I can’t believe that our model is 77. He didn’t look it!" - Member of staff

So, what do you expect a 77-year-old man to look like? We all have stereotypes, but our model, Bruce, is someone who has always played sports and now goes to the gym regularly.

One participant said, "For your age, you’re a fine figure of a man."

Bruce’s body enables him to earn an income as a model. He is a great role model for being confident about body image in later life.

Image of the nude model and the participants drawing him

Not everyone's cup of tea

Some of the drawings were left on display in the communal area of the later life housing scheme, where the Standing Together Cymru Launch took place. The next day, a relative complained, feeling that the images were inappropriate, and the drawings were taken down.

To be faced with life drawings is not going to be everyone’s cup of tea. The life class itself led to stimulating conversations and the chance to talk about body image in later life in a positive and non-discriminating way.

Becoming more visible: ending on a personal note

As a woman in my early fifties, who comes under our categorization as a person in later life, I recently went to a fancy dress party as the artist Salvador Dali. I don’t think I have ever felt more visible while travelling on public transport from north to south London. If you want to be more visible, wearing a moustache is very liberating!

Collage of different sketches from a life art class

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