A circle of friends I’m part of holds a rather charming private event: every fortnight or so, they gather in a basement for Figure Drawing Night. Anyone who wishes can take turns modeling nude while the others sketch them.
When a friend first invited me, I was delighted. For a long time, nudity has been very important to me, particularly the kind of casual, communal nudity that feels safe and affirming by virtue of its easygoing frankness. Artistic nudity captivates me, and the nudity of sexual intimacy thrills me, but the nakedness of friends who very intentionally hold space for our bodies to be No Big Deal — that feels like home.
As soon as I enthusiastically accepted the invitation, however, a realization dawned: this would be my first time being naked with friends since I’d begun my transition. Ever since I’ve realized I’m a woman, my body and personal presentation has had an extra dimension of importance. I had always wrestled with body issues to some degree, but as an out trans woman, the stakes have been much higher. Appearing feminine and attractive is no longer optional; it is vital. Being able to look in the mirror and see anything remotely resembling the person I long to be has become a matter of survival.
But here I was, about to enter a space where every bit of artifice that I used to present feminine cues would be shed. On the one hand, this situation was perfectly natural for me. Since childhood, I had been intensely focused on the idea of being naked with other people, but a conservative Christian upbringing had meant little opportunity to explore that. In college, I had gone on choir tour in Estonia, and my choirmates and I had discovered Baltic-style sauna. I took to it instantly and the experience formed some of my most powerful memories of peace, safety, and belonging.
On the other hand, the prospect of being naked in front of a roomful of cisgender people was terrifying. Without the ability to control my presentation through clothing cues, I was apprehensive about my ability to be “read” as a woman. It wasn’t that I was concerned with passing as a cis woman; my being trans was no secret, and my testosterone-dominant physical traits were very visible. But in a roomful of half friends, half strangers, in a setting where my body would be subjected to intense scrutiny, I became very nervous about how these people’s artistic eyes would view me and how their pencils would render me. I feared being misgendered by art.
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I resented that this source of longtime joy could be taken from me. Being naked was my thing, my happy place, my habitual act of radical self-love. And now, nakedness meant no insulation from the ugly presumptions of the cisgender gaze.
Nevertheless, I was still eager to go. The friends who were attending were trusted and dear, and I felt that, if any cis environment could be safe for a naked trans lady, it would be this one. So I put on my cutest dress, bussed across town, and descended into a basement full of drawing supplies.
The group was low-key and familiar. I felt pretty at ease, sipping tea and making preliminary, awful sketches. As usually happens with casual nudity, the fact that naked bodies were in the room quickly became normalized, unremarkable. Everyone, model-of-the-moment included, chatted amiably and un-self-consciously. But as models rotated in and out, I steeled myself to volunteer for a turn, and that’s when the fear returned.
There was no question in my mind that I would do this. It was what I had come to do. But the moment of deciding to do it was terrifying all the same. I was among friends, but also friends of friends, and who could say how they would view me? What would I see on their pages? Would it be a Frankensteinian spectacle, a horrid caricature — or worse, a perfectly ordinary naked man?
At last, I found my now-or-never moment to stand and volunteer. Casually as I could, I moved to the side of the modeling area and began undressing. Under my clothing, I was tucked — my genitalia stowed between my legs and held in place by underwear and tights to give me a flat front. When I disrobed, I was careful to remain tucked and hold it in place with my thighs. Then, I stepped into the modeling area.
That was how I presented my body to my friends: naked, undisguised, but with part hidden away. My body was covered in chest, arm, and leg hair; my chest boxy, my bristly face only recently divested of a long beard. I didn’t expect anyone to think I didn’t have a penis; that wasn’t the point. The point was simply to exercise some control over how my body was read. I needed to send a nonverbal cue that my body was fundamentally feminine, and that was the only way I knew to do it.
I held that tuck through several poses, and then I let someone else take a turn in front of the group. At the end of the night, we all knelt in a circle on the floor and showed our work around. When the sketches of me came up, I gasped. They were beautiful. I saw not a freak or a dude, but a woman. Curvy, supple, playfully feminine. There was nothing masculine about these drawings; they were clearly frank renderings of the same body I was seeing in the mirror each day, the reflection that was screaming MALE to me. Yet on these pages, that mannishness had vanished without a trace. My friends and acquaintances saw me, and when I looked at their work I saw myself, too — in some ways, for the first time.
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That night meant so much to me. I worried a bit that it meant too much — that I was spoiling the laid-back vibe of the event by placing so much personal importance on my own experience. One aspect of moving through the world as a trans woman is the constant worry that you’re hogging the spotlight, that you’re unconsciously centering your personal vanity in every interaction. The general misogynist conditioning against women taking up too much space is amplified even more for us.
But the truth is that my “vanity” is and was an act of resistance. Our culture’s transmisogyny constantly eats away at trans women’s confidence in who we are. Being truly, vulnerably seen by my friends was so important for me in coming to terms with my new understanding of my body. It was a remedy for so much fear and dysphoria, afflictions that may well have killed me by now but for moments of support and affirmation like this one.
I’ve attended a few times since then and loosened up a little — posing untucked and letting myself relax and stop obsessing over my presentation. I’ve never once felt anything but feminine in that basement.
One drawing from that first night particularly lingers in my heart. As drawn by a friend who I barely knew at the time, I am seated on a stool, holding an umbrella as a prop, looking at once demure and mischievous — and altogether lovely.
It is clear that this friend, like everyone else, is drawing a woman and knows it. This was the encouragement I needed to reclaim the naked self-love of my youth. I will always be grateful for that.
[Headline image: The photograph features a femme-presenting person sitting on a silver-colored stool, rolling up their jeans. They are wearing a tan sweater, blue pants, and brown boots. A brown hardwood floor is visible, along with a white wall.]