Deborah Frances-White and Sofie Hagen are card-carrying feminists, but are they doing it right? Their new podcast, The Guilty Feminist, addresses the insecurities and hypocrisies that still trip them up. It kicks off in the buff. Let Deborah explain.
I’m not a naked person. I mean really. I don’t hang around the house undressed on my own. I grab a robe as soon as I get out of the shower. I sleep in pyjamas. I prefer some kind of lingerie during sex. Nudity seems so unnecessarily… revealing. I prefer low lights and the flattering mystery of a negligee.
How I came to bare all for a room full of strangers is not really clear to me. I blame Sofie Hagen. She and I had a series of Edinburgh Festival comedians’ brunches in which we, as card-carrying contemporary feminists, admitted our worst insecurities and hypocrisies to each other. I definitely think cat-calling is wrong and sexually aggressive, but I am capable of hearing, “Hey sexy!” and thinking in one clear thought, “That’s terrible… Still got it.” I regularly deliver seminars on confidence for women in business but am also sometimes “just a girl who can’t say no”
These noble goals and terrible admissions led to the idea of a podcast called The Guilty Feminist to be recorded in front of a live, rowdy audience made up largely of those who also worry they’re not doing feminism right.
Our first theme is nudity, so Sofie and I embarked on some challenges. “I’ll look into being a life drawing model,” I said boldly, not meaning it at all. I feebly signed up to a website and received an email saying I had to audition. That didn’t sound like something I wanted to do, so I ignored it. Then I received a phone call letting me know my audition time. The very efficient lady had hung up before I could ask what this would entail, but I figured she’d just see if I could hold poses and have a chat. I received an email on the day reminding me that the venue was opposite Holloway Prison and that I should bring a robe. Relaxing.
“Sure. I can do lying down. Exposed, open, vulnerable reclining. Why not? In for a penny in for a… I might throw up.”
I arrived and was told to go into the loo and strip off except for a robe. A reassuring woman ushered me into an art class. Twelve amateur artists sketched industriously. Lucy, a beautiful, naked 20-year old was draped elegantly on a stool. Artistic tattoos trailed down her womanly torso. Golden locks cascaded over her shoulders.
“Maybe you’d like to take off your robe and stand next to Lucy,” said the reassuring woman.
“Are you fucking kidding me?” I didn’t say but definitely thought very loudly. “I didn’t know I had to stand next to a perfect body! I didn’t know there’d be all these people here! What?! Just take my robe off here and now and be naked?! Are you fucking kidding me?!”
“Sure,” I said out loud. I slipped off the robe and in one shrug I was nude, unclad, starkers, au naturel and in the buff. I stood with my front towards the women and my back to the men, as the room divided neatly that way. “Okay. Now the robe is off it’s not as bad as all that. No one has reacted. Everything’s as it was, except I’m naked. Hah! I’m naked. And what of it?” said my interior monologue.
Five minutes later, the reassuring lady suggested it was time for a new pose.
“Why don’t you lie down?” she said, dragging a mattress over and putting it in the most convenient spot, right in front of the men.
“Sure. I can do lying down. Exposed, open, vulnerable reclining. Why not? In for a penny in for a… I might throw up.” I tentatively lay down on the mattress and impulsively put my hands behind my head. I just had to go full Titanic-Winslet and pretend it was exactly what I had planned to do. I wanted to shout, “Draw me like one of your French girls, Jack!” Also my tits look much perkier with my arms above my head. I put my knees up, discretely, thinking that was the most modest angle and that all the men were up the top end anyway.
What I didn’t know was once one person has started drawing, the model can’t move, but the artists can. One chap got up and took his chair down the bottom end, which was a little unnerving. But it was… okay. It wasn’t sexual. As each minute passed it became more and more liberating. I felt a golden glow, like I was every woman, the first woman – an Eve-like figure whose body was all female and not just a series of flaws and cellulite. I felt a little high and very powerful. I felt sorry for those artists hiding behind those clothes. They didn’t understand the potency of Lucy and me in our skin. We were like Roman empresses commanding them to capture our beauty.
Then they asked me to sit on a chair. Naked. Who looks good sitting down naked? Well, Lucy did, but it’s a rare skill. I crossed my legs, leaned forward and shielded my stomach and breasts with my arms. And I sat like that for 20 minutes. It was dreadful. It was a shame pose. It was an attitude that said, “I am trying to hide my nakedness and failing. I would prefer you didn’t see these parts of me that I am trying ineffectually to cover.” I had eaten the forbidden fruit and my fig leaves were inadequate. I wanted so much to move to a new pose, but it was not allowed. I vowed I’d never hide again. I felt more naked hiding half than showing it all. My eyes wandered down and I saw a charcoal sketch on the floor. “She’s got a nice figure,” I thought. And then I realised – it was a drawing of me… Oh.
“Maybe it’s me who’s bad at perspective… Maybe I had to take it all off to see if it for what it was.”
After a cup of tea and a custard cream with the artists, odd but fun, we were asked to move into our final pose. “Could you sit next to each other so we can draw you side by side?” A thudding anxiety occupied my skull. The artists had been drawing us in turn, not comparatively.
“I just won’t look at the pictures,” I thought. “I cannot come out of this well. She’s 20. She’s perfect. I will be twice her size.”
I sat neutrally, hiding nothing but fearing everything.
“It’s okay,” I told myself. “All sizes and shapes are beautiful. You know that. You’re a feminist.”
But the other voice, the darker one replied, “Yes – but you believe in diversity of beauty… for others. You should be small, svelte and thin. She is… better.
“Just don’t look at the drawings. Just don’t look.”
Someone had put his sketch on the floor. I tried not to look with the same determination I try not to read my Edinburgh Festival reviews. I failed. I glanced. And Lucy and I looked… exactly the same size. “Maybe that artist is bad at perspective,” I thought. I looked at another.
Maybe it’s me who’s bad at perspective. Maybe I’m about the same size as Lucy. Maybe I had to take it all off to see if it for what it was. I am not a naked person. More people saw me naked that night than had previously seen me naked in my whole life. But I left with more dignity, not less. A little less guilty. A little more feminist. Something I will definitely do again. Smile on. Kit off.
Click here to listen to the first episode of The Guilty Feminist: Nudity.
Deborah Frances-White is a comedian and screenwriter. Her BBC Radio 4 show Deborah Frances-White Rolls the Dice is currently on Mondays at 11.30am and ListenAgain. Episodes one and four are about how she found her biological family, including Kate and William.