I painted strangers’ nudes to find peace during the pandemic

Each week the Honey newsletter includes a column from women and LGBTQ folks in the South, in collaboration with See Jane Write. We’re always looking for more stories from you. Click here to learn more about how to get published.

I remember catching myself in the mirror in the first months of the pandemic walking around in my underwear during the day—since that is a thing I can do working from home—and thinking the line my stomach made as it turned into the curve of my hip and then the fullness of my thigh was particularly beautiful. And not beautiful in the way that is aesthetically pleasing to the male gaze, but pleasing to my eye as an artist.

In those first few months I was struggling more than ever feeling stuck inside my brain, stuck being a body. I found it nearly impossible to tear myself away from screens announcing all of the unprecedented things that I had no control over. I was being paid to keep my Twitter feed open, to absorb the world’s cries for help, and at the end of each day I couldn’t look away. I kept TV news on while switching from the constant scroll of dystopian Twitter headlines to Instagram’s collective cry mourning normalcy, and back again. There was nothing that could pull my brain out of the internet and back into myself. It was a season where my mind felt most disconnected from my body, creating chasms in my already struggling mental health.

I haven’t always considered myself an artist. I’ve always been creative and have created things I’m proud of — from words to paints to home decor. I chose to pursue journalism because I enjoyed storytelling and it seemed like the most logical way to be creative and earn an income. It scratched a creative itch I was worried I might lose pursuing a different career. But I ended up minoring in art on a whim and took a few figure-drawing classes. I took my knowledge of the human  form and painted a few pieces as gifts from time to time, but I never studied it, never explored the power in recreating my own body on canvas until the pandemic.

So I took the line that so intrigued me and attempted to mimic its movement with paint I’d long tucked away, having carried it unopened to at least three different apartments. And the line became a form and the form became this version of me that I was completely overcome by. I was able to capture my body not as I saw it in the mirror, easily critiqueable and open to the interpretation of the viewer, but as a complete work of art, demanding of gaze and holding its own.

I documented the process on Instagram and received feedback that would change me. Strangers encouraged my new pursuit and friends begged me to keep exploring using their own nude portraits. My phone became filled with reclining Renaissance muses I pulled from Pinterest and strangers’ nudes previously shot for pandemic flirtations. And rather quickly, my previously male gaze-conditioned brain rewired itself to see these bodies for what they were: not sexual objects to consume, but three dimensional planes that took up space and made light dance and reflect off its surfaces. 

The human form has the ability to elicit vivid emotions from the viewer. I am used to comparing the width of other women’s arms or thighs to my own to size up who takes up more space or see how the others’ bellies protrude past their pants to gauge how my own form looks to others. But in disconnecting my beliefs about my body from my newfound practice, I found safety and a gentleness I had not previously allowed myself to feel in my own body.

I found that so many of my thoughts were connected to my outward presence. They took up valuable room in my brain.  And by staring these thoughts into submission, by rolling around their origins in my brain until they were smooth and easy to hold, I created bigger margins in my brain that allowed for grace and creativity and introspection. The body is a beatitude.

The pandemic was an acute reminder of how fragile we are, just being bodies and all. Growing up as a woman in the South was a constant reminder of the danger our bodies contained. Our bodies are blamed for the choices of men. They are legislated without our consent. They are often seen as second rate or inherently sexual for their mere existence. To accept our bodies as they are is a radical mercy to give yourself.

This global slowdown gave me the opportunity to explore the way I see myself and others in a way I don’t think I previously could have had I not been forced. It’s been a gift, one I hope to share with as many people as possible through my art.

Abbey Crain is a reporter for Reckon and the author of the Honey newsletter. In her spare time she paints people’s nudes. You can find more of her work at

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