Lots of women in Portland get paid to take off their clothes. I've been doing it, myself, for about twelve years, on and off. When new acquaintances hear that I'm a nude model, it often elicits surprise, then a conspiratorial and lascivious wink-wink reaction. “Oh yeah? Can just anyone go?” …clearly with no intention of taking up pastel or brush, as if they'd bought into the pornographic assumption that a naked woman is common erotic property. But playfully, you know. They get my drift. They know what it's about. They'd nudge that.
My "career" as an art model started when I was a freshman at a small east coast liberal arts college. It was the highest-paying work-study job, my beloved roommate was going to do it, and I basically dared myself to do it. Like many 18 and 19-year-olds, my physical self-image was not so hot. But in my life drawing and painting classes, I'd already picked up that it's not the smooth and idealized bodies that are interesting to draw—the variety in human physicality is one of the things that make life drawing such a endless source of inspiration. So I told myself I could do it, or at least try.
On my first day, the teacher asked me, outside the classroom, if I'd modeled before. "Mainly just don't try to hold your arms over your head, and take breaks when you need to," she advised. "And don't worry—everyone's nervous their first time." I found that posing was a lot like a very slow improv dance, something I did know how to do, and loved. I also loved—and still do—the feeling of being a collaborator in the creation of works of art. It makes the aches feel like they are productive. Even the faltering works of rank beginners are interesting, and I feel like I can help teach them through poses that illustrate concepts, like underlying structure or negative space.
During that first year of modeling, I learned a couple of interesting things. First, that my body was not as tubby and gross as I thought. Artists, especially women, would thank me for not looking like the usual bone-thin exhibitionists who stepped up to the platform. Generally shy and awkward with compliments, I had to get used to strangers telling me that I was beautiful. And secondly, I learned that some people are actually intimidated by the model. On consideration, I think it's some combination of awe—almost all artists realize how physically difficult it can be to hold a pose, especially an interesting one, for 5 or 45 minutes—and the psychological shock of an inanimate object coming to life and engaging them as a person.
Yes, as a model, I'm acutely aware that my work is to be an object. While we often have little time in our lives to just think, there's not much else for a model to do as the seconds slowly pass, a drop of sweat forms and rolls down a leg, a fly circles the room, a limb loses feeling, turpentine evaporates... so of course, as a feminist, I have wondered whether I should be conflicted about my job.
Because as a participant, I am complicit in a tradition of art that has for hundreds of years treated women as pretty, passive objects, a step above a ripe piece of fruit. When I stand or sit or lie on the platform, I surrender some piece of humanity and pretend to be a vase or a flower; my personality, humanity, autonomy is as hidden as my anatomy is revealed. All that remains is the body, which even my mother has called voluptuous, that makes gender a bugaboo from which I have ceaselessly and hopelessly sought to escape. Without speech or expression, I become a cipher of femininity as silently eloquent as the Willendorf Venus , a receptacle of meaning.
But still. I want to be able to redeem this pursuit. I believe that the human body is beautiful; there are few altars at which I would rather kneel. Art, as a practice of celebration and worship, moves me. In a good studio, the atmosphere sometimes feels almost religious. I am good at modeling, as an art form in itself. And it, through the process of creation and through the creations, makes people happy.
An artist who once made a sculpture of me told me about its new owners. The wife of the man who bought it admired it and thought it beautiful. The man said, “it is—and it looks like you.” And the wife, who had always thought herself ugly and too fat, realized that it did, and cried to realize that she was beautiful like that little sculpture. When she met the artist, she thanked him for allowing her that realization, and he was greatly moved. Had she met me on the street, she wouldn't have had that realization. I am an ordinary, round person and a shabby dresser. But the abstraction of art allowed her to see beauty and recognize it in herself.
This is not all there is to art modeling. I have had the icky experience of taking a job with a photographer who wanted to do “edgy” porntastic stuff (modeling for photographers makes me wary now). I once had an instructor tell me that thanks, he needed someone with “more structure” for his intro class. He chose the school's pre-eminent representative of heroin-chic as my replacement. I have had aches for days from poorly chosen poses, and come close to fainting once. I choose to work with artists who respect me because I have that choice; modeling is something I do because it's what I do, not to pay the rent. It's beer money, really. It would be a truly punishing job for someone who tried to make it a living.
But I still haven't decided whether I should feel guilty for loving it, whether in some way it is an anti-feminist pursuit, a pornography-lite. Somehow, for all those hours of staring at the wall, I still haven't worked that out.
And at last you saw yourself as a fruit, you stepped out of your clothes and brought your naked body before the mirror, you let yourself inside down to your gaze; which stayed in front, immense, and didn’t say: I am that; no: this is.
Rainer Maria Rilke, Requiem for a Friend , tr. Stephen Mitchell