That day I was a life model

I tell myself I feel okay about others seeing my naked body

  • Mar. 30, 2020 7:30 a.m.

– Illustration by Sierra Lundy

Should I shave? I flip this question over in my mind a dozen times. I know Zoe does, and he’s seen her before. Then again, she says he’s in his 70s, and a natural bush was a given back when he would have been around women my age. Also, a bit of hair might provide just the slightest means of protection, even if it’s only an illusion. I throw the razor in my bag just in case.

I’m heading to meet my stepsister, who is taking me to my first ever life-modelling gig. There, I will pose nude for the sake of art. Drawing me will be a single client, Charles, and Zoe, who I’ve insisted come along. She’s modelled for him before, and has arranged this session at my inclination of interest.

Nudity is a strangely loaded concept. The various attitudes and implications related to exposing one’s body are beyond contradictory, and the lines between empowerment, exploitation and exhibitionism are muddy at best. But nudity is universal! Everybody has a body and why shouldn’t we feel casual about seeing them and having them seen by others? Women’s figures are beautiful and deserve to occupy more than just sexual spaces. I tell myself I feel okay about others seeing my naked body, but I know that I am lying to some degree.

This is where Charles comes in. Charles participates in a weekly life-drawing class, where a group of people gather around a nude model and draw for two hours. I’m hoping that his interest in the human figure in a desexualized context, and my participation in this exchange, will be a way to confront my own internalized taboos and insecurities. I want to be confident in nakedness, I want to feel good about my body in a platonic “here I am, no big deal” kind of way.

So I set out, flipping between anxiety and confidence, excitement and dread. I meet up with Zoe and we debrief. She reassures me. She tells me that the hardest part is coming up with and holding new poses. I suddenly realize I haven’t considered the logistics of this. Shoot. I don’t know a single pose. But Zoe says it’ll be fine, that they just come naturally and there are no wrong positions. She says to twist; twists are interesting.

I mull over her advice as we hop into the car. In the back is a pile of clothes that she tells me to look over. I pull out a like-new super-soft sweater — high quality and in black. It’s like it was made for me.

“Have it!” she says. I stuff it in my bag, and am distracted from our destination just long enough to feel minor relief.

Eventually, we park at the base of Charles’s driveway and the moment of “is it too late to turn around?” hits. It is. The dread takes over and fills my feet as we trudge up the driveway. Charles’s door is bright red. I am pulsing with anxiety as Zoe knocks on it.

Charles opens the door. He is a small man with grey hair and a black beard. We head up to the kitchen and his wife, Sally, jumps right into the conversation. She offers us Girl Guide cookies. I can’t believe what we’re here for. I can’t believe I’m doing this.

The studio is impressive. There are work tables easels, shelves of materials, drawers of different paper sheets, toolboxes of charcoals, and jars of sketching pencils. A grey paper backdrop hangs from a roller on one wall and onto the floor, making a stage. It is illuminated by a menacing spotlight. I am thankful for the professionalism it portends. Also intimidated.

Charles says there’s a robe for me to wear in the bathroom whenever I decide to get ready. I follow his direction and head to “change.” This doesn’t seem like the right word when there’s nothing to change into — but “strip” is worse.

I begin undressing.

My body and I are on relatively amicable terms. I don’t fall too far outside of the desirable norm. But puberty brought large, heavy, wideset breasts to my otherwise petite frame. This is supposedly a good thing, according to almost everyone I complain to. To me, it has always been a source of deep insecurity.

I struggle to get the cuffs of my jeans over my ankles and realize I’ve left my socks on last. How unsexy. Is that a good thing? I avoid looking down at myself as I slip into the robe. It is silk. As I step back into the room, they are still setting up their things and I stand waiting, unsure of when to take the robe off. I’m anxious to get it over with.

Charles explains that we will start with a few one-minute poses, then move onto two minutes, then a couple of fives, and finish with one or two long holds. “Whenever you’re ready,” he prompts.

I slip the silk off and drop it in a pile to the side. Zoe is smiling at me. I feel surprisingly relaxed now that I’m actually just naked. Yet I am certainly aware of the shallowness of my breathing.

I move into the spotlight and decide to start facing backwards. I raise one arm over my head and twist my torso. They both remark that this is a great position.

So it begins. One minute seems longer than it usually does. Then it’s done and I twist a different way.

“You’re a natural!” Charles says. He is engaged in polite conversation with Zoe.

I listen to the scritch-scratch of their pencils. I examine Charles’s studio meticulously. It’s almost boring. Now the five minutes. Time ticks away ever so slowly. I realize that I am so focused on staying still that the whole naked thing isn’t really a thing. Finally Charles calls time and tells me I can take a break and stretch. I again become acutely aware of my nakedness and pull my arms across my chest. I feel my body’s awkward posture outside of a deliberate position. The break is the longest part yet. I am relieved when we start again.

We do a long pose and I read every single title on Charles’s bookshelf. They are organized by subject. Suddenly the session is over; I slip back into the robe and briskly head for the bathroom. Jeans have never felt so comforting.

When I emerge, Charles and Zoe are comparing drawings as Sally gushes over them. They all applaud me as well, and I don’t know how to take the compliments. We say our goodbyes and I run down the driveway.

“So, how did that feel?” Zoe asks excitedly.

“I don’t know. Fine, I think.” It’s the truth. I’m not quite sure how I feel. I’m glad I went through with it and I’m glad it’s done with. I still feel nothing as we part ways. But later, as I travel back home, I am suddenly struck with shame. I can’t quite place its source but I find myself pushing the memory of the day out of my mind, avoiding reflection, not ready to process it.

Was I expecting something bigger? I don’t feel empowered. I don’t feel exposed. I don’t feel a new confidence in my body. I just feel weird about requesting an arrangement to stand naked in a stranger’s basement.

I carry Zoe’s sketches, rolled up with two elastic bands, under my arm as I wait to transfer busses. It’s late. It’s cold now, and I remember the sweater Zoe has given me. I put it on under my bomber jacket and I’m instantly warm. I think of our relationship and how great it is to have a sister who knows me, who sees me, who reminds me I exist beyond skin. Our closeness has nothing to do with our physical bodies.

When I get home I unroll the three pages and show my girlfriend the drawings.

“Whoa. She got your tits perfectly,” she says.

Story courtesy of Boulevard Magazine, a Black Press Media publication

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