IT HAPPENED TO ME: I Was A Nude Model At 18, And It Changed My Body Image For The Better

When my best friend described her life-drawing class, I was amazed to hear that there was a place where not only did all the usual beauty standards not matter, but that the opposites were actually coveted.

Aug 19, 2014 at 11:00am | Leave a comment

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The whole nude modeling thing started with my best friend telling me a story about some guy’s junk. She kept drawing it too small. It was one of her first art workshops with a live model, and she must have been compensating for a little bit of embarrassment. The professor had finally come over to her drawing and corrected it to match the model’s natural proportions. “It’s alright,” he explained. “A lot of students downplay the penis at first.” 

My friend went on to detail the general experience of drawing from life. There were far more male models, for example. Unsurprisingly, it was harder to find women willing to get naked in front of a class of tens of art students, and even trickier to find curvy female models. You see, in an art class, the curvier you are, the better. It means more interplay of light and shadow, more delicious lines, more shapes to model, more to work with in general. Even better if there are tattoos and piercings and intriguing scars the students could work into their pieces if they got into more detailed stages of their drawings. In art class, none of the normal beauty rules apply. 

I was intrigued. Hating your body was simply a part of life at the all-girls high school I had attended. For all that single sex education was supposed to free us from the pressure of the male gaze and unleash our intellectual potential, it did very little to help us escape an ever-present miasma of self-hate, eating disorders, and fashion drama.

Throughout high school, I felt obligated to despise my body. Years later when I saw the scene in "Mean Girls" where the Plastics indoctrinate Lindsey Lohan’s character into the after-school ritual of criticizing your own pores and ankles, I found myself nodding my head at memories of the culture of self-hate at my high school.

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The guys at the all-boys school across the river just weren’t ready for this jelly.

I didn’t want to participate in the endless cycle of comparison and mandatory self-criticism that was so common there. I hated traditional beauty standards, and it was incredibly frustrating living in a world where they were paramount. So I opted out. I went punk, I went goth, I went butch, I went as far as I could get from the pressure to be blonde and thin and tanned. That reaction had its own unintended consequence -- the preppy guys I knew had zero interest in dating me. I developed a real complex not about my jean size, but about being single, even as I watched my friends pair off and experience their first relationships.
 
When my best friend described her life-drawing class, I was amazed to hear that there was a place where not only did all the usual beauty standards not matter, but that the opposites were actually coveted. I was an exile hearing for the first time of an almost unimaginable promised land -- a place where my body was judged not by how it looked or by its sexual appeal, but by its functionality.
 
All that was required for success was a willingness to be nude, a base sense of what would make a good pose, and the ability to hold very, very still for incredibly long periods of time. Modeling was the perfect solution to my problems. 
 
I wanted to be able to revel in my sexuality and physicality without body shame or actually having to land a boyfriend. I had no idea how to get a date, and none of the boys I knew were interested. Even my gay best friend had moved on at the end of high school to a girl who was conventionally attractive and quite popular. Once he came out, he didn’t need to hide in the shadows with his freaky former bestie.
 
Modeling was a way for me to step out into the light as well, but on my own terms.
 
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One of the drawings I modeled for. It’s totally Wuthering Heights Cathy chic.

I was able to explore my own sexuality in a safe environment. I learned to be comfortable and confident in the nude. I learned to separate my nakedness from body image, male sexuality, the media, and expectation, and instead connect it to functionality and relaxation.
 
I also enjoyed the exhibitionist aspect of nude modeling. My dispassionate audience had no idea what I was thinking or feeling. They were more interested in the tones of light and shadow before them than in how they might enjoy my bits and pieces. 
 
For the first time, after years of being told in abstinence-only ed sex ed classes and pop culture that men were dangerous predators out to wreck my carefully guarded virtue (and having this seemingly confirmed by the few guys who made any overtures), I was able to own my body and its sensual aspects without threat. There were rules in place to make me feel safe, and everyone was impossibly respectful. Every single student and professor understood that a code of honor was necessary for both of us to do our respective work. The rules were clear and explicit, a far cry from the messy world of high school dances and backseat blow jobs that mystified me throughout my teenage years. 
 
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Pre-art modeling, when I was sixteen and deep into a Goth Molly Ringwald phase.

When my robe dropped to the dusty modeling platform, the world fell away, too. The students became lost in their work, and I became lost in my thoughts. We didn’t talk. They visualized, and I daydreamed. We stopped being men and women, and became artists and model. I ceased to be tits and ass, and became one beautiful form for them to render. It was objectification in the best possible way -- not the kind that reduced me to a fetish or a blowup doll or a photograph to wack off to after mom and dad went to bed. It was consensual. It was about strength and patience, not subjugation or power.
 
I made a lot of dumb decisions back then. I got bad haircuts, wore unflattering things, listened to the wrong people, got drunk on tequila at college parties, once lied to my mom so I could cross state lines and buy fireworks to set off in an abandoned subdivision. You know, high school and college stuff. Nude modeling wasn’t one of those bad decisions. It was the best thing I could have done for myself. I didn’t always remember the lessons I learned as a model. There were dark times in my 20s, with men and sex and power and loving myself and my body. I can only imagine, though, just how dark those times would have been if I had never modeled. 
 
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Checking out Picasso in Chicago.

I can only imagine what would have happened if I hadn’t come to understand from a young age that my body is a thing of form and function, and can be valuable for far many activities beyond sex, no matter how little is covering it. I can only imagine how much I would have struggled in my 20s if I hadn’t learned at 18 that the very "problem" areas we fret about can be beautiful, if only you think in different terms than the ones we’re taught at too tender an age.
 
My belly and wings and inverted nipples and thick thighs aren’t unattractive. To an artist, they’re what give him or her something to draw. They contribute to a beautiful work of art.
 
The pain I felt before I found modeling was nothing compared to the pleasure I felt naked and unafraid in front of a class. I became fearless. I became powerful. I became truly beautiful. I was transformed from mere mortal to muse. It’s funny how the things that can make up the light and dark of our lives -- the orgasmic highs and masochistic lows -- are so easily reduced to nothing more than gradations of light and dark on paper. We grind ourselves down into charcoal dust when the exact same stuff is, with the right mindset, transformed into immortalized beauty and wonder.