Something wonderful and beautiful is making its way around the world, and I was, and am, lucky to be a part of it. It’s a funny thing, though, because I’ve found myself hoping that no one I know would see it, for fear of being misinterpreted or inadvertently crossing boundaries. In fact, I’ve had the specific thought, “I want everyone to see this…except my father and my clients.”
I’ve been exploring that reaction in myself. Some of you may be aware that one of my hobbies is modeling. You may have seen underwater photographs of me shot by Rhea Pappas, for example, or pieces exhibited by other local photographers. Those photos, though, were clothed. My participation in the Nu Project, however, isn’t.
I started nude modeling when I was in school for bodywork, for several reasons. Honestly, my first motivation was that I was a little bit jealous of a boyfriend’s modeling partners and wanted firsthand experience to tell me if that jealousy was rational or not. (Totally not. As an artist’s model, your primary focus is on not twitching or showing exhaustion, and very limited focus is on anything else happening in the room.)
I also wanted to challenge my own insecurities and find greater comfort in my own skin, and I did. I had the epiphany, at the time, that if others saw me as a work of art, it was nothing short of arrogant to disagree with them. Seeing myself through their eyes reshaped the image reflected back to me by my own.
Also, I quickly discovered that holding poses gave me an unexpected opportunity for studying musculature from the inside. As my muscles fatigued, I could feel their shape, their insertions, and their bulk. I began choosing poses not only with consideration to their duration (for example, any pose with unsupported arms gets hard to hold without shifting or sagging within about five minutes), but to the specific muscles being engaged. I began choosing poses precisely to engage muscles I wanted to study, and as I did so, my poses became more dynamic and more interesting to the artists. I started getting messages on my phone from people hosting their own drawing cooperatives, and my range of groups grew.
The first class I ever modeled for was at an arts high school. The instructor invited me to attend as a guest the week before I was scheduled, so that I could draw with the students and get a sense of the experience from the other side. The atmosphere was professional and respectful — I later came to realize that their behavior was exemplary. When I assumed the stage myself, I felt completely supported. It happened to be Valentine’s Day, seven years ago. In an uncertain relationship, myself, it was all the more impressive that, on such a day, these young people with all their hormones and youthful beauty were choosing to sit for several hours in an optional evening class and invest themselves so thoroughly in the work at hand. During the short breaks, they graciously offered me fruit and tea and asked if I’d like to see their sketches so far. The chalky pastel images on their paper pads were beautiful, and I was deeply grateful.
That class taught me so much about the hang-ups we tend to hold about ourselves, and how oblivious the rest of the world may be to them, or how trivial our perceived flaws may be, even if they are observed by others. I sat in a forty-minute pose during another session there. For the first ten to fifteen minutes, I contemplated how visible my cellulite patterns might be. Time for such idle nonsense was a luxury. No position is comfortable after about twenty minutes, without shifting. After thirty, it became a struggle of transcending physical discomfort. At thirty-five, it was all I could do to keep my leg from going into violent spasm from exhaustion. At forty, we were allowed a break. I peeked at a sketchbook. The artist had spent all forty minutes studying only a few curls of hair around my face. Curls. Not cellulite. It was profoundly humbling to realize how meanly I’d been thinking about my own body.
The Nu Project has provided me with an opportunity for similar exploration of my own embodiment. Matt Blum, the photographer, contacted me over Model Mayhem, providing a link to the project and going over the basic structure of participation. It felt right to participate, because both the objective of the project and the quality of the work resonated. In March of 2011, we arranged a morning for him to come to my apartment to shoot. I agreed not to put on any makeup or mess with my hair, to just occupy my space as I would unobserved. A couple days before the shoot, I caught a strange virus that shows up as a small, bright rash on the chest — there’s one shot in the collection where it hasn’t been retouched at all. I was more nervous and self-conscious than I normally would have been, but I didn’t cancel. Matt put me at ease. He’s tremendously kind, completely unthreatening, and unerringly professional. I felt as I had with the high school artists, and the results are the same for me, if more public.
At the time, it felt wonderful to be seen without trying to project an image or having one stamped on top of me. It felt freeing to embrace my unclothed body in a way that wasn’t sexualized or camouflaged. I was going through weight fluctuation, having only a few months before returned to the US from living overseas, where I’d shed weight, and regaining it in places I wasn’t used to carrying it. It’s really liberating to look back at these photos, to catch myself wincing at the lumps and bumps I hadn’t carefully stretched out of visibility in some unnatural pose, and to step back and appreciate the abandon I’d allowed myself, belly-laughing with delight, sharing a moment of joy and acceptance with another person.
I was contemplating this this morning, as there’s no hiding from it — I’ve been contacted by a cousin in Germany and friends in California and here in Minnesota, and it’s up on HuffPo now — and it occurred to me that this is precisely how I am allowed to see my clients all the time. I am in an exceptionally privileged position, because I am trusted, as I trusted Matt, in supporting and observing individuals’ unclothed bodies in all their powerful, vulnerable, perfectly imperfect, confident, unadorned, unsexualized beauty. What I want to say, why I want to share this, is that bodies are not shameful.
Bodies are not shameful. Each of us has one. That we will inhabit one body is the only constant in our lives. Our relationship to it is always evolving and in flux, but it is always there. We get to choose some things about that relationship. We can choose how to nurture it, how to build it, how to support it, and how to rest it. We choose how to cover it, and when. We can choose how to learn about it, through internal self-study and through exploring external paradigms. We choose our boundaries around it, and our responses when those boundaries are observed or breached. Sometimes we internalize other people’s commentaries and fears, and end up obsessing over all the potential judgments that might be made. There are seven billion people on the planet, all moving through their lives in bodies. Embodied. We are all in the potential position of judging and being judged, constantly. I have chosen, and am reminded to keep choosing, to embrace my own embodiment, and to keep learning all I can about what that means. What I find, though, so far, is that wrinkles and folds and scabs and scars are irrelevant to one’s naked beauty. Soulful, unconditional beauty is naked, but that has nothing to do with the presence or absence of layers of cloth. Confidence and vulnerability are partners that hold the seeds of the other within themselves and feed cyclically into one another, and it is they that reveal real beauty.
You are beautiful. Powerfully, undeniably, radiantly beautiful. It has nothing to do with your body, and everything. I promise that this is true, and always has been, and always will.