I didn’t hesitate when an artist friend asked if I would consider posing nude for her students in a private life-drawing class. “Of course!” I exclaimed, which shocked her a bit and made my husband roll his eyes.
Why not, I thought? On the heels of posing for a pro-age cosmetics ad campaign and signing with a New York talent agent, I was feeling pretty confident. I’ve exercised all my life (running, sea kayaking, cycling, yoga, you name it!) and I teach Pilates. What’s more, memories of my own art-student days were particularly fond, especially when I thought of the figure-drawing classes, where the model stood stock still for moments, minutes, or even an hour while dozens encircled her, doing our best to render every inch of her naked form.
Then a moment of panic … standing stock still? I rarely stay in one spot for more than 45 seconds except when I’m asleep! How was I to hold a pose—especially not of my own choosing—for the 10, 20, and 45 minutes this class required? But the fee—paid in cash—was enticing, and I had promised, so it was game on.
How to Be an Art Model: Did I Really Agree to Get Naked?
I arrived at the studio a few minutes early, wearing a slip dress and a smile, having doffed my undergarments an hour earlier to avoid elastic lines. I knew the instructor and one of her students; the others were strangers. It was a firing-squad arrangement, all easels facing me against a white backdrop. After the introductions, outline of poses, and one brief, awkward pause, I blurted out “Like Gary Gilmore said: ‘Let’s do it!’” and pulled my dress over my head. Another short pause, a chuckle rose from the group, and they bent to their drawing boards.
After one brief, awkward pause, I blurted out “Like Gary Gilmore said: ‘Let’s do it!’” and pulled my dress over my head.
The first pose was standing, flat-footed, full frontal. A stool, provided for me to rest a hand, was oddly comforting, as if it was shielding me, even though it wasn’t. I relaxed into my stance, found a convenient spot on the wall behind the squad and fixed my gaze.
That didn’t last long. I wanted to look at the people looking at me and was pleased at how objective it seemed; no one caught my eye, only scrutinized and measured with their pencils. My friend went from easel to easel, pointing out discrepancies and urging the students to “draw what you SEE, not what you think you see,” saying things like “Look at how long you’ve made her forearm … it’s much shorter than that,” and “No nipples or eyebrows until you get her entire form on your page!”
Meanwhile, I became a caryatid, imagining the Erechtheion’s porch ceiling balanced on my head. The second pose was identical to the first, only facing the wall, not the students.
The Hard Part About Being a Nude Model
Twenty minutes later, I was relieved to stretch and walk around, surveying the artists’ work. I thought they all got me fairly well, having looked in the mirror enough to know my shape. But they all agreed that I was much more compact than their drawings showed and opined that it was probably because their previous model (the one who declined to pose completely bare) was “a ballet dancer … thinner and long-limbed.” That comment only made me prouder of what I am, perhaps not as willowy and lithe as she, but shapely and well-proportioned enough to have been described by a one-time boyfriend as “like a Playboy model, only miniaturized!”
My feet were both going numb and my head felt like a 100-pound bowling ball resting on my hand. Being naked was the least of my concerns at that point.
Pulling my 5-foot 3½-inch frame to its full height, I strode back to the front, where a table was set for my reclining pose. Lying on my right side, facing out, right arm bent, head resting on my hand, cocked at the wrist, I tried to look nonchalant while following orders to extend the upper leg … no, the lower … and bend the other at the knee … no, the other knee. All the while, I was wondering if my middle was sagging, not wanting to tuck in my core. What’s the point, after all, if not to be authentic—not to be like a mannequin but a real woman?
Ultimately, that’s what I was: a live mannequin being used for a purpose, to allow these students to examine the unadorned human form. I was being paid to do a job, and, as a professional, was expected to be quiet and look relaxed. Never mind that my feet were both going numb and my head felt like a 100-pound bowling ball resting on my hand, and my wrist and elbow crying out to be extended. I was not about to disappoint, and by God I couldn’t care less that I was naked, the least of my concerns at that point.
All of my psychic energy went into being aware of my body. Every sinew, every joint, every nerve. It was liberating to know that for all my physical fitness, I could still be challenged by the simple charge to lie unmoving, harnessing my kinetic energy into powerful potential. I stayed like that, aching and triumphant, for the full 45 minutes.
The Rosy Afterglow
The accolades afterward were worth it. “You were great; you didn’t even fidget …” “Your body is a testament to Pilates.” “Won’t you come back next semester?” Of course,I will!
I felt like Viggo Mortensen’s character in Captain America, emerging from his camper-bus, coffee cup in hand, completely nude. To the shocked older couple he encountered, he explained: “It’s a penis; all men have one …” My version: It’s a body; we all have one. Take care and be proud of it.
A version of this article was originally published in September 2018.