My favorite professors were the ones who’d set me up a space heater before I arrived. Even in the early fall months, just as semesters got underway, goose bumps would sprout along my outer thighs and upper arms while I stood there on the platform, naked.
The List Art Building, a large rectangular structure on the east side of campus, didn’t have much insulation with its semi-industrial design and bare-bones classrooms. When I was scheduled for a gig, I’d arrive a few minutes before class, introduce myself to the professor, learn the lesson plan, fold my clothes into a neat pile on a metal stool, walk across the concrete floor to the center of the room and step atop the six-by-six wooden platform that was my stage. Students would file in and arrange themselves in a circle around me, their easels lifted no higher than anyone’s chin.
Then I would sit or stand or lounge there, still as a statue, and they would sketch or draw or paint my body.
Being a nude model was easier than I expected. Most of the time I didn’t know the students. Though when I did, from other classes or clubs, taking my clothes off to stand under the soft fluorescent light while the artists pulled out their charcoal sticks and smoothed out their silky paper, a mutual understanding was forged. My thighs turned to curves. Sex turned to flesh. Nipples to swoops. Hips to triangles. Lips to crescent moons.
Yes, I was naked, willingly employed to be so, but under the veil of art my body was safe and I, respected. It was up on that stage where I learned to love my body.
Classes usually started with a warm-up: 30 or so rapid-fire 10-second postures. I’d count in my head — breathe in one, breathe out; breathe in two, breathe out — and change my position each time I got to 10. As I switched from pose to pose — angel picking fruit, angry stock investor, ambitious marathoner, ninja with a broken arm — I rotated around my platform, offering the various facets of my body equally to everyone in the room. Sometimes I’d make eye contact with the artists, but mostly they scribbled furiously, committing to paper the roundness of my calves, the arc in my spine, the folds of my belly, the angle of my wrist, the weight in my feet.
I’d stare at them, of course, watching their eyes scan me up and down, their arms dancing behind the easels.
The 10-second postures were easy. It was sitting or standing still for more than 10 minutes that got difficult. In setting myself up, I had a few things to consider: What pose won’t make my hands or feet fall asleep? What won’t tweak my spine in a way that makes walking out painful? What won’t expose my butt hole? What will be interesting, different or challenging for the artists?
Once I settled into a posture, I’d make sure my weight was evenly distributed between all points of contact with the ground — mitigating the loss of blood to different body parts — and ensure I could breathe easily and deeply. Meditating would help the time, and the urge to move, pass by.
Once, while working through the final minutes of a half-hour pose, a thought occurred to me. I was sitting cross-legged on a stool, my left leg completely asleep. There are plenty of things in life that we know, I realized, but not everything we know do we actually believe. Take bodies, for instance. We know bodies reflect health in wildly diverse ways; they’re supposed to look different from one to another. But do we all really believe that, each time we look at ourselves? I glanced down at my belly rolling on top of itself and the blemished skin stretched across my thighs. Sure, I’d say I knew it was OK I didn’t look like a traditional model figure. But the urge to tuck myself in, smooth myself out, told me I didn’t quite believe it. What does it take to believe?
During a gig a few weeks later, as I flowed through the warm-up, I stared at a rail-thin, pimpled boy in a navy crewneck sweater. He obsessively wiped his face with the back of his forearm and refused to bring his eyes above my shoulders. I wondered if I might be the first woman he’d ever seen naked.
I switched positions again, but kept him in my view. In that moment, I wanted to be — or at least I hoped I was the first he’d seen in the flesh.
No one’s ever called me “gorgeous” or “skinny” or told me I should be a model. The thought had never even crossed my mind until the first drawing class I took. Our model was short, untoned and her legs were so hairy I could see the black fuzz from the corner of the room. Seeing her on the platform made me think: If she can do it, I can do it.
Standing there — bare-breasted, pubic hair overflowing, thighs smashed together, pimples alert — holding my own, I could continue her statement. We can all do this. I took a breath and stared at the boy. I wanted to transmute calm and confidence, as if to have him and the rest of the students use every stroke to decode the message: Beauty is reality. Five feet, five inches and 150 pounds of rounded edges, sloped features, frizzy hair lines and blemished skin is beauty, too.
On stage, under the veil of art, it was easy to embody this. But one night during my second-to-last semester, I had to confront my body-acceptance in the real world.
I was standing with a few friends on our campus green when a guy approached us, a cigarette hanging out of his mouth. “What’s going on?” he asked, maybe drunk.
Before anyone answered, he blurted: “You,” pointing at me, “I’ve seen you naked.”
My stomach sunk, the veil yanked down too hard too fast. Flesh turned back to sex. Curves to thighs, nipples, hips, lips. Mine. The mutual understanding of my body as art, not sex, evaporated like the smoke from his cigarette. Naked me in his mind felt cruel, like a relic he’d pillaged from my depths, one I’d never get back.
I didn’t respond. He laughed, pulling the cigarette from his lips, and then sauntered on.
The grass was wet from an early rainfall and in the moonlight, his footsteps left shimmering insteps. Was this what I’d signed up for? I had willingly stood before him with no clothes on, yes. My job was to avail my body for his academic experience, yes. But that didn’t mean he could take my body for his own, pervert it for himself. I wasn’t “asking for it” — him snatching my womanhood for his own mind.
Was it naive of me to think that standing up there on the stage was liberating my body, not reducing it to an object?
The rain poured down for days that spring. Every time I would walk up to the List Art Building, I’d pause at the door, and let the drops pound my forehead. I fought with him in my head, thought of all the clever things I could say back. I imagined clenching the fingers he himself had drawn and connecting them with his face.
I’d enter the building. Hair wet. Really, my fight wasn’t against him; I never saw him again after that night. The fight was against myself — resisting the urge to quit; to keep my womanhood private and safe; to reclaim what was mine; to never give someone the chance to take it away again.
I’d pause at the classroom door, thinking it would be so easy to quit. Too easy.
So I’d stand on the stage and scan the concentrated faces, the pimpled freshmen, the washed-up seniors, men and women of all body types, colors, sizes. Up there I’d remember why I came back. No one could ever take away the pride I felt in normalizing non-skinny, imperfect bodies. My modeling was bigger than myself — I felt like an ambassador from reality visiting a small congregation in a college world.
There were people that needed to see me in the flesh, just like I’d needed to see examples of people who looked like me embodying what I wanted to embody. They, like me, needed to see confidence and self-love emitting from and directed toward an imperfect body, in real life. From my six-by-six pulpit I wanted to use my nakedness to scream: Let’s normalize real bodies.
So I continued to stand, sit, lunge and squat on my stage, baring all for batches of college students to observe, absorb and recreate.
When classes finished, I liked to walk around the circle and see myself in a thousand different forms. Sometimes I had giant hips, tiny breasts, a pinched face, unruly hair, large feet. I never expected perfection from them in recreating my body on paper.
It took me summoning the courage to get back on the stage, practicing my preachings again and again, for my own message to finally sink in. After 22 years I finally believed in the beauty of my body.