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The first time you stand nude in front of your fellow Lawrentians, you might feel a bit awkward. Don’t worry, so did I. No amount of self-love, body positivity, extroversion or deep breathing will prepare you for your first session as a figure model. And if you are lacking in any of those categories? Forget it. As someone who has struggled with body image for most of my life, there was nothing more defeating than standing in front of my peers and baring it all. Their contemplative stares drilled holes in my skin as they bantered amongst each other, unaware of my struggle. In this moment, I wondered if I had misjudged what I could withstand in the name of $14 an hour.
I can clearly remember the mix of Beatles songs playing as the professor showed them how to analyze my shoulders and hips. No, I don’t want a coffee, thank you. Yes, I’m comfortable. No, I don’t need a break. Beyond these pleasantries I am just there to stand and occasionally sit, to be viewed and talked about. I am not a part of the class, just a demonstration for their viewing pleasure. I am the live experiment, the unassembled project, meant to be dissected. I walked to my first class of the day analyzing each moment I made eye contact with a student. Is it so weird to stare back? To perceive in turn? My first figure modeling session and my figure has not even been formed. I am just a floating head, a lackluster spine, and some delicately placed appendages.
The second time was much better. I was greeted by chaste hellos, small smiles and glances my way as I sat nervously poised in a chair in the corner. The poses got longer but easier. I requested a song, and someone complimented my taste in music. I received friendly remarks, like “I tried figure modeling and it was so bad” and “My friend models, and I admire it a lot.” They are short and quickly spoken during my breaks, but they consoled me in my moments of vulnerability. I left the session to resounding thanks as papers bearing my figure got pinned to the wall. They now contained shape and weight, displayed for critique by the rest of the class. It is a unique experience to be able to see exactly how others perceive you without needing to interpret vague descriptors. There is physical evidence for your existence and the manner in which others know you exist.
The last session of figure modeling was extremely comfortable. Some people remembered my name, and the work was simpler as I lounged across the foam blocks provided and relaxed against the sheet covering them. The time allowance had expanded to allow the class to develop the intricacies of the figure. Shape and weight become accompanied by value. There is a moment when someone draws you where you can look into a piece of paper as though it were a mirror. You can recognize that this two-dimensional work resembles you entirely. Beyond that, you can recognize it as art. You become art. That power is only amplified when you look at that art and recognize the curve of your stomach, the dips in your hips, the sculpt of your legs and even the framing of your bangs. Maybe you take up a bit more space than is seen as conventionally attractive, but you are the thing the Greeks would live for. You are on your way to the proportions of a prehistoric Venus figurine.
It could have been my worst nightmare, and the first time kind of was. But every time I was able to go back into that room and drop the robe, it got a little bit better. The result did more for me than any body-positivity campaign could have hoped to accomplish. Even though I still might not love myself, I can recognize the potential for beauty in myself. I know that other people could look at my figure and find the art inherent in it. And that is worth the little panic I feel every time someone at Lawrence mentions that they have, in fact, seen me naked. I am not recommending that everyone should decide to figure model, but if you have ever considered it, let me encourage you to go for it.