A New Perspective
by Marina Mamangakis
Everyone is looking. Some stare outright, others glance away for modesty’s sake, but their gaze always returns to you, the figure in the middle of the room. It’s that old nightmare of arriving someplace sans clothes, stark naked in front of a crowd of peers. Your back cramps; you long to work out the kinks but you’re being paid to be still, not to squirm. You show no trace of nerves. If anything, you’re bored with the proceedings. Between the drafts blowing around the room and the absurd position you’ve worked yourself into, you groan inwardly and accept the fact that you’ll be tense for the rest of the evening.
Finally, Amanda calls the time and thanks you for your services. You smile in acknowledgement and stretch before stepping down to the cold cement floor, covered in grit and charcoal dust. You walk casually toward the chair where your pile of clothes awaits you, weaving through girls in Uggs and a heavyset woman old enough to be your mother. You suppress a grin when the woman shows no sign of discomfort while a nearby football player averts his eyes and fumbles with his charcoal as you glide by, mere inches away. You’re well aware that you’re covered in gooseflesh and that the cold makes your nipples jut out, but what can you do about it? Does it really even matter at this point, after they’ve been looking at and memorizing your form for the past four hours?
Well, therein lies the falsehood. It breaks the oldest rule in the proverbial artist’s book—draw what you see, not what you know. If they were memorizing the contours and details of your body they were almost certainly putting those thoughts aside for later. At best, they’re cheaters; at worst, they’re perverts. In all honesty though, you’re not too fussed about it. Just another day of work.
“So what do you do?” It’s a standard question that comes up frequently in casual conversation. Most people don’t really care what job you hold, they just know that to ask is an essential part of polite proceedings. However, my job is never even on the radar.
“I model for art classes.” There is usually a brief pause at this point and a look of consternation, which is soon replaced by sudden comprehension, crosses the other person’s face.
“Like nude modeling?”
“People actually do that? That’s awesome!”
We’re these mythic creatures that people hear about, but they never seem to believe we exist. Yes, clothed ones, we walk among you. Beware.
I’ve never really understood people’s obsession with nakedness or the inane idea that nudity always equates with sex. I would probably have started this job several years earlier had my first college boyfriend not had this misconception when I jokingly brought it up during freshman year.
“Why would you life model?” he snapped. “It’s trashy.”
“What are you talking about? It’s art!”
“If you were doing it for a real artist that would be different, but not at Towson. It’s just a bunch of college guys who want to see naked girls.”
“They’re paying a lot of money to see naked girls stand around then.” I glared at him.
“You’re selling your body for money; it’s like prostitution.”
“What the fuck are you talking about? There’s nothing inappropriate or degrading or even sexual about life modeling. You just don’t want other people seeing me naked.”
“Do you want a bunch of guys to see you naked? You’re being lazy. Find a real job if you want to make money.”
Needless to say, I didn’t broach the subject with him again. I never forgot about it though. College had thrust me into the hands of complete strangers and I rose to the challenge, becoming the more confident and independent person I had always longed to be. I was ready to take a bold step of self-assertion.
Two years later when I was single and a junior in college, I e-mailed the art departments of my own college as well as the one down the road, declaring my interest in life modeling and inquiring after job openings. Although my own college never replied, our neighboring school, Towson University, responded quickly and the figure drawing coordinator asked me to come work for her in a matter of weeks.
The first time I ever modeled for a figure drawing class, I went in expecting Amanda, the instructor, to assign me poses, so when she gave me no directions at all but rather just gave me the length of the pose, it gave a whole new meaning to the phrase “think on your feet.” An informal gymnast with an artist for a godsister and a dancer for a roommate, I was fortunate enough to have a vague idea of what positions might be aesthetically pleasing and good to draw. Even so, I quickly came to dread hearing the word “next.” I would still be thinking of the next position and the students would already have their charcoal to the newsprint. I spent half of the class wanting to scream, No, don’t draw yet, I haven’t picked a pose!
When it was time for the final extended pose, Amanda placed a metal stool atop the model stand and asked me to sit or lean on it. In order to not delay the class further, I quickly sat down and decided on a pose that I thought looked good and would be interesting to draw. Of course, the pose turned out to be painful after five minutes and only became increasingly more excruciating thereafter. Twenty minutes into the hour-long pose, Amanda asked if I needed a break and like a fool, I declined her offer. I’ve since learned that there’s no room for pride in this line of work; you don’t get bonus points for not taking breaks. Technically, the model is supposed to get a break every fifteen or twenty minutes during extended poses, although some instructors like to conveniently lose track of time and leave me hanging for an extra ten minutes while I grimace and try not to shift too much, unwilling to seem high-maintenance.
Despite the obvious discomfort that comes with the job, however, it’s definitely worth it monetarily. I wasn’t even paid this well when I worked as a summer assistant in a law firm, a desk job that required business clothes and frowned upon open-toed shoes. Don’t be fooled though. The whole fantasy of a model in a silk robe lounging on a velvet chaise is bullshit. I’m working with a five foot by five foot model stand about two and a half feet off the floor. The platform is covered with an old sheet bearing suspicious looking stains that I do my best to ignore. Perched on the corner of the model stand is a small black space heater, which is conveniently constructed so that it blows air at an upward angle only high enough to hit my shins and making it completely useless if I’m in a reclining pose. Like in ancient Greek theater, I work in the center of the studio, surrounded by spectators. This is my stage, the arena in which I am to be the muse and inspiration of aspiring artists.
If it’s my first time working with a certain class and the students don’t see my brief exchange with their professor, it often takes a while for them to realize the significance of my presence. I sit slightly apart from them, sending a last text message or two and watching the teacher from my peripheral for the subtle cues that signify the beginning of class. When the professor makes announcements about the assignment due that day, I disrobe and wend my way through the tangle of people, art supplies, and easels that stand scattered in a loose circle around the model stand in the center of the room. It’s always fun to see some people start when they realize a naked person is walking by merely a foot away.
Stepping up onto the platform, I turn on the space heater—if I’m not cold yet, I will be soon—and begin stretching, preparing my body for a semi-rigorous workout. When everyone is prepared and standing before their easels with charcoal in hand, I sweep through my gamut of gestural poses, shifting from one to the next, taking on a different persona for each one-minute pose. I crouch down on all fours, a feral creature stalking its prey, taut as a coiled spring; I stand with one foot pointed, toe-tips pressing into the model stand, my arms arched out behind me like wings. The poses grow longer, five to fifteen to thirty minutes. The students become less frantic and take more time to study me as they draw, some of them moving continuously, others stopping frequently to appraise their creation. I watch the watchers, my eyes—the only part of my body I’m allowed to move—roaming across the room.
Interactions with the students are rare and trivial. Occasionally one of them will ask me if I’m cold when they see me huddled in front of the space heater during my breaks, but for the most part, the drawing students are silent while they work, focusing on their work or sneaking glances at the professor as they send sly text messages from behind their easels. Fortunately, there are a few exceptions to this scenario. The advanced sculpture class I model for is chatty and casual, prone to laughing amongst themselves and sometimes including me in their conversations, which range from struggling to meet deadlines to what new movies are playing. It’s especially interesting working with the sculpture class because I can actually see what they are working on and watch it come together. It’s fascinating to see how different students view and portray me in miniature. However, what I appreciate even more than this is that they treat me like a person, not a silent statue who moves now and again for their benefit.
I particularly enjoy the advice professors dole out as they circle the room, peering over their pupils’ shoulders at their work.
“You should be working as hard as the model. Stand up!”
“Draw big! Use long strokes. You should endanger the people around you when you’re doing gestural drawings!”
And my personal favorite to date:
“You should exaggerate the pose, but don’t overdo it. Your figure’s not proportionate.”
The irony here is that I am disproportionate. My ass is famous amongst friends and admirers, and even though I understand that they need to be big to hold up my ass, my thighs are much thicker than I’d like them to be. I always want to laugh and tell the professor to stop berating the poor student when it is in fact the model, not the artist, who is interfering with Michelangelo’s proportional technique.
Heads turn toward me in darting movements like a flock of birds, never still, their movements sharp and staccato. Some of the students are quite good. If the pose is especially long, they’ll sometimes create a scene around it. Someone gave me wings once. I liked that.
Although I pointedly avoid X-rated poses, I don’t go out of my way to cover myself. I have no concern for the students’ delicate sensibilities—if they’re offended by genitalia, they chose the wrong major. Besides, attempting to hide certain areas only draws attention to their presence. What makes the whole thing especially amusing is that many art students feel more comfortable looking at my body than at my face, as if meeting my gaze makes it too intimate. If I catch eyes with any of them, I make sure never to look away first. After all, there’s nothing to be ashamed of.
Teachers request me fairly often; they say I’m easy to work with and apparently my physique, both curvy and muscular, makes for good drawing. I’ve worked with at least ten different professors in the past year; some of them teach more than one class and each class has between eleven and twenty students. Math has never been my strong subject but it’s safe to say that in the course of my work, nearly two hundred people have seen me naked. Even though my first ex-boyfriend knows I’ve been modeling for over a year now, he would be having kittens if he knew that number.
It doesn’t bother me though; rather, it’s been an educational and empowering experience. In a culture that constantly criticizes people’s physiques and urges us to fix any and every so-called ailment, my work has helped me make peace with my body. I have my problem areas like everyone else, but I don’t hate my body. How can I when I spend hours at a time in nothing but my own skin, surveying the landscape of my own form? I see it and compare it to the many renderings of my body around the studio. I look at the drawings and sculptures the students make and note how the pieces differ from one another. Some slenderize my body, making it more streamlined and proportionate; others are rougher and frankly, often larger and less attractive than my vanity might like. There are also those that are very accurate and lifelike. But that’s just it—I’m not all these different people portrayed around the room. I’m me. Singular, individual. I am one person, but there are countless ways to see me, and all the renderings surrounding the model stand are merely people’s perceptions of me, captured in charcoal or clay and shaped by the artists’ ability. The ability to make this distinction is crucial. It’s what allows me to feel confident and comfortable when exposed before a crowd, matching its gaze with a roguish grin.
Some people might call this denial; I would disagree. I know who I am and what I look like. I see myself every day, straight on and in the mirror. Figure modeling allows me to see what I look like in the eyes of others, through the lens of another person’s observations and imagination.
Most people can’t see the appeal of this line of work and would never even consider doing it, which begs the question: what are they afraid of? Ridicule? Shame? Having all their physical flaws on display? They think the strangers around them—strangers they’ve never seen before and in all likelihood will never see again—might think something about them that they haven’t already thought about themselves? Aside from the generous pay, my reasons for figure modeling are clear. As the model, I call the shots—I am in control of what I choose to do with my body. I can choose to be lazy or I can challenge myself and everyone else in the room to create something exquisite. My decisions go unquestioned. So while I may be vulnerable in certain respects, in the ways that count, I am the most powerful person in the room.