By Jera Brown
The moment I disrobe and step up naked on a platform where anywhere from two to a dozen pairs of eyes are staring at me has never bothered me. I don’t feel ashamed or embarrassed. Before I started figure modeling, I’d enjoyed other public nudity experiences which led me to believe I’d be a good candidate for the gig.
There were other reasons I started modeling. As a broke graduate student, it is a way of supporting the arts without the ability to buy much. It’s also physically challenging, and I love a good challenge. And — though this was not something I consciously admitted to myself when I considered modeling — I believed it would help me love my body more. I was wrong.
I model for members’ organizations where artists pay a fee for studio space and access to models and for classes where new and intermediate artists learn how the body works and discover their unique style. Here’s how it works:
Naked, I stand on a platform or sit in a chair, and the instructor fidgets with the lights, asking me to move this way or that, staring at my body with squinty concentration until something captures them. Their eyes widen as a particular twist of limbs or the way one part of my face is lit and the rest is in shadows sparks their creative juices. Then, I stay still as a statue for twenty-five minutes at a time.
On breaks, I peek at their canvases hoping what I see will force me to recognize my own beauty. But what I find isn’t the beauty I’ve convinced myself counts: the kind that reassures me I’m fuckable. Because when I say I want to love my body more, I’ve learned that’s what I mean.
Some artists want to capture something of my essence, but most want to capture my body as it is, in all its mundanity. If it’s beautiful, it’s the subtle beauty of the everyday, like a mug of coffee or a bowl of fruit. No doubt the body is beautiful in a unique way, but it’s a beauty that, even though I can see it in others, I often fail to recognize in myself. I’ve bought into the narrow scope of beauty as sex appeal, and the even narrower version built on stereotypical standards of slimness, smoothness, and the like.
When I was twenty, I spent a semester studying Renaissance art in Italy. We visited the Medici Chapel in Florence where I saw one of Michelangelo’s life-sized statues of a naked woman. Her shapely thighs and muscular arms, the parts of her that resembled me in a way I wasn’t used to seeing, brought me joy. She validated that robust bodies (like mine) were worth gazing at and admiring. But when my professor pointed out that Michelangelo didn’t have access to women’s bodies due to the customs of the time, so his female figures resembled men, my new slithers of confidence vanished.
If the statue that resembled me wasn’t correctly woman-like, perhaps she wasn’t desirable in the right way. Perhaps I wasn’t desirable in the right way.
The artist’s embodiment of Night, created to adorn the tomb of a wealthy man, did not have a direct relationship with sex. She was eternal health and vitality, she was power, she was beauty. But I did not want power, and at twenty I took my health for granted. I was lonely. I wanted companionship and thought the only way to obtain it was to be sexy.
Fifteen years later, lovers have loved the shape of me and, beyond it, have made the whole me feel wanted. And intimate knowledge of other women’s bodies has reassured that strong and soft is a fine combination. Still, the crack in the statue of my confidence that started even before Italy remains.
I frequent the Art Institute of Chicago and still search for me. I spend more time with the thick Titians than the slender Botticelli’s. And when I model, I hope to see an image of myself that will reassure me — once and for all — if I am lovely then I am loveable. Surely some image painted with care could have the power to cement my shifty opinion.
Sometimes, I don’t see me at all in what they paint, but rather a face that’s too gaunt or too round, too red, too wrong to be my own. Or I see breasts that hang lower than I remember them hanging or a stomach drawn with loopy lines I wish were straighter.
When K, the instructor, says to one of his students, “See how beautiful that curve is?” he could be referring to a shadow on my arm, a crease near my mouth, or even the swooping suggestion of a line from my shoulder to my thigh. They reduce my body to light and shadow, splotches of color, angles and shapes. On the platform, I become a series of lines to get right. Students often need to enlarge the heads that they draw, lower the breasts, and exaggerate the angles that make up my ribs and my stomach.
Artists tell me they like my complicated curves, the rose tint of my skin, and my energy. Lovers seem to love my breasts, even if they hang too low. I’m hoping, someday, this will all add up, Picasso-like, to a vision of myself that I’m content with. And I’m hoping, someday, I’ll value my own opinion as much as everyone else’s.
A few years ago, a lover took a picture of my back side in my panties with my head peering over the far side of the bed. My back is a smooth muscular line, my butt a perfect circle, and my thighs are thick and powerful. I could’ve been sculpted by Michelangelo. It took me a long time to appreciate this image, and now it’s one of my favorites. It is more healing than any drawn illustration of myself I’ve yet seen.
Jera Brown is in her final year of an MFA program at Columbia College Chicago. She has recently written for VICE, BUST, SheKnows, and Together Magazine. She blogs about being a queer, kinky, polyamorous Christian at scarletchurch.com.