Draw Me Naked: Being A Nude Model

Draw Me Naked: Being A Nude Model

The rhythmic rustle of charcoal on paper soothes me into a semi meditative state. In the background, Passenger croons - “when you can't get what you love, you learn to love the things that stop you dreaming”. I fix my stare at a mirror which reflects a student's easel – a blurry charcoal me is gradually emerging. If I roll my eyes sideways a little I can see the other students at work – scribble, glance, frown at the paper, eyes back to the easel, scribble. One student gets a paper towel and scrubs off her sketch in frustration, starts again. 

When I took this course as a student three years ago, I relished in the freedom to gawp unashamedly at another person's body. Fat rolls are fun to draw. So are muscles. Some people have dimples above their bums, did you know that? All my life I've been taught to avert my gaze – it's rude to stare, you know – that was a hard lesson for me to learn. I think it's plausible enough that we humans are intrinscially interested in other humans (including their bodies), considering that we are social animals who like to interact with other humans.

Figure modelling. Sounds like your worst nightmare, doesn't it? That one where you go to school and- oh look you're naked. Everyone's laughing at you. But why is being naked such a terrifying situation? Who decided that nudity was in the 'wrong' category? 

Historically, nudity has held a wide variety of meanings. In Ancient Greece, nudity was linked to the concept of aesthetics, the beauty of the body. What constitutes nudity also varies. In many cultures, including pre WWII Japan, bare breasts are considered publicly acceptable. For some indigenous South Americans, simply covering the foreskin of the penis is considered dressed. In our culture, nudity is usually associated with sex, and is not socially acceptable except in certain spaces, like the life drawing classroom.

On my first day of life modelling, I did not wake up expecting the day to end with me standing naked in a roomful of strangers. It was just an ordinary day. Uni in the morning, a social event in the evening. I received a call around 3pm. “Hey! It's Helen from the art school here, can you come in tonight? My regular has called in sick.” 

Unexpected, but ok. I'd signed up to be on the modelling list a year or so back, but nothing had come of it. I'd almost forgotten about it. I cancel my social event, and at 5.50pm I am standing outside the doors of the art school.

Helen gives me a sheet to get changed into (normally models bring a robe). I tie the sheet around me with a double granny knot – the only knot I know. I'm trying to go for the elegant Grecian toga look but the knot in the side of my neck looks like a goitre. Never mind. I'm worried that the sheet might fall off if I tie it any less securely. It takes me a few seconds to realise the lack of logic in my thought process.

I scan the room anxiously, trying to keep my mind occupied while I wait for the class to begin. The room's warm. There's about 8-10 students. A fairly even mix of genders. The odd black-clothes-and-beret. Two Otago Girls uniforms. Good to see the youth educating themselves. I perch nervously on the corner of the model's sofa. It doesn't really support my weight, but I don't want to draw attention to myself by getting up again. I practise sitting still. I'm freaking out. I look at the clock. Two minutes to go. One minute to go. 6pm. What happens now? Where's Helen? Talking to someone. What do I do? Do I just – strip? 6:02. Helen finally comes to the front of the class. Introductions. Roll call. That takes me back to high school. I stand beside her, trying to look professional, wondering – when should I take my clothes off? Now? How about now? Not yet? Now? Helen gives a nod. Oh. Right. Now.

I tug anxiously at that damn knot. Why did I tie it so fucking tight? Finally it's off and the sheet drops to the floor and I immediately plunge into some dramatic pose where I don't have to look at anyone, and I freeze. One minute poses. After a bit my side's getting sore I start counting in lots of 8. at 10 lots of 8 I am mentally glaring at Helen in despair my side is killing me. How long does a minute take? Am I just counting really fast? “Oh sorry” she says eventually, “I forgot to set the alarm”. That's alright. I forgive you Helen. I stretch out my aching side and my stretch becomes my second pose – another minute. It's not so bad this time. Third pose – how about a back arch? That'd show my ribcage, which would be interesting to draw.

At break time, I realise – as the model, a taboo-breaker, I have power, I am unpredictable. The students don't look me in the eye. How would I interact with me, if I were a student? I don't fit into any normal social role. We know how to act toward the supermarket-checkout clerk, toward the guy we meet at a party, toward our teachers, toward our peers. How do we act toward our figure-drawing models? 

There is a lady who is apologising to me as I look at her sketches. “This isn't how you looked in my head, this isn't how I perceive you, you look much better, it's my drawing skills, it's not you” and I reassure her that of course I wasn't offended, I understand about the limitations of the hand. As I look over her shoulder, I recognise a face. That moustache. I've seen it before. “I know you!” I say. He looks at me, startled. “City of literature meeting!” I cry, triumphant in this act of recall. We chat about the writer's walk plaques in the Octagon, the importance of celebrating writers, and isn't it sad that no one remembers the Otago Literary Review anymore. And it's nice. Social conventions: restored. 

After the break I shed my sheet again. It's easy this time. Fifteen minute poses. I wham into something droopy and cool – hands cupped over my head, legs apart, facing the floor, classic 'despair' pose. Helen looks at me, dubious. “Can you hold that for fifteen minutes?” “Sure” I go. “Why don't we start with a seated pose first” she says. I'm secretly slightly relieved. I ask if I can flop over the chair and she says no better not, and I sit down normally, leaning on my arms, to listen to her talk and she says that'll do. What a boring pose. Whatever.  So I sit and they draw. My thoughts wander. I think about the boys in my life. My arm hurts. I try really hard to keep thinking about the boys in my life. It's no good, my arm hurts. My right tricep is shaking, in fact. How do I stop this pain without appearing to move? I kind of take my weight into my torso and legs more, hoping no-one notices the change in position. Who cares if they do. Well, now my calf hurts. My neck is stiff. This was a relaxed position when I started too. I imagine in horror how I would be feeling ten minutes into 'despair'.

Next is the one-hour pose. I have an idea. I flop onto the couch in a sleeping position; I'll get paid to have a nap. Marvellous. It doesn't work out that way, of course. There's a bright light shining straight into my eyes. An hour is a long time when you can't move. I listen to Passenger. I think about what to do tomorrow. I watch the students work. Their flickering stares are vaguely disquieting, like lights that go randomly on and off. I stop looking at the students. I roll my eyes sideways to sneak a glance at the clock. Ow. That hurts my eyeballs. Thirty minutes to go. I try to think of more things to think about. What should I do next year? I squint to make funny shapes behind my eyelids, playing with the light. My skin feels nice. The music's changed. I'm bored. Helen's talking to a student about something. Twenty-six minutes to go. My right arm's gone dead. I try to nap. Deep breaths. I'm still awake. Eighteen minutes to go.

When people go on about how objectification of bodies is a bad thing, what they really mean is that sexual objectification is a bad thing. After all, being a figure drawing model is the purest form of objectification - I could have been a bowl of fruit for the same drawing purpose. But as these eyes flicked to my body and back, I felt no loss of personhood. My body is an object, after all, and currently it's being used as one. However, constant sexual objectification is both annoying and harmful. When it's a hot day, or when you go swimming, you'd like to be able to wear little clothing without it being understood as a sexual gesture. 

The life drawing studio is one of the few socially sanctioned spaces I've encountered where nudity does not represent sex or shame. As a student, it's a space where you can observe and draw the human form without being shamed for 'perving'. As a model, it's a space where you can be comfortable and present in you body. Your body is who you are, and it's nice to not be ashamed of yourself.

This article first appeared in Issue 26, 2016.
Posted 12:07pm Saturday 1st October 2016 by Louise Lin.