When I tell people that I do life modelling, I always get the same responses.
1) Why do you do it?
2) You must be really brave.
And 3) (if I’m speaking to a woman, then most of the time) oh, I could/would never do that/be able to do that.
I have my answers ready now, to one and two at least. Oh it’s because I’m an exhibitionist, or a narcissist, or both. I tell people it’s a really good opportunity to catch up on my counting. It’s easy, and the money’s good. If I’m feeling particularly pretentious, I’ll say that I even thought it might be humbling in some way, but actually it was mostly just cold.
As for brave, I soon got bored of flattered smiles, and told the truth. I’m not brave, because I don’t find it scary. The friend I ran into at my first session, who told me she was attending the session as part of dealing with her body images issues, which were so bad they had caused her to intermit, tried it a few weeks later. She’s brave. (The thing I’m proudest of in all this is that it may or may not have been seeing me do it that gave her the impetus. I hope it helped her. If it did then this was all worth it, and means more than just money). I then tell the story of when modelling at an event, I had a massive crisis about whether or not to wear a flower garland, before eventually deciding that I couldn’t pull it off. Once I went out there and looked down at myself, I realised that I probably could have pulled off the flower garland. Brave is perhaps not the right word for me.
I never really know what to say to the third one. I do understand that people often have empathetic responses, particularly to things which they might find distressing. I probably say something very similar when friends describe their wish to go sky-diving. But often, those friends will then try and persuade me that sky-diving would be really super fun, and never mind my crippling vertigo and slight death complex.
The difference, at least for me, is that my response to sky-diving is triggered by a phobia – even thinking about falling from heights stresses me out – whereas it often seems to me that people, and it cannot be coincidental that they are always women, read an implicit challenge into my decision to life model, and my decision to tell people about it. Sometimes I wonder if I am challenging them to, without quite realising it.
The truth is, I have always been more confident without clothes on than with. Fashion for me is an effort, and it is not always an effort I am willing to make, so I tend to vacillate between stressing a lot about clothes and not caring at all, depending on the day.
It is also not really about body-confidence either, at least not for me. I am currently probably the least comfortable with my body than I have ever been – and the fact that this slight weight gain is bothering me more than I feel it should is a separate issue – but the idea that it would stop me modelling is ridiculous to me. In fact, it might even make me more interesting to draw – though the drop in fitness might make holding poses harder. Sometimes I get so distracted by whether or not my poses are interesting enough that I forget that the most important quality in a model is just to be really still.
I know some people like to remove themselves from the room entirely, treating the session as a form of meditation. I can’t do that, or won’t. I like trying to see the drawings. I like making eye contact with the artists, just for a second, to see how they react. A friend, in the beginning, urged me not to be offended if the drawings were inaccurate – it never even occurred to me that I would be. One of the strangest experiences was watching of a man who worked in marker pens and ink-brushes. What he created was definitely taken from my pose, but it was not me in any recognisable way. I could have been anyone, I was completely and utterly just a body. It wasn’t humbling. It wasn’t liberating. But it was interesting.
I do quite enjoy modelling, but if it wasn’t paid, and paid well, I wouldn’t do it. And if the idea of sitting naked in a cold room whilst strangers draw you isn’t your cup of tea, then that’s totally fine by me. It really is. I tell you about it because I am an exhibitionist in more ways than one. (Also, I have only actually modelled three times, though I am very good at giving the impression that I have myriads of sessions under my belt. I don’t think there’s much variety though).
I don’t know why women have this natural empathic response when I tell them about it. I have a lot of theories to do with it being secretly appealing, to do with ownership of ones body, to do with imagining or not imagining a totally non-sexual or non-judgemental context. But I only have to talk to another life model, whose motives and experiences are totally different from mine, to know that this would probably be patronising rubbish.
If it does appeal to you though, then the money is good. And if you find it liberating, or empowering, or even just fun then so much the better.
– Hannah Marcus