The one without her clothes on is the one who holds the power.
I'm not really sure what made me decide to take my clothes off in front of a room full of strangers, all of whom would be looking at me as if their lives depended on it. (Well, their college lives sort of did, actually, because looking at me and attempting to draw, paint, or sculpt me was exactly what they would be graded on.)
I was a figure model when I was a law student. I needed a job. Preferably something I could either sleep or study during, preferably something that paid well, and preferably something that wouldn't tax my body or my brain any more than the being awake and studying constantly that law school required.
Maybe being in law school was part of it. Everyone was so conservative. I was studying at TC Williams at the University of Richmond in Virginia. I was never particularly wild or out there. But compared to the students there, I was basically Lady Gaga in a meat dress emerging from an egg.
I was too liberal. Too feminist. Too Yankee. Too loud. Too unapologetic. I had my circle of friends, but I had an even bigger circle of haters. Women who couldn't bear to lose to me in mock court or on the curve because I didn't fit their tidy little mold.
So maybe it was no surprise that I ran into the arms of the art department. I loved the paint smells and the students in their bohemian attire, sprawled along the hallways and classrooms, debating the value of Impressionism in the 20th century and the meaning of Modern Art in a world without meaning.
I was an Art History minor in college. I was an actress when time allowed. These halls felt much more like home then the stately study carols and formal classrooms of the law school.
Photo: Steph Grant
I saw an ad in the university paper and I called the number that was listed.
"Have you ever nude modeled before?" the voice on the other end of the line asked.
"No," I said.
"Yes," I lied.
I had no idea if I was or not. And I had the all-too-common love/hate relationship with my body that many, if not most, women have. I had a beautiful body. I would kill for that body now, in fact. But I thought I was fat. Or at least not thin enough. But I come from the "fake it 'til you make it" school of thought, and for some reason I really wanted to do this. So I did.
I showed up on the first day with a robe in my bag as I had been told to do.
"You can change in my office," the professor said, guiding me into the space. I thought for sure he would leave at that point. Instead, he sat behind his desk. I asked as many questions as I could think of just biding my time until he left. All of my questions had already been answered by the person on the phone who had hired me.
"Will it be cold?"
"There will be a space heater for you."
"How long will I have to hold a pose?"
"For as long as you can. The longer you hold it, the better it is for the students."
"What if I freak out?"
"You won't. Everyone thinks they will. No one does."
"What if someone behaves in appropriately?"
"They won't. Because they have been told what is appropriate and what is not. If they do, you report them immediately. And if you want someone to walk you to or from class at any time, let us know. Although no one has ever ended up feeling the need to do that."
I kept waiting for him to leave. He never did.
"You're going to be late," he said.
"You're right," I said. I looked at him, looking for a sign of some sort, a sign that he understood what my eyes were saying — get out! But I didn't get any sign. So I figured, what the hell. He's going to be looking at me naked for the next two hours anyway.
Photo: Steph Grant
So I took my clothes off and slipped into my robe as if that's what one does all the time. As soon as I did it, it seemed far less strange then I imagined it would. He acted perfectly normal, so I felt perfectly normal.
I walked out into the classroom and sat in my robe on a high stool at the front of the room. The professor went over some classroom housekeeping and the assignment with the students, and then he turned to me and said, "OK. Let's begin with gestures." It had been explained to me that gestures were short, dynamic poses that would call my dance training into use.
I stood up. Took off my robe. Laid it on a chair off to the side. And I posed. The class took to drawing. I changed every minute or two for the next hour. I took a short break at the hour mark, and then the last hour of the class was one long pose that I did my best to hold for fifteen to twenty minutes at a time. And that was that.
The weirdest thing that happened was that the frat boy in the center of the front row who was nudging his buddies and grinning the whole time the professor gave the intro, looked only at my feet the whole time. My feet. He drew my feet all semester long. I don't think he ever did actually look at me.
That, of course, was only a little weirder then the students who made my legs longer or my breasts bigger or my waist tinier or any number of other distortions. We don't see the world as it is. We see the world as we are. Isn't that how the saying goes?
I came back the next week and the week after and the week after that for more of the same. I began sitting for other classes and privately for painters, photographers, and sculptors. I even went to an art show where paintings of me naked covered the gallery walls. And one time, an artist covered me in paint and then pressed my body onto a piece of paper to create a piece of art.
At one of the gallery shows at the university, a parent came up to me and asked, "Which one is yours?" "They're all me," I said with a giggle. I've never seen anyone turn redder. And I was the one who was naked in the paintings.
And that was the most amazing thing about all of the times I posed, and still rang true when I was a Naked Girl Reading or went to a nudist resort. The one without her clothes on is the one who holds the power. Being comfortable in your own skin puts you in control, because not enough people are — not enough women are.
In those classes, in those studios and galleries, all of that time, sitting so still and so exposed allowed me to settle into my skin. It allowed me an incredible amount of time to think and to meditate. It was a chance to practice a level of self-discipline that I don't believe I have experienced before or since. Try sitting perfectly still for twenty minutes, naked on the floor in a cold room with a space heater blowing on you intermittently turning on and off.
As I said, I've always had a love/hate relationship with my body. I love it. I mean, I want to love it. But all the signs around me are shouting about how I'm too short and too heavy. And sometimes, the noise drowns out my own self-knowledge.
But nude modeling helped me a great deal with learning to love my own skin, the one home in which I was given to dwell, the one thing over which I have complete domain that belongs to me and only me.
And nothing, nothing could be more powerful than that.