My good friends already know. My family knows, for the most part, although I lied to them about it for a good year after I started. All my boyfriends have known, and some have had serious issues about it.
But it’s always something that I hesitate to tell people when I first meet them, at least until I can ascertain how they’ll react. That’s why I didn’t want to tell you guys.
Because…yeah. Taking off my clothes is part of my job. As a figure model, I take my clothes off in front of several art classes a week—classes in drawing, painting, and sculpture.
Ever since I started doing it, though, it’s been something that I regularly felt I had to lie about in certain company. When I started doing it, my boyfriend at the time knew about it [he was less than thrilled, by the way]…but I sure as hell didn’t tell my parents. [They thought I was working in the design school library.] When I finally told them, it was after I’d moved to New York and was far enough away that I could be sure my dad wouldn’t come after me threatening punishment. [His actual reaction? "Well, okay, " he said dubiously. "As long as you're getting paid okay." Thanks, Dennis!]
When I applied for my current apartment, I wrote “teaching assistant” as my job title. It wasn’t exactly a lie—after all, I assist the teacher [albeit in a completely inanimate capacity]. My supervisor, very much accustomed to the gymnastic effort required in obtaining the proverbial New York apartment, was willing to corroborate to back me up in the case that my landlord actually checked my references. [He didn't.]
My good friend Daniel, whom I dated earlier this year, told his parents that I was an art model without consulting me first. I looked on in horror as the following ensued:
Mrs. D: Oh, that’s too bad. What does Amanda Lee do again?
Boyfriend: She’s a figure model.
Mrs. D: Oh my goodness!
Mrs. D: And does she model…[whispered] nude?
Boyfriend: Well, yeah. Sometimes.
Mrs. D: [shocked silence. We think perhaps she's fainted. She speaks again after a twenty-second lull.] Hmmm.
When I met her several weeks later, though, she had a million questions about it—do I get paid a lot? Is it safe? Does anyone touch me? Do I like doing it? Does anyone ever ask me to pose with my clothes on? Is it awkward? Do I have any funny or cool stories about doing it? How did I start, and why?
The short answers, in order: kind of. Yes. Emphatically not. Yes, of course. All the time. Sometimes. Tons. And, mostly on the suggestion of a friend.
I got the idea of figure modeling from my friend Sarah. She was crazy fun—always taking road trips to raves and concerts and telling long-winded, hilarious stories about travel and Japanese class and parties and fashion. She had moved to Cincinnati at around the same time I had, and she held down more jobs than I could count—oil pastel factory? bagel shop? who knew? But one of her gigs was a stint at figure modeling. She posed nude for art classes and sketch groups, earning more per hour than I’d ever heard of at any one of my part-time jobs.
One time I was hanging out with her and, offhand, she tossed off, “You could model, you know.”
“No, they’d love it. A dancer? They’d love you. You’re so muscular. Great for anatomy classes. ”
I put her advice aside until a few months later, I found myself too broke for comfort. And then I started checking around. Three weeks after, I found myself in a robe in front of a group of my peers (no, seriously, these kids were my age; I’d seen a few of them at rock and roll shows before). And at that point, it seemed way too late to back down. So I dropped the robe to the floor. And I never looked back.
The wage I started with was admirable by Ohio standards. And when I moved to New York and started posing here, I began making a wage equivalent to that of a beginner architect or journalist. And since New York is where everyone moves when they want to break into the art world, there’s never a shortage of work for models that are experienced and reasonably easy to work with. In short, it’s kind of a middle-class gig, as far as taking off your clothes goes.
By that I mean I’ve never felt unsafe or had an artist try to take advantage of me. I currently work for one of the most renowned art schools in the world, which has a really strong tradition of taking really good care of their models. For instance, when I’m on the model stand, no one’s allowed to touch me, not even the instructor. This helps keep me both safe and sane. I’d generally consider it an occupational hazard if someone tried to grab my ass while I was working, and I’d likely seek other means of employment. But also, the safety issue of staying in one position for hours at a stretch, though, is obvious, — some people who draw the figure have vast imaginations that are completely unfounded on what the human body is actually capable of. I modeled once for an artist who loved drawing women in ridiculous Lucian Freud-esque, twisty, contorted poses. In an attempt to show me what he wanted one time, he took my arm and twisted it behind my back trying to achieve a certain tortured aesthetic. I stopped working for him after this.
The safety issues of having strange men stalk me are implicit, but the security at the school is really strong, and students have actually been kicked out of the school for unwanted advances at models, so I’m lucky that most of the creepy dudes looking for a free show have been filtered out [however, I know people that have had problems working with artists privately and at other schools, which is why I only pose at my current school and I no longer work privately]. Also, I’m super-careful every time I leave, making sure no one follows me and typically having someone walk me to the station. So, really, the majority of safety issues have to do with avoiding injuries—making sure to stretch during breaks, not committing to a standing pose for too long, and not bearing weight on limbs that aren’t designed for weight-bearing [you'd be really surprised how many artists think it's a good idea to ask for a pose in which I'm leaning most of my weight onto one wrist].
What about clothed poses? Oh, yeah. All the time. Sometimes an artist or an instructor will have a specific idea about a painting of a sculpture he or she wants to do, and will request that I bring clothing to fit with that concept. For instance, one three-week oil painting class involved me posing in a bathing suit and sunglasses, reading a magazine. Another time a sculptor wanted to practice making drapery out of clay, so I wore a heavy velvety cloak she brought for me. Some of the watercolorists love painting large, bold floral patterns, so I always make sure to bring a handful of colorful dresses when I pose in their classes.
The artists I work with range from being super-bitchy to super-agreeable, most tending toward the latter. In general, the most temperamental ones lash out at me whenever they’re painting poorly. They justify their off day by telling themselves that the model is moving [which, by the way, should never matter if you're decently skilled] or isn’t holding the same position that she started in, so it clearly has everything to do with me, rather than their lack of skill knowledge. But those cases are few and far between. Most everyone is kind to me—some bring me meals or coffee, dozens have brought me books or magazines or old fabric to work with, and some even read my blog and tell me every time they see me how much they enjoy it.
Awkwardness? Well, yeah. Sometimes. Sometimes I get on the model stand and I feel horrible about my body. Sometimes I get a little tired of people staring at me all the time. Sometimes people complain that my hair doesn’t look the same way from one day to another, and I consider for the millionth time posing with a paper bag over my head in protest. But honestly? The most awkward part is having to tell the details of my job to people that I don’t know or trust, and whose predictions I can’t predict. Will they behave like D’s mum did, and act horrified that people see me nude? Or will they act supportively?
The most touching response I get is always admiration. So many of the girls I’ve told say something like, “I wish I could do that. I’m glad you appreciate your body that way.” In particular, this reaction comes from older women who are dealing with the physical manifestations of the aging process and mourning the loss of the looks they once had. To which I reply: Because of this job, I’m learning to appreciate my body in ways that I never thought were possible when I was merely a dancer. The aspects of myself that used to grate on my nerves—my knobby knees, my ugly bony feet, my upturned nose, my broad shoulders and relatively thick waist—are met with such affirmation that I don’t even really need to listen to my own body issues anymore. When I was a dancer, I merely mourned the ways that I looked different from everyone else. Now that I’ve spent three and a half years as a model, I can see the value in the uniqueness of my own body, and see it celebrated by other people every day.
Which isn’t all that bad. And when I think about my job in that context, it makes me never want to lie about it or hide it again. So that’s why I told you guys.