During the month of December, it seems timely to acknowledge that the holidays – specifically Thanksgiving and Christmas – are emotionally difficult for some people for a myriad of reasons – estranged families, lost loved ones, financial hardship, poor health. I’m blessed to have a happy family (we’ve had our rough times, but overall we’re close), and to be healthy and in reasonably good economic shape.

I recall the facebook status update of a former professor of mine within the past year-and-a-half, which I think is good to remember not only at this time of year, but all of the time. As a sister and aunt, I don’t foresee ever having any empty holidays; however, as a single person, the prof’s status is something I can relate to on a more day-to-day basis. I don’t remember the exact wording, but she wrote something to the effect of how people should remember their friends who do not have families close by or who might not have holiday plans, and not assume that everyone has somewhere to go for festivities or even to spend time with.

I’d like to focus on this topic as it pertains to day-to-day life. Think back to that first weekend away at college – or, for that matter, after a move to a new city at any life stage, before strong connections are established. Two days without workday-length time commitments can seem heavenly, or terrifying, or a little of both. What do you do when you have a stretch of free time and would like to spend it in the company of people who are more than just a backdrop at the coffeeshop or the bar?

Most likely, you call/text/facebook-message/in-person ask someone you know reasonably well – would they like to join you in Activity X? Maybe they do. Maybe they’re busy. Maybe they need to check on it and get back to you.

I’m a single woman whose family lives five and a half hours away. This means that, for the majority of my free time, the bread and butter of my social life consists of my friends (and my dog). It’s not lost on me that for most of my friends, I’m the non-essential extra. Let me qualify that by saying that I am in no way demeaning myself. I’m simply saying the same thing I read once in a book whose title I can’t recall, written by an author whose name I don’t remember: “She knew that she came first for no one.” The harsh reality is, the way I have chosen to live my day-to-day life makes this statement descriptive of my social life.

This is why I encourage us all (myself included) to be inclusive. Extend an invitation to someone you don’t know very well who may be new in town. Call a friend you haven’t talked with in awhile, even if it’s just to check in. Think twice before you cancel plans with someone. Individually, we “cannot be all things to all people”, but we can still be compassionate, thoughtful, and dependable, and make someone feel welcome and valued.

Object of Art

Professor P. takes me into the walk-in costume closet – today I’m modeling for an illustration, not life drawing, class – where all types of clothing are stuffed in between one another on the racks. He grumbles about the haphazard order of the garments and pulls out a Western-style white shirt that snaps down the front; it’s embroidered with bright-colored flowers from one shoulder to the other. “You’re already wearing boots,” he says, referring to my butterscotch knee-high leather boots that have a small tassel attached to their zippers. “We could go with kind of a cowboy theme.” He looks for a hat to match the rest of the outfit while I take the shirt and unsnap it in one motion – a hand on each side of the column of snaps, a swift pull of my arms. I unbutton and remove my cardigan, which I’m wearing over a white tee shirt. “No – you don’t have to do that here – ” he sputters. “There’s more privacy in the other -”

“I’m just putting it over my tee shirt,” I reassure him, and he relaxes, his relief palpable.

When I started this job over a year ago, the model conduct guidelines made it very clear that undressing in front of the students (and by implication, the professor) is prohibited. Each studio has a changing room specifically for the model, which, the model coordinator told me, is off-limits to everyone else. (These “rooms” are more like make-shift closets closed off with a shower rod and curtain.) As a writing instructor, I teach my own students to use transitions between major discussion points in order to avoid abrupt shifts; however, in art modeling, there is no transition between clothed and unclothed, and this is how it’s supposed to be. There’s no dipping of a toe in the water. “It’s like going off the high dive. You just go up there and jump off. If you sit around and think about it, you won’t dive” (qtd. in Phillips 50).

Why is this transition not supposed to exist? Why is it that this same instructor will look me in the eye when I am wearing not one stitch of clothing, but recoil when he thinks I am about to undress in front of him? Why is disrobing treated as more intimate than full nudity?

During the first couple of weeks after I started modeling, I would not make eye contact with the professors once my robe came off. I didn’t want to “break character” – I didn’t want them to see me as a person; I wanted them to look at me as the model. Not as Kate, but as an object. Not an object in the sense of being objectified, but an object of art – devoid of an actual identity. It felt like making eye contact with them (or, worse, with the students) would be the equivalent of being back in high school drama club and making eye contact with an audience member. In Modeling Life: Art Models Speaks About Nudity, Sexuality, and the Creative Process, Sarah R. Phillips interviews multiple life models (the term “life model” refers to a model who poses for the creation of an image of the human life form – the body) about their experiences modeling. One of the models says, “It’s like you can be okay naked, but taking off your clothes in front of somebody is a private matter. It seems really ironic, I know. […that B]eing naked in front of somebody is not quite as personal as taking off your clothes. ‘Cause when you’re taking off your clothes, you’re actually a person. But when you’re up there, if you’re already naked, […] it’s a performance” (qtd. in Phillips 50). This idea of modeling as performative is key. Unless he/she is in a rehearsal, an actor doesn’t break character on the stage; a model, too, takes care not to “break character” while on the platform/at the front of the studio. Phillips makes an additional point that art models’ nudity is meant to further the creation of art. When the model is nude, the student is drawing. When the modeling undresses, however, the student is not drawing; therefore, undressing in front of the student is inappropriate because it introduces nudity outside of the realm of artistic creation (50).

Furthermore, undressing, for a woman, obviously involves removing one’s bra and underpants, and female undergarments tend to be viewed in a sexualized manner. Wearing a thong versus wearing “granny panties” would impose upon the model (whether accurate or not) a particular image of her sexuality – thong=sexy; granny panties=un-sexy. Also, once we grow out of childhood, we choose what kind of undergarments to wear – push-up, demi, strapless; bikini, brief, thong, hiphugger; striped, lace, polka-dot, ruffled… thus, not knowing what type of underwear the model prefers helps keep some of her personal preferences hidden, thus making the model less of a person – and by extension, less able to be desired sexually via identity effacement.

Ironically, however, another point stressed within the model guidelines is that the model is not working for the professor; rather, the model is working with the professor. It soon became apparent to me that the professors genuinely abide by this idea, and one of the ways that some professors demonstrate this is by referring to me in front of their students as Kate, not as “the model”. (“We’ll give Kate a ten-minute break,” “Thanks, Kate,” “If you look at Kate’s pelvic bone, you can see where her iliac crest would lie…”) When we name something/someone, we make it/him or her more real; we imbue the thing with a sense of self. This practice reinforces the idea of the model being equal to the professor (working with him/her, not for him/her), but somewhat negates the personal effacement that the avoidance of public disrobing can promote.

There have been times when I have unintentionally, spontaneously “broken character” and revealed at least a partial sense of personality – for instance, my inability to keep from laughing when one professor said to a student, “You’ve made the space between her cleavage too big. You could fit an extra breast in there!”; another time, when the hush of the students working was broken by the line “Peaches come from a can” while the professor was listening to the Presidents of the United States of America’s song “Peaches” on Pandora. So there have been moments allowing small glimpses of my personality to the students; however, these are unplanned and rare.

I’ve never been a student in a life drawing class, so I don’t know their thoughts regarding the model as a person vs. the model as simply a body to be drawn. I don’t know the process by which they eventually come to look at a nude figure objectively rather than sexually. I don’t know their perspective on disrobing. These would all be interesting perspectives to learn. Maybe I’ll write a follow-up to Phillips’ book focusing on life models – a book focusing on art students.

Of course, I’d have to use transitions.



For further reading:

Phillips, Sarah R. Modeling Life: Art Models Speak About Nudity, Sexuality, and the Creative Process. Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2006. Print.



The Money is There

About a month ago, I was commiserating with one of my friends about how hard it is to get ahead financially. It seems like every time I’m in good shape with my non-retirement savings account (I have a couple Roths that I obviously don’t touch), which I use as a cushion, something else comes up. In the past month, that’s included the cost of a locksmith and the payment of money I owe to the government (which is a special insult, considering I was expecting to get a refund). And in a few months, it will be time to replace at least one set of the brakes on my car.

A day or so after the conversation with my friend, my mother posted an article that made me feel better on my facebook wall:

20 Signs You’re Doing Better Than You Think You Are, by Brianna Wiest.

In particular, #1, #5, & #6 stood out to me, because sometimes I feel like I’m just working to pay the bills – which I guess I am, in theory – but having even a few dollars of disposable income to afford a mocha or cup of hot chocolate from my favorite bakery, a pair of new earrings (my employee discount helps), or a container of castelvetrano olives from the grocery store, is still something. I’m lucky enough to live in a country where I don’t have to eat chicken, rice, and plantains at every meal. If I look at the food in my fridge and cupboards and think, “I wish I could [order sushi, go out to eat, pick up a pizza],” I try to tell myself, “At least I have food to eat.” As an American, I feel I’ve become culturally conditioned to want what I want, when I want it, instead of enjoying & being thankful for what I have.

Last week I noticed that the gold-stripe canvas tote bag I’ve been carrying to work for the past year is coming apart. There’s a bag for sale at work that I was eyeing, but even with my discount it’s more than I should be spending at this time. I went to Target’s website and looked at their bags. While I was doing this, it occurred to me that HELLO, here I am complaining about not being able to get ahead, and I’m about to buy a new bag. So I went to my closet and found the faux patent leather tote with a picture of Twiggy on it that I bought from MOMA in Boston when visiting a friend a few years ago. I was keeping old bathing suits (and a scarf I’d thought was long lost!) in it. I moved those to my weekend bag and replaced my worn-out canvas tote with my Twiggy bag. Today, I suddenly remembered the pink-and-olive-striped tote bag boasting the image of Andy Warhol’s proverbial Campbell’s Soup Can design that’s full of old teaching books I never use anymore, sitting on the floor behind my bedroom door. I actually have TWO bags to replace my old one, without having to buy any more. Granted, if I worked in a buttoned-up corporate environment, Twiggy and Andy Warhol would be appropriate for work. But I don’t. Incidentally, part of the reason my budget is tight is precisely because I don’t have a regular, full-time-with-benefits 9-to-5 type job. I did, but I left it last year, and I’m much happier even with less money.

Speaking of my former full-time job, the fact that I was on an employer-sponsored health insurance plan meant that I was saving myself the extra ~$250 I’m spending now. When I think back to the way I chose to spend that extra money, I regret not putting it – or at least some of it – into savings. Everything is relative; when I was in grad school, after I’d pay my bills, I had about $50-75 per week to spend on food and whatever else I needed/wanted. When I was working full time and my weekly budget was considerably higher, I thought to myself, “HOW did I survive on that?” (It helped that my friends were all in the same boat, so when we hung out, we all made an effort to avoid spending much money. Cheers to frugal friends!) Now, when I think back to what I made at my full-time job, I think, “I should have been smarter about saving more of that.” I have no trouble putting windfalls into savings (which is why I was so bummed about not getting a tax refund this year), but when it comes to regular bi-weekly income, I’m not so great about saving it for a rainy day.

Here’s where choice and responsibility come in. No, I’m not making as much money as I’d like (is any of us?). But I could have spent $40 on a new bag; that would have simply meant I’d have had to forgo spending it on coffee, olives, or accessories – or, more importantly, putting at least some of it into savings. No matter how much I have made and am making, looking back on my various job experiences and income levels, I now see that the money was, and is, there.