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.