What do I mean by "the politics" of being in the same room as a nude model?
For me, having a nude model to observe is an opportunity like no other. When are we ever granted license to stare without shame upon the likes of another human in his/her most vulnerable physical state? In this scenario, I get to appreciate the body for what it is--its forms, shadows, and weight, how muscles move around bones, how light bounces off skin, the body's ability, its strength, its imperfections, and its beauty. I first started to appreciate this when my mom took us to the ballet when we were young. But this is a whole different level. Up close and personal.
Even if the model appears to be other than what our culture would consider the most beautiful, it is unpredictably empowering to see someone stand before us in what one might consider a compromising stance. Their seeming fearlessness and nonchalance gives me courage to be in the room with them and a confidence which allows me to think of my own body differently. Why should I feel modest or embarrassed? Whether I like it or not, no matter how much I consciously don't want it and seek to diminish it, no matter how feminist I declare myself to be, I have to admit that from time to time, self-consiousness about my non-Heidi-Klum body prevails. But standing five feet from a disrobed person and being granted permission to gawk at them for hours helps me allot value to my own frame, more than I've ever allowed. What about the way my muscles move around my bones? What is the contour of my face? How would I represent just the tiniest curve of my elbow or the shadow on my back? How does my own breast fall differently on my chest than the model's? What shape does my hair have?
Fun fact: models are paid an hourly wage, and so they should be--it's hard work! Have you ever tried to strike a pose and then not move? Try it for just a minute. Then try it for 5 or even 20. And if you need entertaining while you stand there, completely still, watch this fantastic animated video (4 min) about someone who takes the job very seriously. (I have watched it five times and lo-ove it.)
When I first painted the nude figure in a painting class a few years ago, I found myself astonished at the experience itself of trying to represent the nude figure at all. My nervousness at the outset abated immediately when we were given just one minute to try to capture his pose. What? One minute??? It took a few 1-minute poses to get in the groove, but once I did, well... would you look at that? Strangely, I noticed that in my mind, the model had gone from a person to an object in a split second. Wow. Is that even ok? In art-making, I believe it is, as long as we don't treat the model as such!
To be fair, I did have to giggle about the whole thing with my 30-something friends for a few days after that initial experience. You know, to process.
Relatedly, an added component of being in a classroom full of mostly younger people (18-20 year-olds) in this circumstance is paying attention to their behaviors. Foreign to me in this context, perhaps because I'm not in pursuit of a life partner, is the idea of sex. Before that split-second shift from human-to-object, are some classmates actually checking the model out?? The thought makes me chuckle under my breath and shake my head. Also, I have what I consider the advantage of more life experience, and indeed, I have seen more naked bodies just for having lived nearly twice as long as they have. With that comes maturity and, contrary to what I said about Heidi Klum before, slow (and deliberate!) acceptance of one's own body. I can't speak to what is going through the minds of my fellow drawers, but I can tell that some of them are uncomfortable.
I once knew a student who desperately wanted to change her major to art, but couldn't handle even the thought of being in the same room as naked person. As Figure Drawing is a requirement for the art major, she did not succeed in making the disciplinary change for this one reason. She "settled" (my own assessment) for something else. I feel that our culture's gymnophobia has let this young woman down. Not only am I sorry for her, but I am disappointed. What art will this world miss out on because she is literally unable to bring herself to see nudity as non-threatening?
Knowing that someone else out there cannot do what I get to do, I will admit to feeling gratitude at the thousands of subconscious factors that allow me to be calm, collected, and even happy when I am given the chance to gaze upon the nude figure (whether in art class or elsewhere!).
For our first big homework project, I got to gaze at my husband's hands, and here is the result, from start to finish. (Click on the photos for a closer view.)