A Look in the Mirror

the light within and without.jpg

Recently, I’ve been wearing a lot less makeup to my photo shoots.

Don’t get me wrong: it’s still some. The camera doesn’t see the world as it is, and I need to compensate for that. Nor do I have a moral stance against makeup. Part of my motivation is that, now that I’m only shooting part-time, I can experiment. Makeup is one of my tools of expression: it helps me create an image. I want to know what I can make with more of it, and with less, now that my livelihood doesn’t depend on me presenting a consistent image.

But why the interest in changing that image in the first place?

Nude modeling has been one of the most positive forces in my life. It has taught me to love my body as it is. It has taught me not to just accept my physical imperfections, but to value them. And it’s given me a space to create art with my body in a non-sexualized way.

So you can imagine my surprise when I looked in the mirror and noticed that I didn’t recognize my own face.

I started thinking about it, and I realized this has been going on for quite a while. I don’t remember the first time I looked at my reflection or a candid snapshot or a selfie and didn’t get a thrill of recognition, but it’s pretty constant now. I wouldn’t know myself if we met on the street.

It’s not just the face in the mirror. It’s my modeling images too—or should I say, especially.  Let me tell you a little secret: no model looks like their images. And it’s not just the makeup. Or Photoshop. Or lighting—although certainly all those things contribute.

I’ve said it before, but I will say it again (and again and again): posing is a skill set. And that skill set includes the expressions a model uses, or the angle of face and body we choose to present to the camera. I sometimes jokingly refer to myself as a “professional pretty person,” but I don’t mean that I’m naturally gorgeous all the time. Quite the opposite, in fact. Models are artists, and it is our job to create moments of beauty. These moments are so perfect and fragile that they can’t exist in anything but the time it takes for a camera’s shutter to click—and are often only visible from that one angle. Just like any piece of art, these moments aren’t natural or real.

All we models have to create these moments is ourselves—our faces and our bodies—and some basic tools like hair, makeup, lighting, and post-processing. It’s actually pretty cool. But it also means that, to be successful at this creation, I’ve had to develop a repertoire. When I walk into a studio, I’m not Kat. I’m Katja. And Katja has a completely different set of mannerisms and postures than Kat. Katja holds herself differently, from the way that she angles her hips to the way that she cranes her neck. And she also has different emotions and expressions. They are not inherently better or worse than Kat’s, but they are inherently more photogenic.

All this leads to images where I don’t always recognize myself in the finished product. Yes it’s my face, but at such a strange angle. And that’s an expression I would never use—I rarely smolder in real life. Or look wide-eyed and innocent, for that matter. As any of my friends or lovers could tell you, I suck at playing innocent.

It’s gotten so bad that I will often look for the bridge of my nose in images. I sat for a portrait painting class once, where the instructor took measurements of my face with a pair of calipers. It turns out that the bridge of my nose is exceptionally high, and I can’t change that with my angle or expression. So now whenever I see it, I feel more grounded. But when I noticed I was also checking for it in the mirror, I knew I had to change something.

I’ll admit that I blamed Photoshop and makeup at first, since they are both external ways to alter my appearance. I know several art models that refuse to wear makeup to their shoots or be post-processed. Previously, I had thought this was a bit silly—why would I give up a tool of artistic expression? But now I wasn’t so sure. Maybe they knew something that I didn’t.

The evils of post-processing models is particularly in the public eye right now. Mostly the debate is concentrating on editing models to appear thinner, and how this contributes to negative body image. But we’re also seeing blemishes like stretch marks erased, and skin tones lightened on models of color. The argument is that we’re creating a beauty ideal that does not exist in the real world. It seemed reasonable that the same problem would also affect how I viewed my face. Maybe, with a combination of editing and makeup, I was creating an image of beauty that I just couldn’t live up to in real life.

There isn’t a lot of discussion about how we edit models’ faces, so I looked deeper into how we edit models’ bodies, hoping there’d be something in common. I found out that we’re to the point with post-processing that fashion models are editing even their snapshots on Instagram to look skinnier, which is horrible and frankly unhealthy. But I’m not sure that’s a good reason to ban editing fashion photos, like some are arguing for. Would believing that how a model looks in an image is “real” because they aren’t edited make me feel better about myself?

I think it might make it worse. There will always be women younger and skinnier than I am modeling. Plus, even if they banned post-processing, they would still be posing. They’re models. They’re professionals at creating an image that isn’t actually real, so they’re still going to look unnaturally thin, even if we take away one tool.

On the other side of the same coin, I’ve had women see my modeling and contact me more times than I care to count. They tell me they wish they were as skinny as I am, and ask how much weight they need to lose. I am usually fifteen to twenty pounds heavier than these women. I am not post-processed to look thinner in my artistic photos. It’s how I pose, how I angle myself, even how I breathe. It’s just a skill set.  

So maybe editing models to look thinner is only a symptom of the problem. Maybe the problem is, in these moments of beauty we’re creating, we’re only allowing skinny to be beautiful—and even I as an art model am falling prey to this belief! Maybe the problem is we have a terrible, unhealthy social norm that we need to look at deeply and work to change.

And maybe it’s the same thing with my face in photographs. I could go into a shoot with no makeup on at all and request that the photographer not post-process the image, but I still wouldn’t look like “me.” I would still be posing. I’d still be creating a moment of beauty. Maybe my idea of beauty is too restrictive as well.

So as a model, what can I do? I don’t want to perpetuate bad norms with my images, and I want to recognize myself in the mirror.  Like I said, I really don’t think vilifying the tools is going to help. But I do think I need to be very conscious about what I’m using these tools to depict. I’m trying to create moments of beauty. Now I think we need to expand what our definition of beauty encompasses, for all our sakes.

We need to start hiring and showing more models of different ages and weights, and different races and genders too. If we only show beauty as young, white, and skinny, we’re going to have a lot of people looking in photos and mirrors and not liking what they see—even people who are all of those things. We need diversity in our beauty. We need options. We need to be allowed to grow old or have belly folds or have melanin and still be considered desirable.

Who gets to be considered beautiful is incredibly important. But so is what we get to do with it. Remember those “photogenic” expressions? The smolder? The wide-eyed innocence? Why the fuck did I think those were beautiful expressions on my face, and not a wider range of emotions? Why is Katja “inherently” more photogenic than Kat?

I hadn’t seen anybody else do it, so I never dreamed of the possibility.

Because that’s basically all I’ve seen. Those are the expressions a “beautiful” woman is allowed to have in media. Nobody ever told me this. Nobody pulled me aside and said “don’t wrinkle your nose and do that goofy squint-eyed smile of yours in front of the camera.” Nobody had to. I hadn’t seen anybody else do it, so I never dreamed of the possibility. And now I don’t recognize my face when it’s not expressing a pre-approved feeling, feelings I as a human being rarely have.

So why am I actually wearing less makeup to my photo shoots? Because it’s a cue to myself. My face looks and feels different, which is a subtle reminder to use a wider range of emotions and expressions, even when they’re not traditionally “photogenic.” Yes, makeup is one of my tools of expression. But it’s not really about the makeup. It’s about my face when I’m wearing it, and what I chose to do with it.

The results have been almost universally positive, which honestly surprised me. I assumed that the people I’m posing for would be frustrated that I wasn’t as “pretty” as my portfolio. I was wrong. Instead, the photographers I’ve been working with recently have been thrilled, and I’ve gotten far more bookings interested in emotive portraiture. It’s made me incredibly hopeful that we can do a lot to change these norms.

Plus I see more of Kat in my images—you know, that person in the mirror. And she gets to be beautiful now too.


That’s Nice. What’s Next?


I don’t know about you, but I’m kind of dreading Thanksgiving this year. I mean sure, we’ve all got family drama, but my family is usually incredibly understanding. They’ve been consistently supportive of my life choices. They’ve had my multiple partners over for Thanksgiving previously, and my nude modeling career is frequently discussed over dinner.

My family is especially good when they’re supplied with an adequate amount of carbs. Since I’ll be arriving with my famous crescent rolls, Grandma’s traditional sage stuffing, and a chocolate whiskey cake, I’d normally consider myself pretty safe.

However, I have one relative who’s been pretty crotchety as of late. And every time I visit her, we have the same conversation, over and over again.

It starts out innocuously: she usually asks what I’ve been working on. And I, like a fool, answer. Maybe I talk about a particularly good shoot I had that week, or an article I published going live, or selling my first short story. Really, whatever’s been happening recently.

She always responds in the same way: “That’s nice. What’s next?”

Now, in case your family isn’t from the South, let me tell you: “that’s nice” does not mean that what the person heard is, in fact, nice. It’s more along the spectrum between “dismissive” and “a bit disappointed” but, you know, still polite about it. It’s just like that other Southern catchphrase “Bless her heart,” which you can say before the cruelest things and still be considered congenial.

So I, like an even bigger fool, rise to the bait. I start listing out all my plans and goals and possible work for the next several years, from writing fifteen books to organizing my damn closet by color. And of course she’s still not impressed and now I feel like everything I’ve managed to accomplish and may ever do in the future isn’t enough to validate my existence.

Then she usually offers me some tea to change the subject and I try to drown myself in it and go home grumbling about how what I do is real work goddamnit.

Family, right? Let’s just say I’m not looking forward to a repeat of that at the holiday dinner table.

But the soul-crushing response of “That’s nice—what’s next?” doesn’t just happen at Thanksgiving, or just from my cantankerous relative. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been asked “What’s next?” in response to sharing a recent accomplishment or creation I’m proud of and want to celebrate. It’s certainly not my least favorite question ever (that dubious honor falls to “So, what do you do?”). But it’s close.

Most people mean well by the question. There’s a perceived magic around being an artist, and they want to be excited about that. Or conversely, they think what artists do isn’t a real job and they’re trying to discredit it (hello grouchy relative).

Either way, the one thing they agree on is that whatever I’m doing, it’s not actually work. And I, bless my heart, don’t want to disappoint them.  

So I find myself trying to come up with something that sounds impressive, or at least interesting. I don’t want to describe my dull, daily routine. Nobody wants to hear how I stare at a blank piece of paper all day and put down words that may or may not ever be read by anybody else. Or how I’ve developed a system around moving from the couch to a chair outside for a couple hours a day for some variety. Or that the highlight of my day is oftentimes cleaning my kitchen—I can get a lot of good ideas wrist-deep in soapy water. Nobody wants to hear about calendaring and time management and the minutia of running a business. And nobody—and I mean nobody—wants to hear about answering email.  

Thrilling, I know. So instead, I usually opt for the flash-bang description of my latest completed project. Or worse, pie-in-the-sky descriptions of what I hope will be a future completed project.

I think I’ve been doing these people a disservice—and frankly, I’ve been doing myself a disservice as well. Yes, the end result of art can be magical. But there’s a magician behind the curtain doing all the work. Or more accurately, the mundane work is the magic.

Teller of “Penn and Teller” (in other words, an actual magician), says it best about his art form: “You will be fooled by a trick if it involves more time, money and practice than you (or any other sane onlooker) would be willing to invest.” It’s the same with any other type of art. An artist creates magic through unbelievable amounts of hard work.

Good art is even more impressive when we understand the skill and labor that went into it.

I want the real magic to be in plain sight: good art is even more impressive when we understand the skill and labor that went into it. Plus it’s a lot harder to disparage art as not “real work” when we show everything that it requires. And it’s also a lot harder to ask dismissive follow-ups about “what’s next” when we can’t write off art as magic that effortlessly falls out of the ether.

Besides, the part that brings me the most joy isn’t the accomplishments. It’s that “dull” routine, day in and day out. That’s the reality that I want to share.

So this holiday, I’ve got a new tactic. I’m still going to talk about the recent accomplishments I’m proud of. But “what’s next?” Well, the next time that I’m asked, I’m going to share the ordinary, day-to-day part of creating art. It’s writing another couple thousand words. It’s booking more shoots and organizing my calendar. It’s cleaning my kitchen. And yes, it’s even email. After all, it’s the only way to make magic.

And if certain members of my family don’t like that answer? Well, at least I’ll have chocolate whiskey cake to distract them.