What Would Your Mother Say?

When I first started modeling nude, I was doing something I passionately believed in.  I felt—and still do—that art nude photography is one of the best ways we can celebrate the beauty of the human form without being sexually objectifying.  

But I didn’t tell my parents about it for a very long time.  I spent an entire year not telling them.  When they asked me what I was doing to make a living, I would hedge.  “Oh, I’m doing a little bit of this, a little bit of that,” I would say, and mention writing or music—anything but nude modeling.  I can only imagine how uneasy they were when I wouldn’t give them a straight answer, but they ran with it.

Part of my secrecy stemmed from my perfectionism.  I didn’t want to reveal what I was doing until I had something really impressive to show off, so I waited until I had a gallery opening that I could invite my parents to.  I figured that a solo show of entirely my own work spanning the previous year would fit the bill perfectly.  

But part of it was that I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.  As much as I didn’t want to admit it—even to myself—I was worried what they would think about my unconventional life choices.

I was lucky: my parents were completely supportive.  They and my grandmother showed up for my gallery opening.  All three of them walked through the exhibit, and stopped to look at every image.  They admired the photography and my posing.  They told me how proud they were of me, and complimented the photographer.

That said, I’m not sure how comfortable my mother actually was with the whole production at first.  She seemed a little awkward when she looked at the images, and some of the nice things she said sounded strained.

I don’t know what made her uncomfortable.  To be honest, I was too nervous to ask.  Maybe seeing her daughter nude put her—understandably—outside of her comfort zone.  Maybe it didn’t bother her personally, but she was worried about the consequences of my actions, and the criticisms I would receive from other people.

Whether she was uncomfortable or not, my mother never said a negative word the entire time she was there.  And over time, she seemed to become more at ease with my art.  She looked at more images as my career progressed, and asked questions.  Eventually, she even hung a nude painting of me in her office.  In it, I’m wearing a sunhat at a jaunty angle, with my knees curled up to my chest.  She loves it, and I do too.  

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I’ve attended a lot of gallery openings since that first one that I invited my parents to so many years ago.  And it always concerns me that one of the most frequent questions I’m asked is, “What does your mother think about what you do?  What would she say if she knew?”  These people will always ask with a hint of condescension, as if they’ve caught me in an obvious logical fallacy, or even in a lie.  

I’m lucky that I get to tell them that my mother supports me in all my crazy, counter-culture bohemian life choices.  Oftentimes, I can even point her out in the crowd at the opening.  “See, she’s right there,” I say proudly.  “She loves my work.  She even has a nude painting of me hanging up on her wall at home.” 

That response works for me.  The problem is, I’m lucky.  I know far too many art nude models whose mothers won’t attend gallery show openings and hang naked pictures of their daughters on their walls.  I know models who have been told to hide what they do, or models who aren’t able to admit their profession and their art to their families. 

The thing is, it shouldn’t matter to other people what our mothers think about our art.  But it does matter to us.  

As artists, we’re all exposing ourselves in our work.

I think as artists, we’re all exposing ourselves in our work.  It’s not just about posing nude, although that certainly adds another literal level of exposure.  I think creating anything requires vulnerability.  I know when I put my work out to the world at large, it's going to receive criticism.  So I go to the people I trust and care about the most for reassurance.  What do my boyfriends think?  My best friend?  My mother?  It can be absolutely crushing when one of them doesn’t respond with support, but with criticism of their own.  

This is not to say that we should praise all art unconditionally, or never offer constructive criticism.  Far from it.  I’m just saying that if you’re in an artist’s confidence, maybe take a lesson from my mother.  Don’t criticize something just because it makes you uncomfortable—or you’re worried that it’ll make someone else uncomfortable and therefore have Bad Consequences.  If my parents had been unsupportive at that first gallery show opening, I probably wouldn’t be a nude model today.  I can only imagine how life would have turned out differently. I probably would have been a lot less artistically fulfilled.