What Polyamory and Art Nude Modeling Have in Common

At our latest drawing session, one of my artists started asking me questions about my boyfriend.  What’s he like? she wanted to know.  Where’s he from?  What did he think of my nude modeling?  Was he supportive?

I love questions like this.  Maybe some people find them prying, but I adore the deep emotional connections I get to form with my artists and photographers.  Though in this case, I felt vaguely guilty.  I realized that she and I had worked together for the better part of three years, and I had never told her that I’m polyamorous.

“Well,” I said to her, trying to sound matter-of-fact, “I actually have two boyfriends.”

Predictably, she had a lot of questions.  So I tried to explain to her the basics of poly.  First I told her that, at its core, poly means having multiple loving relationships.  That some of the beauty of polyamory comes from always being open to connecting with other people at all different levels—and the joy of seeing your partners be able to do the same.

Then, I told her some of my own poly story.  I’ve been exploring nonmonogamy in one form or another and with varying degrees of success for most of my adult life.  I’ve been lucky enough to have several long-term poly relationships, and have lived with multiple partners at the same time—and even with my partner’s partner as well!  I described to her how we support each other like a family, and how we sometimes have to navigate a legal system that’s designed for traditional married couples.

Her reaction to my story was pretty typical.  I’ve told enough people about polyamory that sometimes I feel like I can predict what they’re going to say.  But this time, I felt like her responses sounded particularly familiar.

Her first response is one I hear all the time: “I could never do that.”  That’s when it struck me: this is the same response I often hear when I tell someone I’m a nude model.  The excuses weren’t all that different either.  They all boiled down to the same thing: this is outside of social norms.  I have been taught to believe differently.  What will other people think?

It made me wonder: was there a pattern?  How much do nude modeling and polyamory actually have in common?

Her next response was another common reaction to poly: “Don’t you get jealous?”  It sounds just like when people ask me about standing naked in front of a room full of people: “Don’t you get nervous?”  I’ve never entirely understood this question.  It’s as if they believe being uncomfortable somehow means I shouldn’t do something worthwhile.

Yes, of course I get nervous.  Standing naked in front of a room full of people is a scary thing to do. And I still get jealous in my poly relationships too—I’ve had 28 years of societal conditioning that jealousy is what I’m supposed to feel.  The trick is in learning to not let that stop you.

There’s a lot of good stuff beyond all those negative emotions.  It’s where I’ve found my favorite art and most fulfilling relationships.  If I never tried to conquer my negative emotions like fear and jealousy, I would have never become a model.  I would have never started writing.  And I would have never met the people that I love.

Plus, it’s not like those negative emotions ever magically go away.  Like I said, I still feel them on a regular basis.  It doesn’t matter if you ignore them or avoid them.  Like anger and sadness, I still feel jealousy and fear.  I’ve just practiced a lot at coping with them.  With more exposure, I get better at dealing with them day to day.

Her last response was a doozy, but I get it so often that I’ve learned people don’t mean it to be cruel.  “Maybe you’ll settle down when you’re older and sex is less important.”  

There are so many things wrong with this statement.  The first is the idea that I’m not settled down, that I’m not in a real or serious relationship.  I’ve been with my longest poly partner for nine years.  We’ve watched a number of our monogamous friends meet, get married, and get divorced in that time.  Besides, I consider myself to have multiple life partners.  Sometimes we break up, just like any relationship.  But I’m constantly trying to build lasting commitments.

Then there’s the obvious—that people think I will change my mind and regret my decisions in the future.  I get this all the time with my modeling as well.  They might be right; there’s always the possibility that I could change my mind.  But I’m still of the opinion that I’d rather do what interests me—and maybe regret it later—than definitely regret giving up on my dreams now.

But there’s also the fallacy that people think both are primarily about sex.  As a model, I’ve been told what I do is everything from titillating to morally reprehensible.  I constantly have my images censored because they’re considered inappropriate.  In the same way, people assume polyamory is all about sex too.  They miss the entire point: the relationships, the support, and the love.  

All this made me realize the largest similarity between polyamory and nude modeling: I do both for the sake of human connection.  It’s not about sex, or overcoming jealousy and fear, or defying social norms.  It’s about honest emotional communication between people, whether that’s my artists, my audience, or my partners.  

I don’t think I made a convert to polyamory that day, although she was much more supportive by the end of our conversation.  But that doesn’t matter.  I’m not trying to “turn people poly” when I talk to them about it.  (This at least is unlike nude modeling, where I honestly think everyone should give it a try at least once).  I’m just trying to share a different perspective and way to live, and show that we’re still just normal people too.  Just like with my art and relationships, I’m trying to reach out—and I’m glad of the connection.  

 

Let’s Talk About OCD

I once heard OCD described as the unending, nagging worry about whether you turned off the burner before you left on vacation.

You know the feeling I’m talking about, right?  You’ve packed up everything in your car, you’ve locked the door and driven away and halfway down the road you think, “Am I going to burn the house down?”  There’s a moment of absolute dread when you realize what could go wrong.  Maybe you go back and check; maybe you ignore it and forget about the whole thing once you get on the plane.  But either way, you feel a little silly about it all.

I know that feeling of dread and worry intimately, because I have OCD.  The only difference for me is that I can’t make that worry go away.  Even if I go back and check—and check and check and check—the feeling of dread never dissipates.  I can see that the burner’s off; I can run my hands over it—and do, usually in patterns of threes, fives, and eights.  But nothing I do ever makes it feel off.

And yes, I feel a little silly, too.  Let me tell you, you start to feel pretty foolish and frustrated staring at a kitchen sink for half an hour, swearing you are not going to let yourself check it just one more time.  I start to wonder why I can’t just willpower my way through it.  

My OCD isn’t too bad; most people would never notice my compulsions.  But it is bad enough that medication helps. Let’s just say that if I use your kitchen, you can be absolutely sure that your stove is off.  And the light switch and the sink.  And the fridge is closed too.  You’re welcome.  

Usually, I can cope with it well enough.  Through years of therapy and exposure, I’ve worked up to the point that coping doesn’t require my full concentration.  But lately it’s been strong enough that the thoughts and compulsions have been surfacing, and it takes more energy to work with and put up with it.  

I was posing for a life drawing workshop recently, and my OCD was particularly bad.  The poses were a mental agony.  There was nothing wrong with the workshop, and the poses I chose weren’t particularly difficult or painful.  I just couldn’t stop worrying.  I was worried that I hadn’t shut off the kitchen sink and the whole house was going to flood—and annoyed that I knew how incredibly idiotic that sounded and I remembered checking the sink before I left anyway goddamnit—and all I could do was just sit there with it.  

Posing at that life drawing workshop reminded me that OCD is part of my normal, day-to-day hum of existence.  There is always somewhere, some corner of my mind that is in a constant state of dread and anxiety.  But this is just the reality I live in—sometimes frustrating, sometimes embarrassing, sometimes taxing, but just reality.  

I’m scared to admit this. I’m worried what people will think about me once they know.  Will they laugh at me?  Shun me?  A close friend of mine urged me not to tell anyone.  There’s a social stigma around it, he told me, and mental illness in general.  If I share this information with people at large, there might be consequences. 

It’s better to embrace and own that part of me.

But I’ve decided that it’s better to embrace and own that part of me.  Yes, sometimes modeling (and everything else) is harder for me because of my brain, like on the bad days when I’m posing and I can’t move and I can’t shut out the compulsions.  Sometimes what I’m doing is good for my brain, because moving and making art and using my body really helps.  And sometimes my mental illness is actually a boon.  I plan well.  I’m meticulous.  I’m on time.  

Posing at the life drawing workshop made me realize something that should have been obvious in retrospect.  That background hum that I live with? Just because it’s normal for me, doesn’t mean it’s normal for everyone else.  Most people probably don’t know what it’s like.

Also, because many people aren’t familiar with the day-to-day existence with a mental disorder, a large number of them don’t believe that someone with a mental illness is capable of running a successful business or leading a fulfilling life.  I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that sentiment expressed to me by someone who doesn’t know my situation.  But that’s what I and plenty of other people are doing every day.  

We all have things that keep us from being “normal.” And I think a lot of the time we keep these things quiet—be it our sexuality, mental health, lifestyle, or job.  I do it too, all the time.  I mean, look at how long it’s taken me to talk about this!  But I think we can all make things better for each other.  If we talk about these stigmas more, maybe they wouldn’t have such a hold on us.  

Just like I want to reduce the stigma around nude modeling by sharing it openly, I want to reduce this stigma in the same way too.  So yes, I have OCD.  And yes, I model and run my business and live my life. I’m still a capable human being.  I’m still me.