Funhouse Mirrors

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When I was in Prague for a modeling tour with my best friend and fellow model Keira Grant, we stumbled across a set of funhouse mirrors. I don’t even know why they were in this otherwise normal building; I only have a vague memory of them feeling out of place. But I distinctly remember the two of us peering into those warped pieces of glass that elongated some parts of our bodies and widened others, searching for flaws in the reflection. 

I don’t know about Keira, but for me the experience was strangely comforting. Usually when I look in the mirror, I hardly recognize myself. My face doesn’t appear like how I picture it in my mind, and neither does my body. But in those mirrors, I felt like I saw the truth. My self-image was so warped that the distorted reflection felt accurate. See, I was weirdly chubby there, just like I thought. And that other part? Definitely out of proportion. Finally, a mirror was reflecting me

I bring all this up because—as many of you know—I’ve been struggling with some health problems. I seem to finally be on the mend, but it took a toll on my body. Since the last time I was healthy, I lost twenty pounds.

I was too skinny—I was sickly. I lost two cup sizes, and several inches off my waist. My butt, one of my favorite features, switched from curvy to boyish. I could see all my ribs; my hipbones protruded. Even my cheeks began to hollow out. I looked bad enough that people would approach me with concerned looks and ask me what was wrong. 

Once I felt better, I decided that it was a priority to put back on some of the weight I had lost. I started eating piles of food and going to a personal trainer.

I saw results almost immediately. I gained weight. My breasts came back, and my abs filled out and got definition. I regained my strength and energy. People began complimenting me again on how I looked. 

And I hated it. 

I looked in the mirror, and all those weird funhouse bulges were back. My waist was too thick from muscle; my breasts were huge. Even my face felt puffy. I found myself missing my sickly body. I was longing to be that skinny again. 

My girlfriend complimented me on how I looked while I was walking naked around the house, and I didn’t know what to say. I was feeling out of place in my own body, and had just been wishing that it would go away, take up less space. I wanted to go back to looking like something beautiful in what I admittedly knew was the warped view of my own perception. So I told her the truth: that I actually felt unhappy with how my body looked right now. 

Now, my girlfriend is the prettiest girl in the world, so my discomfort was difficult for me to admit. What if she agreed with all the flaws I was seeing? But I’m so glad that I did. Because just doing so reminded me of some very important lessons. 

I’ve never claimed my body was flawless. Instead, with my modeling, I try to put my body out there with all its flaws and still create beauty. When I started modeling, I had to be brave enough to pose even despite the fact that I had a list as long as my forearm of what I considered negative body traits. But modeling nude taught me that I could make beauty with those supposed flaws, and that I could be comfortable in my own body. 

I had to relearn that lesson when I got sick and started losing weight. Suddenly my body didn’t look like it used to, and I had to find new parts and angles of myself that were beautiful and new ways to pose and create with them.

And I’m looking forward to continuing to model as I age and my body changes that way too. It’ll be fun to discover the new beauty that my body can create as I get older.

The problem wasn’t that I was gaining weight. It was that I had started viewing my body as this static thing that was as close to society’s ideal as I could make it: namely, super skinny. I got attached to that ideal. Any change at all felt like a loss.

The only thing static about a model is the moments of beauty she creates in her images.

I forgot that my body is a dynamic, living, breathing me with different bits of beauty to be discovered and created as things change. I forgot that the only thing static about a model is the moments of beauty she creates in her images. All the rest is transitory. 

So it’s never useful to hate my body, but let’s be honest: sometimes I will want it to be something it isn’t. Part of me is still craving that unhealthy, skinny body I’m leaving behind. I’m not going to get mad at myself for wanting it, but admitting so to my girlfriend made me realize just how warped the views of society are, and just how strong their pull can be. But now I can tell myself that view in the funhouse mirror isn’t me.  It’s just what I’ve been taught to see.

 

You Can’t Please ‘Em All

I was writing in a local coffee shop when an old man walked in. He was grey and his hair was thin, and he stooped over to lean heavily on his cane. His clothes, however, were crisp and expensive and perfectly put-together. 

He walked up to the counter. But instead of ordering anything, he fervently wished them good luck. He lived across the street, he said, and he had noticed that they were recently opened. He hoped their new business venture went well. 

The barista corrected him gently that they’d been open for several months now, and would he like to order anything?

No, he said, but he’d like a takeout menu to bring back home with him. 

The barista looked like a deer caught in headlights. They didn’t have a takeout menu.

The old man shook his head sadly, and started giving the poor barista advice on why they really ought to have a takeout menu. 

“But we’re a coffee shop, not a restaurant!” the very confused barista protested.

The old man shrugged, obviously offended, and wished them good luck again in a tone that meant the opposite. He shuffled out of the shop without so much as buying a cup of coffee.

Their exchange struck me because I knew the old man, quite well. Not personally, mind you, but countless people like him have commented on my work. 

The worst was a photographer who went through my entire Model Mayhem portfolio, and left “constructive criticism” on the photos. According to him, in some cases my pose was too static. In others, it was the photographer who didn’t know what they were doing. He also wrote me a long-winded private message assuring me that he thought I was one of the best, and that he’d love to work with me. It’s just that everyone has room for improvement! 

Of course, he couldn’t pay my rate. But I should be more than willing to work for him for cheap or even free! 

It’s the same story at gallery shows, and especially on social media. I can’t tell you how many people have told me that my work is too sexy, or not sexy enough. Or sometimes it’s things as inane as not having enough underwater images displayed. It doesn’t matter if my next Instagram post borders on the erotic, or if the next gallery show is exclusively an underwater one. These people invariably never buy prints. 

The problem with these interactions is not the criticism. I think criticism is a necessary and unavoidable part of the artistic process. When I’m feeling particularly enlightened, I even feel that criticism is good and healthy. 

The problem is these people are not my customers. Just like the old man in the coffee shop, they may mean well. They may even think they are helping me out with their feedback. But they are not my support—certainly not financially, but also not artistically, or even emotionally. To be blunt about it, they don’t “get” my art. They’re not my intended audience. 

The same thing happened with my writing. I went to a new writer’s group, and I got a bunch of feedback on my work. Feedback is usually a good thing; feedback from other writers even more so. But this…wasn’t. Implementing any of their suggestions would have destroyed the point I was trying to convey with my writing in the first place. 

But I felt arrogant ignoring their suggestions, so I sent the same work around to another group or readers. This time, I made sure they were familiar with the genre I was writing in and liked it, rather than just being writers. The second set gave me great feedback—they were full of suggestions and criticisms, but they were ones that I felt I could use to improve my work and make it stronger. 

Make sure you share the values of the person you’re accepting criticism from.

Thoroughly confused, I took all this contradictory feedback to my editor. He said one of the wisest things I’ve ever heard. Not everyone is going to have the same response to your art, because not everyone looks for and values the same thing. If you’re listening to criticism, make sure you share the values of the person you’re accepting criticism from. Otherwise, you’re likely to try to change your work away from what you care about in a misguided attempt to please everybody else. 

So it turns out, all those problems people had with my modeling and my writing actually had nothing to do with my modeling or my writing. Instead, it had everything to do with a lack of shared values with the people viewing it. This is not to say that my art was flawless or couldn’t be improved. It’s just to say that these particular people were looking for a restaurant, not a coffee shop. 

Which is why when I saw that exchange in the coffee shop, I had to laugh. Because I didn’t just know the old man. I knew that look of confusion and frustration on the barista’s face intimately. I had worn it myself countless times. 

I knew that old man was never going to be a customer as soon as he walked in the door. He didn’t want a cup of coffee. In the same way, I can’t please everybody with my art. I’m an art nude model, not a glamour model. I’m a blogger, not a poet. And I think I’m finally okay with that.