The Beauty Myth

It’s tempting and common to think of models as inherently beautiful people.  They have a natural aura about them that we all wish we could have, and that artists merely have to capture in their photographs and paintings. This notion is lovely and a bit magical, but it’s also false. 

I’ve always thought that modeling, like any other art, is a skill. 

It may look easy, but it’s the model’s job to make posing look effortless.  In reality, models are doing something very difficult.  To come up with a good pose, you have to have a basic understanding of composition, negative space, foreshortening, symmetry, line, and even lighting.  You also need the physical fitness to translate your pose idea into reality, and the body awareness to know when you’ve succeeded.

Every time I step on to a modeling stand or in front of a lens, I have to keep each of these concepts in mind.  I think of how a pose will look to the artist, if it follows the basics of composition, and if I have the physical ability to actually create and hold it.  As I've modeled more and more, posing has become a kind of muscle memory to me.  It’s like driving a car: when I had my learner’s permit, I had to think about turning the wheel to turn the car or stepping on the brake pedal to slow down.  Now I just turn and brake—or pose, as the case may be.

But just because modeling is instinctual doesn’t mean that it’s inherent.  I was not someone who was a “natural” at modeling, especially when it comes to knowing where my body is.  I’ve learned what little body awareness I do have through modeling—and through countless hours practicing poses and facial expressions in front of a mirror.  I even made my best friends take snapshots of me for hours on end so I could study them after the fact. 

I am proof that modeling is something that can be learned.  Through years of hard work, I can now look quite graceful . . .at least when I’m standing still for a pose.  I’m still an incurable klutz in the rest of my life.  I’m constantly walking into things—walls, doorways, countertop corners—and I stub my toes and trip more often than should really be humanly possible.  

Beauty is not a talent.

If there’s one thing I’ve learned through modeling, it’s that beauty is not a talent.  If I went back five years to when I first started, I would not have been capable of producing the images that I can make now.  Although I was younger and thinner, I didn’t know how to pose as well.  It’s the same for every model.  Just like the photographers and artists we work with, we all have to learn how to create good art.  None of us were born with that gift just because of how we look.  

When I look at an image of a model, I don’t see a naturally beautiful person.  I see an artist who learned their trade well.  I don’t think models should be idealized, at least not for being inherently beautiful.  But like any other artist, I do admire them for their skill and hard work.  

Nude Modeling and Body Image

The image I shared.

The image I shared.

When I started modeling, I had body image issues. 

I chose to model clothed for my first couple of shoots, even though I knew that I wanted to eventually pose for art nudes.  The reasoning was prudent enough: I wanted to make sure that I knew how to pose for a camera before I threw nudity into the mix as well.  I figured that if there were going to be naked pictures of me on the internet forever, that they might as well be good ones. 

Since the results were decidedly safe for work, I showed them to a few of my Starcraft II buddies online, some of which had never seen me before in person.  One of these guys responded with, “You’re cute, but a little too skinny for my tastes.”  Oh good, I thought.  That means I only need to lose ten more pounds. 

You would think that growing up as a tomboy would have shielded me from the desire to be skinnier.  But to me, skinny meant boyish, and boyish was my ideal.  I was a natural hourglass figure, and I hated my big breasts and even bigger hips.  I felt like my body was something outside of my control.

*    *     *

One of the common questions I get from attendees at art gallery openings and motherly women who sit next to me on plane rides is, “How do you handle modeling changing your body image?”  Because I am a model it’s always just assumed that this change is for the worst.  That modeling has a negative impact on young women and self-esteem is part of our national dialogue right now.  Most people hear it often enough that they take it to be a fact.  

The truth is, modeling changed my relationship with my body for the better.  

Not just modeling; nude modeling in particular.  I wouldn’t have gotten the same benefit from posing clothed.  When you model nude, be it for a traditional artist or a photographer, you only have one thing to make art with.  That thing is your body.  You cannot rely on props or clothes; you have no other tool but yourself.  Nude modeling forced me to view my body as something useful, as something that could make art.

Modeling became something that I could *do* with my body.  It wasn’t about how my body looked, it was how I could make it appear.  I could emphasize my hourglass curves and make the pose look very classical, or I could stretch my body out and make it seem particularly slender.  I could create characters and tell stories.  Or I could twist and compress into abstract shapes that didn’t look like a person at all.

This fascination with what my body was capable of bled into every other part of my life.  It’s changed how I approach music and backpacking and sex.  I started studying ballet—something I had previously admired from a distance—because I realized that dancing on the very tips of my toes was just another thing that my body could do.  

I value my body for what it is capable of, not how it looks.

Now I value my body for what it is capable of, not how it looks.  I care more that I can dance en pointe or carry a thirty pound pack for 10 miles a day than whether I look pretty.  And I find that when I concentrate on my capabilities, I end up looking better than if I had worked solely on aesthetics in the first place.  I’m now ten pounds heavier than that girl who showed her picture to her gaming buddies online.  Some of it comes from age and a little extra curve, but most of it is muscle.  All of it looks amazing when I use it to make art.  

Does this mean I’m happy with everything about how my body looks all the time?  Not in the slightest.  I still worry about my appearance sometimes, though it usually relates to how I photograph instead of how I am.  I also get frustrated with myself when I’m sick or injured, and I can’t do the things that I derive self-worth from.  But it does mean that I’m comfortable with myself most days, and that’s an improvement.  

Modeling has taught me to appreciate my body for what it can do, so much so that worrying about how I look no longer makes sense.  And now I have an answer to the question about modeling changing my body image.  It’s a lot more positive than you might think.