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.

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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. 

Even the Experts Doubt Themselves

I think that every creative professional is, at some level, a victim of self-doubt.  But there’s always been a little part of me that believed if I made it to some measurable level of success, then I would stop doubting myself.  (“If I were a NY Times bestselling author, then I would never doubt my writing again” is a personal favorite).  It’s as if I believe that once I reach a certain externally-validated metric, I will have “arrived”—though arrived at what, I can’t tell you.  Happiness? Success? Fulfillment?   

It’s not just me, either.  I can’t tell you how many women I’ve heard say, “If I were a professional model like you, then I’d never feel ugly again.”  Some people would dismiss this as the media’s unrealistic portrayals of feminine beauty and how they negatively impact our psychology.  However, I’m intrigued by the fact that their comments sound just like my “If I were a NY Times Bestselling author” spiel.  

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Here’s a fact: I am a full-time, professional model.  Here’s another fact: I still constantly face self-doubt about my appearance. 

And here’s yet another fact: every other model I’ve talked to feels the exact same way.  We all have a list of body parts that we think are hideous.  For me, it’s my breasts—I just can’t stand them.  One model hates that part of her lower lip isn’t pigmented, making her lips look thinner.  For another model, it’s her ankles (yes, her ankles, to the point of considering ankle bone implants).  All of these instances of self-doubt are completely irrational.  Those same body parts are often coveted by other models, who wish they had big breasts, tiny ankles, and delicate facial features. 

So here’s the last fact: no matter who you are, if you reach the level of external validation that you’re looking for, you will come up with an excuse that tells you why it doesn’t matter.  So many models have told me that they don’t feel attractive.  They know that they are on an intellectual level—they make their living because thousands of other people around the world find them to be.  But no matter how many other people tell them, they still don’t feel it.  

Experts at the top of their respective field still doubt themselves about the very skills and attributes that allow them to be so successful.

This isn’t meant to be a body-image issue post (though if it helps with that, great!).  The point here is that experts at the top of their respective field still doubt themselves about the very skills and attributes that allow them to be so successful.  This is not unique to the modeling industry.  I’ve seen it personally in dance, writing, music, computer science, and business.  If you look into any field, I guarantee you’ll find the same problem.  

Be careful though: some self-doubt IS valid, so don’t dismiss it out of hand.  It’s just important to be realistic and accurate in your perception of it.  If it starts with “If I were  ____” and ends with “then I would never doubt myself again,” or “then I would be happy,” or “then I would be successful,” it’s flat-out wrong.  These statements will never give you an accurate assessment of yourself, or an accurate answer to get the results that you want.  Throw them out.  You’ll have that much more time and effort to put into accomplishing your goals.