The Intimacy of Modeling

I think most people have an idea of what modeling entails, even if they get their notions from pop culture or the movies.  Maybe they think of the pulse of a strobe flash, or the click of a shutter.   Maybe they imagine a model posing in front of a studio backdrop, or strutting her stuff on location or down the runway.  Maybe, if they’re very familiar with modeling, they know it’s not always as glamorous as the pictures make it look.  Maybe they know a little bit about the behind-the-scenes: the cold, the discomfort, the physical labor, and the long and odd hours.

However, there’s another aspect to modeling that I rarely see mentioned except by the models and photographers themselves, and even then only to other people in the industry.  It’s as if they wouldn’t expect anyone else to understand.   It’s the intimate conversations that happen. 

I like to jokingly refer to myself as a naked therapist.  Talk on a shoot rarely sticks to shallow topics.  I hear about my photographers’ art, and their purpose behind making it.  But it also goes beyond the art: I hear about their lives.  I’m told about relationships and breakups, celebrations of all kinds, and life events—both good and bad.  And what’s more interesting, I’m told how people actually feel about these things: the joy of a grandchild, the anxiety and pain caused by a car accident.  When they feel lonely and disconnected, and when they feel loved.  

These connections are often reciprocal.  I talk about my life too, between shots or when we’re changing up backdrops or walking to a new location.  It’s not the “what do you do” casual resume type of information either.  I share about my unconventional relationships, and my sexuality.  Sometimes I think modeling is what taught me the openness I try to employ in this blog. 

I usually take this ease of connection for granted.  It’s become such a part of my day-to-day life that it doesn’t even register anymore.  But I was reminded of it on my latest modeling tour, when one of my photographers told me how much he enjoyed the conversations that we had in addition to the art we made. 

I realized that this was a person that I saw maybe once a year.  Someone who, outside of that interaction, I had only exchanged a handful of emails.  Someone who I had just been nattering to about the latest polyamorous drama in my life like I would to my best friend.  And it felt completely right and normal to do so—just like it did when we shot together last year.  

It started me thinking about where this connection comes from.  I believe, in many ways, it’s unique to modeling.  At least, I haven’t experienced it in the other arts that I’ve practiced.  I’ve created some amazing connections through music and writing, but nothing like this depth from what would otherwise be a short and frivolous interaction.  

I imagine most people would guess it has something to do with the nudity aspect of my art.  And I don’t think being nude hurts.  It creates a sense of honesty and vulnerability that I think encourages people to open up themselves.  

Culturally speaking, a photo shoot is an odd thing.

But more than that, I think it’s the nature of the shoot itself.  Culturally speaking, a photo shoot is an odd thing.  When I’m traveling, I’m working with people that I would otherwise never meet, let alone interact with.  And we two strangers have to come together on a deep enough level to create something emotionally moving.  Society at large doesn’t have a script for that.  And so I think people gravitate towards being their authentic selves.  

Of course, I don’t get this connection with every artist I’ve posed for, and that’s okay.  It’s not necessary to create great images; it’s just a bonus.  Sometimes photographers are more private, or quiet.  Sometimes, I just plain don’t get along with a person, and that’s fine too.  But it happens more often than not. 

And of course, sometimes it can be a bit much.  Sometimes I’ll get a photographer that’s going through something terrible—or I’ll get several in a day, back to back.  At that point, modeling becomes more about emotional labor than making art.  

But human connection, for me, is what creating art is all about.  When I write, I’m trying to open myself up to my readers.  When I pose nude, I’m trying to create that intimacy with my audience.  That I can create that connection with my fellow artists during the creative process is, quite frankly, one of the best parts of my job.  Even if it’s something that’s rarely discussed.  

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.