The day after I turned 24, I came across a Facebook post from an acquaintance that simply read: “Urgent nude modeling gig tonight.” They then proceeded to explain that they were feeling a bit under the weather and needed to find a replacement for their gig as a live model for an art class that was set to start in only a matter of hours.
It would be paid, the person stressed, and after quickly checking my dwindling bank account, I began to seriously contemplate the possibility. I had promised myself that I would take risks and learn from new experiences this year, and here was one appearing out of nowhere, a mere 24 hours after my birthday.
With that final thought, I commented back, “I could do it.” Within moments, all the details regarding this commitment were forwarded to me, and I was on my way home to quickly shower before my grand debut.
I have always been aware of my body. Growing up as a young black woman, my then-size 2 body was the subject of many uncomfortable conversations. My classmates and teachers used to whisper about me in the halls, voicing their worries in quiet tones. My family was considered low-income, and I know that people believed that my thinness was because of our financial situation.
My grandmother would look at me, questioning how it was possible that I wasn’t gaining weight as fast as she thought that I needed to. Black grandmothers show their love through cooking. I was expected to finish every meal whether I was hungry or not. I was constantly eating, but nothing was happening. I honestly believed that I was lucky. Maybe I was. Then, suddenly, I wasn’t.
I began to take up more and more space, and as I became more and more aware of it, my self-esteem, which was already incredibly low, hit rock-bottom. I wasn’t gaining weight in the places that were socially acceptable. My body didn’t look like any of the ones you see today on Instagram models. Their images showcase flat tummies, wide hips, big breasts that threaten to spill out of their bathing suits. My body displayed a tummy that threatened to spill over my jeans; my thighs expanded, straining to allow clothing to fit over them. Dresses had to be pulled over my head after I said a quick prayer to the fashion gods.
In my mind, I truly began to believe that my weight was one of the biggest issues holding me back. Men didn’t find me attractive because of it. I wasn’t moving up at my workplace because I didn’t look like the petite women that proudly paraded around. I was changing sizes monthly, and I was ashamed every morning when I got dressed, seeing beautiful dresses that I had only worn once crammed into the back of the closet, collecting dust.
I walked into the building and found the teacher quickly because she was another woman of color. She excitedly mentioned that this class hadn’t seen too many people of color disrobe before and that she knew I would make a good model. She also mentioned that she wanted her class to be able to draw all sorts of bodies: big ones, small ones, disabled ones. No two bodies look exactly the same. My size 18 doesn’t always look like another woman’s size 18, and that’s OK. In the end, everybody deserves to see themselves represented.
“I had promised myself that I would take risks and learn from new experiences this year, and here was one appearing out of nowhere, a mere 24 hours after my birthday.”
I stepped into the bathroom to disrobe. I took a few breaths, staring at myself in the mirror, and gave myself a little pep talk. I told myself that this was a cool experience and that, hey, maybe one day I’d get a story or two out of it.
With that in mind, I undressed. My underwear came last, a pair that had been carefully selected even though there had been no need to do so. I did keep my cardigan because the instructor remarked that having a jacket of some sort would make me feel more comfortable, especially when the class took a break and I would suddenly realize that I was the only naked one in the room. I took one last breath and stepped into the room. The light was bright and there was music playing softly in the background.
I quickly noticed that I was the only black woman in the classroom, and one of two people of color. I was also one of the biggest. I shifted my weight back and forth. I suddenly became very aware of my pubic hair. Should I have shaved it even though it felt like it had always been a part of me?
Was I ashy? I remembered that I had pumped half a bottle of lotion in my hands to lather myself before I left the house. Everything was fine, and frankly, I needed to stop thinking.
There was only a small handful of students present, but they all looked fairly eager to get started. The class would last about three hours. I would pose in intervals, 30 minutes being the longest block of time. I needed to stay still for the entirety of my pose, so it would be best to choose poses that weren’t too complex. I had never done this before, so there wasn’t any pressure. After ensuring that we were all on the same page, the instructor set the timer and we began.
Posing was difficult, but we made it work. I was constantly listening to my body, understanding that some poses, no matter how beautiful they appeared in my imagination, just weren’t doable and that was fine. I also wasn’t allowed to move my eyes, so there was a lot of staring off into space and being one with my thoughts. I kept myself awake by creating mental to-do lists.
When the class ended, the instructor asked me if I wanted to come and see myself through the eyes of the students. I said sure, and I stepped forward. My eyes fell onto the students’ papers and I felt immense shame. From the size of my stomach to the circumference of my areolas, every part of my body looked massive. Is this how they really saw me? Did everyone see me like this?
The students watched me with unwavering, proud eyes, and I told them that the pieces were lovely, because they truly were. They had put great care into their pieces and their patience showed. I took a photo of one of the drawings (I had been lying down on my back with my legs propped up for this pose), thanked them for their time, accepted my payment and left.
As my Lyft driver took me home, I clicked open the photo again, hoping to see it through different eyes. I noticed that my skin looked very smooth. The folds of my belly looked very soft and realistic. Yes, my areolas looked big, but I loved my breasts, so that was OK. Then a funny thing happened: The more imperfections I saw, the more I liked them. It was the first step that I ever took toward being gentle with myself.
I waited until the next day to post the photo, drawing a line to cover my breasts so the photo wouldn’t get flagged for nudity. Soon, the comments came flooding in, with my friends remarking that I was so brave for doing that and how they could never.
I honestly think that I was more broke than brave, but maybe that’s neither here nor there. Maybe I was brave just because I showed up and stood in that white, bright, chilly room, naked in front of a group of strangers who were seeing my body as a piece of art for a few hours out of their lives. I had lived with this body for 24 years and I had never been as kind to her as they had been, and they didn’t even know me.
They didn’t know the sharp barking sound of my laughter when I think something is extremely funny. They didn’t know what my face looks like when I am truly angry about something. They had never seen me cry in a fitting room as I struggled to get a pair of pants above my thighs or a dress to fit over my stomach. Yet they had immortalized me with gentleness.
I kept that photo, even though I don’t look at it too often. I am not always patient with myself, but every day I try a little bit harder to get there. I still take chances, even when the pressure is looming over me and my expectations are low. I still show up because I deserve to be seen in all my glory, imperfections and all.