“Why women today hate their bodies” — I pick it up and flip through eighty pages of high fashion before I come upon the predictable pictures of Calista Flockhart and quotes from experts and Gen-X women explaining how women in the twentieth century feel nothing but overwhelming despair at their imperfection when they look in the mirror.
It is true that in the last fifteen years, the standard for women in our society has changed; in every image presented to us, women appear smaller and smoother and shinier than ever before. It is also true that attaining this standard seems to be more of a preoccupation than ever before. We obsessively follow the lives and habits of the rich and famous — people for whom daily Pilates is a career investment — and curiously observe the results of their diligence every time they walk down a red carpet. Most of us, however, observe ourselves every time we pass a mirror or reflective window; we look quickly, and tug on a piece of hair or clothing as we pass, usually the same piece of hair or clothing we had been tugging on all day, often the piece of hair or clothing we could have predicted would be the problem when we left the house.
“Why women today hate their bodies” is not the issue. Simple hatred is far too passive — it is not as if we are shocked into complete hopelessness every time we catch a glimpse of ourselves. Women are not consumed with hatred of themselves — the majority think in these terms only in moments of extreme weakness — women are consumed by their awareness of themselves.
Like most of the women I know, I have come to terms with the reality that I will never reach glossy perfection; certain traits will always be more awkward than I would like, certain proportions will render a seamless silhouette unattainable. But I know better than anyone what these weak points are, and I can calculate and categorize them into passable, easily hide-able, and depressing. I am instinctively aware of the many tiny environmental shifts that could alter this balance, and like every other girl I know, I don’t have to actively think through any of this when I grab what to wear in the morning, or angle myself slightly when someone takes a picture. Being that I am so informed, I assume that most people would agree with my analyses, and thus consciousness is worthwhile, as if you are catching the defects in the picture before anyone else —
This being said, it may seem odd that I chose to model nude.
But this behavior is just an optimizing instinct; it does not confuse the fact that imperfect as my body is, I know it is mine alone. Knowing that this inner monologue was the reality for most women, I assumed that I was as worthy a candidate as any. I was curious to see how or what it made me think, and I had been asked to model for a sculpture class, so the pressure for sex appeal was off — bodily excess is beautiful when represented in small, inanimate proportion.
The worth of art is hard to keep in mind, however, when the defining reality hits home — that you will be naked in a room full of clothed people. The experience began with certain situational realities that turned the running commentary in my head to high volume. To begin with, I introduced myself to the class while still in clothing, meeting everyone’s smiles and hellos while they adjusted the height of their sculpture stands. The smiling teacher then showed me to a small adjacent room and instructed me to put on the robe that hung inside. I was grateful for the robe, as the idea of actually undressing in front of everyone was decidedly unappealing. I couldn’t decide if this costume change added some kind of purpose to what I knew came next, or if it added a feeling of doctor’s-office-striptease to the whole affair. In the time it took to cross the room, a detailed account of the best and worst points of what these people would see when it was removed ran through my head.
The teacher was standing in the center of the room piling blankets on top of what I now realized was a large rotating platform. “I think I want you to be in a sitting pose,” the teacher said, “because it is more comfortable, and because the body at rest is so interesting, conveying the life behind the surface and getting a sense for the muscle structures when they aren’t in use — We just have to figure out which position will work best for everyone –“
Despite this inclusive sentiment, the next ten minutes were the most comically alienating in my short, naked, career. Once robeless and on the platform, she directed me into a variety of different resting poses, shifting weight and direction, crossing and uncrossing limbs, overwhelming my ongoing analysis of the situation. As if I was not already painfully aware of every inch of my exposure, members of the class then began to walk to the center of the room to observe my proportions relative to the bench I was perched upon. With furrowed brows and little measuring tapes, for a moment they joined me in my calculation.
The class was three hours long, one day a week for six weeks, and I watched them work on my pose for all six weeks. Every fifteen minutes, the platform I was on rotated forty-five degrees and I would be facing a different eight impressions of me. Initially, I approached the pieces with the same evaluative eye I keep on myself, quickly identifying everything distasteful each time I rotated toward another corner of the room.
As the weeks went on, though, I began think less about what the people behind me had to see, and instead looked forward to making the full circle, to see how each piece had changed. Each project was very different. Some chose to sculpt only the central portion of my body, others chose to work in different scales that gave a different presence to the piece, or different textures that changed the feeling of movement in the figure. One woman, a professional graphic designer who was taking her first art class in twenty years, had my torso twist open and hollow into an vase above my waist.
For the most part, they looked nothing like me, but I became excited whenever someone came close to capturing something of my composition, regardless of whether it was an attribute I would rather leave at home, or whether it was a flattering version. As I watched the eyes behind them dart back and forth between me and the clay, it became clear that their judgments were neither positive nor negative, they were just the momentum for their process.
My passable and partially hidden and depressing points inextricably linked were just the intricate reality they hoped to touch. Together, the students and I were learning to understanding a little more of the grace of how complex we are. This, I realized, is why art is interesting, because this struggle is so universal. Having the chance to watch others work to see me didn’t teach me to love my body, but it did show me that my opinion, however informed, is just one of many. n