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On life modelling, the duality of fear and perception

I have begun life modelling again and as I stand or sit for these long periods I have the time and somewhat forced opportunity for reflection upon the experience.

At first I notice my position. My tendency to face the female presenting artists in the room; more eager to turn my back on the two male presenting artists to my right. My hand obscuring my vulva and my chest open toward the womxn. I notice my body language as I get myself into each position - never facing the mxn, never meeting their eyes or glancing at their work. The womxn I'm happily smiling with, watching their work develop. I feel safer with some, curious about others, intimidated by one but somehow numb or at least actively unfeeling about the mxn. I'm directed to face the other side of the room, allowing the artists opportunity to draw from different angles. My poses change as I face the mxn. Kind of them to be all together. Or perhaps cruel.

The first few seconds, before the instructor requests you remove your robe, your heart feels like it's beating inside your throat. Like everyone can surely see it and notice your shaking. But the robe falls and the sky doesn't. The robe falls and all you hear is the peaceful asmr of charcoal, pencil, pastel on paper. Of paintbrushes tinkling in water, paper being turned, erasers working hard. Rubbing out my body, my lines, my shadows. It's at once terrifying to be so perceived, so seen and so focused on. I fear, deep down inside, that I'll be objectified, that sexuality plays a role in each artists' mind and that I'm willingly opening myself up to being scrutinised and judged and truly seen, is incongruous with my nature. It feels nearly physically disarming - I can't think for fear of being so vulnerable, but it strikes me simultaneously that yes, I am being objectified, but without sexuality. I am turned into an object. I may as well be a vase or artfully placed pear on a draped cloth of meaningless context. I am not human so much as shape and form. I am light and shadow and round and long and soft. I am not me, I am not a woman, I am just cells and atoms and simple lines. It is both horrifying, to be made inhuman by my own volition, but also freeing. My own perception of sexuality, my fear of perception as a woman, as a breast-having, pube-wearing, naked woman is just mine. While the artists may also have this view, I am first and foremost a form to challenge them and their intent scrutiny becomes a kind of challenge to me to be as still or inspiring as possible.

I become acutely aware of the angles of my fingers, of the curve of my instep and the weight of my shoulder or the sensation of my ear. It wakes up your internal observer, I scan my body, feeling each toe and my knees, make micro-adjustments to alleviate the pressure, the tension, I am aware of the angle of my eyeline, the droop of my eyelids, the shape of my lips and the light that's playing across my stomach. Where I tensed and held my stomach in for the first few poses, I relax and notice the softness of the heaters' lights on the roundness of my belly, where my womb lies and how my breathing subtly shifts the shadows. It became poetic. My stillness was a gift to the artists but their watching, their observing, their minute scrutiny was a gift to me too. My fear melted and became a parody of the connection I was beginning to feel between my body and space. I became fizzlingly aware of where my skin kept the air at bay and what the lines and shadows would look like.

As I sat, laid or stood, I imagined all of the muses in centuries past and their own fears - the double edged perception of both whore and Madonna. The women who posed, the women who were painted would have been shunned, feared, ostracised and yet they're hanging in the most sacred of sites, revered, tentatively preserved and the vehicle for artists' respect. How curious to step into that world.

As I sat, laid or stood, I analysed the shape of my fear and how objectification shook me so greatly, both as a woman and not. It defied what was solidifying as a permanent lens; that I viewed myself as a woman to be sexually perceived by anyone external. I am nothing more than what people see and have to manage that as a result. This thinking has subconsciously lead to most of my appearance-based decisions. Trying desperately to control my narrative - trying to control how people view me. This is of course, a product of standard verbal harassment, of media consumption, of a patriarchal society and a childhood in the oft-backwards Australian culture. My self-perception was so consumed by my 'use' as a woman, by my image as a sexual commodity that I both feared being the subject of sexual desire and scrutiny but also feared being viewed as anything other than a woman with sexual power or desirability. The age old weapon of the patriarchy, to create the construct that womxn's value is purely in sex, was entirely disarmed. As soon as I realised that was happening I could have cried. Not for sadness but relief. It is one of the first times I'd felt seen without that feared layer of sexual use and my god did it feel good. It was pure and beautiful. It was empowering to be just a human, to be seen for shape, not use, to be seen for the minutiae of form, colour, shadow and texture and let it be translated through gesture and line and stroke.

Life modelling taught me, on day one, that I am human above my gender or external perception. That I am a congregation of lines and movement that is as beautiful in life as it is on paper.


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