Public Bodies: Nude Models and Body Confidence

by Eliza Jane Schaeffer | 10/18/17 2:35am

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by Divya Kopalle / The Dartmouth

Charles Mack ’18 began nude modeling for the money.

“I started my sophomore year, and I was just looking on campus for jobs, and I saw that it was, like, $20 an hour, so I was like, ‘I’m fine with my body, I’m fine expressing myself, $20 an hour is pretty good, I’ll try it out,’” he said.

At Dartmouth, art classes for some students practice depicting a variety of subjects, and included in the lineup for some classes is the naked human form. The models for these art classes are usually students like Mack, and the position pays well, likely because few people are thrilled to pose for strangers and expose themselves.

But why is nudity a cause for shame? This discomfort is not universal — travel writer and author Rick Steves has written extensively on the striking degree of acceptance of nudity in European cultures — nor is it permanent. In 2009, the BBC brought together eight strangers and asked them to strip. After several hours of nudity, the individuals exhibited signs of great discomfort; however, after several days of nudity, they were unfazed by the naked bodies that surrounded them.

Unlike Mack, Leah Alpern ’18 sought out nude modeling as a personal challenge. When she learned about the position her freshman fall, her reflexive response was awed disavowal; however, after some reflection, she realized she was originally thinking about the practice in “an immature way.”

For many Americans, the naked human body is a private thing, to be shared only with oneself and few others. To be physically seen entirely is to be vulnerable, open. It is to have your insecurities uncovered, presented for the judgement of others. To stand naked in front of a room filled with peers seems to require a great act of courage. And, at first, it does.

“Especially as a freshman girl … you feel like when you’re in a new place, you have to look a certain way, and you’re not really in control of who’s perceiving you,” Alpern explained.

Her first few modeling sessions were challenging, but she leaned into the discomfort, eventually learning to think about her body — and nudity more broadly — in a different way.

“Overcoming any sort of challenge you pose for yourself is empowering,” she said. “It made me more comfortable, and I changed my own way of thinking.”

Marcella Saboe ’18 shared Alpern’s outlook on nude modeling. As someone who — like many young women — has struggled with body image issues, standing in front of a room of people completely unclothed was “nerve-wracking.” However, she was able to overcome her insecurities, an accomplishment she described as “empowering” and “rewarding.”

At the time, she was enrolled in an art history class on early Roman art which partially focused on artistic representations of the female body throughout time; as she posed, she was intentional in reflecting on what she was doing in the context of this history.

“For me, it was different from anything I had ever done before, but I got way more out of it than I thought I was going to,” she said. “I went into it thinking, ‘maybe this will help me with confidence’ and ‘maybe I’ll make a little money.’ And once I did, it started becoming a meditative practice for me, and it changed my mindset about my own body.”

We tend to assign value judgments to our bodies — even the body-positivity movement positions itself as a radical reimagining of what beauty is. This notion implies that a body can and should be evaluated as beautiful or ugly, an ideology at odds with the artistic tradition of replicating form to honor function. Ancient cultures reproduced naked figures in order to celebrate fertility and athleticism, while during the Renaissance, artists developed an almost scientific interest in the functionality of the human body. Leonardo da Vinci and Michelangelo dissected cadavers in order to better understand the way in which the individual components of the body unite as one.

Similarly, art students at Dartmouth take a methodological approach to documenting the human form. Mack, Alpern and Saboe presented their bodies to the class not as sexual objects but rather as planes and curves and surfaces to be reproduced on a page by their peers.

“Even though it seems like they would be objectifying you, they’re not, they’re just learning how to draw, and your body is a model for that,” Alpern said.

And though all three models were anxious during their first few sessions, they soon became comfortable with the process.

“Once you’re able to form those pathways in your brain and get in the right mindset, it becomes comfortable,” Saboe said.

Now, Alpern is more concerned with combatting boredom than nerves, and Mack is more focused on staying awake than staying calm.

“It was really hard on me because it was a 10A, so I usually have lift for football before,” he said. “And at first, you do some small [poses] that are like five minutes or even like 30 seconds. But then, once you start getting to the 30-minute ones … in my mind, I’m just like stay awake, don’t doze off.”

Once hyper aware of the air and stares on their bare skin, these models became so comfortable as to experience boredom, representing a dramatic shift in their perspective on and experience of nudity.

And thus, the private becomes public.