In My Garmentless Glory
– Non-fiction by Kristen Herrington –
I could hear the soft scratch of charcoal to paper. The steady hum of jazz music bounced off of the industrial pipe spattered ceilings of the classroom. My direct and periphery view was the wizardly waves of the Halifax Harbour, George’s Island and a Farley Mowat fishing boat floating on the elastic surface. The space was warm enough and felt both big and small all at once, like one of those waterslides that are a hundred miles long, but you’re restrained inside a tube. Big and small. Thirty art students created a chorus of doodles and dashes on their oversized drawing pads, cradled in easels marked with stories of paint, pride and pain of all the creatives that came before them. The drawing class had formed a circle around their subject and were directed by the instructor to capture detail and shadow in their sketches. The subject? Me. In the buff. Nude. Naked.
I worked part-time as a nude model for 2 years. It wasn’t about the money, it paid only $17.25 an hour. Which, if you’re doing what sounds like most people’s nervous breakdown, isn’t that much at all. The experience was equally horrifying as it was exhilarating. I don’t know what compelled me to try it in the first place. It wasn’t a bucket list item or a fear to be overcome. It just felt like one of those things you try before you tell yourself you should know better. That zesty kind of fun where the element of risk makes it appealing.
There were no “auditions” so to speak. Simply submit an application with your availability and include a void cheque for payment. I imagined this was a minor part of the administration’s job duties: processing CV’s for people who were “applying” to pose naked, surrounded by a group of young adults. There was no request to include a photo or indication that my body type would “yay” or “nay” the success of my application. You could be Jabba the Hutt or Heidi Klum and still have your body drawn. It wasn’t a job that came with a pension and parking pass but it did come with a panicked pulse and an examination of your body that your doctor never learned in med school.
There wasn’t a set work schedule. Models would receive an email or call within a week’s advance of a class asking of their availability. This gave enough time to factor in things like periods and pedicures before taking the job. The only things you needed to bring were a cover-up of sorts and any other conveniences: water, snacks, and maybe your stuffed teddy bear who stood by your side through childhood ear infections and parental scoldings. Each time I arrived on campus, I had to show ID to the security guard at the desk. Rarely was I in the same classroom, or with the same instructor but got to know my way around eventually. All of these procedures that were once first day jitters quickly became familiarities. On day one of any job there is a smidge of anxiety looming in your every moment; a soup of nerves, embarrassment and uncertainly. “Let’s do that naked,” I thought to myself.
For my first session, I was to attend a 3-hour class: 7-10pm. I had no more an idea of what to expect as I would going on a blind-date in a black hole. Would I be modeling naked for three hours? Would they tell me how to pose? Had I cleaned myself obsessively enough but no so obsessively that my skin was left red and raw? I arrived on campus a few minutes early and found my classroom. A group Nova Scotia College of Art and Design (NSCAD) students stood in a pre-class-huddle, wearing horn-rimmed glasses and unusually small backpacks. They were scouting out the set-up, looking for the best light and shadows. The thought of standing under the lights caught the attention of my self-conscious. I hurried to the bathroom to do one more naked body check. All the parts were still there! Everything was as smooth and sucked in as it was going to get.
At 7pm on the nose, I tap-tapped on the open door frame, gaining the attention of the instructor. He gestured me inside. My eyes scanned the room, looking for a safe space to slip into the invisible cloak I wished I had brought. I found a spot in the corner and stood awkwardly against a cupboard filled with pencils and non-judgement. The instructor tasked the class with a quick warm-up activity and came to speak with me privately.
Instructor: Hi Kristen! So, we’re going to get started shortly with a long, standing pose. How many classes have you done so far?
Me: Umm, this is my first time.
Instructor: Oh! Well, do you think you could hold a pose for about 30-40 minutes?
Me Inside my head: I have no idea! Who has EVER practiced standing completely still for half an hour before?!
Me: Sure, I think I can handle that.
Instructor: OK, we’ll start in about 5 minutes. You can leave your things over there (points at portable chalkboard that covered the doorway entrance, offering privacy) and just let me know if you need a break.
I was to stand on a circular platform in the middle of the classroom, facing outwards. I was the bonfire that the circle of gazers would soon fixate upon. There were sets of eyes and opinions covering all angles of my middle-aged body. I stepped up onto the platform in my robe and at the direction of the instructor’s nod, dropped it to the ground along with my inhibitions.
In a split second, I was naked in a room full of people. Drawing me. Drawing my curves and expression. And sooner than expected, my she-warrior.
It was exhilarating.
Once the robe was gone, the anticipation was over. I was simply a body in a room being drawn by a group of art students. I had this moment of “well, now they’ve seen you so let’s just do this as awesome as possible.” I elongated parts I thought might look best elongated. I chose a natural standing position with a grounded stance and relaxed shoulders. I looked out at the water, listened to Charlie Parker’s sultry saxophone in the background and savoured the feeling of empowerment that could only be felt with this kind of experience.
In my lifetime, women’s bodies have been imposed upon by everything from air-brushing to expectations. We’re displayed with waistlines where cheeseburgers were clearly unwelcomed and hair extensions that should be sold with a neck brace. Being raw in the flesh felt authentically liberating. It wasn’t sexualized. It was powerful through vulnerability. I felt like me. An honest version of a twentieth-century woman who was offering a (surprisingly) confident version of a “real” body. I had the attention of the room, all of whom were documenting that moment for me. I could look around and catch glimpses here and there of the faint black outlines that were starting to take shape on the cream coloured pages. I looked soft, yet pronounced in the drawings. My presence was being communicated and captured by more than 2 dozen creative minds.
As I let myself sink into the moment, the experience actually became quite relaxing. I didn’t overthink this feeling at the time but in the aftermath found it unexpected. I’m not particularly shy (obviously), but absolutely possess a collection of body image insecurities. Things “happen” to the female body after thirty. I was warned of this by my more senior lady-peers. I swear I blew out the candles on my 30th birthday cake and my ass simultaneously drooped towards the floor. There are small hairs that sprout up in places that you can’t believe have to be added to your shaving regiment. Your skin becomes dryer than a clementine peel leftover from Christmas. But this was my real body and I felt it was important to show younger people the truth. That we could be proud of these “evolutions” rather than hide them behind fake lashes and Spanx. This was art, after all!
It was also my pep-talk: “You’re doing this for the sake of feminism”.
By the twenty-minute mark my muscles were tighter than an over-inflated tire. My shoulders burned. I experimented with micro-movements to see what I could get away with without disturbing the flow of the charcoal. My mind wandered a little. I mostly daydreamed about chairs, my bed or even a nice lean-able light post. When the instructor gave the “2-minutes left” update, I knew deep down it was for me more than the small-backpack kids. I couldn’t believe I had stood still naked for thirty minutes and had enjoyed it.
I would do this again.
And I did! For two more years.
Each class was a little different. Most had between 8-12 students representing various years of study. They included a diverse cross-section of ages and abilities. There were some who had clearly never seen a woman’s naked body in real life and others who could care less if I was skipping rope the whole time.
In one lesson I had to change my pose every thirty seconds. The thirty-second poses were of any contortion I could think of, and after 10 minutes of these rapid-metamorphizes, I had twisted my body in ways you only would in defence against being tickled. In another class, I was offered a reclining chair which I spread out on like a cat in a sunbeam. I was in my element now and knew how to position my body so my muscles could stay relaxed. I’ll never forget one evening class where the instructor clapped his hands loudly over his head to capture the attention of the hyper-hipster-students, “Everyone get to your seats!” he hollered. Followed by a soft, under-his-breath, “It’s not every day we have Farrah Facet here modelling…” – I appreciated the compliment, despite the dated movie-star reference.
While nude modeling for these university students, I was wrapping up a Master’s degree at my own. Upon graduation – political science degree in hand – I applied to my first government job. I mulled over including this unique job experience on my resume. It would certainly set me apart, no? Or would they wonder why in hell a Playboy bunny thought she could dissect policy and advise on legislation? I opted to include my “Figure Drawing Assistant” title and felt that I wasn’t embellishing the truth.
My first day on the government job marked my last day as a nude model. It remains one of the more interesting experiences from my past and contributed to the essence of empowerment I now embody. I hoped that some of those students were challenged to think about things like beauty standards and vulnerability. I hope they felt my bad-assery as all sense of a drooping ass vanquished, along with the crumpled pieces of rejected sketch pad paper strewn across the floor.
About the Author – Kristen Herrington
Though born and raised in a small farming community in rural Nova Scotia, Kristen Herrington has called Halifax home for more than a decade. She is a prolific abstract painter designer, and writer with a particular interest in collaborative works. She studied, what she calls, the artist’s “thing” for her Master’s thesis as an avenue to explore the relationship between the creative individual working in a capitalist society. Through this research, Kristen discovered her own “thing” and has been working on that artistic evolution for the past 6 years.
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