For two years, I worked for my university’s art department as a nude model for drawing and painting classes. It truly wasn't glamorous — my hair would be in a messy bun, or greasy from sleeping, I never wore make up and maybe I shaved my legs. It was part-time work, usually early in the morning. For college students, 7:30 a.m. is really early.
I had recently transferred and a friend I knew from high school told me the art department was hiring models. Broke and with time, I had nothing to lose if I applied. I remember the mint green form that I filled out to apply for the position, with two check boxes at the top that read, “Interested in:__ nude modeling __clothed modeling.” I could see the receptionist smirking because she knew exactly what I was looking at. Almost as if to gauge whether or not each applicant knew what they were getting themselves into. Did my friend mention nude modeling? How many vodka sodas did I have that night?
One part of me was absolutely terrified. Another part of me wanted to take a chance. Being in a new place, at a new school, I was feeling freer than usual. I walked around campus with my head held higher. No one knew me. Up until that point, I was losing sight of what I thought I knew about me. This was my moment to reintroduce me to myself.
Nude modeling, sign me up.
I gripped that mint green form tighter in my hand as I walked it over to the receptionist. Maybe if I squeezed the paper hard enough, the “X” would jump from one box to the other. One foot in front of the other, I got really nervous approaching the desk and blurted, “I’ll be a naked one!” Oh jeez. I handed her the form with my eyes on the floor; she fought back laughter with her toothy grin. I would have laughed at me, too. She thanked me for filling it out and she told me that I would be contacted to set up my work schedule.
I walked out of the art department immediately asking myself, “What did you just do?”
Two months before was the first time that I vocalized that I needed help with my eating disorder. I was at the forefront of a battle over my body and my mind. Half of me desperate to get out of the trap that was my skin, flesh and bones – needing something, anything, to make me love myself again. The other half of me telling me that my sacrifice, my strict diet and dedicated workout routines would eventually make me love me again.
The first time I stepped up onto that podium, completely vulnerable, I actually felt comfort from the eyes watching me. I stood under three large lights, brushing warmth onto my shoulders. 12 students set up in a circle around me, with easels seasoned with paint spots and canvas stretched around wood frames. 24 eyes traced the lines my skin created. No instructions outlined quite yet, and the room patiently waited for the professor.
I was introduced and each person in the room shared a nod or small gesture of politeness with me. The professor thanked me for my time and then explained to the students what he expected of them.
What he expected from them.
Not me. For once.
Painting by unknown student from Western Washington University
Halfway through the three-hour session, we took a 15-minute break. The artist had the opportunity to clean out their brushes and I had a moment to shake out my limbs. In a robe I brought with me, I walked the perimeter of the studio circle. I spent a few minutes at each canvas, examining the shape of each body on the canvas. At first I was afraid of what I would see. I was afraid I was going to see my worst self, my ugliest – but I wasn’t looking in a mirror.
Instead, I saw collections of colors that danced together to paint the picture of a woman reborn. This was the first time I saw myself through someone else's eyes. I saw myself portrayed with grace and not hate. I moved from canvas to canvas like the hour hand from a clock moves from number to number: slower than the other hands. I stood behind each canvas, taking in the new me. I peered over each canvas to place myself back up on the podium and I saw a woman sitting taller and stronger. This was more powerful than any mirror.
After I left my first shift, I cried in the bathroom on the basement level of the library. I was overwhelmed by the kindness I felt from absolute strangers. I was seeing my body in its reality for the first time in years, and it was nothing to be ashamed of. I was completely floored from finally being free from my fantasy of everyone else's expectations of my body. I felt love and acceptance from people whose names I didn’t know.
I want to reach out to my readers and ask for your help. It's been a couple of years since I've posed on that podium; the artists that I worked with have most likely graduated and moved forward with their lives. I am desperate to give credit to the artist that helped me through a dark period in my life. I would like to thank them for the freedom that I gained through their work. I never spent much time talking to the artist due to social anxieties associated with my struggles. I only ever asked for their permission to take these photos and never made honest connections or friendships. If you or anyone you know was ever a part of the Western Washington University Art Department, please help me find the artist in any way you can so I can credit them for their empowering work.