I have a stubborn streak. In fact, I am so stubborn, that on waking on New Year’s Day and realising that the resolution that I had made on the previous night for the year ahead was “more public nudity”, I winced and decided to find a way to go about this.
Well, a few weeks into term, inspiration struck. I was sitting in a university life drawing session at Empty Shop, trying not to too cruelly under-endow my depiction of that week’s male nude model, when I thought: “why not?” For anyone who has slaved away in a dull summer job to earn less than minimum wage, £20 for what is essentially doing nothing for an hour and a half seems like a good deal. Granted I would have to take my clothes off, but I rationalised that I was pretty sure I’ve done that for less than £20 before. So I signed up to be the model the next week, giddy from the novelty of finding a “respectable” way to achieve my New Year’s goal. In the words of Cora in Calendar Girls: “it’s not naked; it’s nude”.
Coming from a painting background, I have always enjoyed drawing and painting nudes; during my art foundation year, I managed to get over twenty people partially nude in the name of “art”. We even had an infamous “naked stairwell” where art students habitually took off their clothes for other people’s projects, but I have always been the person behind the easel or the camera. In fact, I hate having my photograph taken, clothed or otherwise. One artistic, earnest boy once asked me if he could take a photograph of me, and was slightly taken aback when I laughed in his face. I didn’t care how besotted I was, I was absolutely sure that there were not going to be naked pictures of me floating around Durham, and in this age of internet, the world. For some reason, for me there has always a distinct line in respectability between that of the naked photograph and the nude drawing/painting. If Cherie Blair (not a usual role model of mine) had been an artist’s nude model while at university, and was still able to become a respectable barrister, surely there could be nothing to be embarrassed about?
I could say that nude life modelling is a necessity for someone who paints nudes themselves; that the reason I decided to do it was to achieve a more empathetic understanding of the model and consequently improve my painting ability. That would be a fantastic rationalisation if that was the reason, but it would also be a lie: I did it because I’m stubborn, and I also thought it would be a great way to rid myself of any stage fright.
So the day came, and I was beginning to regret my obstinacy. I had picked the one week where an artist-taught class was taking place. Unfortunately for me, this artist was a close-talker. I’m not the biggest fan of close-talkers in the first place (people who decide to stand that little bit too close when they want to speak to you), but it particularly didn’t set me at ease when I was standing there naked. At that point, as the class filtered in, one of my coursemates who I had shared a tutorial with earlier that day walked in; so much for anonymity.
It turned out that the hard part was the disrobing. Once naked, I felt transformed into a faceless nude. It’s a remarkably unsexualised experience, unlike how I view a photograph, where it is always possible that someone can look on it in a manner undesirable to the subject’s wishes. In a life-drawing class, the people who have come are there to draw, not for any other reason. For me, the worst part was standing still for long periods of time.
After the class, I ended up going for a couple of drinks with a friend who had been at the class and a few of the other attendees, including my coursemate and his friend. I found it pleasantly remarkable that instead of making any sleazy jokes, as I’d expect (I’d probably make them myself), I was informed that I had been a good life model because I have a nice neck. In fact, I was slightly offended, that I’d taken my clothes off and my neck was the commented on feature. When I jokingly voiced this, the boys looked at me in shock and explained: “anything else would be inappropriate”.
I have been a nude model twice now, and thought nothing of it until the end of last term. I’ve enjoyed pointing out people to my friends and being able to say “he’s seen me naked”, knowing that it was in innocence. At the end of last term however, as I was walking down Church Street when someone gave one of those sleazy “I’ve seen you naked” looks, normally reserved for one night Klute mistakes, and I knew where he’d recognised me from. Suddenly it didn’t seem as innocent. The question this raised to me was this: does one person’s misconstruing of my desexualised intentions of nude modelling for an art class take away from the sexual neutrality of the experience? Not “is beauty in the eye of the beholder” but: “is debauchery in the eye of the beholder?”