The most awkward part is that I don’t begin naked. At first, the students think I’m maybe a new classmate, the result of an add/drop, maybe a new teaching assistant. They look at me the way you look at new classmates, disinterested or dismissive—or sometimes hopeful, like maybe they imagine we’ll be friends, lovers, more. It’s how I look at them, too, despite knowing that I’m here to make money.
The art professor arrives late. She approaches me where I sit on a paint-splattered metal table shoved against the wall. She says hello, asks if I’m the model, and introduces herself. I decide I like her when she gestures to where I’ll spend the ninety-minute class and I glimpse a soft poof of copper armpit hair. It makes me feel better about the fact that I didn’t shave for this; less worried that my body hair is something I should have rid myself of before being naked in the presence of other bodies. My body hair makes me feel less beautiful.
My beauty has always been the way I pay my way into spaces I don’t feel I deserve to inhabit. I’ve been trying to deconstruct this in my everyday life by not wearing makeup, not shaving, not panicking when my drawn-on eyebrows smear against my partner’s face during sex. I’m trying to be more bodily, and more okay with who I am. This gig is a part of that.
As the professor speaks to her students, she points to the closet across the room and I go where I’m directed, grabbing my bag and stepping around stray book bags and extra sets of charcoal. I find the light switch in the closet and shut the door. As I change into my robe, I am surrounded by abandoned paintings and charcoal drawings—rejected bodies, drawn before mine. I wonder if my image will end up in this closet, too.
After I change, I turn off my cell phone. My mom and I normally talk once or twice a week during her lunch break, but I didn’t tell her about my new side gig today. When I told my partner, she asked if I wanted her to take me shopping for a robe. I imagined a red satin one, the type that I could repurpose for sex, one that would make me feel beautiful—but picked one made of thick white cotton instead. I decide in the aisle of Walmart that I don’t want to be masturbatory for the sake of my own ego or anyone else’s.
I leave the closet and head over to the “stage,” which is composed of two metal tables pushed together, with a thin white canvas thrown on top. I spend a few minutes stretching to try to look like I know what I’m doing, but I don’t and it’s apparent. All of this makes me feel vulnerable, a feeling I’m not used to. In my everyday life, I am unabashedly sexual, unapologetically queer, pro-black and fighting the patriarchy. I imagine myself at age thirty working as a sex ed teacher during the week and at a sex store on weekends. I text my friends reviews of new sex toys I’ve tried and have one-night stands with ease.
Being nervous up here makes me feel like a fraud. I crawl onto the stage and stand, still in my robe. The professor explains that I’ll start out doing quick poses ranging between ten and thirty seconds, and that over the course of the hour and a half I’ll begin holding longer poses—a few for ten minutes, a few for fifteen. I’m to come up with the poses as I go. If I get stuck, she’ll throw some ideas out. I can sit, or stand, or lay down on the tables. It’s up to me.
Whenever I’m ready, she says.
This is a mid-level graduate course, so the class is more diverse than the ones I took in undergrad. Still, many of the students are white boys of a specific type, the sort I probably would have had a crush on growing up if they’d popped up in a mediocre romantic comedy or a movie about vampires. But I’m not interested in boys these days. It makes this a little easier for me; I imagine that if I don’t find these white boys sexual, they won’t find me sexual, either.
I know it doesn’t work that way, but I pretend it does.
I’ve been naked around other people before, and have been so for purposes of art as well, but never like this—under bright classroom lights and surrounded by strangers. When I drop my robe, some students know not to look away. They hurry to copy the pose down, eyes flicking between me and their easels as if a half-second glimpse is all they need to understand my body. One white guy in particular looks me over several times in a way that feels sexless but still noteworthy, still new to me, a first-time model.
In practice, this gig is easier than expected. I don’t like when people make me pose for pictures, but this is different. I pose and pose and pose, twisting and rising and lowering again. I learn which poses cause my muscles to cramp with fatigue, and which I can easily breathe through. The brainstorming of a pose every ten seconds, and then seeking a single pose I can hold for ten minutes, is the second most stressful part of this job.
It’s my mind that throws me off. I’m fine with the practical aspects of the job — stand on a table, be naked, pose — but am less comfortable with it in theory. I still don’t know what it means to make money with my body like this. I know I support sex workers, but I don’t know how to categorize this work I’m doing, and it bothers me to not know how to define this moment in my life. Is this a bad thing I’m doing? A good thing?
Everything about this feels like a gray area to me. Because it seems like the only way to be comfortable up here, to not be sexualized, is to drop my humanity. Once I’m on the stage, I don’t shift my expression, or speak, or show discomfort, even when my legs feel like they may give out and deposit me in a clump on the floor. As the minutes pass, I begin to dissociate from myself, focusing on the sound of charcoal scratching away at paper, breaking myself down as the dozen or so students build me up. I become little more sensual or human or alive than the thin white cloth beneath me, splattered with paint and now dusted with my skin cells and stray hair. I de-animate, and time passes.
An hour in, I get dizzy and remember my fear of heights, and it’s a snap-back into my own body. Suddenly, standing on two metal tables in front of all these people feels ridiculous. I crave both feet together on the ground. I look out the window and again locate myself on the third floor of a large concrete school building. As I sink back into my skin, it overheats. I focus on feeling my feet, wiggling my toes. I think of my fingers in my hair, the fat on the backs of my knees, my tongue in my mouth.
The more I come back to myself, the more human I become, the more I think of how these students have been taught to view me as an object. If I fall, will it cause any more commotion than the sheet billowing and stuttering in the breeze from the fan? Would it take them a moment to recognize me, a body, not an object, bleeding and bruised before them?
I wonder what they’ll do with my body in their sketches. I realize they know nothing about me—that my queerness, potentially even my blackness, is something I feel so deeply but isn’t always read. As the students flip their pages back in favor of new blank space, I catch glimpses of myself on their pads: There is no key, no way for a viewer who catches sight of my body in charcoal, to know of these aspects of my identity. I am little more than a half a dozen lines on paper, some curls if the artist even attempts my hair. Most don’t, leaving a bald circle where my hair should be. It’s odd being stripped of these parts of myself. If I am, for them, only what I’m perceived to be in a handful of lines, does my identity even matter? Does it lose its value? Do I?
I inhale. I try to remember that this is just another small thing, just a work of art. I breathe out. I feel my stomach grow round. I stretch my fingers and toes and hear my bones pop. It helps me calm down. The professor requests a final pose, and I lower myself until I am seated, stretching my legs out before me. I listen to the sound of pages flipping, paper crinkling and being brushed flat again. I let my feet flop and lean my weight back on my hands. My mind feels quiet. My anxiety behind me, I watch the art students try to create me one last time.