I look at myself in the mirror of the single-stall bathroom on the third floor bathroom of Van Pelt Library and let out a repressed sigh. I’m dressed in an outfit that I put together the night before while spending a hand sticking out of your grave amount of time staring in the mirror. Was I even looking at the clothes, or had I just spent twenty minutes admiring my face? The outfit was a beaded halter top tank, thrifted Zara slacks, my Dr. Martens I’ve had since grade 9, and my hair messy and fastened half up with a claw clip. I had reapplied my drugstore blush and eyeliner in the same bathroom just three hours ago, determined to look effortless for class. As I looked at myself in the mirror I thought to myself, I am the type of girl who would model nude for an art class.
I found a place that runs open sketching studios with nude models. I had to submit an application which asked for a brief bio. I wrote, I’m six foot tall and a Division 1 athlete with an athletic build, and attached a photo from a photoshoot I had done last summer. My friend Luna asked if she could style me for a shoot with a photographer back home. She had come up with a farmland-chic concept and told me I was the only one that could pull off the sullen look she had in mind. I accepted excitedly, as being somebody else’s muse was even more exhilarating than being my own. On my drive to her house the day of the shoot, I found my stomach erupting with anxieties. What is a muse if not perfect?
The photographer took three months to edit the photos we took that hot summer night, and had updated his instagram with shoots he had done more recently, clearly least inspired by mine. Once I saw the photos the whole process became worth it. I looked like a moody modern day witch backdropped by a cornfield. Although I couldn’t help but notice my large arms I’d gained from strength training. I wish Luna had styled me in something with long sleeves.
Now that there is the possibility for my nude body to be showcased in front of people, I’ve started to be even more conscious of my eating habits. There is pressure to be an illustrious subject. This past weekend my housemate postmated a bag of mini Kit Kats while trying to fill time during a mediocre hookup who overstayed his welcome. Except, she was stoned and instead of ordering a singular bag of mini Kit Kats she ordered 24, king sized. These Kit Kats have found themselves stacked tall on our kitchen table for any and all to take. I opened up the eight bar treat and snapped off the first one. My tastebuds rejoiced as the mathematically perfect combination of wafer and milk-chocolate melted across my mouth. My mind contradicted this joyous idea, begging me to stop, I couldn’t. I ate the second bar, the third bar, and then the fourth. Each bar tasted worse than the first. Who is going to want to paint you if all you eat are kit kats…
This year my hand was forced into taking a class called Physics for Architects to fulfill a natural science requirement that allegedly guarantees a well rounded education. To stay awake I check my phone. The sketch club emailed back saying they have an opening two weeks from now. The email says to come prepared with four poses. Four, five minute poses which will be voted on for one to be held for the rest of the session in 20-minute increments with 10 minute breaks in-between. The session will be three hours long. In the midst of figuring out that I’ve been accepted to be a nude model my group seemed to have made a breakthrough in the problem that we were struggling with. I mustered up a forced “yay” and went back to my nudist daydreaming…
Okay, this is actually happening. I became increasingly aware of my naked body under my clothes. I thought about the type of people who have nude portraits of themselves, and began to view myself as the subject of an art piece, or, as I will be exhibiting my body to a class full of strangers, twenty art pieces. When I was in high school I remember being obsessed with Blake Lively’s character in A Simple Favor. Her character hangs a nude portrait of herself, a product of her musedom, in the family living room.
I began to view myself as a nude hanging in somebody’s living room. It’s like an extension of my being, each portrait displayed adding admirers to my belt. It’s delusional to think that artwork from a three hour session would manifest as an artist’s single magnum-opus, but what if I’m simply that worthy? I want my body to be hung in the premier spot above a mantle, or twenty mantles.
This afternoon my team’s strength coach had us weigh ourselves for some sort of velocity testing system. It was optional, though most of the girls on the team participated. The coach stepped away and all we had to do was step on the scale and enter the number onto an excel spreadsheet. As I stepped on the scale, I glanced at the computer screen beside me which displayed my teammate’s current weights. I looked down at mine. I entered my weight into the spreadsheet, calmly, using all my energy to not display my frustration with my number.
The weight room was never a place that I felt comfortable in. I’m either not strong enough, not skinny enough, or not fast enough. Not to mention the floor to ceiling mirror that stretches the entire left wall perpetually passing judgment with every glance. The time that my team lifts overlaps with the time that the football team lifts. The football team is composed of a bunch of bulky sweaty men who for some reason have been given the power of discerning what women are attractive enough to have worth assigned to them. My lifting coach is a former bulky sweaty football man who has determined me as his least favorite. This isn’t something he has said explicitly, although if you asked any of my teammates who his least favorite is I’m sure they would say me. I’m not pretty enough to be one of the girls who can get away with lifting close to nothing, and I’m not strong enough to be one of the girls who lifts a lot. In the weightroom I am just mediocre. The opposite of a muse.
I wake up to my alarm I set for 8am. I’m off five hours of sleep and hungover. I always seem to forget that making coffee doesn’t happen instantly. It takes 3 minutes to boil the water, you then pour the hot water over ground coffee beans. After that, you must allow the beans to steep for 4 minutes, otherwise your coffee will taste more like water. I didn’t have seven minutes this morning, so I steeped the coffee for two and conceded to a diluted batch. It’s rainy, cold and I’m running late. Estimated time of arrival, 9:20am. I was supposed to be there at 9:15.
I walk down the cobblestone street that the sketch club is located on. I hold the door for a girl my age, and suddenly realize that it might not just be middle aged artists waiting to draw me, but also twenty year old girls who will without a doubt find me more narcissistic than effortless. I follow the girl up the stairs like I was already headed that way, exchanging no communication. When I go to a new place I never want the other people there to know it’s my first time. I fall into this habit instantly, as if ten minutes from now I’m not going to be literally standing undressed in front of her.
The room is a beautiful one surely meant for figure drawing sessions. The walls are cluttered with paintings and drawings from club members. Two of the artists are having an obnoxious debate about neoclassicism so loud it’s obvious they want everybody else to hear them. I sit on a bench at the perimeter of the room, growing increasingly anxious that Andrew, the monitor I have been in contact with, isn’t here yet and also increasingly aware of how the rest of the room is perceiving me. I’m wearing a plain black tank top under a tan collared shirt, my favorite light wash baggy jeans, and my vintage red leather coach purse. My necklace will be the only thing that’s going to stay on me throughout the duration of the session–my mother’s locket–and the idea of the timeless golden heart acting as my own signature on the artist’s nude portrayals gives me confidence.
There is at least one man who looks like he knows what he’s doing. He walks down the stairs, and I follow, looking to be led in any direction. He turns to me and explains that he’s an off duty monitor and that the one for this session wasn’t here yet. He clearly thought I was a disgruntled artist looking to start the session on time. I told him I was actually the model for this session. When he asks if I’ve done this before, I say no, and his face falls. Andrew walks in before I can say anything else and the three of us walk up the stairs.
I follow Andrew into the back room where a bathroom, changing room, and a bunch of clutter exist. He is frazzled and anxious to start, I assume due to his own tardiness. He haphazardly explains what’s about to unfold and asks again if I’ve done this before. This time, more prepared, I say not here. A white lie to protect the seasoned nude model persona I have created for myself today. I ask about a robe or cloth of some sort of cover for when I walk out, and he assures me there is one, though its location is undetermined. When he recognises that I will need a little more direction than that, he gestures to the changing room.
Within the changing room I can touch both sides with bent arms. On the back of the door there is a mirror, one of those cheap ones from Target that every first year student hangs in their dorm room with command strips. Attached to the back wall there is a small bench where I set my bag and laptop. I sit down for a second to center myself, then glance up relieved to see a black robe hanging on a hook.
I peek my head out of the dressing room and meet eyes with Andrew, and he gives me a hurried thumbs up that also somehow conveys that I’ve already taken too much time for myself. Perhaps my tardiness is fashionable? While I tiptoe through the maze of easels and chairs up to the podium of uneven benches covered in blue and red cloth I can’t help but wonder what everybody is thinking of my appearance at this moment. I imagine they all are silently rejoicing about the beauty of my face and body.
When I reach the podium, I face the back of the room, shed my robe, hang it over an adjacent chair, and step up onto the podium to assume my first pose. I sit upright with my legs straight out in front, hands placed on my knees. I think to myself, why didn’t you just pick one of the four poses you planned prior to the session, this one feels uncomfortable and rigged like a nude mall santa. I became less aware of my body and more aware of the rest of the room. The paintings on the wall depicting everything from other nude models to made up fan-fic cartoon animations, and the bobble of the artist’s heads as they scanned my body to their paper, captivate me. Andrew calls time and I immediately stand up. Feeling increasingly comfortable I put my hands onto my hips, and look directly forward. I read somewhere that power posing increases your confidence, even if you’re naked? Andrew calls time and I retreat to the ground, left arm holding up my torso, left leg extended, my right arm resting on my bent right knee. To calm my nerves I imagine myself assuming this pose while at a picnic with my friends. Finally Andrew announces the final five minutes of the session. I drape myself over the staggered benches for my final pose, right knee higher than left, arms resting on the taller box in an attempt to look like an exhausted aphrodite.
Andrew calls time and I rush back to my changing room for cover as if it were raining in the studio, even though I leave the robe draped loosely and don’t bother tying it up. It feels silly to conceal what they had just been looking at for twenty straight minutes. I take a well deserved sip of watered down coffee. While protected by the tight walls I overhear Andrew asking the artists for their preferred pose to continue with for the rest of the session. Most of them said number four, a few of them said three, and one person said one. I knew nobody was going to like my first two poses, they were unnatural and ridgid, as I was still an unpracticed muse.
I write about Andrew’s demeanor in my journal and sigh. I was still hungover. I daydream about a slow morning spent in bed scrolling on Tiktok followed by a warm shower. I walked out back into the drawing room. The decided upon pose was more challenging to assume than anticipated and Andrew was unhappy with the way my right hand was hanging.
“Jo, can you relax your right hand a little more?”
“Not quite, I think it was up a little bit more.”
“Nope a little more.”
“Ope, okay now relax it.”
As we begin the second twenty minutes I think to myself does it really matter? Besides, we’re basically starting this pose over right? It’s funny, I remember going to the nail salon when I was a kid, and the nail technician would ask me to relax my hand and I would try but I couldn’t. Here I am, twenty-one-years old, nude, body draped across a two-tiered pedestal, and I still cannot relax my goddamn hand.
I originally thought pose four was going to be the most comfortable pose for me to hold, although I was mistaken. Or maybe holding any pose for twenty minutes is a challenge. I wish I had picked a pose where I could see the clock, my gaze was focused upward toward the skylight window. I wish I hadn’t drank so much last night. Nude modeling is hard. My hand is numb. “Is this what people think college students do?” My poor mother would be utterly mortified. I began to think about my friends, who would be comfortable enough to do this, who would never? My anxiety ebbed and flowed, is my hand in the right place? I wished that I wasn’t so anxious when trying to be introspective. What if I have to sneeze? What if I peed? I thought about how I would be having much more fun if I were painting my girlfriend, we would be laughing and I wouldn’t have to be so stoic.
Andrew had put on classical jazz as ambient background music. As I lay there the misfit sounds calm me. Then suddenly out of the haphazard instrumental beats a familiar piano melody emerges. For the two minutes the song elapses it feels like I have a familiar friend with me in the art studio. I couldn’t help but ever so slightly break my stoic face and offer a soft smile.
During the second break my hand hurt, my head hurt, and I was exhausted and unsure how I was going to make it through the rest of the session. I looked around at the group of people who currently possessed my nudes. There were around twenty of them, and during the break they all retreated to their little cliques. To the far right there were the middle aged women who were all politely admiring each other’s work and mostly staying to themselves. Next to the women are the two men who had been debating political theory, now debating Marvel vs. DC, the louder one dressed in a vibrantly tie-dyed Grateful Dead t-shirt. A group of stylish art students in the back left corner, one with bows in her hair and the other wearing vintage windbreaker track pants, quickly transformed the bench on the outskirts of the room like steps outside a library, staggered across the backrest, half of them probably as hungover as me.
I am fascinated by how the artists depict me. During the fourth break I tiptoe away from the stand, bare feet on the old wooden floors, feeling the most naked as I near the bodies in full clothes. I lean myself against the back wall and move my eyes as little as possible. I don’t want the artists to know I care how they saw me. My eyes land on one graphite drawing. The artist drew me from the waist up and was extremely talented. I am satisfied by how much the drawing resembled my face, although I cannot ignore how accurately she drew my pudgy under chin that I’ve been insecure about since the photo my uncle took of me in profile as a gift for my grandparents when I was eleven. I walk back to the podium practicing the same calm I tried to use while recording my weight.
I glance up and see Andrew approaching me. I thought he was going to tell me I was doing a poor job or that my hand still wasn’t relaxed enough. Instead he asks, “Do you create anything yourself?” I explain that I am a painter and a seamstress, and that I have always been drawn to the natural and individuality. When I ask him about himself, he says he likes to paint in watercolor. I commend his efforts as watercolor is no easy medium. We chat about the people on the east coast. I say, “I don’t like the people here, they’re much harsher than they are where I am from. He responds as a native Philadelphian, “The people here are unkind, I’ve been to the midwest once, they are much nicer there.” Then the break ends. At the end of the final drawing session I smile at the crowd and hurry back to the dressing room to get changed. Before I start to dress, I snap a photo of myself in the un-tied robe to commemorate the moment. The once cramped dressing room cold from the rainy morning now feels cozy and warm.
When I get back to my house, I have to tell everybody about my nude outing. I gush to my roommates, the conversation moves on, and I bring it back up. I tell my fellow club members at an event a few hours after, wanting to save important discourse on club matters for the next meeting, and talk about me the whole time. I tell my teammates in the showers after practice, their reactions both full of admiration and shock. I felt empowered. I felt like I could do anything.
The man working on patching up the street looked at me like I was crazy. I was. I had spent the last hour and a half throwing rocks at my now ex-girlfriend’s window in an attempt to wake her up from the slumber she had fallen into after I left her place earlier that morning. I had to say goodbye, I was leaving today. Eventually the incessant doorbell ringing woke Natalie’s housemate up, and he opened the door for me. I ran upstairs and slithered into bed next to her half asleep body. I needed to soak up every second of the last few hours we had together, and she couldn’t even stay awake or remember to get the door for me. We spent the rest of the morning sleeping since she had stayed up late the night before working on her senior thesis; I always came second to that.
She was the first girl I’d ever been with and I had never felt this way before. She called herself an “old sea lesbian,” and defined it to me as “somebody who has been through it.” She didn’t want me to regret this, I didn’t think she felt as strongly about me as I did about her. We were splitting up because of distance. Her post-grad job was in San Francisco and I was returning to Philly in the fall.
It was decided that I would meet my mom at the bookstore the morning before we departed. It was closer to her hotel and I still had to return my books from the previous semester. It was a ten minute walk from Natalie’s house. Natalie begrudgingly got out of bed and walked me to the meeting spot. She kissed me hard outside of the bookstore and I was nervous because I was afraid my mom would see–she didn’t know I was gay. I walked into the bookstore with tear soaked sleeves, and a stone cold face. My mom was right at the entrance. Had she seen me? She hugs me quickly before I turn to return my books to the front desk. If she looked at my face for too long she would be able to tell I was crying.
Then we were in the silver minivan I had grown up carpooling to volleyball practice in. The traffic getting out of the city was bad, it took us an hour to drive what was supposed to take 15 minutes. Although the real problem was determining the perfect time to tell my mom about the relationship I had been hiding from her for the past four months.
We were about four hours into the 13 hour drive. The car is the perfect place to come out to your mom because she can’t kick you out and she can’t run away. She asked me if I had any sort of boyfriend over the past semester, and I started crying. “No mom, I actually had a girlfriend.” Either she didn’t falter or she was on cruise control. She started crying too. I wasn’t sure if she felt bad or was upset. Probably both.
That night we went to bed in a hotel room in Indiana. She assured me she loved me, and that she wanted me to tell her everything. This wasn’t news she was expecting to hear, but she loved me.
The companionship of my childhood stuffed animal “bunny” ensured I didn’t wake before noon. I turn onto my back and admire the sun shining through my large three panel window and the snow frosted trees in my front yard. I sit up and hear my mom’s exaggerated talking voice on her work call. She really is good at faking interest in other people’s mundane stories, a quality I wish I had inherited. I turn my head toward my closet wall where I had plastered magazine clippings from Vogue, an attempt to make my childhood bedroom more fit for a fashionable college student. I stand up shakily, that first moment of the morning when your feet hit the floor is never very sturdy, especially when the floors are an unfamiliar gray wood, installed after you moved out. Still, the energy in the house is the same. I didn’t appreciate my small town until I went to live in a big city.
I take three steps to get to the bathroom where the floors are the same outdated light pink square tile that has been there since we moved in when I was five years old, now cluttered with an embarrassing amount of dirty laundry. The countertop was almost completely covered with the remnants of my little sister’s morning routine: foundation smears, mascara, an eyeshadow palette left open, a hair straightener I made sure was turned off, and a toothbrush dangerously close to falling into the toilet. When I was in high school I treated the bathroom the same way even though it killed my mom. Was I really this much of a slob?
Whenever I visit home the coffee is made for me, strong, because that’s how my dad likes it, with a little bit of cinnamon because that’s how I like it. As I descend the stairs I comb my hair with my fingers to tidy myself for my first human interaction of the day. I beeline through my mother’s office on my way to the coffee pot. She says “good morning Jogene,” a nickname whose origin I can’t remember but whose cadence immediately takes me home. I open our large white kitchen cabinet, and choose a cream-and-crimson mug from the Penn Bookstore. I turn around to my mom holding the coffee pot ready to pour into my cup. She is overly nice to me when I come home from break, but not so nice to pour my coffee for me.
I sit at the kitchen counter and tell her about the book I am reading, but I can tell she isn’t listening like she usually does. I reach a natural pause in my story and she blurts out, “I found something of yours.” Throughout high school she found alcohol hidden under my bed, paraphernalia in my sleepover bag, and cigarettes left out by a flippant friend. Although I had gotten home from school just less than 24 hours ago and I hadn’t brought anything incriminating from Philly, or so I thought.
Last night when I had entered my childhood home for the first time since June I was greeted by my new puppy and the sound of the printer running. I was so focused on the dog that had grown three times her size since our last encounter, that when my mom explained the printer was running from a document she had tried to print at work, I didn’t think twice. What I did not think about was how I had tried to print my XFIC piece (the one that my mom would be mortified if she read, the one where I display myself naked in front of a bunch of strangers, the one that I had absolutely no intention of telling her about) to the printer, my childhood house printer, that was connected to my laptop before selecting the correct printer to print my story for class.
She walked into her office where my nude chronicles lay and placed them in front of me. About three pages, most with missing paragraphs and illegible lines, had made their way through the ether from Philadelphia to Wisconsin. One of the sentences on a page found reads just as you read, “My poor mother would be mortified.” But I had hypothesized wrong. She wasn’t upset, although she did have many questions. Where did you go? Were you cold? Did you wear any jewelry? Makeup? All of which was explained over morning coffee.
I had entertained the idea of telling her about my experience weeks ago, but ultimately decided against it. I didn’t think the risk was worth the reward, although now standing on the other side of the problem I sort of wish I had. She didn’t seem upset about the fact that I chose not to disclose my rebellious nudist journey to her, are those things you’re supposed to tell your mother? Although I can’t be sure she didn’t go to bed thinking about her daughter and the things I must be keeping from her.
This Sunday in my living room, I rewatched a Portrait of a Lady on Fire, a lesbian classic, in preparation for this story. In the movie, the protagonist is challenged to paint her subject without the subject’s presence. She admires her face and figure while they spend time together throughout the movie to complete this task. While I watch I can’t help but wonder if studying the subject’s essence makes it easier for the artist to fall in love with her? Héloïse, the subject, is unhappy with Marianne’s portrait of her. Marianne destroys the portrait. Spoiler alert: Marianne and Héloïse fall in love. The portrait painting sessions become sensual.
It becomes clear that the lovers will have to go their separate ways. They lie together in bed and Héloïse asks for a picture of Marianne. Héloïse says one day she will be unable to remember what Marianne looks like. Marianne draws herself nude for Héloïse on page 28 of Héloïse’s book. Giving somebody a nude, whether that be via photo or painting as an intimate moment captured. Oftentimes the artist captures themselves. The combination of both subject artists, possessing full autonomy in their depiction.
I was taught to paint by my grandmother. We used to have sessions where she would teach me how to mimic the style of different artists. There was a Picasso day, a Van Gogh day, and a Frida Kahlo day. Not only my love of art and creation came from her but also the tools to do so. I wanted to juxtapose my narcissistic propensity to be a muse with my desire to be an artist. I wanted to paint my girlfriend just as I had been painted a few months before, but this time in my room with my choice of music playing, and our ever so comfortable banter filling in the quiet space.
I am talking to my housemate in the kitchen the morning my girlfriend, LD, arrives and mentions that she is coming up for the weekend. I explain that I need to paint her for my course. My housemate says, “wow that is a scary job because of body dysmorphia and other things.”
I say, “what other things,” beginning to get defensive.
She says, “I guess it’s just body dysmorphia.”
LD arrives, and we spend most of the day in the library. On the walk back to my house I ask LD how she is feeling about the whole thing. She explains that she was excited at first but is now having second thoughts. I promise her that the experience will be empowering, but offer her an out if she decides it’s not something she wants to do. I don’t mention that my entire paper rests on her willingness to do this. Once we arrive at home we sit at my kitchen table and dissect the current drama happening within our lives.
She has self-diagnosed hat hair so she goes and takes a shower. I begin to set up. I draw one of my curtains and tie a blanket to the remaining pegs of the other curtain I broke this weekend by pulling too hard while attempting to shut the blinds. I turn on the lamp I brought from upstairs to its lowest setting, then turn it off to take out a bulb, and turn it back on, LD didn’t want it to feel like “surgical lighting.” I direct the light towards the bed and admire the ambiance in the room. I pour a glass of red wine from the Franzia box that has been sitting in my house for weeks and set it on the table next to where I’ll be painting. The canvases I ordered from Amazon are smaller than I had hoped, but it’s my fault because the measurements were on the product description. The small scale of the piece requires greater skill than I possess.
She walks in with dripping wet hair, shielded by my bright red towel. I look at her sheepishly as she jumps onto the bed and buries her face into the covers. Eventually she pops her head out and looks at me with her so-perfect-they’re-almost-a-cliche-brown eyes. I ask her if she wants to make an entrance with my robe, but then, in one swift move, she throws the towel to the ground and assumes her pose. The singular arm movement combined with the towel’s bright red color reminds me of a bullfighter. She’s lying on her stomach, on top of my bed, with her right hand propping her head up as she looks out the window.
I start gestural. I mix a skin tone color and paint the shape of her limbs and the place of her head. Unfortunately, nude figure painting was not one of the painting master classes my grandma had administered. Everytime there is a craft on the table I feel an immense pressure to succeed. I know I am good at art, and I must prove myself. What if I paint something that looks nothing like LD simply because I cannot? I take out a different canvas in an attempt to start over. I give up on the new one and go back to the original.
Around the time we first started dating, LD gifted me a print from an artist that did the cover art for my favorite album. The print consists of two ghosts, one slightly behind the other with a large red rock mountain behind them. It hangs next to my window, directly in her eyesight. As I paint her we decide that the ghost in front is me and the ghost in back is her.
I thought I was going to feel more comfortable as the artist, it was somehow easier for me to be the muse, even though as the artist I had more control, except instead of being naked I felt naked. I don’t know why I thought I was going to be able to paint somebody nude before doing any training or practice. And at my girlfriend’s expense? I was irritated with myself for thinking this was something I was qualified to do.
I shared each doubt out loud to prepare LD for the unrecognizable painting I would deliver to her at the end of this session. Although with each glance and brush stroke I felt as if I were creating something that only mimicked the scene I was trying to paint. I added in the colorful string lights which lined the corner between my ceiling and walls. I spent too much time painting the orange-brown old Philadelphia hardwood floors. Eventually LD flopped down on the bed exhausted from holding her pose, then, impatient, grabbed for the painting I had not yet completely finished. When she looks at it I feel a sense of satisfaction and empowerment from her only truly expressed when you’ve successfully acted as somebody’s muse.