I’m a grown-ass adult, and I don’t know how to swim.
My parents tried making me take lessons when I was young, and I spent nearly whole summers at the pool with my sister and babysitter. But I was incredibly embarrassed of my body. I had a round little belly and birthmarks on my legs that I was convinced were absolutely hideous. I shuttered at the idea of going swimming with boys that I knew, where they would regularly see me in all my gruesome glory. So I refused to join the swim team.
Also, swimming is hard. I’ve tried learning as an adult and it’s fucking scary. It makes me feel powerless and overwhelmed with emotion. All I can think about is going under the water and not being able to make it back out. Especially when attempting to float (which I am convinced is actually impossible for me), those genius words of advice actually make me feel worse.
“Don’t panic, it just makes it harder!”
Okay, what will make it easier?
“Just relax, but don’t exhale fully.”
Wtf?! Those are opposite instructions.
As I write this, I realize some of the frustration that many people experience in Yoga classes, where we put ourselves in uncomfortable, twisted positions and try to relax into effortless action. Mix in the magnitude of water and a palpable threat of death, and it sortof becomes a different situation. But when I was younger, it wasn’t the reality of drowning that inhibited me from learning how to swim.
I avoided swimming because of the debilitating belief that when I was in a bathing suit, everyone was looking at me, and all of them were in critique mode. This belief only grew stronger as I became a teenager, obsessively planning for pool parties with conveniently cropped shorts and scrupulously shaved body hair.
Around the age of 11, I was determined to become a fashion designer and discovered my love for drawing. I began my love affair by covering pages with drawings of women dressed in different outfits, all positioned in slightly different ways to exhibit the one-of-a-kind designs. And I wouldn’t stop. My mom signed me up for fashion design classes at the community center. When I started taking serious art classes in high school, she sent me to summer camps and class series to study figure drawing with live models, all of whom were appropriately dressed for minor-aged students. I soaked it all up.
When I entered college to study art, my first semester included a Drawing Foundations class. We started with the basics and spent hours drawing still-lifes, which are arrangements of inanimate objects. But it was all in preparation for life drawing, where a model would pose for different length sessions and we exercised our observation skills. I was no longer a minor though, and life drawing is traditionally practiced with a nude model.
Naturally, I loved it. I studied under many kind, knowledgeable, and professional teachers who helped me appreciate the value and multitude of skills that life drawing offers. And soon I was not only admiring other artists’ work, but I also began envying the models.
No matter their shape, size, or sex, they seemed so free.
Although they were nude and surrounded by people carefully focused on their physical form, the life models appeared to feel confident, empowered, and honest. They had total authority, and they exuded a mental clarity that I desperately wanted to feel. I wasn’t totally conscious of my reasoning, but I knew that I needed to start modeling, if only to gain a deeper understanding of the life drawing process.
After nearly five years of occasionally modeling for drawing and painting classes, I’ve realized how valuable the experience has been in my own process of healing.
Here are three reasons why...
1. I’ll take some pain-free please.
First, you have to take your clothes off in a room full of people with their clothes on. So you better get comfortable with those stretch marks, belly rolls, and jiggly arms. You’re putting it all out there, for everyone to see, so it’s impossible to ignore the things about yourself that you’d rather hide. And if there are aspects of your body that you aren’t happy about or afraid that other people won’t like, then there is no quicker way to get the hell over it than by bearing your birthday suit - loud and proud.
Modeling taught me how to deal with physical discomfort, which can be both self-inflicted and unavoidable.
Because with nothing to cover up your self-perceived flaws, you realize that other people can see them, and they actually don’t fucking care. Seriously, go to a life drawing class and watch how many artists are standing there judging your body. You won’t find any, because they are too busy trying to translate the lines and shapes of your 3-dimensional form onto a 2-dimensional sheet of paper, which is no easy task. Basically, they are too busy criticizing their ability to draw you then they are critiquing your body.
Second, you have to be strong, flexible, and wildly self-aware to hold a position for an extended period of time without fainting or losing feeling in one of your limbs. Remaining motionless for anywhere between one minute and three hours can cause enough physical discomfort to keep your mind off of those contrived, physical imperfections.
Because worrying about what people think about you takes too much energy. When your muscles are twitching, your hips and shoulders are cramping, and your breathing changes with each passing minute, energy conservation is the most important thing when you are holding an extended pose. The best models, first and foremost, take care of themselves, and they have learned how to manage and dance around the sensations of physical discomfort.
2. Goodbye, boredom.
Speaking of sitting for long periods of time, modeling provides a literal space for contemplation. Most often, life drawing sessions begin with gestures, usually around ten 1-minute poses where the model takes on bigger, sometimes more visually interesting, poses that will help everyone warm up. Of course there are physical aspects that make a pose more interesting, such as when you are occupying all three planes of movement - transverse, frontal, and sagittal. But the most interesting compositions might happen when a model inhabits a fully present state of mind.
Modeling is essentially an opportunity to meditate on the present moment and my own embodied expression of that present moment.
Just like in meditation, we transcend our mental thought patterns and emotional disturbances by embracing and accepting them, not by ignoring or suppressing them. When I do gestural poses, and when I settle into an extended pose, I try to emit my present thoughts and emotions out through my physical body. There is nothing more boring than watching, or drawing, someone who is bored themselves. And how is it possible to be bored when my mind is swimming in endless thoughts and my body is resonating with fluctuating emotions?
The practice of sitting still helps me access my own internal experience. It refines the relationship between my body and mind, and it somehow allows me to find a sense of enjoyment in any situation.
3. I’m not always right.
While you may have the impression that I was raised by a couple of free-loving liberals who encouraged freedom of expression, including nudity, this is far from the truth. I was raised in a traditional Catholic household and school setting for most of my childhood. While church leaders in Renaissance Italy supported the study of anatomy, and Michelangelo would sketch live models and cadavers to improve his work, many modern Catholics shudder at the idea of nude modeling, including my parents.
Some people believe that nudity and sexuality are intricately connected, both to each other and to the act of sin. For example, the biblical story of Adam and Eve portrays their disobedience of God, which is followed by the sudden realization of their nakedness and resulting banishment from the Garden of Eden.
Let’s not forget that it was Eve’s fault in the first place, causing many people to believe that a naked woman’s body is not only inherently sexual, but also dangerous. I’m not counting myself out of this outrageous worldview. For as long as I can remember, I have felt the burden of being a woman. Somehow, I came to believe that men are not interested in my friendship, and they only want to have sex with me. While this might be true in some sense, this belief is crippling in relationships, and it is detrimental to my own self-worth.
Modeling for drawing classes challenged my personal beliefs, and it forced me to see things from a new perspective.
I realized that not all men are sexually attracted to me, and if they are, then my nudity is not an invitation for a sexual encounter. Many people talk about the objectification of women's’ bodies, where they are considered and treated as though they can be property of another person. Oddly, I learned a great deal while modeling as the object of someone’s artwork.Perhaps we can deepen our understanding of ourselves and the world by engaging in activities with which we originally and vehemently disagree.
In regards to my body image, self-worth, and emotional intelligence, modeling has been the source of so much healing. I know that water has magical powers, and I hope that one day I will confidently dive into a deep pool or swim laps in the ocean.
But until then, I can settle for sitting still.