Old Fashioned Subtle Sexism and Implied Body Shaming

I’ve been a life model for a number of years now and fancied a change. I’d like to work with children but have no such qualification beyond babysitting as a teenager and modelling occasionally. One option is Teaching Assistant, so I looked it up and (a) the job description wreaks of “normal” job in a way I’m not sure I can handle any more. (b) The pay rate is low. I mean I often refuse that rate as a life model. I can earn a lot more as a life model, and to some extent being freelance can negotiate my own terms.
There is so much freedom and variety in my job and this mere cursory glance at another option made me appreciate that again. For a job looking after children, committing to regular hours for weeks on end, only minimum wage (or London Living Wage?) applies. Disgusting!

On the other hand I was thinking about what’s been bugging me as a life model recently. Certain jobs were making me uncomfortable. Even if I felt appreciated for my talent as a model, I also felt judged, subtly. These are jobs where I happen to fit into the artists’ idea of attractiveness in a body for them to draw. I am slim, a bit curvy, young(ish!), fit, reasonably flexible, not bad looking… and I know how to behave as life model in the way that is desired. I don’t just mean turning up on time and holding poses. I know how to engage with the artists and make suitable conversation. They want something reflected back to them which is how they see themselves as artists. They want to feel appreciated and to feel at ease with you.

What was bothering me was, these jobs while often better paid, do not always feel ethical. I know that they never book a fat model, an old model or a male model for example. They have asked me to recommend models and I’ve connected them with various. Not all have gone down too well. One was too old, too political and possibly opinionated. Another was an astrophysicist by day and they didn’t find her conversation stimulating in the way they wanted from their life model. Perhaps she hadn’t switched off yet from the day job!

At another such group I enquire what their other models are like. “Oh we don’t have any horrible bodies here,” I am told, and now I know I have completely strayed from the land of the politically correct. Which is partly a relief for the honesty, but in this case it smells of elitism, and I ask myself what is the appropriate response from me? At the time I say nothing as the conversation meanders on, and she speaks of their appreciation of fit bodies, with the strength to hold more ambitious poses. The woman I spoke to is not an organiser, just a regular punter. It’s true that when the model is really exerting their self, it can make for more compelling poses. But that wouldn’t rule out lots of older, male or larger models.

Is it for me to question who they want to draw? Is it a matter of aesthetics? And personalities? I am grateful to sometimes be among the chosen, but as someone who has run my own groups for all body types (to encourage body confidence) and gone to other groups to draw, I know of brilliant models outside of the obvious mainstream norms, and many of these would automatically be excluded from the jobs I described. Part of this it seems to me, is perpetuated by us models, picking up on the standard and only recommending similar types. After all, we want the work.

Posing one on one for an artist can be like a mini-relationship, an affair, a courtship. It might last days, span over weeks, months… Unless it’s for a commission or similar endgame, it’s very much about a connection of personalities. An exchange that is more than time and physical effort, rather an energetic connection. Sometimes it exists artistically alone, a musing inspiration, but other times I sense a girlfriend experience of sorts. Male artists with disposable income and space in their lives.

I used to be a hostess in Soho clip joints. Male clients paid excessively for time in my lingeried company, sipping expensive drinks. They likely entertained ideas of further/sexual developments. My job was to keep them there. Of course now “art” is occurring, so a higher purpose is implied, or at least perhaps a more acceptable relationship/activity. Several muses may be simultaneously on the go, alternating weeks, months, or exclusivity may be preferred for an intense period. Sharing an interest that the wife doesn’t (any longer), if she ever existed. Sometimes I am a cheap counsellor for their woes as well as indulging or reprimanding their neuroses, and providing conversation with my body to be looked at, submitted for inspection.

It can feel like that with a group of artists too. They fall in love with me a little, collectively, unanimously, and hopefully I with them. We bond for a while, over years at intervals. It is loose, casual, but they know me so well. I share brief intimacies in passing and they enjoy glimpses of my truth. Being able to be with artists in this way, to organically make this relationship work, is perhaps an unwritten skill, talent in the job description. It’s such a personal thing that is more than about looks; though I think often those talented in this context seem to share certain traits. A kind of physical beauty, and inner charm, genuine sharing without being too shy, or domineering. Exuding happy, contented, feel-good vibes. Being comfortable in this slightly old fashioned at times role.

I am sure more varied models could take on the position (and surely sometimes do) if they wanted it, but does the fit feel so natural? Do they feel accepted? Or is it just that I don’t know, and out there actually all variations coexist, with some artists choosing less typical muses, or even being less typical (and male) themselves? I hope so. I would love to hear about that. It would make me feel less like an anachronism!

I have modelled for female artists individually, but only a couple of long series which were both for committed projects where I had the desired form.

There are other groups and artists, not of this type, and fortunately now many so, who feel wholly ethical. They employ all good models and enjoy full diversity as much as is available. Every group has its own vibe to a certain extent attracting models and artists who fit in, though this is a broad spectrum. My feelings in this piece reflect my realisation that I felt more comfortable in these more I think ethical work situations. Yet there is also a place for more intimate encounters of the muse variety if not being outright physical or overtly sexual. These can be a healthy transaction, an exchange of ideas and growing friendships. It’s positive and it’s a privilege to explore connection outside of the romantic sphere (and be paid for it). It can run parallel to other relationships, offering other avenues to learn about ourselves. It’s the sort of job where you negotiate the boundaries, in terms of conversation as well as poses. What they are, for how long and when to take breaks. Do you also share meals, or go for a drink with them? Sometimes, but it usually stays professional. I mean it always does, but sometimes you become friends.

In Hammersmith, by Barry

In Muswell Hill

At Lauderdale House, in Sharon’s class

Above are some recent drawings of me from various classes. Posing with Goddess props at Cody Dock, in Tim’s class.

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6 thoughts on “Old Fashioned Subtle Sexism and Implied Body Shaming

  1. Hi Esther, I really enjoyed reading your blog, it was very interesting. I especially found your feelings on your relationships with the artists thought provoking. I’m a 58 year old male life model, who only fell into this work by answering (on a whim) an online add for a mature model to show off underwear and sleepwear. Indeed, at that time, the thought of posing nude never entered my head. On the three years that I have, I have mostly modelled for college classes and art groups. I soon learnt that some people like you to pose in silence, while others enjoy a bit of a chat.
    Of the private sessions I’ve done, perhaps the strangest relationship I had was not with the artist, but her mother. Bringing in refreshments, I expected her to leave my mug of tea on the table until an agreed break. But no! She calmly walked up to me and held the drink to my lips, not batting an eyelid over my naked body. It was no different when I returned, a few months later. The artist & I were about ten minutes into our session, when the mother walked in, sat down in a nearby arm chair, got her kintting out of her bag, and began chatting to me, as good friends would over coffee. Although I never felt any sexual threat from this lady, it did make me slightly uneasy.
    I have written three articles on my life modelling experiences, the first being on gaining body confidence. If you would like to read it, I could email it to you, My email address is geoffhowlett83@gmail.com

    Kind Regards

    Geoff

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  2. Hey..well As A Life Model and Artist all your musings apply.I m currently writing a piece of NudityvNakedness. There is a notion of performance and natural spirit when I model.Energy and truth come together and is seen by those Artists who really observe.When her is excotment about a attitude of pose.Lots to talk about on this vast profession.

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  3. I was very interested with your comment that you earn more than a mainstream job. Gone are the days of models being paid a minimal pin money. All my models worked elsewhere & lifemodelled for a bit extra. Nowadays models are full time, but is this just in London/SouthEast I wonder? I struggle to get models in the northwest at a rate I can afford to pay/work with who want to be in an artistic process…rather than only doing it for the money?

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