The Time I Let a Group of Strangers Turn Me into an Object

This essay has been previously published on TUM, but because autumn is a season of nostalgia (and because we love it so much) we’re dusting it off and re-publishing in case you missed it the first time.

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Sara Dueck

I’m standing in a small back room with a door that won’t close fully, surrounded by props and paints and reams of paper as I slowly take off my pants. I fold them up and stuff them in a corner with my Vans and a bag filled with granola bars and a water bottle. I packed them in case I got hungry. I pull my giant fleece button down, the only piece of clothing I still have on, tight around my body, shivering in the cold air of the studio. I take a deep breath before pulling the door open and stepping out into a room filled with people chatting and setting up easels and sharpening charcoal. A few glance my way, but no one pays me much mind as I stand at the front of the room next to a makeshift stage, my pale naked legs poking out from the bottom of my long shirt.

When it’s finally time to start, the studio facilitator introduces me to the small group. “This is Sara’s first time, so you might have to be patient as I give her instructions on her poses,” he says. He turns to me. “Whenever you’re ready.”

“Alright,” I say nervously, unbuttoning my shirt, “time for me to get naked.” I say it jokingly in a weird, made-up accent, an awkward habit I fall on whenever I feel unsure. No one laughs, and I contemplate dying for a second. But then my shirt is off, and I don’t have much of a choice but to climb up on the stage.

I prepared before my first session by researching everything I could about figure modelling. I’d read several blog posts written by artists who complained about figure models who couldn’t sit still, or who chose boring, uninspired poses. I’m terrified I’ll be guilty of both.

I’m thinking of those artists’ complaints as I start my first pose, twisting my legs and torso in one direction and pointing my head in the opposite. “Nice,” I hear the facilitator say, nodding, and he makes no other comment. I assume my first pose is adequate. It’s only supposed to last three minutes, so I didn’t think very carefully about the difficulty of the position I’ve contorted my body into. Three minutes feels like ages. I struggle to keep my head still, aware of the uncontrollable way my body shakes. I steady my breathing, putting all my concentration into being as still as possible. When the timer finally sounds, I release my body with a sigh, and I’m aware once again of the fact that twenty fully-clothed strangers are staring at me. But then I begin my next pose, and that awareness fades away.

The poses get progressively longer, and I spend the minutes thinking of stillness. Being still is surprisingly difficult. I challenge myself to hold these poses, trying to make each one more interesting than the last. No one speaks, but the room is full with the sounds of pens and pencils scratching, of charcoal rubbing against soft paper, and of the lilting jazz music that plays quietly in the background. It’s not warm, but it’s not cold either, and despite my aching muscles, I’m unexpectedly comfortable.

I had assumed the experience of being studied by strangers would be nerve wracking. This experience was supposed to be an exercise in self-mandated exposure therapy. After years spent struggling with eating disorders and anxiety, I’d come to hate being looked at too intensely or for too long. “What?” I demanded every time I caught my partner staring at me, shielding my face with my hands, “is there something on my forehead? Do I have a zit?” “I’m just looking at you,” he’d always reassure me.

In this room, everyone is staring at me. A man in front of me holds his pencil out at my eye level, and I glance towards him without moving. But he doesn’t meet my eyes. He stares past my gaze, using his pencil to measure the angle of my jawline. Out of my peripheral vision, I see a guy in his late twenties scribble something out on his easel and turn towards the woman he came with. They have a whispered conversation, and she shifts his easel over slightly, turning to a fresh piece of paper. She coaches him quietly as he starts over. I imagine myself as these artists must see me, a puzzle of lines and angles, shadows and light.

When the facilitator announces the half-time break, I have to shake my limbs to return the feeling to them. The artists shuffle around the room as I pull my shirt around me. A girl sitting near the front, who looks about the same age as me, catches my eye.

“Great job,” she smiles.

“Thanks,” I say, “I was worried I was moving around too much.”

She shakes her head, and an older man sitting next to her chimes in.

“Wanna see?” he asks, holding up his sketchbook, and the girl and I eagerly look over his shoulder as he flips through his drawings of me. It feels strangely intimate to see my breasts and ass and pussy rendered in crisp, abstract lines by this elderly stranger, but the feeling passes quickly as he shows us his favourite drawings.

“This was a great pose,” he tells me as he points to a dramatically foreshortened drawing of me. My toes must have been only a few feet from his face during that pose. “Give me anything with foreshortening and I’ll be happy,” he tells me, “It gives me a good challenge.”

He shows me several more drawings, lingering on the ones he likes and quickly flipping past the ones he doesn’t. He lets me takes pictures. Eventually he settles on his favourite drawing, which sprawls generously across two pages. It’s beautiful. The girl in the drawing is me, but she also isn’t. It’s like looking in a mirror through someone else’s eyes. He asks me to spell my name for him, and he writes “S-A-R-A” underneath the drawing in his distinctive pen strokes. I take a picture of him proudly holding up the drawing.

After the session ends, I gather all my things from the little back room and return to the group of artists, fully clothed. Everyone thanks me, over and over. I’m taken aback by their thankfulness. I got paid for this, it was a job. But the way they thank me makes me feel like I’ve given them something. I realize I have. I’ve given them permission to remove the human from my body, to see me only in terms of lines and shadows. I’ve given them permission to turn me into an object, a tool that they borrowed for an evening.

I revel in my unexpected usefulness. In this studio, my body has a utility that has nothing to do with my attractiveness, a utility that I loaned to a group of strangers. For once, lying completely naked on a makeshift stage in the middle of a strange room, I felt entirely in control of my body.

Sara Dueck is a sex writer, blogger, and lover of black liquorice. She talks way to much about sex at Sex and The RestCall Me Harlot, and Tart Magazine. You can follow her rants against fitspiration and the patriarchy on Instagram at @sexandtherest.