Standing before the wooden platform I tightened my grip on the sash of my favorite purple robe.
“So we’ll start with about 10 one-minute poses,” Ken, the class monitor, told me. His slight build, hunching stance and ashen five o’clock shadow was somehow endearing and lessened the intimidation. “The changing music will be your cue. Try to think of how a football or tennis player moves, you know, for inspiration,” he said, mimicking a backhanded serve.
“Okay,” I sighed between flashes of a nervous grin. My heart pounded. My temperature rose, triggered by the fear of unsightly sweating. Sweat glistens on my coffee-colored skin and may have alerted keen eyes to my rattled nerves.
A group of plump middle-aged women took their seats, gathered up their supplies and placed large sketchpads on laps and easels. One caught my eye and shot a comforting smile. Was it that obvious that I was uneasy?
“Ready,” Ken interrupted my thoughts.
And with one quick tug, the sash fell to the ground. The robe unwrapped. I shrugged, allowing the sleeves to roll down my arms. I was naked.
I quickly glanced at my breasts, thighs and butt, which all seemed unfortunately smaller than they used to be. Much of the past year was spent repeating this exercise in self-evaluation, usually before downing massive amounts of protein shakes to regain desired mass.
“Cultural nuances of weight loss,” I often joked to the bewildered white women at my job. None could understand why I was trying so desperately to gain weight, while they sought to lose. I had lost too much, some 16 pounds of juicy thighs and ample bottom gone.
Trying to forget the last five years of a misbegotten relationship I made the gym my new home. Not to lose weight, but to stop the incessant thoughts about my ex, to feel strong. Daily sessions on the treadmill and lifting weights replaced absent emotional strength with physical strength. And for a while it felt fantastic, until I saw him again.
“Damn girl, what happen to your a‑‑?” he said immediately.
“Black women shouldn’t look like that.”
Normally such a sexist jab would roll right off me, but I took that one to heart. So much of my self-worth, after all, was for so long found in his eyes, in his love, in our union.
It didn’t help that just about everyone else in my life echoed his sentiments. Friends fretted at the sight of my sinewy physique, while aunts traded whispers about the cause.
“Eh eh, Dannie, mourning man?”—
Ken was now thumbing through a case of CDs, as I mounted the platform. Coltrane’s “Blue Train” began humming out of a boom box reminiscent of the one I had as a teenager. I clasped my hands behind me with my right leg pointed back, imitating a Degas ballerina.
Above the heads of the encircling 25 artists—mostly women, mostly in their 40s—I found a focal point to avoid eye contact. Connecting with the eyes of the artists, I figured, would further unnerve me.
There was no time to let my lack of clothing sink in. Now Jr. Walker & The All Stars’ “Shotgun” is blaring in the background. Knees bend to meet the ground. Hands placed on waist. And head tilted to the side. The rapid pace of it all elicited a smile.
Four hours before, my mother—yes, my mother—convinced me not to chicken out.
“Oh, it will be fun, Dannie.”
“I don’t know. Would you do it?”
“Um, naw. He. He. He. He. But I think you should go through with it.”
A bit of an introvert and definitely demure, my mother—I’m certain—is trying to live vicariously through me.
“Call me later. I wanna know how it goes.”
She never questioned why I was doing this. She knew all about my insecurities. She said this is an interesting, if not original, way to try to get over them.
Ella Fitzgerald’s “Bye Bye Blackbird” ringed out. Legs are tucked under, as butt rested on heels. Hands are now placed on knees, pin-up girl style. For a moment I recalled the models that graced my high school art classes, never timid and always inventive with poses. I was inspired.
“Okay, class time for a five-minute break.”
After I threw my robe back on, a smiling Ken made his way over.
“Don’t let it go to your head or anything, but one of ladies over there said you’re one of the best models we’ve had. ‘She has such delicious lines.’ ”
Moments later a lanky woman with frazzled salt and pepper curls interrupted. Earlier she had been strolling around the room commenting on student’s work. So I pegged her for the instructor.
“This is Nicky. Sorry, I didn’t get a chance to introduce you before.”
“Great job. And this is your first time,” she said, while placing me in bear hug.
Everyone at the Art Students League was so friendly, especially the studio coordinator, Evgenia. She was the first person to respond to my email inquiries. And when we met a few days later she eagerly signed me up for a three-hour session at $12 an hour.
I had written to every art school in New York City asking if they were looking for new models. After cruising Craigslist, I had decided against replying to the advertisements on the community page for artists. Something about baring it all in front of one stranger seemed more frightening.
“You should take a look at some of the student’s work,” Ken said.
Strolling around the silver-colored room I saw myself in pastels, charcoal, watercolors and oil paint. There were Cubist renditions, with abstract shapes of my arms and legs. One woman had the ingenious idea of using all of the one-minute poses to make a composite, just like Matisse’s “La Danse.”
Some people drew my ideal: a curvaceous sista with wide hips and thick thighs. And others saw me as I saw myself: boney frame, slopping breasts and all. But each interpretation was perfect, capturing all of my fractured selves. And when the break was over and I returned to the center of the room, I felt confident and for once embraced my perceived flaws.
For the next two-and-a-half hours I contorted my body into a myriad of poses, forgetting that I was naked. But one-minute hold times turned to five minutes then 10 and soon my legs began quivering. Some adjustments were in order, simpler poses. Thoughts of that night’s dinner, the next day’s deadlines and the weekend’s plans danced in my head.
At the end of the night I gathered my skirt, my blouse, my bag and my self-esteem.
“You did great,” Ken said. “If the whole writing thing doesn’t work out, you have a back up.”
The next day on my way to work I didn’t glare at the reflection of my slight frame in the subway windows or fidget with my clothes. If I could feel good in my birthday suit, then I surely can deal with a business suit.