News & Politics

Nude Modeling: Going in Blind

Beth Finke was well on her way through grad school when she lost her sight. Her job interviews since then have centered on Braille, tape recorders and talking computers, and while employers end up fascinated with the technology, they are unsure about Finke's capabilities. That's why the nude modeling idea appealed to her -- sight is unnecessary when all you're doing is letting art students draw you without any clothes on. Or is it?
At first I wasn't sure about taking a nude modeling job. I knew Mike never expected me to answer the want ad. I think he'd read it to me as a sort of joke, trying to lighten up the dark mood that sets in every time I start looking for work.I was working full-time and studying for a master's degree when I lost my sight. Job interviews since then have centered on Braille, tape recorders, and talking computers. Employers end up fascinated with the technology, yet unsure about my capabilities.It's been rough to be rejected over and over again for jobs I know I am more than qualified for. That's why the nude modeling idea appealed to me. No need to explain technology at this interview. For once, I wouldn't have to beg them to see past my blindness. Sight is unnecessary when all you're doing is letting art students draw you while you stand on a tabletop without any clothes on.In fact, that's the concept I tried repeating any time I felt any anxiety about this job. "C'mon, Beth," I'd say to myself. "You'll just be standing there naked." Too often, unfortunately, this phrase got shortened to a repetitious mantra:"Naked.""Naked.""Naked.""Naked.""Naked.""Naked."When I was in college, I used to set my alarm extra early in order to get into the communal shower room and have it to myself. It was years after I was married before I finally quit wearing flannel nightgowns to bed. At home I still dress and undress behind a closed bathroom door, and even when we lived in a very isolated house on the outer banks of North Carolina, I never walked around undressed.When I mentioned this nude modeling idea to a few friends, they assume public nudity would be easy for me. "You'll be perfect!" they laugh. "You won't even see the students staring at you. It won't bother you at all that you're up there naked."Somehow I disagreed. Whether I could see myself or not, I'd know my clothes were off. And I'd know the students would know I was naked.Making all this worse was the paranoia I've developed since losing my sight.I always think people are staring at me. If Dora, my seeing-eye dog, makes a wrong move and I have to correct her, I'm sure every eye is on us. When I fumble to find a doorknob, I know everyone is watching and pitying me. I hate the feeling that people are watching me without me being aware of it.Why on earth would I accept a job that required me to be stared at?But then I wondered: Could it feel okay as long as I knew that watching me was what they were supposed to be doing? Maybe those laughing friends were right. Maybe it'd be easy to stand naked in front of people now that I can't see myself anymore, can't see them looking at me? Could nude modeling turn out to be yet another thing I could do as a blind person that I never could do when I could see? Was it possible that someday I would find standing naked on a tabletop as easy as reading Braille in an elevator? I had to find out.I grabbed Dora's harness and walked to the art and design building, armed with questions about the want ad in the paper.What a pleasure it was to have a potential employer welcome my interest!"We're short on models this year," I was told. "I'll help you fill out an application if you're interested."The application was short, with questions about my weight, my height, and my skin color. Nothing was ever said about the fact that I was blind. The only bothersome question I had to deal with came after I was asked my birthdate and had to admit I'd just turned 40. The interviewer mentioned how nice it would be to have a middle-aged model.I let the comment slide by. If they wanted a middle-aged model, I'd be a middle-aged model.The audition for the job took place the next week in front of four art instructors and the receptionist who had helped me fill out the application. We women who had applied came to the art room with a robe in our backpacks. We undressed in a separate room, put our robes on, and gathered again in the art room. One by one we were asked to stand on a four-foot-by-five-foot tabletop, take off our robes, and do different poses. As the first woman stepped onto the tabletop, I sat quietly waiting for my turn, questioning whether I'd lowered myself to something here. Or was this just another opportunity that would have never come my way if I hadn't gone blind?I often think of my blindness this way. That is, if I hadn't lost my sight, I wouldn't have learned how lovely it is to walk arm-and-arm with friends all the time, how rewarding it is not to judge folks by what they look like.I would have never had a black Lab, and I would still be relying on sheet music rather than playing the piano by ear.These thoughts were interrupted when the art instructor asked who wanted to be next. "Me!" I called out. I was eager to get this over with. I jumped up and asked my dog to take me forward. The tabletop was just about the same height as the one at the vet's office. Dora decided to stay seated on the floor. I was a little disappointed, as I thought having a dog up there might distract the art instructors from concentrating on me.There was a stepstool there to help us onto the platform, but I avoided it.With my robe still on, I backed up to the table and hitched myself up instead. Crouching down, I felt the tabletop's edges to be sure I wouldn't fall off. Finally centering myself on the tabletop, I stood up and unbuttoned my robe. I was told to strike six poses, eventually ending up in a reclining position.If I had been able to see that first model do her audition, I might have had a better idea of what was expected. I was suddenly so concerned with which six different poses to take that I forgot I was naked up there. I passed the audition, but not due to my grace. All I could figure was that the department was pretty desperate for models. They seemed particularly interested in me for my age and my willingness to work mornings. Most models are students who would rather not wake up early.After surviving the audition, I figured I'd probably take the job and see how it turned out. Modeling wouldn't start right away, so I still had a few weeks to think it over. And to train Dora to jump up on a tabletop.The sheet of rules they gave us at the audition wasn't available in Braille, so one of the professors read it out loud.Weeks later, as I get ready at home to go to my very first modeling session, I can only conjure up three things from that long list:1. Do not stare at the art students as they work. For me, this will be no problem;2. Be on time. This could be a problem on days I have to walk to work. But for today, Mike has agreed to drive me to the studio. This, even though he's still not crazy about my standing nude on a pedestal surrounded by college students; and3. Be clean. Again, this shouldn't be a problem. I shower every morning, modeling nude or not.My showers are usually quick ones, soapy hands brushing over spare tire and love handles as fast as I can. One of the advantages of becoming blind is the inability to look in full-length mirrors. I was a slim and trim 26-year-old when I lost my sight, and if I shower quickly, avoiding pinching any inches along the way, I have the luxury of still picturing myself looking the way I did in my 20s. And on days I can't completely convince myself of this fantasy, I imagine that the clothes I choose do wonders to hide any middle-age spread.But the jig's up once I take my clothes off in front of this art class today. They'll notice every lump and layer of fat.And this morning, in the shower, so do I. The shower ends up being a long one. Exploring all those bulges takes time. So does contemplating just how I'll feel with all those students scrutinizing my pear-shaped body in their attempts to recreate it on paper.Shower finally over, I head for the coffee maker, remembering to limit myself to a half-cup. Standing still and naked in front of people is going to be hard enough. Standing still and naked while having to pee is something nightmares are made of.Sucking every last drop from the mug cradled in my hands, I am finally able to conjure up some of the more reassuring things that were said at our audition. "The art students will think of you models the same way medical students think of the naked bodies they work with," claimed one professor. "It's all very professional."Another professor pointed out that a lot of the students would be freshmen and not yet very sure of themselves as artists. "Add to that the fact that they've probably never been in a room with a naked stranger before," he said, "and you'll realize they'll be a lot more nervous than you'll be."How about we just all get naked then, I wonder. You know, just to make absolutely sure the nervous playing field is level?I take my robe off the bathroom hook and caress it a bit before stuffing it into my backpack. At the audition, we were told that if we ever get cold or uncomfortable, we should always feel free to just put our robe back on. Never before have I felt so much reverence for an article of clothing.We were also told at the audition that the art department would provide sheets for us to lie on. "These sheets get dirty sometimes," one of them said. I pictured her standing in front of us, waving a bedsheet full of stains from models who weren't so prudent about coffee intake. "You might want to bring one of your own sheets from home," she advised. No question.I stuff a sheet in along with the robe. While strapping the pack onto my back, I call Dora to come and take me out to the car.On the drive to the art building, Mike and I talk about how it might feel to be in an airplane crash, about when he thinks he'll get around to changing the light bulb on the front porch, about how gray Dora's hair is getting, about anything except nudity and art. I know that avoidance is not always a good coping strategy, but today it's working. I don't fight it.By the time I call Dora out of the car and put her harness on, I'm feeling pretty confident. It's nice to be employed again, good to feel needed by someone outside of my family. I've even convinced myself that my work will somehow contribute to the advancement of art. Mike kisses me goodbye, and the squeeze he gives my hand is reassuring. I smile when I hear him call out a "Good luck!" to Dora and me as we scoot off to the art building.We're right on time, but the professor isn't. As I wait outside the studio door I hear students hurrying by to class. "Can I see your still life?" one asks. "I'm not sure I did it right." I wonder what "right" is, and if someday in the future two students will be comparing their renditions of my naked body, seeing if they got it "right" or not. Then I hear two other students discussing their social lives."Hey, like, did you party, like, all weekend?""No, just, like, Saturday. But, like, I stayed up, like, way late last night, too. Like, I almost didn't, like, wake up this morning."When all you can do, like, is hear ... I mean, when you can't, like, distract yourself with, like, visual things around you, well, like, the overuse, like, of the word "like," like this, like, can drive you, like, crazy.My brow furrows in annoyance and disgust over this modern-age speech pattern, and when a voice calls out my name, I'm a bit startled. "Beth?" a woman asks. "I'm Barbara. Can I help you into the studio?"Barbara is the art professor I've been assigned to today. With little time to think, I grab her elbow and let her lead Dora and me into a big, open room."Ah, they've cleaned the room!" Barbara complains as we enter. The disappointment in her voice makes me laugh."What's wrong with a clean room?" I ask her."Oh, it just means the stools and chairs are all up on the tables, and we've got to move stuff around before we get started." She leads Dora and me to a stool, instructing me to sit down as they rearrange the room a bit.I wish she would just bring us to the changing room right away so I could undress and get into my robe. I've managed to get myself to a pretty good place about this whole nude-modeling thing, and if we could keep things moving, I won't have time to think about love handles. And goose bumps. And having to pee.The sounds of tables and chairs being shoved around finally stops. Barbara approaches us again.Have they come up with a word that combines disappointment and relief? You know, like "infotainment" or "frappacino," those other combination words that are so popular now?Disaplief? Relappointment?That's the word I need to use to describe my reaction after Barbara tells me how pleased she is that I could make it this morning. She is particularly pleased with the opportunity that my bringing Dora along gives the students."They can draw both of you," she notes. "And since you'll be there with the dog," Barbara reasons, "we'll have you keep your dress on."
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