I had a dumpster-diving artist friend once who was roughly 7-feet tall and laughed harder than anyone I’ve ever known. She gave herself over to mirth, committed to it in a way that is rare and fine. It was contagious, and I would often start laughing hysterically at the jokes we made. This was back in the days I lived in Chapel Hill, NC. When I walked through her house and looked at all the beautiful things she made out of compact discs and broken appliances, she would point at this or that object and note the object’s humble origins as trash. Recycling at its finest. In addition to being an artist, she taught an art class. One day, she asked me to model for her.
I thought that was hilarious. No, Jane said. For real. In the nude? I asked. No, fully clothed, she replied. Then I couldn’t possibly, I said. We laughed like idiots for a long time. I may have rolled on the floor. I did that back then sometimes. I don’t know why I don’t roll on the floor laughing anymore. It’s great. Everyone should. Then she explained she was serious. And I would be paid money to do it.
In those days, I ate a lot of peanut butter sandwiches for lunch. I sold a ton of old books I had collected through the years to a local used bookstore in exchange for a few bucks to buy a hamburger. I was not an artist like my friend Jane, but I nearly had the starving part down. Well, I was on thin rations, let’s say. So, I said sure.
Being a model for an art class is not as glamorous as you might think. You sit on a stool. Very still. And maintain whatever expression you have settled into the moment the session began. You nose itches immediately. Then you think you might develop a nervous tic in your left cheek. Your butt starts to get sore from sitting. You desperately want a glass of water. You want to laugh at the ridiculousness of other people looking very earnestly at you and taking in all your contours. You look at your 7-foot-tall artist friend moving around the room peering over shoulders, and you want to start laughing even more. But you manage not to do any of that. About five and a half years of your life pass as you sit. Then another season – a long winter – goes by. Then it’s over.
The room is filled with images of you. It’s kind of mesmerizing. It’s like looking in a fun house mirror, except the mirrors are all a little different. Your features all reflected in various ways in the eyes of the artists and their particular mediums. There I was in charcoal. In paint. Maybe twenty easels of me. I can be quite critical of how I look, but the artists’ eyes and hands seemed more generous. It was really a healthy thing.
You have to forgive yourself for not looking perfect. Just get over it. Let it go. My first month in Manhattan, I walked around struck by the youth and beauty around me. How am I ever going to fit in here? I thought. All these perfect people marching past me on the way to their perfect jobs. I belong in an uglier town. I would never say that the Pittsburgh area, where I once lived, is full of ugly people. But I think it just has a rougher blue-collar quality to it where less beautiful people might be more appreciated. So, I thought, maybe I should be living in Pittsburgh instead.
You can’t let New York City intimidate you like that. If you are feeling particularly ugly, tell yourself you have a ton of character that more than makes up for the ugly. You probably do. And it probably does. That’s what I told myself. I have a ton of character. I even believed it.
Over time, it was easy to see that not everyone in New York City looked like they came off a conveyer belt of perfect youthful attractiveness. People who were capable of embracing their own imperfect bodies at any of the nude or near-nude events held in New York City surely demonstrated that. New Yorkers love to get naked. They might have let it hang out at the recent Clothing Optional Bike Ride in Brooklyn or the Naked Subway Day. An artist was doing nude body painting in Times Square one weekend. Or they could dress up like a mermaid in the Mermaid Parade at Coney Island last weekend where many a mermaid went topless down the boardwalk.
Some mermaids were older than you might expect a mermaid to be. It’s impossible to know the average life expectancy of a mermaid. But if you had an expectation of only 18- to 25-year-old mermaids being allowed in the parade or a state of half-nudity being relegated to a certain age group, you’d be wrong. Some of the mermaids were generously proportioned. My friend Alicia said she heard some men booing these mermaids from where she watched. I heard none of that. The men had come to the parade hoping to see half-nude young models parading past, but they got a true mix of body types.
I love that the mermaids and mermen embraced their bodies in whatever state they were, whatever age or dimension their bodies took. I found that truly beautiful.