"Shameless," she said with this odd smirk on her face, "completely shameless, huh?" and walked to the other side of the classroom. This random 18-year-old in her first semester of college wasn't insulting me and the other figure model in her drawing class, she was redefining the meaning of shame for herself, and it was a moment I'll never forget. It was one of my favorite classes to work. Peter Hirstoff, a brilliant artist and teacher from Turkey always taught his class as a wild exploration of some topic or story. On that day, it was really simple: A man on a journey who is entranced by everything he experiences, such as the way his footprints fall, a rabbit that crosses his path, or a girl he passes. We were nude, because drawing nude figures is very challenging for a whole host of reasons, but nothing we were doing made our bodies look particularly attractive, and I think that's what blew this girl’s mind. In her mind, if you're going to be naked, you better be damn sexy in an absolutely conventional way. This idea wasn’t her fault. Somehow, society successfully gets most of us to believe this lie and warps our view of our own bodies and the bodies around us.
I spent about five years as one of the top art models in New York, and it completely and unexpectedly changed my relationship with my body and the food that nourishes it. I grew up eating a lot of run of the mill “American food:” cereal, sandwiches, pasta and baked, skinless chicken breasts. That was about it. Except for the snacks! My parents could win awards for their devotion to snack foods: homemade pita chips, chocolate chip cookie peanut butter sandwiches (always dunked in milk), and the best homemade fudge sauce in the world, to name a few. All of that left my digestive system and skin a complete disaster area by the time I was in college. The thing is, I didn't really care at all. For a while, I totally ignored it. By the time I was getting ready to graduate, however, I started to panic about my appearance, so I became incredibly restrictive with my food, and it worked! I wanted my hives to go away, my acne to clear up and to lose fifteen pounds, and I started to read about really odd diets and fasts. I figured out certain foods that were totally safe for all the parts of my complicated composition, and just stuck to those. Increasingly, it became more about being super skinny than anything else. Because of my body type, I was just never going to get to the teeny tiny place I really wanted to be, but I got as close as I possibly could. It wasn't sustainable, but it worked just long enough to make me really angry about this feeling that I had to be skinny to be cool, interesting, employable, and sexy. I was actively enraged most of the time, probably because I was so hungry.
That's when I heard that figure modeling (totally nude most of the time), paid really well and was easy on people with crazy schedules. I thought I'd try it for the School of Visual Arts, a large Manhattan art school, with the idea that I would force these young artists to deal with a real woman in front of them. My plan was to do real things and feel real feelings. From the very beginning, nude modeling always felt oddly comfortable to me. I was an actor who was used to people looking at me, and if I focused on the story I was telling, it just felt so natural. I started to form relationships with instructors and other artists so that we could really collaborate on what we wanted to explore in a session. It became my performance art, and they loved it! All of the sudden, I had all the school and private work I could handle, which felt great.
Another moment I'll never forget was the first time I went to see a series of nude drawings of me in a really fancy fifth avenue gallery. I felt like my life was a really exciting series of moments that could just get more brilliant with each passing day. Other things started to feel different too. It was the first time that no one could hit on me at work, which boosted my confidence even more because I think I had always, unknowingly, made that a part of how I evaluated my day (was I pretty, skinny, or amazing enough for someone to inappropriately hit on me today?). I also started to notice that what I ate and drank had a profound impact on how I felt and my ability to do my beloved job. I had some long-time health problems that doctors had always blown off, so I started experimenting with food to try and address them. It was exhilarating, being my own little science project, and coming from such a healthy place about it. After a while, I figured a lot of it out!
I started to have conversations with people who were really hung up on the same things that I had spent so much time and energy wrestling with, and found a great passion in helping them dig through all of it. I loved it so much that I ended up becoming a certified health coach, which has also been endlessly rewarding.
All of this because I allowed myself to let go of shame. I am truly shameless, and so much better for it. I think about that girl often, and so many other young artists from that time in my life. Can we all just give ourselves a break and put all of our cards on the table, even if it begins in an angry, defiant place? Can we just be exactly who we want to be without apologizing for it. Even if it’s just for a moment here, or a conversation there, I think it could change the world.