On Modeling and Mortification

Rachel Howard

I started modeling at 32, to keep myself fed while I wrote a novel. I was by that point eight years into what I suppose is called a “spiritual practice.” Initially, there was a clarifying horror to be had in walking into the vaulted space of Grace Cathedral and feeling small and mortal, and I began to seek such experiences at other times in the week. I found them elusive, until my divorce, when suddenly—even just trying to rent a new apartment, drinking alone in well-lit bars—I shook with fear, feeling exposed and at the mercy of the world. Mortified by divorce, I was fragile; I became keenly thankful to God for every moment that passed without that fragility being shattered. Feeling I could just about die, I was alive. But I was also plenty young and attractive, and the sharpness of the vulnerability dulled, or at least became more known and managed and therefore less truly threatening over many nights alone, many cycles of hope and disappointment with men I wanted not just to be loved by but to love.  Much of my increasing security came, I believe now, because I started modeling.

My first husband co-founded a women’s magazine devoted to plastic surgery.  When we had just started dating, and I was 22 and he was 30, he asked me to play a game rating the waitresses at a cocktail bar on a scale of 1-10. He then told me I was a “7.” (In love and naïve, I had been on the verge of telling him he was a “9.5,” thinking the half-point off would convince him of my sincerity.) A year into our marriage, when I was about to publish a memoir, he told me I should get the mole above my right eye removed for my author photograph. Just after we split, when I had lost 10 pounds from heartsickness, I ran into him at the gym as I was heading to the pool in a bikini. My ex-husband eyed the hint of curve beneath my belly button and said, “Don’t lose any more weight, or you’ll be too skinny.” A smile snuck onto his lips. “If you want to get rid of that last bit of fat, go for liposuction.”

Three years later, in my first months of modeling, everything from the arch of my foot to the “volume” of my thighs was suddenly cause for fascinated observation. And as much as this experience of being fully seen can lead you to accept yourself, modeling can also cause you to let go of yourself. When you strip, fully strip, you forfeit the signals of your social identity and your status. No flattering hemline or chic belt or classy earrings. You are just a body. I suppose this could be mortifying. But to me, to my surprise, it was freeing.

My behavior while clothed changed. If I were at a party and got caught up in trying to be a certain version of myself, if I noticed I wasn’t listening to people because I was so concerned with what they thought of me, I would stop and remember what it felt like to pose. I would think, just be naked.

In my third year of modeling, while posing for a drop-in community drawing group at UC Berkeley, I was approached by a soft-spoken artist with tufts of blonde on the rims of his ears. Dave did not hit on me; he asked me to pose for the drawing class he was teaching. I posed for his class, a little flummoxed by his request for twisty, odd poses, and a few months later, when I saw him at a party, I gave him my email address.

Our first three dates consisted of having a drink at a local watering hole and talking about ballet and art, rather stiffly at first. But then Dave said he played the piano, and when I told him I had just begun singing jazz standards at a dive piano bar, we made an afternoon appointment at his house to try out some songs together. I sang “The Man I Love” over Dave’s chord changes. I was terrible. Dave didn’t judge. Did my vulnerability as a model, his empathy as an artist, make our relationship possible? I think so.

Two months after that date, I got a job on the other side of the country. Almost instantly, Dave and I decided we would move together. As soon as we arrived, we eloped.

When Dave and I left for North Carolina, I was 35. When we moved back to California, I was 37.  To others the physical changes of those two years might seem small. To me they seemed decisive. I felt every cell in my body flipping the switch from youth and growth to slow decay.

I had gained five pounds. Tiny growths caused by sun damage dotted the whites of my eyes. Black hairs sprouted from my chin and grey hairs from my temples, and the forehead crevasse that used to appear only when I was deep in thought had become part of my resting visage. But I resumed posing the day we got back to San Francisco. That first gig was for a group of classical realists. On the break, I saw that they had all drawn the forehead crease.

I have watched female models react in different ways to middle age. Lisa L. was in her fifties when I first saw her pose, though she could have passed for forties. I don’t know what her posing was like in her youth, but by mid-life, she was fixated on sexy costumes. A frilly corset, a lace parasol, a string of pearls between her breasts, a red satin ribbon wrapped around her thighs: Lisa L’s props made me curiously embarrassed for her. I was thinking of Lisa L. when, at 34, I told my boyfriend at the time that I would not model past 40, that doing so seemed “not natural.” 

But while I was getting my first grey hairs in North Carolina, another Lisa—Lisa D.—was changing her Bay Area Models Guild roster description to read, Hair: salt and pepper. I sat in on one of her modeling sessions a few months after moving back to Oakland. Her curls were unabashedly white-streaked, and raisin-sized moles sprouted proudly from her cheeks. She had, as always, some extra “volume” at her hips, but the rest of her was muscle. In a twenty-minute set of gestures, she touched her toe to the back of her head, flung herself across the male model on the stand like a woman launched out of cannon, and balanced on one leg like a body-building Aphrodite. The artists howled.

Lisa D. would be my inspiration.

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