For the people in the Artist Society, I am merely a piece of fruit to be observed and represented on paper. Though I can jokingly romanticize my experience, the crown of “the muse” never falls upon my head. My body cannot even claim personhood: In those two hours of straining my muscles, I am reduced to angles and curves of charcoal. And it’s precisely this reduction that allows me to feel little to no nervousness about being naked in front of strangers I will most likely never see again.
I decided to sign up for nude modeling my first year when I saw the opportunity at the Activities Fair in 2014. Most of my choices my first year were cringeworthy, but this particular decision was one of my more successful ones. When I saw the Artist Society’s table, a hidden light bulb I hadn’t even been aware of blinked into life: I had subconsciously always wanted to do this.
I returned to the Artist Society every semester partly because they needed models, partly because the experience was fun and oddly meditative—a lot of time just to think and de-stress while twisting myself on the sheets and pillows—and partly because, if you ask politely, the artists will give you some of their sketches. Nothing beats the feeling of having your nudes in charcoal hanging around your room.
Nude modeling made my first impression on many of my friends at Columbia, and word quickly spread off campus. Spectrum interviewed me after my first session and published an article that was widely read by my friends in Maryland. In a lot of ways, mine was in line with the narrative of the nerd who totally reinvents themselves in college, whose newly purple hair or deeply personal tattoo might be giddily talked about back home or simply get them disowned. For some reason, this part of my early college career was the only thing that my friends back home wanted to discuss.
“Oh my God, I could never do that!”
“I mean, what if someone you’re interested in sees you?”
“You must be so secure in how you look.”
Sure, part of the reason I am comfortable being naked in front of others is an expression of my privilege as a white cis male who did not have to grow up facing a constant barrage of body-shaming social programming. But I don’t always have the most positive body image; modeling for me has very little to do with body positivity. And yes, every time that I have modeled for the Artist Society, there is always, without fail, at least one person I know from a different context, and there is an initial awkwardness. But in every case, I talk to my classmates afterwards, and we just laugh it off, deciding “to be adults” about it.
Most of my falling out with my high school friends at least partially comes from the difference in our college cultures. Of course, it is difficult to escape the narratives that your hometown puts on you, and perhaps you partly choose to attempt to shock or impress your former classmates. But my experience with the Artist Society was a fun activity in which I partook because of some strange innate desire, not because of an impulse to distance myself from the high school nerd I was and refashion myself into some forlorn Bohemian.
To be fair, visiting Maryland and hanging out with my high school friends still increases my alienation from them, from the person who I was in high school. But I hardly think that this is a result of my choosing to nude model or that the my choice to model is a symptom of this alienation. We are not done with the process of becoming ourselves and shedding off past selves, especially not in college, and sometimes that means growing apart from the people who knew us before. But it’s definitely worth it, especially if you get to keep your nudes in charcoal: As W. B. Yeats put it, “There’s more enterprise in walking naked.”
The author graduated from Columbia College in 2018.