The flash went off with a “pop” and the photographer patiently told me to loosen up. My hands were sweaty and my heart was beating a mile a minute. Trying my best to concentrate, I twisted into an elegant pose and took a deep breath to soften my expression. The resulting photograph was beautiful but the experience was terrifying.
I was 20-years-old when I first took my clothes off for money. While it might seem sordid, it wasn’t as bad as you might expect. A sophomore in college in New York, I was completely broke and my babysitting job wasn’t going to pay my rent for the summer while I interned. An old acquaintance — I’ll call her Tania — had been posting censored nude photos of herself on Facebook, and out of sheer curiosity I wrote her a message about it. She quickly replied and said that she had been making extra money “art modeling” for photographers. I was intrigued.
After hours of preparing for my first real photoshoot, I found myself naked in front of a photographer’s camera. Tania patiently stood at the side and watched, as if she were a mother watching her daughter on stage. From time to time she’d offer me tips, such as keeping my mouth slightly open and always standing on my toes in full-body shots (it elongates the legs).
As a serious student from a suburban upbringing, I had never expected to become a nude model. With Tania’s guidance, however, I learned the tricks of the trade within a few weeks.
The Web site the majority of freelance nude models use to find work is called ModelMayhem. After a few shoots were under my belt, I created a profile and portfolio of my images. Tania also taught me the importance of picking the perfect model pseudonym, the goal being to build a name for myself within the world of nude photography. Armed with my ModelMayhem page, I began to network with potential clients with cash to spare.
The sad truth is that most of the photographers who I worked with were usually men with lucrative jobs who were willing to heavily invest in their “new photography hobby.” Their photos were unfailingly amateur and cheesy, but they were always the ones willing to pay my $150 flat rate for three hours of shooting. During those shoots I always felt like a piece of meat: they most likely booked me just to spend time with a naked girl. Don’t misunderstand, not all of the photographers operated like this; some were very talented and I was deeply honored to work with them. But the large majority of them were creeps.
Despite this, I didn’t stop. The money was too good. After a while I raised my rate to $100/hour. Between interning, writing papers, and extra-curricular activities, I believed that I had no other choice if I wanted to be financially secure.
I reached the height of my nude modeling career when I began my senior year of college. Having made a name for myself within the ModelMayhem community, I’d spend up to five hours a day networking on the site. I averaged two to three photo shoots a week and was bringing in around $2000 a month. For a college student, that’s quite a lot of money.
I began to regard my body as a money-making tool. I meticulously paid attention to what I ate and constantly exercised so that cellulite on my ass wouldn’t show up under harsh lighting. I purposely kept my hair long and never, ever shaved off my pubic hair. Most people don’t believe me when I say this, but a nude art model getting a Brazilian bikini wax is career suicide. It wasn’t just how I felt about my body that started to chafe; nude modeling began to feel violating. There was the hobbyist photographer in New Jersey who —unbeknownst to me —zoomed in on my crotch during our entire shoot. There was the nude photography workshop where I was pressured into spreading my legs (something I always said I’d never do) for an erotic shot. There were the photographers who wanted to pay me for sex. There were the old men who just needed somebody to listen to them. There were the numerous photographers I did have sex with.
My last photo shoot was in August 2011 in a hotel room in New York City. The money was good and the photographer was nice. A few months later I was hired at my current job and haven’t modeled since.
Looking back on everything, I don’t regret being a nude model but I do regret many of the things I did. Today, it’s strange to think that I once posed my naked body before photographers’ lenses as a living. I have a box hidden under my bed where I keep prints and Polaroids given to me by various photographers. Sometimes — but not too often — I open it and gently leaf through each photo.
With her small breasts, tuft of black pubic hair, and blue eyes, the naked girl looking back at me seems naïve yet slightly precocious. In her, somewhere, it’s me.
I smile back and return her to the box, slowly placing the lid on top.