It all began with a poster on a Mumbai art gallery’s notice board. I was scanning it for new exhibitions when I saw the ad. “Interested in nude modelling? Any body type, any gender. 500 rupees an hour. Call 9920678754.” I stared at the ad for a while; it almost read like a seedy Craigslist post for paid sex. Maybe it was the monetary component that made me think like that, but the always-up-for-interesting-experiences part of me was quite piqued. As usual, I asked myself, “What’s the worst that could happen?” and the answer wasn’t particularly traumatic. I called the number.
A polite young man responded. He sounded genuine, and asked me to check out his Instagram account to get an idea of his work (and to prove that he was legit). He was in the final year of his fine arts degree, and was doing this for a personal project he wanted to exhibit some day. “Have you done this before?” he asked. There was still something sexual about this interaction. I said I hadn’t. He said it would be a very interesting experience for me. I agreed. I also told him that he wouldn’t have to pay me. He insisted. I refused. He relented, a tad relieved.
We live in a world where ‘naked’ always has a sexual connotation. Every time I have been naked in the presence of another human being, it has been for the purposes of sex and intimacy. Think about it: we don’t have nude beaches in India; naturism is not a part of our psyche; and we spend a lot of energy trying to dictate hem lengths. Skin is seen as seductive. Every product is sold on the back of a sexual component. We spend hours swiping left and right on apps, or playing ‘Would you rather’ while checking out celebrities. Skin is sex.
And here I was, standing in a studio, with two gigantic arc lights on me, slowly peeling my clothes off, while the young artist set his canvas up. Self-consciously, I had worked out a little harder and had manscaped — like I would before a date that could turn into breakfast. The idea of someone just wanting to watch you naked and not do anything with your body was difficult to comprehend. I finally took my underwear off, and looked straight into his eyes. He smiled. Did he like what he saw? Was I attractive? Was I ugly?
“Are you nervous?” he asked.
“A little. I just don’t know what to do,” I replied. “You just need to stand there. That’s all. Don’t move a muscle,” he said.
He had decided on a pose, which I had to hold for 90 minutes, after which I got a break for 20 minutes, and then we resumed for another 90 minutes and so on. Every time he looked at me, and I saw him minutely measuring and mapping every single inch of my body, I was riddled with bouts of self-consciousness, which surprised me. I am not too narcissistic, and have spent all my life onstage and in front of audiences. Being affected by people watching me is not my thing at all. But here was a gaze that I could not comprehend. How clinical was this process? When he, the artist, saw a naked subject, was there no sexual interest at all?
I asked him that during our first break (I had quickly put on a robe that he offered), and he laughed. “I have come to believe that being naked has to be more of a personal journey of battling demons inside us, rather than those outside. Ask yourself how you feel about your body, rather than what your body is doing to me.” We chatted for a while and resumed sketching.
He had made a very interesting point. How do we actually feel about our bodies if we stop caring about what people feel about them? Every time we look at ourselves in the mirror, do we look at ‘ourselves’, or do we look at someone we want other people to see? For those who are physically attractive, the body is a weapon. They use it to attract people. For those who aren’t, it becomes a question of ability and intelligence. But then, who decides what is ‘physically attractive’? And if we decide to ignore socially imposed mores of beauty, how attractive do we think we are?
I suddenly felt a warmth emanate from my skin. I unknowingly smiled (he immediately asked me not to), and standing there, stark naked in front of a man who did not desire my body, I felt sexy. When we took the next break, I refused the robe. Then, when we were starting off again, he asked me if it was okay if he took his shirt off. “Sure,” I said. The moment I saw his bare torso, judgement kicked in. But then, consciously, I tried to avoid doing that. Here was my opportunity to look at someone’s bare body asexually. We looked at each other, as people, not objects. Even when he walked right up to me to look at details of my body from a closer distance, I was unfazed. I didn’t consciously suck my tummy in or try to flex. I just didn’t care about what he thought of me.
When we were finally done, I quite liked what he had produced. We hugged and parted ways. I walked out, my head held up a little higher than usual.
(There is a tiny addition to this story: I did call up one of my fuck buddies and have sex that night. While the experience itself might not have been sexual, it did fill me with a sort of sexual pride and prowess. It was almost like I was turned on by myself, and I wanted someone to experience that. I guess sex is the best celebration of falling in love with your own body, too.)