I exhale as I take a deep breath and let the robe slip off my shoulder. This feels unsettlingly familiar. I let the robe fall to my ankles. I crawl onto the platform and try not to look anyone in the eyes. I slip up and look an elderly woman in the eyes as she is adjusting her easel. This is my sixth month figure modeling. While there are a few familiar faces in the crowd, it’s hard to get my my stomach to settle down. When you are in a position like this, you are forced to trust the onlookers, or in this case, the artist. After the session, I applaud myself for being so vulnerable. As a survivor of sexual assault, I have been led to believe that I failed myself. I’ve trusted people with my body who have caused it harm. My hands and mouth have failed me, leaving me defenseless. There have been moments where I’ve wanted to wipe every inch of my body away, until I became as transparent as a ghost. Trusting myself with strangers at my most vulnerable is never easy. It’s a strange thing, shame. How it permeates spaces and like a shadow, it follows you. With shame in my every step, I had a lot of hesitancy about figure modeling, where every part of me is literally and figuratively exposed. What drove me to do it was helping a friend.
One of my close friends traveled abroad last summer, her partner asked me if I could stand in for her during her departure. I am unsure what compelled me to model in her absence, but I am thankful I did. While I had a lot of anxieties at first, I trusted my friend, who led me through the whole process. She showed me versions of herself crafted by the local artist and seemed like a goddess in those incarnations. I envisioned myself as a fat, black Venus emerging from the sea. With that thought, I booked my first gig a few days later. I knew that my relationship with my body wasn’t the best, and I wanted to change that.
Growing up in a predominantly black neighborhood, the subject of sex was taboo. Talking about sex or anything sexually related was strictly reserved for “grown folks.” Any interest in sex or sexuality resulted in a hush, or a change of the subject. While we did have sex-ed in school, the only other place sex was talked about was in church. Sex was always something evil, never in the context of love. There were so many questions that I had about sexuality, but I didn’t want to be shunned. So, when I was sexually assaulted the first time at the age of 19, I became a vessel for my inadequacies. My shame became a silencing mechanism. I carried this pain for many years, because I didn't have the language to articulate it. Sexual coercion wasn’t talked about in my neighborhood, and it made me speechless.
I never would've thought it would happen to me, but I knew it didn’t feel right. I didn’t know that other people went through sexual assault. I didn’t know the importance of having a dialogue about it. Years later, I would learn that it wasn’t my fault, was happy to learn that I was not alone, but I still didn't feel okay in my body. One thing that hurts sexual assault survivors is not knowing who is on their side, and who is not - not having an understanding community to support them.
In so many ways, I wonder how girls and boys are harmed by abstinence-only teaching, and the notion of shame. I wonder if shame is something our mothers taught us to protect us. Sex was never talked about in a healthy way, so it was a damned if you do or damned if you don’t type of deal. I didn’t understand the fixation on purity, and was thankful my mom didn’t make me go to the purity ball with purity rings. In many ways because of this thought, I felt like I was damaged. I felt like I was broken because I had been sexually assaulted.
After years of carrying the burden of hating my body, I think I have overcome it. Sexual assault makes you feel like being ransacked from your home. I am gaining confidence in my body again. Learning to love yourself is like learning to trust yourself after self-loathing. Owning it and making sure that you forgive yourself for the blame, and that your shame is not yours to carry. Some people choose to heal one way. I choose to heal by figure modeling. Figure modeling forces me to be there, completely. I can't hide parts of me that have been abused. When I get on my platform, I feel powerful. I feel vulnerable. I am in the company of people who care about me. I can envision myself as a goddess being admired, I give myself permission to be visible. After each session, I am reimagined by the vision of several artists. I’ve been depicted in oil paints, pastels, and even charcoal. All the parts of me I taught myself to hate become visible again, beautiful again. If there’s one thing I want to tell survivors, it is that they can learn to love themselves at their own pace.
Writing: Naledi Atari
Artwork: Katie Driscoll