Twenty-five years ago, while an undergraduate at Stanford, I got a job on campus as a lifeguard, deepening a love of swimming and water that has lasted throughout my life. I took the duties seriously and studied the swimmers with professional vigilance, relieved at the end of each day that no emergency rescue had been required. But the greatest challenge of the job was standing poolside in a bathing suit with my body on display.
Work began in the locker room, where I changed into my Speedo and surveyed my reflection, assessing what would be on view for the next few hours. I was plagued by self-criticism. I imagined the swimmers judging my shape, until I made myself remember that I was there to guard their lives, not their fantasies. Later I performed my variation of the same ablutions everyone else did, showering and hair-washing, applying lotion and makeup-preparations for reentering the other world of walking upright on solid land.
One day I noticed a young woman with a sketchpad in the locker room. I'm an art student, a handwritten sign read. I'm here for the natural light and variety of forms. I hope I won't bother you. I was enthralled by the idea of looking at the room full of bodies in a new way. Undressing and bathing and redressing in a steady stream of movements, we were a palette of skin colors and shapes, a beautiful parade of muses. All the same and each unique: rounder or leaner, taller or shorter, full breasted or flat, with or without bellies, muscle tone. Amazed, I began to picture myself along with the others in my own simple perfection-not as an object measured against impossible standards, but only and purely myself, translated into lines and shadings on a white page. Here was a glimpse of what it was like to be gazed at in the name of art, used as inspiration for beauty, even me.
The artist, Diane, told me about life-drawing classes on campus and, to my own surprise, I asked if any models were needed. I wondered if this could cure the self-consciousness that tormented me. I hoped to learn how to be kinder to myself, replacing a practice of scrutiny and punishment with some renewed belief in the softness of flesh on bone, in the beauty of a curve.
I made the arrangements and went to the classroom at the appointed hour. I offered myself up: the only naked woman in the room. Nervous, terrified, delivered, exhausted. In my haste to dress at the end of class, I left behind my bathrobe. Afterward, I told myself how interesting it had been, how good for me, but I never found the courage to go back for the robe. I walked around campus as usual, but whenever I saw a student from that evening, I felt exposed all over again.
The full classroom had been too overwhelming. Still, something had begun. I found myself looking for a private modeling job. When I replied to an ad in the college paper from an artist named Ken, who was in search of a model, he insisted I call his wife, who worked at Stanford, to reassure me he was safe.
Unlike the experience of modeling for my peers in the classroom, the formality of Ken's studio helped further my sense that he was a professional. At first, disrobing, I pretended to be relaxed, and eventually the pretense became true. Ken made a series of sketches and photographs in preparation for a sculpture of my torso. Often I slept during the long reclining poses, but I remember the ache of holding my arms over my head while he photographed me from the neck down. Eventually, he began the sculpture-a nearly life-size block of clay that slowly and unmistakably took on the appearance of my nude body.
We barely spoke. Even before I really looked at his images of me, I thought about what the drawings and renditions might reveal; if someone else could forgive my imperfections, perhaps I could forgive my own. When I said I would be graduating soon, Ken gave me photographs of my silhouetted torso in black-and-white and color shots of the finished sculpture: front, back, and sides. I tried to see what he might have seen: contours and dimensions, a graceful and anonymous arc in space.
All these years later, the photos remain in my desk drawer, vivid and strange. On occasion, since working with Ken, I have searched again for some elusive reconciliation with myself by modeling for other artists. Each time, I have found a bit of reassurance in the artist's gaze. It's as if I'm being immunized against the diseases spread by magazine covers and movies. But I still struggle to make a more permanent peace with my body, the one I've been given and so often long to shrink or elongate or make closer to perfect. Even now, it's only the water that feels utterly welcoming and without judgment. Immersed, I am a self that is more than the sum of my parts. My edges dissolve. I float.
This essay first appeared in The New York Times Magazine, May 28, 2006.