A little while ago, I took my clothes off for money. It was the first time I had done anything like it, and I have to say that I found the experience strangely relaxing. After forty minutes or so, I even started to nod off as I lay on the couch with my hands folded in my lap. I got to pick what music we played, and I was given free rein to adjust the air conditioning to my liking, which doubly put me at ease and under full control of the other person in the room.
It’s worth clarifying here that I had been paid to get my kit off as a life model, posing for a two-hour session in a local artist’s studio. The session had been booked for six artists, but only one turned up in the end, an illustrator called Wallis Eates, with whom I absently chatted about a variety of topics to distract from the peculiar awkwardness of being instructed to stand still for extended periods without a thread of clothing. Fortunately, hers was a soothing presence, replete with soft eye contact and disarming smiles, and she was happy to hear me prattle on about returning to Australia at the end of the summer and how I had grown up in England.
Agreeably inane topics of conversation such as these are quite the lifesaver when asked to sit down on the edge of a sofa with everything on full display.
On the whole, I was not troubled by the experience of life modelling as I felt sufficiently confident within myself to have been doing it in the first place. I was not riddled with the self-consciousness or distaste at my own body that would have prevented many others from undertaking such an activity. After all, I had volunteered my services after spotting an ad in the studio’s window, so I had already staked my claim to be in that room and in that state of undress. I knew what I was in for and I had wanted to do it. Upon informing a few of my friends that I had stood naked in the middle of a room - drawn by an artist politely asking me to lift my arms above my head or crouch down on the ground - they invariably affirmed they would never have been able to do it themselves and proceeded to express mild awe at my own apparent bravery.
The question of how brave I was was not a major concern for me. I had volunteered because I felt ready to do so, because I was not squirming at the idea of having others see every part of me and committing it to the pages of a sketchpad. I had wanted to try life modelling because I recognised it as an exercise in control, a feeling that I could hold some sway over my circumstances. It was a highly vulnerable state of being in which I had decided to put myself. And that I had decided to do this at all stemmed from the home fitness regime I had stuck by throughout the entire run of this pandemic.
Beyond the most immediate, tangible detriments of the past year – the concrete factors of death tolls, degradation of health, bereavement, and the unsustainable pressure placed upon healthcare services – the most terrifying after-effect has been the absence of control. So much of life, on such a radically broad scale, has been postponed and redirected by a virus that is infectious and undetectable in equal measure. For over a year, even taking the train from one city to another has been relegated to the status of a precarious luxury. Any kind of travel more ambitious than getting from Devon to London has seemed impossibly fanciful.
That idea of returning home to Australia, then, had been in the realm of outlandish fantasy until only very recently, as I finally bought my third plane ticket for Australia this July, following the cancellation of two prior flights in 2020. The previous summer, being stranded on the other side of the world at precisely the point where I had wanted to restart my life, post-uni and fresh out of a job in Germany, was really my lowest point. I was stuck living with my parents in the same room I had inhabited as a teenager, incapacitated by mounting debts and no visible employment prospects, with no control over anything.
Things did eventually get better, as they are apt to do, but the only aspect of my life I had control over in that black period was my exercise regime. Those sets of push-ups and planks, twice a day, every day, became something of a lifeline for me. In the process of furiously navigating “the new normal”, praying for an income and a form of vocation to distract myself from fatalistic thoughts, I found it profoundly stabilising to see my body change under my own influence. I could see, by doing 100 push-ups every day, that my pectoral muscles were growing and developing. I could see my abdominal muscles becoming more defined with each passing week. These positive changes served not only as motivation to continue with these exercises but vital affirmations of my own agency.
Unlike the dozens of unanswered pitch emails and job applications I submitted to every hiring publication and agency, this was an action that had visible, quantifiable results. My efforts were directly rewarded here; I had the ability to change something for the better, precisely at a point of major change and transition in my life. I could not get a job, I could not pull myself out of my overdraft, but so help me god I could enhance my fitness. In a world reluctant to right itself after being upended by a virulently transmissible disease with the power to close countries and kill millions, I could at least change something.
A year of these floor exercises and stretches has left me in perhaps the best shape I have ever been, since seriously hitting the gym one summer at 18. This has not been in the pursuit of an Instagram-ready beach body, but of my own mental stability. I like the way I look because this home fitness regime has served as a guiding reminder that I do have control over my circumstances and that I can affect positive, personal change. I feel assured of what I can do for myself, and the pride I feel within my own body is not purely based on the way it looks, but in the knowledge that I have affected it by my own actions.
At this time more than any other, I feel comfortable as I am because I know that I am responsible for the way my body looks. I had little reservation, then, about exposing myself for this life modelling class – and to prove that confidence has some longevity behind it, I’m scheduled for my next class at the beginning of August.
Liam Heitmann-Ryce, 24, is a freelance writer currently based in southwest England. He is active on Instagram and Twitter, and more of his writing and interview features can be found in his portfolio.