At War with my Body
How Bodypaint modeling helped me accept myself
I was born into the body of a girl descended from German and English ancestors. In the 7th grade my best friend was a tall, lanky blonde named Jennifer that every pre-pubescent boy in our class wanted to kiss. I was the stereotypical chubby, but funny, side-kick friend who was always cracking jokes and getting straight A's. My mother used to tell me that I was never going to be a tall, slender woman when I came from a line of stocky, brick houses named Frieda and Helga.
I wasn't teased or bullied per-se, but I wasn't exactly praised for my appearance either. The neighbors we played with across the street called us "The Fat Family," while they were from the more toned and athletic "Thin Family,” because they played soccer and did yoga. I have a clear memory of a girl in 5th grade calling me “pleasantly plump” and a boy telling me I was a “glass-eyed turtle” because I was slow in gym class and wore coke-bottle glasses. See, on top of our big boned, farm-bred heritage, my family also suffered from a bone disease called Osteogenesis Imperfecta which made any kind of exercise difficult and possibly dangerous. In the 6th grade I was 4'8" and 150lbs. Shakespeare put forth the perfect description of my pre-teen stature in his play A Comedy of Errors, when he said “she is spherical, like a globe.”
Fast forward through puberty and I finally gained a few inches in height, filled out in the places I needed to, got rid of my 80’s plastic glasses and started wearing contacts. I had my first real kiss. A boy held my hand in public. Things were looking up! At 13 years old I watched Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet, in my bedroom, surrounded by posters of 90’s idols like No Doubt, Green Day and Tiger Beat cover models Johnathan Taylor Thomas and Rider Strong. I fell in love with acting and the idea of fame and decided I would become an actor like Claire Danes crying over her dead Leo. I found the theatre club and a group of little weirdos who accepted me and vibed right along with my love for all things creative – literature, art, photography and film. It seemed like things were falling into place.
Something was still missing though. I had found friends who had similar interests. I had a passion for something that was driving me to attain goals. I couldn’t put my finger on it, but I still didn’t feel like “me.” Yet, I had learned that the show must go on and I was nailing my performance in the role of the typical high school student and selling it perfectly to the audience of my peers and parents. I graduated with honors and received multiple scholarships to attend college for theatre in the fall.
In college I found more weirdos, as one usually does when one leaves home. I bonded with LARPers and stay-up-all-nighters. I came out of my shell by doing every play I could. I wore skirts over jeans and big chandelier earrings. I smoked cigarettes and kissed girls. I went to cafes and did open mic poetry nights. I lived in the lyrics of an Ani DiFranco song. But I still felt like I was doing all of it for someone else. I was putting on a show of the way I wanted others to see me, like trying on wedding dresses in front of your parents and choosing the one they like best. Everything fit, but it still wasn't “me.”
My second year in New York City after graduating college led me to a theatre company that put on a weird holiday show every year called “Naked Holidays.” It was as if you mixed SNL with a dysfunctional Donny and Marie Christmas special and added a sprinkling of nudity. During my time on that show I met a woman who had taken the leap from her professional life in a law firm to starting her own face painting business. An artist and a painter by nature, she traded in her salaried paycheck for a little table, 2 chairs, and a bottle of glitter and she would sit in Central Park every afternoon painting the faces of children for tips. After enough time, delighted mothers hired her to come to their child’s birthday party for more money. With some time and hard work, she was eventually running a successful party entertainment business and had just started moving her artwork into the world of bodypainting at nightclubs and bars.
I was intrigued and asked to see some photos. Who were these women who were comfortable being topless in a bar? When she showed me the photos, I saw that she usually began her evening with a model who would be painted in a corset, detailed in lace or glitter. Then the model would walk around the bar and simply chat up the patrons. Sure enough, after some liquid courage, another woman would want to experience the same thing. Some would remain timid and only get their faces or arms painted, but some would take a leap of faith and bare their torso to a stranger, only to be transformed into a thing of beauty for the night.
I became one of those women. I had to try it. Knowing nothing about modeling and never having been painted before, I asked if I could model for her. To my surprise, there was no pre-requisite to this type of modeling. No height or weight requirement. No measurements were taken. She told me she would be doing another painting the following weekend at a private home and all I had to do was show up. Show up, and get naked.
I was terrified, but never felt more alive.
I showed up on the day, prepared as she had asked – shaved and lotion free, with no makeup and a bottle of water. When the time came, I undressed completely for her and waited for the criticism. I waited to hear that my body was larger than others she had worked with and required more paint. I waited to hear that things weren’t symmetrical. I waited to hear my curves were too curvy in some places and not curvy enough in others. I waited to hear about the dimples in my thighs. I waited to hear what society had been screaming at me from magazines and TV shows and the movies I wanted to be in for my whole life – that I wasn’t enough, and too much all at once.
It never came. I watched her face as she painted me. In her eyes I wasn’t a pile of scars, stretch marks and acne, I was a canvas. It took a few hours for her to transform my naked body into a work of art. And when I looked in the mirror and finally saw what she had painted, I almost cried. My unclothed skin was covered in an armor of paint. My hair flowed wild from behind a silver-plated face mask. A shining bodysuit of grey paint hugged my curves and created a barrier between my insecurities and the outside world. Though completely nude, I had never felt more powerful.
This first time being painted was an awakening that led to a prosperous career in bodypaint modeling, figure modeling, and acting. In the years after this night, I worked with some of the most successful and prestigious artists in the world, who transformed me into creatures that only live in the imagination. The paint covered me like a cloak of confidence. It hid my scars, my stretch marks, my acne. Every time, it made me feel like a work of art. When I was painted, I was my true self. In the paint, I was invincible.
I don’t model as much anymore, but the confidence I gained from those years in New York City stayed with me and continues to grow. I used to look in the mirror and hate my strong shoulders, my broad ribs or my thick thighs. I hated that one leg was slightly shorter than the other because of a fracture when I was 11. I hated the bruises I wore so often from simple bumps around the house. But now when I look in the mirror, I see a woman willing to take up space. I see strength and power. I see ferociousness and fearlessness. I see vulnerability and a passion to push others to be vulnerable too. I see a Warrior. And all it took, was a little bit of paint.