Buying and Selling My Naked Body for $20 an Hour

Two weeks ago, I was checking Craigslist for writing jobs and found an ad in search of “Nude or seminude model for respectful, professional life drawing class. $40 for 2 hours.” Previous to this, I’d made the enormous money mistake of quoting a 200-page ghostwriting job for under three grand. I was broke, but unwilling to sacrifice an iota of my already-frugal but resolutely dranks-heavy lifestyle. This sort of mild desperation leads almost immediately to Craigslist.

This modeling gig sounded fine. Besides, have you ever looked around at your life and realized you haven’t done anything really new in a while? That it’s been months since you actually felt nervous?

Hi, my name is Jia, and I just moved to Ann Arbor for grad school. I’d like to be to be on your list of models for weekend classes. I’m reliable, I’ve posed nude for artist friends before [a lie] and I’m flexible and aware of visual lines in the body from lots of yoga and dance.

I read it over, deleted the word “flexible,” and within an hour, I was marking my calendar for a Sunday drawing session in a carriage house in the north part of town.

The same day that I signed on for paid nudity, I bought a Groupon for a month’s worth of classes (normally $20 each) at a ballet barre studio. I’d like to think the two transactions were unrelated.

On a sweltering Sunday afternoon, I drove to the carriage house and found three nervous-looking middle-aged men and a platinum blonde young woman, all of them with beers in hand. “You want one?” they asked. I said no. The two hours passed quickly. I posed in minute-long arabesques and balancing poses for a while; I sat on a chair for twenty minutes and stared into the vortex of a portable fan; I lay down on the floor and fell asleep. Everyone was very civil, and at the end I got $40.

A week later I received an email from one of the men in class, a local photographer.

There’s this old elementary school they’re about to tear down in Detroit. I’d like to photograph you naked inside of it, wearing a Day of the Dead mask and heels. What do you think?

I thought about this proposition, wondering how much money it would take for me to accept it. “A lot,” I concluded, and wrote back, politely citing my desire to work in the public school system as a potential obstacle in a career doing erotic nudes.

The barre studio feels like a hallucination; classical ballet, it is not. A darkened room reverberating with girl-pop remixes and dirty beats, a pretty fake-titted instructor coyly telling you to “put on your six-inch stilettos”—your tippy toes—“and tuck, and tuck, and tuck, and tuck.” The bass grinds, the synth shimmers, and two dozen women brace themselves against the blond-wood barre and thrust their pelvises back and forth, staring in the wall of mirrors at their faces, their waistlines, their asses, in search of an incremental and expensive change.

It was another meditation on nudity, except charged with the electric desire of the female to perfect herself. I have an aversion to results-driven exercise, and had side-eyed the studio’s website testimonials: “I am the thickest woman in every class but I feel like I am living out my fantasy of being a ballerina! I have lost 18 pounds in three weeks and I’ve never looked so good naked!” But here I was anyway, a willing participant, sore from my stint as a human statue and heaping on the agony in this theater of the absurd.

“All of this pain is toning that little seat of yours,” cooed the instructor. “Mind to the muscle, and you will see the results.”

The music echoed her strange encouragement: Girl, you’re a sexy bitch. You’re a sexy bitch, sexy bitch, sexy bitch.

The instructor walked up to me and turned my hip inward. I struggled to hold it there. She moved on to adjust the girl on my right, then the next one. Blank-faced, we carried on, humping away into the ether.

I drove home thinking about the financial symmetry of my two new pursuits. In search of an explanation, I took off all my clothes and went to stand in front of the full-length mirror in my bedroom. I wondered briefly if all transactions ultimately burned down to nakedness: the ease with which we could see other bodies stripped before us, the protections and motivations with which we could display our own.

I had bought and sold this view for the same price. What had I learned? I stared at myself for about thirty seconds, searching for something, but my body was just a body. I got bored and put my clothes back on.

 

Jia Tolentino is a writer in Michigan.

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19 Comments / Post A Comment

Derbel McDillet (#1,241)

Already frugal but resolutely dranks-heavy describes my lifestyle perfectly.

j-i-a (#746)

@AconyBelle I really hope that I never live any other way!

I did this exact gig through craigslist in Ann Arbor as well. While it was very civil, as you experienced, it was a little more unnerving for me because there were only two old men doing the figure drawing. Ah well. 40$ for groceries for that week. I recently moved to Ann Arbor for music school so I’m pretty broke.

j-i-a (#746)

@oatmealshrapnel OH MAN. Where’d you do it? They kept talking about how they try to make sure they can keep the models warm in winter and I just imagined snowshoeing to some artist shed on Packard in mid-January and taking off seventeen layers of clothing, then passing out immediately from the shock

@j-i-a It was at the ICC center? on Hill. Oh man, I can’t imagine anyone answering that ad in the winter. Which grad school are you at?

j-i-a (#746)

@oatmealshrapnel MFA program in the English dept. Good luck dealing with today’s hideous 100-degree heat! I am thinking of giving my dog an ice bath and watching Do The Right Thing to make us all feel better.

Good piece, but I was hoping to read more about how it actually felt to do this kind of modeling for the first time. Were you nervous about your body at all? How awkward was the initial disrobing? Were you self conscious, cold, crampy, etc? How did it feel to see four pairs of eyes studying ALL of your features in detail?

j-i-a (#746)

@Scarlton Banks Despite my wish to unnerve myself through nude modeling, I was pretty comfortable the whole time (with the exception of arms falling asleep, etc). I actually thought that the Pure Barre classes were far more freaky than the drawing session in terms of body self-consciousness–which is something that I feel strongly about avoiding. During the session, I felt (I think, correctly) that the facts and particulars of my body didn’t matter at all. I assumed that they, as artists, were looking at me as a study in lines, shapes, shading–and that type of evaluation along aesthetic value feels SO DIFFERENT from the aesthetic, aspirational scrutiny that even the most perfect-looking women place upon themselves/each other in any exercise class with a mirror in it. Which maybe is an obvious thing to say, but I hadn’t been to a class like that in a long time and it was so weird!

Luckily, the class was warm–no cramps–disrobing felt like taking off a cover-up at the beach–and I mostly felt awkward about how dead my face was because I was devoting so much effort to staying awake, not twitching, etc.

Thanks for your response! I’ve participated in a few nude figure drawing sessions (as one of those drawing), and always wondered what the models were thinking or whether they felt strange. Cheers!

j-i-a (#746)

@Scarlton Banks I’d bet that figure drawing models tend to be the sort that would feel anything but strange in that situation! (Based on my sample size of two friends who have also done art class modeling and are exceptionally free-spirited with all matters nudey)

Robin (#1,320)

Love your writing – please keep at it!

j-i-a (#746)

@Robin That is so nice of you to say–you’ve made my day.

DV8ONE (#1,595)

This is a great way to pick up extra cash. Did this about 25 years ago while in school and back then it paid $10 hour. Of course you need to be comfortable taking your clothes off in front of a room full of people and at the same time, remain still. In addition, as a male, there are other things you need to control as well. I still have some of the drawings given to me by students from the art classes. I recommend everyone doing this at least once in their lives. It makes you look at yourself in a whole new perspective.

yup. did this in toronto. would again.

j-i-a (#746)

So the Huffington Post has a content-share with the Billfold? I’ve gotten 250+ nasty comments on this article and a LOT of Facebook friend requests from guys with accompanying messages saying “pics or it didn’t happen.”

cmcm (#267)

@j-i-a EWwww. Assholes.

Dave (#1,600)

I’ve been an occasional art model in the Ann Arbor area for about two years and had seen that Craigslist ad but thought it seemed a bit sketchy. I’m glad to hear it’s legit. I enjoyed the article very much. Welcome to town!

ls (#1,857)

Jia, Would like to try the modeling in AA. And could use the extra $.If anyone of you could give info and who to contact, it would be appreciated. Thanks or a link to the craigslist ad etc. Larry

I was a nude model for a number of years from age 19 (paid at $15/hour) to 4 years ago paid at $20/hr. It’s not easy work some times staying in a position for 45 minutes or an hour. I also did a few clothed modeling jobs that paid much better.

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