“You have to write about this,” my writer friend Jenna said over our second round of happy hour prosecco. I had employed her to slosh me up as nervous preparation for my evening’s main activity: I was going to an artist’s house where he was going to draw me. Naked.
She pitched me my own story angle: Getting drawn nude as an act of introspective meditation. Getting drawn nude, as self-care? This was a difficult concept for me to wrap my head around, seeing as the anticipation of this whole experience left me feeling anything but “self-care.”
Like many queer people, I tend to hate my body (a fact I am not proud of). With the muscle-less build of a prepubescent seventh-grader, I fear being naked outside of shower time. Going swimming is a dreaded task, not just because I don’t like taking off my shirt, but seeing Fire Island-groomed gays in speedos often throws me into a spiral. Opting into this activity was, to put it lightly, deeply out of character.
All that aside, I did what needed to be done to physically and mentally prepare. I’d avoided bloaty foods and worked out every day that week. I chose my underwear carefully, and if I’m being as honest as possible, I trimmed my pubes, too. But all this anticipation seemed to not quite help my swelling anxiety so much as exacerbate it. The whole endeavor didn’t feel like a joyous act of body reclamation. It felt like challenging myself to a double-dog dare.
The person drawing me was an acquaintance turned friend I’d met a few times. He was in his 70s, and I’d admired his work as a fashion illustrator ever since I came across it. When he invited me to sit for him via DM, I was honored but also mortified. He draws a lot of men in his free time and had even hosted a gallery showing of the many naked Brooklyn boys that pose for his paintings. The thing was, many of his muses had tight little bods. They were Instagays, social media twinks, or literal fashion models. My reticence was eased by the fact that his drawing was gestural and wouldn’t depict the excruciating details of my shapeless form.
I left the pregame bubbly-drunk, bidding my friend adieu and thinking about how getting sauced right before disrobing alone in a stranger’s home might not be the brightest idea. Nevertheless, I showed up to his apartment soaking wet in a raincoat with a splurge-worthy bottle of wine in tow, and he was surprised I’d brought a hostess gift. “No one has ever brought me wine before,” he said. At first, I was shocked. I am a bit of a hospitality queen with a Midwest sensibility, so I never come to someone’s house empty-handed. But thinking more about his usual clientele, perhaps that wasn’t such a revelation.
“Of course!” I said. Where I was a bit too tipsy to remember, my voice was probably shouty and anxious. His apartment was that of an artist’s — cans of brushes and bottles of red, blue, and gray paint everywhere. Drawings, paintings, and sketches were taped up and pinned all over the walls. Old photos, tear-outs from Vogue and other fashion magazines, old and new, were scattered in each corner. On top of his counter, desk, and table, were stacks of drawings of other figures.
He poured us two glasses, and we started chatting. My stomach twisted like a rubber-banded tie-dye T-shirt. In the midst of some small talk, he seamlessly pulled out a sketch pad and drew me while I was still in my day clothes. We talked about dumb boy problems and our dating lives. He mentioned he loved my podcast, something he could listen to with his queer daughter. He noted he had a hard time keeping up with her and the lexicon of identity. After a glass of red wine, and a few sketches, he asked the question I was dreading: “Do you want to take something off?”
I was immediately thrown back to my childhood days as what many would consider “a fat kid.” Now, with a slender, light-skinned, masculine-of-center body, I can acknowledge it is a privileged one. The evaluation of that body, though, is held to an impossible standard powered by residual fat-kid anxiety that found a new life in the glossy twink-idolotry of gay magazines, porn, teen movies, and other trace depictions of gay life in my early adulthood.
Body dysmorphia is a funny thing. It finds you at the gym, during sex, in the bathroom mirror. It pushes you to an impossible degree of physicality but debilitates you mentally, warping your perception like a funhouse mirror. It is an odorless gas that wears away your energy, and that depletion keeps you from enjoying everyday life, ruins romantic moments, makes food taste like nothing, and keeps you from good beach days. In a single question, I felt the same old triggers, but it was up to me as to whether I would enjoy this moment or fall into the same old mistakes.
I removed my shirt. After he drew a few more sketches, I removed my pants and socks, too. In my head, the experience would’ve been: hop in, drop trow, pose, and get out. Instead, the evening was a slow unraveling of my guard and my wardrobe. Each time I removed an item of clothing was preceded with a careful question from him getting a temperature check on my comfort.
This continued until I was in nothing but briefs and necklaces, and he posited the question I’d been dreading. “Do you want to take the underwear off?” he asked, and I complied. Rain pattered on the window, and conversation slowed. Thunder clapped to the sound of pencil scratches. As the evening of posing and sketching wore on, I eventually became so relaxed I fell asleep in pose.
Before I got dressed to head out, he spread out his sketches — about a dozen — all across the floor of his apartment. My brain had anticipated and agonized over each minute of the evening, but I hadn’t thought about this one, where I would have to actually look at his images of me.
Seeing my arms, my legs, the concavity of my chest, the lankiness of my frame, spread out across the floor — I didn’t see my body the way I saw my body. I saw it how he did. To him, my body was worthy of taking up this space on his floor, or his wall, or in a gallery. My body was more than just a body — it could be art.
This article appears in Out's August 2019 issue celebrating the body. The cover features South African Olympian Caster Semenya. To read more, grab your own copy of the issue on Kindle, Nook, Zinio or (newly) Apple News+ today. Preview more of the issue here and click here to subscribe.