Modeling, vanity and self-awareness
Recently, a friend I hadn’t seen in about five years asked me whether, doing what I do, I ever feel caught up in the concept of physical appearance. I replied that, actually, I think I’m far less vain these days than I ever might have been and somehow manage to ignore the media obsession with “perfection” and “irreality” almost completely. So, here are some scattered thoughts on the subject…
When it comes to modeling, I have a mental list of things I’m not interested in doing. It’s the closest I have to “terms and conditions,” I suppose. For example, I won’t knowingly wear real fur. I won’t take part in anything I deem potentially offensive (religiously or politically). I won’t pose in ways I feel are overtly sexual or gratuitously explicit. It’s a pretty standard little list (I realize these things are quite subjective, but that’s largely the point), except for one thing I include: “vanity.”
Despite the fact that my images are often described as “pretty,” “soft,” or “romantic,” and despite the fact that I recently responded to a flattering comment with the words “Don’t forget I only show the pretty ones,” I am not scared of looking unpolished, “imperfect,” or “unpretty.” This is what I mean by saying that I don’t want to do “vanity.” I am interested in emotion and expression – and HONESTY. This means I’m not afraid to explore the areas of humanity which aren’t so pleasing to the eye. (I’m rarely taken up on this, but that’s OK.) I’m also happy to be completely unPhotoshopped in photos (and often am). I’m totally happy with my body, which is completely different from subscribing to the idea that it is “perfect”–it isn’t–for example, my bones are such that I will always be pear-shaped. Which brings me to…
Self-awareness is the thing. I’m aware of my strengths and my weaknesses. I’m aware of angles which make me look good and angles which definitely don’t. I have a massive amount of body awareness. I can isolate muscles most people don’t know they have. One of the things recommended to new models who want to “learn to pose” is to practice in front of a mirror. I confess I’ve actually never ever done this, but I usually have a good idea of exactly what a pose is going to look like. I think this is to do with my dance background more than anything, and then also from noticing what works and what doesn’t when I’ve looked at the images after a shoot. It’s always fun to see the images on the back of the camera during a shoot, as you can see how the lighting is working for what you’re doing, what kind of crops/compositions are happening, and what’s going on in the background. But what I mean is this: I generally have a good idea of how to work with my strengths. I’m aware that I’m not perfect, but I’m also aware that I can look good, and that I’m lucky to have a healthy body which functions well and does what I ask of it, so I think it would be a bit hideous of me to complain or worry. I think this realization, along with my modeling, has made me completely comfortable and happy in my own skin, so much so that vanity isn’t even an issue.
Model: Ella Rose; Photographer: Iain Thomson
As well as my body, I also have a lot more self knowledge about my face, and confidence about which angles work best for it. Seeing your face on camera repeatedly means that such awareness is unavoidable (even if I did only realize the other day that I can raise one eyebrow); I can also recognize a few of my fellow model friends only by a tiny part of one of their features. There is a detachment that comes alongside such intimate knowledge, which is essential for modeling. At the beginning, when shown a picture of myself during a shoot, I would comment on the angles or proportions of “my legs,” or “my chin,” whereas now I am equally likely to say “the legs,” or “the chin,” which sometimes makes photographers smile. (Just the other day I was looking at a shot of myself in a two-pose double exposure and, pointing at one of ‘the figures’ said “I like that she is actually touching the other person,” which is extra weird, thinking about it.) Anyway, before I talk myself into an existential crisis, here’s the crux of it: while knowing their body and face so well, good models must simultaneously become more objective about what image is being presented via the camera; I can now see myself as a sequence of shapes putting forward an overall mood or expression. And such knowledge is inevitable, when pictures of yourself are thrust at you so often; after all, the camera, consistent to the end, doesn’t lie.
It’s possible to pose so much, for example for eight full days in a row, that when you get home you find yourself noticing the way your cat is sprawled out on the grass outside and think, “Oh, good pose; nice shape; good leg angle.” At these times, you wonder if you’re more than a little mad, but that’s OK. I know at least two people who pose in their sleep. (Incidentally, I always appreciate people who, like me, sit weirdly without noticing, just because it’s comfortable, with legs stretched or curled in unexpected possibilities. I get particularly creative in the cinema.)
In some ways, I am probably less vain now than before I started modeling. I wasn’t massively vain then either, but I worried more about what people thought of my appearance, which in my opinion is closer to the true definition of vanity. I remember the first time I got on a train for a shoot with zero make up on (as I only had time to do it on the train). My younger self would have found this perversely exciting, a sort of thrill, but mostly terrifying, since people would see my ACTUAL FACE. I now realize that A) I really don’t look different without make up on, it’s just that my features aren’t “enhanced,” and B) even if I did look rough, gross, half-dead, etc. (although see “A”), absolutely no one would care or even notice. It’s silly to think that they would. I’m just another stranger in the street, not out to impress anyone, and that’s fun.
Model: Ella Rose; Photographer: Rebecca Parker
I have always thought that most people are beautiful if you look at them properly. What’s beautiful to me is character and a person’s story. If you can see that in the way they hold themselves, in little details about their manner and in the movements they make with their unique features and structures– if they have grace, kindness, un-selfconscious openness, an endearing awkwardness, stress, fear, vulnerability, humor, slight hints of emotion, history–the things which make up a life and leave traces on their physicality, then a person holds massive interest for me. There will always be “bad” photos of me existing out there in the unforgiving world of the internet, and sometimes these can simply be learned from, but maybe the truly “Zen” model would not fear them so much as understand that, just occasionally, “imperfection,” when coupled with self-confidence, can make a shot.