I have modelled for professional photographers a total of four times. This likely sounds more grandiose and like a brag than it really is. I haven't modelled professionally, there's never been any payment, in each case it was the personal request of an acquaintance. At first the interest was a surprise, it was then and remains extremely flattering. It's also been a series of really pleasant experiences that have helped me appreciate myself more and be more comfortable in my own skin.
As a teenager I was extremely uncomfortable. I was very thin, socially awkward, I was that gay kid who didn't really make friends because he never really fit in with the other boys. Lots of kids have it a lot worse, I was mostly pretty happy, but I wasn't secure in my own body and I did not develop any kind of sexual confidence as I moved on to college in the same way that my peers did. I got teased for my appearance; being stubbly and hairy, being skinny and kind of shy and awkward — not really equipped to defend myself or retaliate.
This began to change when I moved away from my family and gained some independence. I also gained some weight. For a lot of people this might have been a source of disappointment, but I began to see in myself some of the things (physically) that I appreciated in others and I became more comfortable with myself. I would still always wear a t-shirt and jeans in order to be as unnoticeable as possible, but I was no longer anxious about my own body. I think a lot of people search for a long time just to find this kind of self-acceptance and it was definitely a factor in my ability to participate in happy intimate relationships.
Modelling for someone, though, was another positive step. Most people have developed a sense of personal style sometime before their thirtieth birthday. Usually more than a decade before. Not I. I'd passed thirty when I hit the point that jeans and a t-shirt wasn't sufficiently expressive. By this point i'd had a large beard for a few years, starting before they had begun to get quite fashionable, and wearing something so blatant on your face is a good way to get past a certain amount of anxiety about being noticed. I was starting to wear a beanie more, or a waistcoat, and that's when a photographer acquaintance made the trip from London to take a few photos.
The experience was relaxed and fun, and the results were pretty great. Chris is an excellent photographer, and whatever the photographer version of bedside manner is, his is friendly and low-pressure. I loved the photos that came out of that afternoon, a couple of them are pretty striking. That's me, and I feel good about the way I looked.
The next time it was my turn to travel, and I wound up in London. My friend Lee this time, and as an added bonus Michael would also swing by and take the opportunity to include me in a cool project of his involving people he knew from Twitter. This time there was a studio and a great deal of messing around with lights. A couple of the photos involved wearing only my underwear and a pair of boots (scandalous) — which was a big deal for me after carrying around a certain amount of history of being singled out for being an unusually hairy gentleman, this time that trait was one of the positive ones. In one of the photos Michael took there is even something resembling a smile!
The fourth occasion involves that sense of style I alluded to forming. I was dressed in denim and flannel and surrounded by trees. Playing to a stereotype for sure, but also making the most of having gotten over my fear of being noticed. While the setting embraced the cliche, I do tend to dress like some kind of urban–hipster lumberjack these days. I don't worry about the top few buttons of my shirt being open anymore, my beard is bigger than ever, I have a selection of hats!
Being in environments where someone genuinely has an appreciation for your appearance and the way you present yourself, that doesn't carry an interpersonal sexual subtext, that gives you an opportunity to see yourself expressed in a positive light, will help you gain some perspective where your self reflection might otherwise trend towards being deprecative. Actually being able to see with someone else's sense of you that doesn't come with judgements based on past experiences removes some of your ability to doubt yourself.
Header photograph by Michael Chapman.