A Perfect Body Wasn’t the Right Shape For Me

I spent so much time in front of a mirror, I forgot I had depth

Three charcoal sketches of women in various poses
Photo by Lavi Perchik via Unsplash

“Public Parts” by Dayna Mahannah

For the first hour, I sat alone on a stool with my cheese slices, enclosed in a private corner nook of classroom A046, wearing pool sandals and a trench coat. I could overhear the students introducing themselves. For some, it was their first life drawing class; others were charcoal-cuticled vets. As the instructor’s voice expounded on the basics of sketching the naked human figure, I set the fromage aside. I found a shard of mirror on a shelf and jimmied it onto a spare easel. A plastic, legless skeleton gaped at me from the corner as I parted my trench coat and inspected my body, shard by shard.

Today’s focus, the instructor explained, would be on construction, creating the building blocks of a figure, perceiving the body as a collection of shapes—cones, cylinders, and spheres. To draw the figure as an outline, he warned, would produce a Picasso-esque rendering. “Break the body into as many shapes as you can.” A leg, for example, might be constructed as sphere, cylinder, sphere, cone. Hip, thigh, knee, lower leg.

Returning to my seat and my snack, I couldn’t help but imagine myself as a big heap of body parts; legs and arms tangled up with free-floating breasts, a foot lodged between my head and a butt cheek. Any sexuality that burdened my body de-materialized. Less form, more function. Generally, wholeness is a state of being I strive for, but this image of myself as a sexless pile of parts provided an odd relief, a strange feeling that would sustain me for the four hours to come, and bewilder me for much longer.

The murmur of the classroom faded to silence. The instructor stepped around the massive shelf serving as a makeshift wall and peered over his glasses at me. I sat there, surrounded by anatomical skeleton amputees and bins of fabric scraps, eating cheese. “We’re ready for you.”

My sandals slapped against the concrete floor as I trailed him, trench coat wrapped tight, to the center of the classroom. Two large wooden boxes draped in old white fabric served as a stage, flooded in fluorescent light, circled by easels. I waved like an idiot at the twelve pairs of eyes peeking over their giant pads of newsprint. “I overheard some of you mention in your introductions that this is your first time. It’s my first time, too. So we’re on the same page.” To the tune of a few perfunctory titters, I removed my trench coat, slipped off the sandals, and hoisted myself onstage, wearing exactly nothing. Well, except for a tampon, because of course I was on my period.

The instructor said a simple pose would work best for the first ten minutes, until the class got comfortable with construction. Tilting my chin toward the ventilation system, I tried to stand—to pose—like someone who’d done this before. Simple but not boring, like a Matisse cutout, maybe. Or a Schierbeek sculpture. I felt a little…grand. I was thirty-two and nude on a stage and yes, I felt a little grand. Graphite and charcoal whipped over newsprint on the crescent of easels around me.

I hung off the cart as Mom pushed. We trawled through the bulk section of a grocery store in British Columbia, in my small hometown of Westbank. I had Mom all to myself. I was twelve years old and wanted a giant bag of Chinese crackers, the same ones Grandpa mixed with peanuts. A woman kept staring at us across the bulk bins. She waved, motioning toward herself. “Who’s that?” I asked. Mom shrugged and walked over. I couldn’t hear the conversation, but Mom returned with a business card, brows high on her head. “That woman wants you to model.”

I knew what a model was. My favorite photo of Mom from her modeling days was tucked into a clear plastic sleeve in her old portfolio, stashed at the bottom of a drawer: a close-up of her face, eyes slicing right through the netting of her pillbox hat into the camera. Dad kept a different picture of her on his desk, framed. In it, she lay on her side, head propped in her palm, naked—save for a surreptitiously draped fur coat. In that photo, I saw an enigma. Mom reminded me of the cover models on the stack of Sports Illustrated magazines in the basement, but less beach, more Vogue. She held some intangible allure I didn’t understand, a secret. I couldn’t grasp the intersections between body and sexuality, between obscured and exposed—and I didn’t know how to connect those undefined concepts back to my mom or my dad. I just knew that one photo was public and one was private.

Mom signed me up for modeling classes. Every week, we drove downtown and back, just the two of us. The other modeling students were fifteen, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen. I was new; they were not. They reminded me of the Sports Illustrated girls too, but skinnier, taller. Tangible. In class, I learned how to walk with my torso tilted back, one foot in front of the other, as though on a balance beam. I learned to do it in heels. My face had to exude power and apathy, I was taught—impossible concerns for a twelve-year-old, but I mastered it. When a dark-haired girl asked me to teach her how to walk, I couldn’t believe it. She called me a natural. “You’re only twelve? You look so mature for your age.” Pride ran up my spine; I felt grateful for my height—five-foot-eleven, and taller still in heels—and my talent for exhibiting contradictory expressions. I stood tall and glowered when I walked.

Glossy editorial layouts plastered the walls of the agency featuring their most successful models in high-end fashion campaigns. Many of them had been discovered at an annual international modeling convention in Vancouver, where scouts from all over the world searched for fresh faces. For us models in Westbank, this was our chance.  My agent wanted me to go, and Mom agreed.

At the end of classes prior to Thanksgiving, a month out from the convention, my agent knelt before me on the plywood runway with a measuring tape. I stretched my arms out as the yellow tape circled my chest, my waist, my butt. My agent smiled and said I could eat all the turkey I wanted. I caught the look on the dark-haired girl’s face. She looked mad. Jealous, my mom would say. I was excelling.

Faces appeared and disappeared behind easels. My skin burned as students analyzed the twist of my torso, the crook of my elbow. I settled my focus on a dent in the wall. Why in the hell was I here?

When a friend told me she worked as a life model, I’d been immediately impressed by her vulnerability. I was prone to tasking myself with challenges that destabilized my comfort. Nudity itself didn’t necessarily present a challenge; I regularly stripped down at Vancouver’s clothing-optional beach, but being the sole bare body at the center of a group’s focus would be a markedly different experience. To start, I had to submit a job application. I e-signed a contract. I was added to an institutional payroll. Langara College was a forty-minute bike ride from my house. On a Friday night, I could have picked up a serving shift at my restaurant job down the street and made more money. But I chose this, to stand naked on a box in a room full of strangers.

Did I hate serving that much? Was it the alt-artsy side hustle anecdote I was after? Was I an exhibitionist? Desperate to be a muse?

I told a colleague what I was doing. They confirmed it sounded quite literally like their worst nightmare.

The hallway circled the main ballroom like a moat. Inside a fancy hotel in downtown Vancouver, on the final day of the modeling convention, Mom and I readied ourselves to storm the castle: agent callbacks. I wore the uniform mandated by my agency: tall black pumps, black miniskirt, baby blue asymmetrical tank top stamped with the agency logo, and my number, 404, pinned to my torso. It had to be visible at all times—using the washroom, running to the hotel room, stepping outside for fresh air. You never knew when you might bump into a big-time agent. When you might have an opportunity to shine solo, apart from all the other teetering, languid models. When you might be seen.

I scoured the flurry of papers taped to the wall, listings of the models that each agency wanted to meet. An agent’s interest could lead to a secondary contract, a gig overseas, the start of an international career. My number appeared on six lists. Inside the ballroom, Mom diligently took notes of the agents’ comments:

Agent 1

  • Great, unique look
  • Too young for Milan
  • Wants to see her in a couple of years

Agent 2

  • Good body
  • Has editorial look
  • Too young for this market

Agent 3

  • Perfect measurements—she’ll need to keep on top of it
  • A little young

TOO YOUNG. My body was right. My age was wrong.

On the way to my next callback, I ran into 212, a model from my agency, and blushed. Owen, a whole five years older than me, glowed after landing a million callbacks and meeting with a big-deal New York-based agent (who had already signed a twelve-year-old that year) . The hollows of his cheeks punctuated his broad jaw like reverse parentheses. Muscles punched through his T-shirt. I was in love with him, but—as everyone seemed committed to reminding me—I was just a kid. And yet Owen talked to me like an adult. I swear he flirted. He hugged me and signed a headshot. You were the star of group runway and the dancing was awesome, you will be an international guest model next time I see you! See ya cutie. Flashes of us posing together for a Gucci campaign—love and fame—momentarily blinded me.

But I chose this, to stand naked on a box in a room full of strangers.

Mom and I settled into burgundy chairs at my next callback. The agent told me to get my teeth fixed. They were straight and had a natural gap between the two front incisors. “That’s ridiculous,” Mom huffed, as we walked away. “You’re not getting your teeth fixed. Lauren Hutton has a gap.” I clutched my white pleather-bound portfolio—my business card—to my chest. Yeah, I thought. Lauren Hutton.

“Twelve?” The next agent sighed. “That’s a little young.” Mom scribbled on her notepad as the agent flipped through my portfolio. “The pictures—the pictures are good though.” Her smooth nails pressed together as she pushed a card across the table. “Call me when you’re seventeen.”

“But … I can travel. In the summer.”

The agent’s mouth thinned into a smile. “You’re going to go through puberty and your body’s going to change.” Her laugh burned my ears. “Trust me, it will be very difficult to keep the same figure then.” She shut my portfolio. Her nails left little crescent indents in the fake white leather.

When the instructor announced a ten-minute break, I broke my pose and pulled on my street clothes. I had to pee. In the hallway, a student unwrapped his sandwich. “So, what’s it like to model?” he blurted. “Does it bother you?”

It probably wasn’t a trick question; he seemed earnest. Though poorly phrased, a similar question haunted me: what compelled me to stand naked before a group of strangers?

“I’ve been to life drawing classes before, but, like, to draw,” I offered lamely. My hands tucked into the pockets of my cargo pants.

“Oh right.” Bread bits cascaded down his shirt. “You’re in a room full of artists. The context matters, I suppose.” He dusted the crumbs away. “See you in there.”

All the stalls in the bathroom were empty. I tilted and turned in the mirror, lifting and lowering my clothes to inspect different parts of myself without undressing. The single mirror threw my body back at me; my legs were hairy, my weight and body measurements a mystery. Scars from my breast reduction snaked from below one armpit, across my ribcage to my sternum, and to the other armpit. I pulled down my shirt; it was impossible to really see my body like this. I strode back to the drawing room.

Soon after the Vancouver modeling convention, I gawked at photos of Owen splashed across fashion layouts. I saw him on a mega-ad, one hundred feet tall, frozen in place, on the side of a building downtown. The whole world saw him. His face looked different though, “chiseled.” His muscles sinewy. Owen-shaped, but not quite Owen. I thought he was beautiful before. His body perfect before. But perfect wasn’t quite the right shape.

I’d been honest with the tactless student; I’d enrolled in a handful of life drawing classes over the years, as an artist. As a kid, I spent hours drawing faces and animals. In my twenties, I became fascinated with naked bodies.

In the life drawing classes I attended, sessions were timed, but the models otherwise directed themselves on stage, flowing into new shapes of their choosing. I tried to capture it all with graphite, to somehow translate the energy of their gesture—a wave cresting from finger to shoulder to toe—onto paper, make fat and skin and muscle and bone move, push a current of blood through the tip of my pencil.

What did it feel like to be a form, a movement, rather than a body, with all its weight? I had spent so much time in front of a mirror, I’d forgotten I had depth. What was a body without a mirror to flatten it? How did it stand on stage, not as a singular, fixed shape, but as a figure constructed of many shapes, protean and mutable? How did it become parts that made up a whole, an arrangement that moved and gestured?

Eventually I was fourteen—older, finally—and though my parents couldn’t afford to let me attend the modeling convention in the fall, my agency announced a local model search in City Park, just over the bridge from Westbank. The prize was an all-expenses paid trip to the convention in Vancouver.

Mom was by my side whenever I wasn’t in front of the judges, but she never obscured my number. She held my portfolio and told me I was fantastic. I felt annoyed. It didn’t matter what she thought.  It mattered what they thought. I knew I looked older—I wore a bra now—but it was the wrong kind of older. Boobs could really fuck with your measurements, exactly as that agent had warned. At least I was the tallest. Us models, we snagged glances at each other. They clomped around in their heels, but I’d been walking in those shoes since I was twelve.

I pounded the concrete runway in a skirt. In a swimsuit. My number flapped, my face exuded power and apathy. I met the judges, flipping my face into an easygoing smile. I stood taut and tall in my bikini as an agent whipped out a tape measure and cinched it around my bust-waist-hips. I knew the numbers but held my breath. “Thirty-four, twenty-four and a half, thirty-four. Almost perfect!”

I breathed out.

The models scattered off stage as the judges deliberated. While Mom and I waited, the edges of my vision went dark and I crouched at the base of a tree.

“Are you okay?” Mom’s forehead crinkled and I admitted that I needed to eat. It would be another few years before she knew about my eating disorder. Even then, I didn’t know that’s what it was, but I knew enough not to talk about it.

What was a body without a mirror to flatten it?

Ten minutes later, the other models and I posed homogeneously side by side. My agent stood to announce the results. A charged silence struck the crowd.

I won.

After a long, hungry summer, I attended the modeling convention in Vancouver for my second and last time, the shape of my body half an inch closer to perfect than it had been at the model search. But I was only fourteen. Still too young.

Mid axe swing. The class was now learning to capture movement of a figure—gesture—and I was posed as though chopping firewood.

“Draw what you see,” the instructor said, circling the room. “Not what you think you see.” The students were supposed to find the single line that flowed through the entire form, a line that mapped the course of energy. “Don’t worry about details right now. Just get the shape. The more shapes you can break the body down into, the more movement you will see.”

This made sense. To consider outer space is to be baffled. But to look up at the night sky and focus on each moving part—the moon, the sun, planets, stars, and celestial bodies, solar systems and galaxies—creates a lens through which to observe the cosmos more holistically.

In my peripheral vision, I sensed the artists breaking my body down into shapes, reconstructing the shapes onto newsprint. Building my body back up with charcoal. The timer rang, and I followed through with my swing, met gravity’s force with my own.

In high school, I dropped to 116 pounds. I was so exhausted, I could not hold my head up, let alone hold open the heavy doors of the school entrance. I slept through all my English blocks in high school, my favorite subject. I skipped most other classes, except drama, but sat in the back row because I couldn’t stay awake there, either. Eventually my teachers stopped reprimanding me and just let me sleep. My hands and feet turned purple, then white, then numb. A thousand layers of clothing couldn’t keep me warm. My lips were stained blue from an endless, bone-deep cold. When the principal’s office called because my record showed over a hundred truancies, I told Mom I always missed roll call because I was chronically late. She believed me; I was always late.

My body stopped menstruating, stalled in time on a biological level. An anxious feedback loop played in my head: when will I be warm again, when will I eat again, when will the day end? I no longer had hobbies. But I had stamina. I had integrity. I had the figure of a twelve-year-old.

Naked. The timer sounded. The scrape of conté on newsprint tapered into quiet, and I readied for a new pose. I shook out my wrists, billowed my trench coat over the stage, and sat down as though at the beach, legs out, leaning forward to admire my sandal tan. Long poses now, hold for fifteen minutes.

The stretch made my hamstrings burn. Stillness was not painless. I closed my eyes, focused on my breath. Tried to relax. But all I could see behind my eyelids was my reflection in the bathroom mirror.

What if the students were disgusted by the scars on my chest? My hairy legs? What if they fixated on my poor circulation, which turned my hands and feet a dappled purple? What if my breast looked like a home-grown zucchini from this angle?

I forced my attention to my breath. In, out. My hands were probably purple.

The year I finally turned seventeen, I didn’t return to the modeling convention in Vancouver to strut the runway, to show that agent I could keep my prepubescent figure, that I had kept it. Instead, I went to the bush. 

A close friend called my parents, unbeknownst to me, and shared her concerns about my increasingly strange eating habits, long bathroom stints, and erratic social conduct. When they confronted me, upset and already devising a plan to fix my problem, I barely protested. In truth, I felt relieved. Secrets are lonely undertakings, and mine had demanded constant attention.

They sent me to a camp for girls with eating disorders, at a lodge nestled in the woods on a lake an hour outside Vancouver. The closest thing to a catwalk was the old dock, where I fell asleep during group yoga every morning. One afternoon, in the communal area of the lodge, we were each paired with another camper. Sunlight angled through the windows, landing on huge sheets of paper taped to the walls. The counselor passed out colored markers as she explained the activity. I stood against the papered wall, facing my partner, who smiled, a purple marker in hand. She traced my body all the way around, from one foot to the top of my head, from my head down to the other foot, tracking all the space in between. When she finished her drawing, I stepped away and turned around. 

The counselor told us the exercise offered a more concrete way to see our bodies, a way to disrupt the thick film of judgment and expectation we were trapped behind. 

I hoped for a stick figure but really expected more of a crime scene situation, a rudimentary outline like the tape around a cadaver on a TV cop drama. But the tracing on the wall looked like neither—it didn’t look like me whatsoever. It was just a line, after all, a two-dimensional contour on the wall. Still, I felt my defenses swing like a metronome. I should be smaller, I thought, wondering if my partner had held the marker at an unfair angle. But what if that rangy outline was really what I looked like? Because my name was attached to it, I felt an urge to take responsibility for that line, to place some kind of value on it. 

I traced my partner, determined to capture her just as she was. We stepped back. And the contour didn’t look like her either. Glancing around the room at all the outlines of bodies on the wall, it became impossible to tell which belonged to whom. They were just shapes. Not people.

Two minutes into the pseudo-beach pose and I could not push away my concerns about the vegetable shape my boob had possibly morphed into, given the way my torso arched, given the pull of gravity. Every time I switched poses, all my body parts took on a slightly different shape, and I felt the urge to step outside my skin and do a 360° scan of myself to ensure everything looked as it should. Aside from presenting a logistical impossibility, I recognized the urge as one with incredible potential to spiral. In such a vortex, thirteen minutes would become a lifetime.

I took a breath. Pricked my ears to the constant erosion of charcoal. If my boob did look like a zucchini, at least the artists were building the zucchini out of spheres and cones, focusing on accuracy. My body was a collection of shapes. It wasn’t worth losing myself over.

At the timer, the students spun their easels to face inward. A dozen interpretations of myself surrounded me. As each artist described their technique, I faced my body, sketch by sketch.

The first easel conveyed a hunched figure, arms clutching the edge of the chair between her legs. The lines were choppy, the form rendered small. In another, exaggerated lines swelled into a wide, muscled arm and the breasts swooped away from the rib cage like birds in flight. One picture portrayed the figure on a stool. The edges of the conté had been dragged to create shadows that revealed her shape through the relief of light.

Seeing my body this way, deconstructed into shapes, arranged on paper into stacks of spheres and cylinders, calmed me. Strange relief. The way others perceived my body, I could see, had very little to do with me, and nothing to do with the anxieties that spiraled in my head. Each drawing revealed my body’s subjectivity, unveiled an alternative way to see. On the page, I wasn’t in good or bad shape, appealing or unappealing.

While the students packed up, the instructor offered a final pointer for their portfolio pieces. “As you draw, notice the contrast of the body and the background. Think about how the contrast of the negative space informs the shape.”

I recalled the conversation with the student in the hallway. The context mattered. I wasn’t twelve but thirty-two. This wasn’t a competition, but a drawing class. Here, I was not expected to scrape myself down to a razor-thin margin of acceptable measurements, draped in sample sizes. My body wasn’t up for debate; my body was the shape in question—positive space informed by the negative. Here, I had autonomy over my body’s expression; the interpretation of it was beside the point.

I dressed, packed my bag, and waved goodbye to the class. “It was nice to see you,” a student called out.

It was nice to be seen.

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