by Monica Menduno

I suspect people are shocked when I tell them I'm an artist's model in New York City. I have breasts that are round and make a statement, a tummy that demands to be seen, and strong thighs and legs. I used to think I was fat. I started dieting at age eight when someone on the playground yelled, "You're fat." The bingeing, purging and starving myself began around 13. Though I'd look in the mirror lovingly, posing to admire how my body looked, outside my closed bedroom door I felt I needed to apologize for not looking like the girls that seemed to be all around me. I watched only TV shows that had adolescent girls. I spent hours on the Internet in the young actress web sites, wishing for one of those adolescent bodies. I made myself depressed, trying to convince myself that the body I admired in the mirror wasn't right and needed to change. Because I didn't think women were supposed to like their bodies if they weren't thin, I needed to hate my body. But now, at 19, with the help of my experiences as an artist's model, I have taken major strides in coming to terms with my body. I still go into that hating place at times, but when I'm feeling good, my body is just my body, and I don't feel the need to slap a label on it.

It started in Key West, Florida where I was living on my own for the first time last fall. I worked at a laundry mat, but wanted something else, when I saw a want ad for models for a life-drawing class at the nearby Community College. For a long time I secretly wanted to model. I'd watch the fashion shows on TV and glance longingly through fashion magazines. They looked tough to me, the pouty lips and glare of eyes. "Don't fuck with me," they seemed to say. I knew I wanted that confidence and toughness, too. Seeing that ad again and again as I folded peoples' clothes, I knew this was my chance. After two grueling weeks of "I need to do this," and "I can't do this," I finally took a deep breath and called the teacher. I kept my cool and nonchalantly asked if there was a certain type he was looking for, hoping he wouldn't realize I was screaming inside: "I'm fat. I'm really, really fat. Could I be a model?!" He told me they wanted all types and I should come and try it. I hung up, let my breath out and screamed with excitement!

I was riding my bike the six miles to the college when it hit me: I was going to be naked, showing this body that is always covered up. Showing the bump on my stomach which I have concluded is a stretch mark of size. Showing the breasts that I never can hide. But I was just going to have to do it, I told myself. I could decide afterwards if I never wanted to do it again.

Mostly I was afraid of people my age drawing me. Afraid they'd judge me and think I was fat and ugly and unappealing. But it turned out that all the students at that first class were well over 50 and had been drawing and painting for years. That eased the fear. They had seen all types of bodies, right? Maybe they would appreciate my youthful exuberance, the soft, supple smoothness of my skin. And they did! During my breaks, while I was relaxing and stretching, one woman kept saying, "hold that for a second, that's beautiful." I felt accepted and seen as beautiful exactly as I was, for the first time in my life. I ended up posing three times a week with this group of older people that I loved and who loved me back. I began to see myself the way I imagined they saw me: exciting and visually appealing.

Then I moved to New York and thought modeling would be a good starting point to make money. But the artists I've posed for here have been younger, a lot closer to my age. And I rarely model alone. I am with other models. Thin models. Girls with itty-bitty breasts, long, straight bodies, no curves anywhere. At first there was the twenty minutes of posing, thinking "Okay, Monica, you're beautiful, too; they like you, too. But why can't I look like them! I'm ugly!" Trying to get back to that don't-fuck-with-me, I'm beautiful look I thought would conceal this internal dialogue. But during the five minute breaks, I noticed all the thin models covered up quickly, almost ashamed. And I noticed that despite my insecure feelings, during the breaks I didn't cover up. I wasn't ashamed.

When I tell people I model, I explain what a healing process it's been for me. To be up there, naked, in front of artists' eyesšpeople who see me as lines and shades and curves that connectšhelps me feel good about myself. I used to think only the adolescent-looking body was beautiful, that there was no other type of beauty. But since I've been modeling, I have changed my opinion of beauty. I'm seeing more than just the exterior person. It suddenly dawned on me one time, admiring a beautiful woman, that she was big! I didn't see it before. I see women as beautiful, and especially those who feel proud of the body they have, and show it. Most importantly, I like myself for who I am. My body reflects how I feel inside and I can see I'm changing: I walk tall and proud, I'm living in my body rather than somewhere else, and I'm no longer apologizing for what my body looks like.

It seems silly to me now to waste my time with the endless, never-quite-good-enough self-judgments of my younger years. All I want is to love myself, without any doubts, no matter what I look like.

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