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A guide to feminist erotic modeling

FeministModellingHow do you reconcile the principles of feminism with nude or erotic modeling? Refusing to cover up your flaws and working with ethical photographers are among two of the suggestions offered by Lori Adorable in her guide for feminist models.

14 August 2011

I’ve been thinking for a while now that it would be helpful to have a guide to ethical feminist modeling to help steer my career (er, ‘career’). I figure there are other models out there who feel similarly and a significant number of people who are simply puzzled as to how one reconciles the principles of feminism with something so anti-feminist on its surface as nude and erotic modeling.

Then I realized that, well, hey, I do know a thing or two about feminist modeling by now even though I’m far from being an expert. Maybe setting down all of my principles will help me remember to make good choices, inform other curious nude/erotic models, and clear up some questions for the confused readers out there.

Because I can only write from my own experiences at this point, this guide is far from universal. It assumes that the model in question has a dominant body type— that is, young, white, thin, and mostly conventionally pretty. It also assumes that she’s only working semi-professionally and only as a nude/erotic/fetish model. With that in mind, here’s…

Lori’s Guide to Feminist Modeling

  • Have a higher purpose. I know it sounds suspiciously creep-o-religious, but I’m actually referring to a higher purpose here on earth, a reason to model besides “just for the fuck of it” or “money.”

    It’s easy for women with dominant body types to model because it makes us feel pretty or because it’s quick cash, and it’s easy because of the way society objectifies and idealizes us. In order to combat this, we have to demonstrate agency. We have to be instrumental and work towards accomplishing something.

    Wanting to feel cute and make money is not a good enough reason and will probably end with you perpetuating boring, trite images of women as inert objects. Don’t do that bullshit; modeling has so many other, useful, progressive purposes: it aids in the creation of art (e.g. modeling for painters), it aids in the *selling* of art (e.g. modeling for small-scale fashion designers), it aids in the creation of media with a positive social message (e.g. modeling for PSAs), it allows one to see value in her body and to reclaim it from objectification, it functions as a form of self-expression.

    Pick one of those reasons instead, and if you can’t, you probably shouldn’t be modeling.
  • Stick to that purpose. This ties in closely to the last point, but it deserves to stand alone. After all, figuring out why you want to model—what you want to get out of it— is only the first step. Making sure to take on jobs that support your goal is another thing entirely.

    It’s really easy to agree to shit you don’t really want to do— to cliched, objectifying gigs that accomplish nothing but getting you some cash. And, hey, cash is important. That’s why you should have another job, to help you stick to the principles you set out with. This might mean that modeling is supplemental income, or it might mean that it’s only a hobby. That’s okay.
  • Muses are mythical figures – You’re a collaborator. This is how you stick to your purpose on shoots: by collaborating. Suggest poses. Hell, suggest themes—this is what I do.  If you’re not being paid to work on a photographer’s specific project, he is just as much your instrument as you are his. Just make sure you let him know this ahead of time!
  • Don’t work with photographers who only shoot women like you. When you look through a photographer’s portfolio, don’t just assess the quality of the work; check out the diversity of the models as well.

    You are privileged because of your youth, because of your whiteness, because of your thinness, because of your conventional ‘good’ looks, . You cannot help perpetuating that to an extent, but you can also combat it. Don’t support photographers who are only interested in promoting the dominant paradigm you fit in.

    Find photographers who shoot women of color, and/or fat women, and/or older women, and/or women who are not conventionally pretty. If you can, find a photographer who shoots men, too. They’re usually safer, because they’re usually not looking at photography as a means to fulfilling their sexual appetites. They’re also typically not so invested in the idea of women as objects but are interested in people as subjects.
  • Do work with diverse photographers. Although not nearly as homogeneous as our side of the camera, behind the lens can also be a very white male kind of place. Help diversify it by working with a variety of photographers (and painters, sketch artists, etc.)—men of color, foreign men, men who are openly queer.

    This is not to say that you should turn down a great artist because he’s part of a dominant group, or that you should work with a shitty artist because he isn’t; this is a reminder to push yourself to look for great artists of all sorts.

    All too often it’s easy to accept what comes your way, and, all too often, what comes your way is white and male. Okay, it’s almost *always* male, which is why I’ve been using male pronouns. If you can find a woman photographer, or a genderqueer one… well, shit, seriously consider working together!
  • Don’t undervalue your worth. Most models work time-for-prints for their portfolios for their first few months. That’s fine; that’s how you get started in any business—by building a resume and a reputation. But at some point, you need to start charging.

    Once you have a strong portfolio, you won’t need to update it as much, and if you aren’t going to use someone’s photos on your website, you need to ask to be paid. This goes for photographers as well, but they typically remember to do this. Models seem to forget their worth too often. Even if you’re a hobbyist, you deserve compensation for your work.
  • Don’t cover up your flaws. Not everyone has dozens and dozens of self-inflicted scars on her limbs, but everyone does have some flaws. Refuse to cover them up. They’re as much a part of you as your appendages, and the only reason to get rid of them is to better fit into the dominant paradigm. Reject that. Show that models are human and diverse, and that diverse humans are models.

    Don’t play into a culture that constantly makes women feel inadequate if they aren’t photoshopped, and don’t work with anyone who wants you to do that. You may even find that your flaws become part of the reason you model—because you want to normalize them, reclaim them, beautify them. That’s a huge reason why I get in front of the camera.
  • Always challenge the norm. We’ve been talking about this the whole time to an extent, but now we’re going to talk about how to do it while posing for the camera.

    The easiest and most effective way is to plan out a feminist theme before you get into your poses. When I say ‘feminist’, I don’t mean you have to be burning your bra; I mean find your theme and subvert it.

    Going to pose as a sexualized young girl, like I do, in order to reclaim your sexual agency from childhood abuse? Bring in a flame torch or some alcohol. Up-end expectations before you even start.  

    If you choose not to do this (or simply can’t, for whatever reason), then you have a second option: confront the camera. Don’t be passive and never meet the viewer’s gaze; gaze back. Stare them down. It also helps if you can show some attitude—boredom, sarcasm, joy, anger.

    As long as you aren’t being passive and compliant in your expressions and poses, you’re challenging the norm.

Lori Adorable, an early-20s New Yorker, is a committed cynic with a heart of fool’s gold. More specifically and less cryptically, she is a radically-minded intersectional feminist who is coming to terms with her kyriarchy-reinforcing sexuality. In the perhaps naive belief that she can make being a straight, cisgendered exhibitionist/schoolgirl-roleplayer/bondage-lover a creative and subversive feminist enterprise, she started her blog Tales of a Kinky RadFem in December of 2010 and will be using it to help her through her journey.

Demographic descriptors that Lori claims, which they shape her experiences, views, and writing.include: woman, cissexual, heterosexual, American citizen and resident, New Yorker, native monolingual English-speaker, white, middle-class, official-dependent-with-a-different-permanent-address, 20-something, never-married, non-parent, sort-of-but-not-really college student, sometimes sex worker, somewhat-invisibly disabled, abuse survivor, kinkster, mostly-conventionally attractive, not-hip-enough-to-be (or deny being) a hipster, vegetarian, atheist, and cultural Christian.

Lori’s ultimate goals include producing, directing, and occasionally performing in a whole new kind of porn for a whole new kind of audience; creating elaborate, political burlesque routines based on her own kinks (and an adaptation of Hole’s Live Through This); doing a public speaking tour to discuss the same kinds of issues as she does on her blog; and becoming the next great experimental American playwright.

This article first appeared on Lori’s blog and is reproduced here under a Creative Commons licence.

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