One day, Isabel Yu was just a UB student looking for a side hustle.
The next, she was standing completely naked on a pedestal, holding a martini glass and a lightsaber, and being inspected by a room full of college students behind sketchbooks.
This is the stuff of nightmares for many, but for Yu, it’s just a job — a fairly simple (and lucrative) one, in fact. The senior biochemistry major has now been a figure model in art classes for about a year and a half, posing nude in front of Daemen University art students learning to master the human form.
Yu interviewed for the position on a whim after her friend suggested they both apply. Within a few days of her interview, she ventured to Daemen’s campus for her first class, with little instruction beyond “bring a robe.”
When she arrived, she climbed atop a platform in the middle of the room as an art professor handed her some props — the aforementioned martini glass and lightsaber — and asked her to “pretend she was saving the world, but also drinking.”
Naturally, she was nervous — but not about the nakedness. Finding the right pose is the truly difficult part.
“I was too busy thinking about, like, ‘What the f–k am I doing on this stage?’ to think, ‘Oh my god, I’m naked.’ I got over that so quickly,” Yu said.
Even after her nerves dissipated, Yu says being scrutinized that intensely is odd. The job requires a healthy amount of confidence, but seeing dozens of drawings of one’s own naked body isn’t easy.
Yu admits that catching glimpses of the artists’ renditions of her body stirs up some conflicting emotions.
“Certainly the class does give you a weird feeling about your body,” Yu said. “Sometimes people draw you, and it looks like the worst image of yourself possible. I looked like a Neanderthal trolled creature... and then somebody else draws you beautifully. Like, I don’t know what I look like. At all.”
Interactions with the artists are kept to a minimum, Yu says. The classroom’s atmosphere is almost clinically professional. In fact, most students avoid speaking or making eye contact with her until she’s back in her robe.
“These are art students that care about art intensely,” Yu explained. “They’re just, upset that they can’t draw my leg right or something, not ever thinking about ‘Oh my god, it’s a naked woman.’”
Yu notes that some people might “make insinuating comments” about figure modeling, or assume there’s something sexual about it. But that’s not the case.
“It’s so unbelievably nonsexual, in my opinion, the whole experience,” Yu said. “It’s never once felt sexual or awkward in that way.”
As a busy STEM major, Yu cites the relaxed pace and flexible hours as no-brainer perks of the position — and the pay rate of $22 an hour doesn’t hurt.
But it’s still a pretty unconventional job for a college student. When she tells people about it, they’re usually quite surprised.
“People usually go, ‘Wait, like, naked?’” Yu said. “Other people, people who know me, they go, ‘Yeah, that actually kind of totally makes sense for you. I feel like you’re just always doing something super weird, so no wonder you have that job.”
Editor's note: The original version of this article called Daemen University "Daemen College."
Meret Kelsey is the senior arts editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Meret Kelsey is an assistant arts editor at The Spectrum.