Modèle Vivant and the Journey of Self-Acceptance

I have written plenty of times about my experiences as an artists’ model and my quest of self-acceptance in terms of my body but I am writing this with more musings.

For those readers who don’t know me, my name is AnnMarie Tornabene-Boivin and I am a self-portrait photographer/artist and an artists’ model for over 23 years. Both of my careers happened almost simultaneously. I was asked by a painter if I would consider posing for a group of seasoned artists during my last few years at university when I was working on my thesis project which was a series of full-color nude self-portraits. I was and am a large woman and had been abused physically and verbally through my childhood, early adulthood and led to many personal problems. Photographing myself was how I wanted to start the process of self-acceptance and then the thought of posing nude for others would be an additional step in that process. That one class that I posed for led to another and then another and through reputation, the jobs became plentiful and while I worked other, more standard jobs at the time, the modeling took precedence as my method to make a living.

What also happened was that I gained more confidence, not necessarily in what I looked like as a woman in the actual world, but that in the art world. I began to think that I was beautiful. My curvaceous body was and is revered by sculptors, especially but I believe that my curves add something very interesting in all of the mediums and I have often been told this. 

I was never once scared standing on the model stand nude because I knew that I was in the artistic realm. However, over the years, I did experience certain reactions, both positive and negative from artists and art students. I lost and gained weight and I have aged all on stage. People have seen me either as a goddess (their words!), an inspiration, or someone who vastly needing improving. A story regarding the latter – around 2009, I lost a significant amount of weight somewhat quickly and from that and my age, my skin sagged tremendously and created lots of different and strange shapes. I was more uneasy with who I was during this time period than before because of that but whenever I was on that model stand, I shooed those thoughts away. Except…a woman whom I posed for over some years, pulled me aside during a break and told me that she had the phone number of a very good plastic surgeon that could help me. Paraphrasing only slightly, she said “it’s a shame because you have such a beautiful face. You just need to firm that body up”. During that time I heard more under-handed compliments made than ever before. “You are half the woman you were!” “Wow, something must have scared you a lot to lose that much weight!” “Wow, you are beautiful NOW!” Believe it or not, it was that time, so many years into my modeling career that I started to feel the scrutiny of my body. Yes, of course I knew that I was being studied as that has always been the intent but never before did I realize that people thought that they personally knew me to the point to be able to just say whatever was on their minds about what I looked like. On the positive side, I did receive standing ovations from young budding art students after posing and some young women (and men) approach me telling me how brave they thought I was and so inspiring. I continue, this day, to get those comments even as I have gained some of that weight back and continue my career after 50 years old.

So, at 51 years old, I now also have arthritis in my knees, constant back and leg pain and a slowness of going from one pose to another. In addition, now without a car, I need to haul myself onto all forms of public transportation sometimes taking me 3 hours round-trip to get to a model gig. I am tired and hurt on some level during and after every model job. So why do I continue? Because once I begin to pose, my soul takes flight. Especially when I am doing short poses, can I express myself with grace and as much freedom as my body allows. Because even though I am able to do this for the camera in my personal art work, being able to do this to others more directly gives me a hope that I can be a muse just as much to a more classically formed model and with my age and experience, more substance as well as what I like to call and aged beauty. Perhaps vanity was once a defining motivator but it’s hard to be vain in an “imperfect” body that is exposed to the world. I would rather use the word proud than that, and proud that I am still here and still doing this fantastic job that I love. Below, I am including a little slide show of me posing over the years and I have included one where I weighed the most as well as a couple with one of my favorite models, and friend, whom I had the pleasure of posing with for many years.

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