Modeling 101: The Nude Model

The Nude Modeling Decision“Man’s naked form… belongs to no particular moment in history; it is eternal, and can be looked upon with joy by the people of all ages.” Artist and sculptor Auguste Rodin

“Nudity is a problem for Americans. It disrupts our social exchange.” American painter and sculptor Eric Fischl


Ahh… the nude.

How ironic it is that one of the most honored traditions in all of art history should also be one of the most controversial.  Americans, in particular, have a peculiar collective inability to “look upon man’s naked form” with anything remotely resembling joy in this or any other age in our history.   In fact, a paralyzing ambiguity about the moral implications of the nude human form seems to be hard-wired into our national character.  On the one hand, we are viewed throughout the world as a dynamic, progressive society that champions personal freedom of expression, even to an extreme; on the other, we also are notorious for being one of the most prudish cultures in the Western world where human anatomy is concerned.  It’s hard to imagine any other “free” nation that would go to so much trouble to define just exactly how much female nipple can be displayed before the exposure becomes legally “indecent.”  While nudity is often featured in European commercials, try to imagine a commercial like this one ever appearing on American television (warning: bare breasts on display—lots of them.)

We think lots of weird things are funny, like kicks to the crotch, beer bottles smashed over the head, and fart jokes, but topless sky-diving invariably qualifies for a special condemnation on Sunday morning in America.  If you’re a Congressman, you can survive getting caught taking bribes and selling out your constituency, but if you get caught “sexting” photos of your forbidden parts, you’re banished.  We are, flat out, schizophrenic about the human body here in the Colonies.  Our no-compromise options seem to be limited to either legally suppressing and culturally censuring any exposure of the body that suggests its innate sexuality, or wantonly demeaning it through tasteless, explicitly sexual imagery as a provocative over-reaction to censorship.  Regardless, whether the impulse is to hide it or flaunt it, either extreme suggests the same maladjusted inability to just accept the body’s naturally interesting physicality and implicit erotic energy.

Why we’re that way and who’s to blame for it is grist for another article, and I’ll tackle it in more detail later in the Photography Articles series.  For now, just know this—here in Puritanica, if you choose to pose nude in front of an artist, well… Lucy, you got some ‘splainin’ to do.  Your family, friends, colleagues, employer, therapist and significant other will all feel compelled to speculate about your psychological stability, moral perspective, and cultural awareness. Your modeling agency will have an opinion too.  Is it any wonder that the decision to model nude always seems to involve considerations about everything except modeling?

It is a big decision.  Just how big depends on a variety of factors, both personal and professional, including a reasonable consideration for the effect of your decision on those people listed above.  Some of the factors you can exert a measure of control over; some of them you can’t.  All, however, deserve your attention.

Defining the nude

“The nude does not simply represent the body, but relates it, by analogy, to all structures that have become part of our imaginative experience.”  Art Historian Kenneth Clark


First, let’s be clear about what we’re discussing; frankly that can be more difficult than you might think.  Both the culture in general and the modeling world in particular have definitions of nudity that are at the same time precise and ambiguous, sensible and foolish.  So, what is it?

In general, it seems obvious that nudity can be defined as the human body without any clothing.  In practice, however, that’s not always enough.  For modeling, as long as the nipples (for women) and genitals are concealed, the exposure is defined as “implied nudity.”  In other words, whether the model was wearing a skimpy G-string and pasties or not, an “implied nude” image allows the viewer to infer that the model is fully nude behind the concealment.  How about fully naked from the rear or the side?  As long as what people in the business often jokingly refer to as the “naughty bits” aren’t visible, it’s not usually considered nude, although bare buttocks are occasionally defined as formally naughty.  Even legal jurisdictions that strictly forbid nudity even in private clubs will usually allow exotic dancers to perform as long as they’re wearing a minimally concealing G-string and pasties over the nipples.

Of course, walking down a public sidewalk with your hands over your otherwise naked pubic area and breasts will get you arrested in spite of your insistence that your nudity was only implied.  In the city of Boise, Idaho, for example (as it is in most municipal jurisdictions), the definition of public nudity is very explicit.  Here’s the ordinance:


“Nudity” means the showing of the human male or female genitals, pubic area, or buttocks with less than a fully opaque covering; the showing of the female breast with less than a fully opaque covering of any part of the nipple; the exposure of any device, costume, or covering which gives the appearance of or simulates the genitals, pubic hair, natal cleft, perineum anal region or pubic hair region; or the exposure of any device worn as a cover over the nipples and/or areola of the female breast, which device simulates and gives the realistic appearance of nipples and/or areola.


They do graciously recognize some exceptions:


This prohibition shall not apply to any child under the age of ten (10) years of age, or any person exposing a breast in the process of breast-feeding.


(In a culture driven by religious doctrine that still tends to sanction sex only for the purpose of procreation, it’s probably not surprising that the only time it’s considered appropriate to see a female breast is when it’s feeding an infant.)

Online modeling sites tend to enclose their nudity definitions within a “Mature” description, which is intended to help keep a visitor from accidentally popping a nude photograph up onto his monitor screen at work.  Without actually defining nudity, Model Mayhem, for example, lists the following as “Mature” themes which are acceptable images in a member’s gallery, but which are not allowed on the public portfolio page:

“…female nipple or areola, bare buttocks (thong or not), flaccid penises, pubic area (whether hair is present or not), see-through or semi-transparent clothing or body paint which shows any of the above.”

The nipple prohibition, of course, doesn’t apply to men, a fact which has been legally challenged by women on numerous occasions as an example of discrimination on the basis of sex.  On the other hand, males who model nude have their own unique barriers to clear since they tend to be ostracized by everybody, including female nude models.  The topic frequently comes up in online forums, and it’s always surprising how often both photographers and models who work in the fine art or glamour nude field express disgust for the nude male form.  That, of course, is ironic, given that Classical artists from the Greek and Roman eras preferred male models for their nude work on the assumption that only the male figure was worthy of artistic depiction.

The real world (at least the American version of it) where nudity is forbidden and the modeling world where nudity is commonplace are two different environments with strikingly different attitudes about the naked human form.  Which life you prioritize higher will probably determine which definition matters to you.  If work is more important to you than your personal life, then your primary concern is professional—you just need to determine if nude modeling is a good business decision—and accommodating personal issues is less relevant.  On the other hand, if your personal life is a higher priority than steady modeling work, you won’t regret any loss of opportunity that a rigid policy against nude modeling might create.

For the working model, nudity is simply one of many decisions about professional genres and personal preferences, and the definitions are all about creating billable categories.  Why is it important to be so specific?  Because, as we’ll discuss below, modeling is a service business with a rate card that reflects both supply-and-demand concerns as well as personal preferences, and nude modeling is a unique service with unique rates (full nude, implied nude, topless-only, no nudity at all…).  As we’ve also discussed throughout this series of articles, defining and publicizing your personal brand is a key part of distinguishing yourself in the Internet modeling marketplace, and a precise, matter-of-fact explanation of your nudity policy is an expected component of your brand description.

Personal  concerns

Let’s start by dealing with a reality that far too many people, including glandular teenagers, arrogant politicians, and the occasional Miss America, foolishly disregard until they’re in the middle of the disastrous consequences—anything that hits the Internet is there forever, and it’s accessible to anybody with a web connection.  Basing your decision to pose nude on the thin hope that you can control who sees it is a recipe for disaster, and unfortunately, these revelations have a tendency to pop up at the worst possible times.

Ten months into her reign as Miss America of 1984, Vanessa Williams was notified that nude photos taken of her had surfaced.  Two years earlier, while working as an assistant and make-up artist for a local photographer, she had posed nude with another model for what the photographer had described as “a new concept of silhouettes with two models.”  Although Williams believed the photos were private and insisted that she had never signed a release permitting them to be used, the public uproar and pressure from pageant sponsors forced her to resign.  This was pre-Internet; today those photos would have gone viral within minutes of the pageant results.

Moreover, your relative anonymity is no buffer against this kind of exposure.  Just because you’re not a celebrity doesn’t mean you’re not visible.  Your mom and dad may not be cruising the Internet looking for nude pictures of you, but it’s a good bet they know somebody who is.  All it takes is one disgruntled friend, bitter ex-boyfriend, passive-aggressively competitive co-worker, or nephew over the age of 10 to spread the news about the nude photos on your modeling portfolio, and you’re permanently outed.  One of our frequent models doesn’t pose nude even though she’s personally uninhibited about nudity, because she’s a single mother embroiled in ongoing custody disputes with her child’s father.  She doesn’t want to take the chance that nude photos might complicate her legal standing as the custodial parent.

When your professional activities include public photographs, you can’t expect to keep them separate from your personal life.   The rule here is brutally simple—never pose nude unless you’re willing to deal with the absolute certainty that your photos will become public at some point.  That’s “will,” not “might.”  What’s more, even if you don’t plan to become Miss America or a Supreme Court Justice, your spouse might.  One of our favorite models is completely relaxed about nudity in the studio as required for wardrobe construction, but doesn’t want nude photographs taken because she’s married to a prominent local banker.  She knows that nude images of her floating around on the World Wide Web could potentially have a negative impact on his professional reputation.

It’s tough to guess at age 18 what your privacy concerns might be when you’re 30 or older.  You may eventually decide that the nude modeling phase of your life is something you’d like to put behind you; the Internet, however, will not respect your preferences.  If you’re not prepared to integrate the title, “Nude Model,” into your life now and forever, exercise caution before you make a decision you can’t un-make.

Personal Opportunity

“There is nothing in all the world more beautiful or significant of the laws of the universe than the nude human body.” Artist and educator Robert Henri


Now that we’ve explored all the problems nude modeling can create in your personal life, you might wonder why anybody would ever make the decision to pose sans clothing, especially if large sums of money aren’t involved.  Surprisingly, many models actually prefer nude modeling for a variety of interesting reasons.

The core of their decision invariably includes a relaxed personal attitude about their own bodies and a philosophical commitment to affirming the natural dignity and beauty of the human form.  These are not people who worry about society’s disapproval of their life decisions, and as a result, for them the usually tortuous and socially perilous decision to model nude simply isn’t an issue.  In fact, it’s often a justification.  Some of our models and many of our glamour clients call us about nude photography for one or more of the following reasons:

• Defying social disapproval is exhilarating.  People who are natural rebels don’t respond well to being told how to think and behave, and their natural reaction to prohibitions that they consider unrealistic and/or unnecessary is defiance.   For the model whose personal compass doesn’t always point due north, the fact that the average person would never model nude is often the best reason for doing it.

• Nude modeling is personally fulfilling.  It affirms a model’s sense of self by moving beyond crippling self-censorship. People who are able to get past the Genesis mythology that equates knowledge and self-awareness with original sin are free to experience their bodies without guilt and explore the Freudian possibility that eroticism is a core part of human identity.  Models who cross that bridge understand that being sexy isn’t synonymous with being evil and that nude modeling is one of the most direct and accessible ways of expressing that realization.


“When we respect the nude, we will no longer have any shame about it.” Robert Henri
“Modeling nude makes me feel comfortable but also self-aware. I learn what every part of me looks like, feels like and how to control it with regards to posing/lighting, all the rest of it.” Australian Model Emmpress Mystique


• It’s socially and politically satisfying.  Nude modeling takes a quiet stand against society’s arbitrary and unrealistic linkage of personal appearance and personal worth.  Especially for women, it challenges society’s implicit decree that women are incomplete without a fashionable wardrobe and face-concealing make-up.  Nude is unadorned and simple; it exposes the body’s flaws and declares that perfection is not a requirement for beauty.

• The nude is part of an honored fine-art tradition.  Many nude models enjoy being able to participate in producing photos of an artistic nature, and they appreciate the fact that the nude is traditionally one of art’s most challenging forms.


“Shooting nudes gives us the opportunity to take chances and experiment. It’s about pushing boundaries—in art and in life.” Photographer Alex Waterhouse-Hayward


• It actually isn’t a “big deal.”  Objectively, who cares?  Think of it as the humor version of mind over matter—if you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.  Or, as Tyra Banks admits, “As a model, you’re so used to taking your clothes off that you just don’t care.”  Sometimes perception trumps reality so hard that reality gets completely lost in the shuffle until somebody asks, “Seriously… what’s the big deal?”  While we urged caution earlier because it’s hard for most people to know who they really are at 18 or to be able to predict what their lives will be like at 30, the fact is that some people do know themselves that well, and warping their lives in the present to fit some frightened hypothetical future just isn’t in their nature.

Professional considerations

This one is short and simple—unless you’re a supermodel who gets to write her own custom rulebook to suit her preferences, nude modeling will generally end any chance you might have at commercial work.  Agencies don’t want to take the risk that 10-year-old nude photos of you might suddenly appear to sour their relationship with a conservative client who wants to use you for an extended campaign, and all corporations are conservative.  If you choose to model nude, your career will probably always be grounded in nude and glamour-based work.  There are exceptions, of course—mostly local, where the scrutiny will be less—but if you’re lucky enough to be considered for a national appearance, you can bet you’re going to be asked to swear there aren’t “incriminating” photos out there waiting to embarrass your new employer.

Professional opportunity

Why do it then?  Quite simply, it pays.  If you’re not interested in going through an agency or doing large-market commercial work, nude modeling, particularly in the glamour field, is a viable, steady-paying option, and it’s well-suited for freelance Internet modeling, especially if you know how to network online (see the Working the Web article for a good start).

It’s also unlikely that any nude modeling you do will adversely affect any opportunities you might have for trade-show modeling, and although it may not be the most glamorous assignment, being a “greeter” at a trade show is a dependable commercial mainstay and steady paycheck for many models.

Finally, even if the finished work doesn’t feature nudity, photographers like to work with people who aren’t overly modest in the studio because they tend to be less inhibited and more adventurous in their modeling.  That’s a big help in conceptual work, where experimentation and collaborative input are far more common than they are in straight fashion or commercial photography.

Show me the money

As we said above, modeling is a service business with a sliding-scale rate card.  What any type of modeling is worth is whatever a model is able to charge that a photographer is willing to pay.   That varies according to the market, the type of work involved, and the relative experience of the model and the photographer.  There aren’t any hard-and-fast industry guidelines to help you set your rates, so good negotiating skills and a quick mind for spontaneous, creative contract revisions are as important as your ability to pose.  Nevertheless, how you handle rate-setting for nude modeling tends to be a function of two conflicting perspectives.

1. Supply and Demand.  One perspective recognizes that since the supply of people who model nude is significantly smaller than the supply of those who don’t, nude models are likely to be more in demand than clothed models.  For the amateur GWC (Guy With Camera), that’s usually true.  The non-pro glamour photographer can talk his next-door neighbor into posing clothed for a portrait, but if he wants to shoot lingerie or nude photos, he knows he’s going to need a model and he expects to pay for the service.  Models who operate on a supply-and-demand marketing strategy usually go to elaborate lengths to further delineate the market.  They distinguish between implied nude and full nude, between full nude and topless, between erotic and non-erotic, between straight and fetish; some are up for virtually anything (if the price is right); others are willing to model nude only for “tasteful” or “artistic” photos.  And each category carries a separate rate based on the level of exposure and/or adult-content.

This tends not to work as well with professional photographers since pros don’t usually pay models unless it’s for a commercial assignment that pays both of them, and unless the photographer is routinely shooting for a men’s magazine or online nude site, most commercial jobs don’t require nudity.  This can get to be an amusing problem, especially for new models who jump into the Internet-nude market without any noticeable modeling skills other than a willingness to appear nude, but who have been told that nudity is the magic bullet that triggers large paychecks.  It’s not unusual to read something like the following, lifted directly from an actual model’s online portfolio:


“I’m an amateur model looking to expand my portfolio. I’m interested in glamour, lingerie, pin up and most of all, more fetish!  I’m willing to start out with select TFCD and work my way up, but nude/adult shoots need to be compensated, reasonable rates of course!”


The amusing part happens when she then just as predictably adds:


“I would prefer a photographer who knows how to take creative control and give good directions. I’d love to learn more about posing correctly.  Communication between photographer and model are (sic) key, I’d love to learn from you!”


By her own admission, this is “an amateur model” who would “love to learn more about posing correctly,” and “love to learn from you.”  If the “you” that she wants to “learn from” is me, I’m going to be asking myself why I would want the honor of teaching her how to be a model at my own expense.

The bottom line here is that modeling is a service business that requires certain skills and if you’re not ready to deliver those skills at a reliably high level, then just being nude is not an adequate excuse for doing your job inadequately. You may be nude, but you’re not ready to charge a pro photographer for your modeling services, and that sliding scale is only going to work for you in the amateur-photographer market.  That’s not, by the way, intended as an insult for photographers who shoot for fun instead of money.  Many experienced nude models love the GWC shooter since he is the most likely to pay for his models.  If he’s respectful, appreciative of the model’s effort, and sincere in his desire to produce quality photography, then he can also be a nude model’s best customer.

2. Modeling is modeling.   The flip side to the “Supply-and-demand” perspective refuses to turn nude modeling into a separate category as a matter of principle.  If at least part of your decision to model nude is based on one or more of the considerations listed above in the “Personal opportunity” section, then choosing to charge extra for nude work can seem like a betrayal of your own beliefs.  If you’re genuinely committed to the notion that the human body is naturally dignified and beautiful and you reject the societal insistence that revealing (or viewing) it is morally inappropriate, then creating a special rate card for nude modeling is a philosophical contradiction.

If you think about it, attitudes about nudity are at least partly a function of attitudes about clothing.  If you think the only real purposes of clothing are protecting your body from the elements and decorating it as personal expression, then a nude body simply implies good weather and a lazy sense of fashion. If, however, you think the primary reason for wearing clothes is to protect the body from being seen, then nudity represents moral jeopardy.  For those people who don’t feel morally inadequate in the nude, modeling is modeling, and they charge for the posing, not for the skin.  In fact, I know of at least two nude models who charge extra to wear clothes because maintaining a wardrobe and getting fashionably dressed for a shoot is more trouble than posing nude.

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