Melissa Todd: I know why Mona Lisa is smiling

Taking direction

Despite my great age and endless flaws, I’ve been modelling for several local photographers for the last few years. I love posing. Being told exactly how to stand and where to look soothes me. When you’re usually in charge of everything, all the time, having someone else decide your destiny for a couple of hours, even down to the direction your toes can curl, makes for a liberating rest.

Calling myself a model makes me wince a bit.  I’m under no illusions about my looks. Despite all appearances to the contrary, I’m really not that vain. I’m good enough for my age, that’s all. Calling yourself a model on instagram (@melissa_r_todd, incidentally, I live for likes, make my day and follow me) is akin to taking the lid off a pot noodle and calling yourself a chef. I keep being booked only because I’m really, really good at taking direction. I never ask questions or cause trouble. I’m thrilled simply to be the passive recipient of the male gaze, be the active creative, I the compliant subject.

All the photographers I work with are male. As are around 63% of my Instagram audience.

So, I’m a traitor to the feminist cause, I guess, not for the first time. I’ve internalised patriarchal values, normalised sexual inequality. Is that really the case? I’ve no visual sense myself, but I do create with language, and invariably I write best about subject matter that provokes in me a powerful response. That’s how creativity works. I write because I’m so buzzing with feeling, usually fury, that I fear my brains will boil in my head if I don’t get some of it down on paper. It’s unsurprising, then, that the female form will inspire heterosexual males to create. I’m proud and honoured to be a part of that process. Plus, likes.

Anyway, is the model really entirely passive? Outwardly so, perhaps, but the deep delight I feel when working with a decent photographer always emanates powerfully from me in the finished product; conversely, if I don’t feel comfortable and happy in a shoot, the pictures will be lousy. The model must be engaged, involved in some way, something more than a mannequin. Ultimately the power lies with me. I have to give my consent to the process, albeit tacitly, for the art to happen.

This is why, despite being pretty average looking, all my photographs still tend to radiate something worth seeing. Not flawless skin or a size 6 figure, but tranquil, infectious joy.

I know why Mona Lisa was smiling. She was having a lovely time.

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