The first time Harry asked me, I picked a fight with him. Why would he even suggest such a thing? It was creepy and objectifying, and I was an adult woman with agency and self-respect. I knew this was an issue that often came up in relationships, and I came prepared to fight with a litany of feminist rhetoric and healthy boundaries. I won in a knock-out, in 90 seconds flat.
I'm speaking of course of "boudoir" pictures. Though Harry, my boyfriend, is a skilled photographer, I've come to discover that virtually everyone's had the sexy-pictures talk at some point in their romantic lives. Sometimes it's just a casual getting-dressed snapshot and other times it's amateur porn, but since the advent of photographic technology, we've been using it for nudie pics. On the one hand, I get it: When you love someone or see the beauty in their bodies, you want to capture that as a treasure you hold dear. On the other hand: Um, fuck off, perv.
To be clear: Harry never pushed. He's not a pusher by nature (that's my issue, thank you very much). About a year into our relationship, when he quietly asked, "Could I maybe take some sexy pictures of you sometime?" I understood that he had no ill intentions. I knew how many other women and girls had been manipulated in these situations, how horrific was the scourge of revenge porn. I also knew that Harry was the kind of guy who asked, "Is this okay?" before putting a hand around my waist beneath my t-shirt as we watched TV on the couch. I never had to worry about him respecting my boundaries or my body. His love for me as a whole was undeniable — as was his love for my body. That was the problem.
For years, I had said no to taking sexy pictures for very good reasons: I would not be made an object. I refused to be defined by my sexuality — or someone else's, rather. Bottom line, I wasn't comfortable, and I didn't need to apologize for that (not that he ever asked me to). But, righteous as my reasons were, they weren't really mine. Only recently did I realize what it came down to: shame. Always, shame.
All women are forced to reckon with the element of shame when it comes to sexuality, even if it's only in a sociological sense (thanks, patriarchy!). As a plus-size woman — or anyone whose body flouts the beauty standard — there's often a bonus layer of shame. Being seen as non-normative means your sexuality is either invisible or fetishized. That's why a black and white, plus-size lingerie ad on the subway is seen as obscene, while the Victoria's Secret angels slink into prime ad space during the Super Bowl — not only underdressed but "in the mood for love." A horny, thin woman is a-okay, but a plus-size woman better keep her sex life behind closed doors, with all the lights off, please.
That's where I kept mine, when I eventually got one. Until my late-twenties, I kept myself out of that game entirely. I had other reasons in addition to my size, but my size was a good enough excuse. So, when Harry and I got together, it was thrilling and new, but also slightly horrifying to find myself adored. I had a hard enough time looking at him looking at me with desire. Looking at myself? On camera? Nope.
But if there's anything I've learned in the last three years, both in writing this column and growing in my relationship, it's that shame is a powerful tool when you learn how to wield it. If left unchecked, shame will back you into the darkest corner of your mind, hushing you into a fearful silence. That's no way to live, and it's certainly no way to live with someone else. But if you refuse to cower, if you stand up, turn on the lights, and start inviting people in, you quickly learn how utterly okay you really are. "Oh, so this is your dark corner?" they will say. "It looks just like mine, but with different wallpaper."
That's the power of exposing your shame. That's why I did photo shoots in bikinis and clothing that showed Visible Belly Outline. Yet, still I resisted the idea of sexy pictures. Even after seeing other body positive boudoir photos from women like CeCe Olisa and Lindsey McAllister, I held firm. It just felt different. I'd done my other photo shoots surrounded by professionals and I'd shared the pictures with a vast audience of strangers. There was something infinitely more vulnerable about revealing myself in this way with Harry, just the two of us, in our own home.
The morning of the photo shoot, I laid out piles of brand new lingerie on my bed, assembling my looks. I put on some makeup and blew out my hair for the first time in months. When I'd told Harry I was finally up for taking these pictures (with another monologue outlining the good reasons I was doing this and the reasons I was not) he'd likely imagined something a little less formal: the two of us cozy and casual, lying around in bed on a Sunday morning. But if I was going to do this, I needed full control over all variables. I couldn't just be in my underwear. It had to be my underwear looks. If all this production made it any less sexy, oh well. Maybe that was the point.
After hours of preparation, I placed myself on the couch at last and looked into Harry's lens. We took the first few shots in relative silence, he adjusting lights and me yanking at my ensemble: a lacy bra, a crop top, and my favorite fuchsia undies. I adjusted my position constantly, trying to find a pose that said: Look how confident I am both in my body and my sexuality, and yet I am clearly defined by neither. Turns out, it's kind of a hard look to pull off, whether or not you're fully clothed. Still, I persevered, moving the arm that instinctively crept across my tummy to hide it. I flopped around trying to find the balance between looking comfortable and being comfortable. After maybe ten minutes of snap-adjustment-snap, I was already tired and feeling incurably awkward.
Then Harry peaked out from behind the camera, and his face was lit up with an open-mouthed smile. It was the kind of unbridled delight you see only on the face of someone who just cannot contain their love for you and their excitement to have you in their life. It wasn't lust, admiration, or pride, but a giddy mix of all of the above.
"You're a natural!" he cried, and in that moment I knew I was. The hair and makeup, all the frantic posing — I didn't need them to look good in these photos. I looked good in spite of all those things. These photos looked "good" because the person taking them was looking for me — not my best angle.
From that moment on, our little shoot became more fun. No, I wasn't cured of all self-consciousness; I still cringed or shied away at times. I still heard the voice in my head pipe up at times, calling me a big, fat show-off. But once again I learned the lesson that has changed my life: When you open your arms wide to shame, every single thing gets better. You move through the world with a little less fear. You don't become a brand new person, but rather, a little more yourself. You loosen your grip on control knowing that it doesn't really matter. You are who you are, and that is more than good enough.
My body was always the thing I wished to control and never could. But I'd taken so much comfort in my efforts to shrink or obscure it. So, showing it to others now — and to the man I love — means stepping out of that dark corner in my mind (which some might call a comfort zone).
If I'm honest, there's part of me still on the fence about these photos. There's part of me that worries I'm trying to prove something I shouldn't have to. You don't see a lot of men doing boudoir shoots to validate their worth, I think. It's a fair point.
But my reasons for doing it are fair, too. I'm not defined by my sexuality, but it is a part of me. It took me a long time to claim it, so I'm going to embrace it now. And while intimacy is private, there is a message here that needs to be made public: Sensuality is everyone's right. It's still considered bold to see a plus-size body presented as normal. To see it as something lovable? That's advanced-level body positivity, and I think we're ready.
I spent so much of my life scared of being seen as a sexless lump or a fetish object. Really, I think I was afraid of being seen at all. But I am seen, and I am loved — and I'm learning to accept that (maybe even enjoy it?). In taking these photos, I don't feel I'm giving into those old definitions. There will always be someone trying to categorize me into something less than whole. That's not my problem anymore. What I refused to be defined by is shame.
The Anti-Diet Project is an ongoing series about intuitive eating, sustainable fitness, and body positivity. You can follow Kelsey's journey on Twitter and Instagram at @mskelseymiller, or right here on Facebook. Curious about how it all got started? Check out the whole column, right here. Special thanks this week to Harry Tanielyan.
It's your body. It's your summer. Enjoy them both. Check out more #TakeBackTheBeach here.