It was my first time. I was nervous, so I poured us each two fingers of whiskey into rocks glasses. The Sunday morning light filtered through my sheer curtains and onto my Murphy bed as I sorted through a selection of lingerie and clothing I had pulled out of my closet. I held them up for his consideration, but he didn’t really have a preference, finally pointing to one set with a friendly shrug. I went to the bathroom and put it on. Then, I emerged, took a sip of my whiskey, and approached the bed. “What do I do?” I asked him. “Whatever you want,” he told me. Then, he hoisted his digital camera up to his face and started snapping pictures. At 25, I was newly single and living in a cheaply furnished studio in New York City. It was a heady feeling, not having to answer or explain myself to a roommate, parents, sorority sister, or boyfriend. I brought boys over. I brought a girl over. I stayed out all night and tried fun new drugs or stayed in bed all day with the newspaper and tea. I felt lusciously sexual and young, bursting at my seams. But I was dissatisfied with the avenues for expressing that sexuality. I wanted to show off my body and to explore what it was capable of, but hooking up with the usual guys I met out in the East Village was proving to be dissatisfying. Then, a friend recommended I work with Justin Lane, a photographer who does portraits, landscapes, Triple Crown horse races, and nudes. My friend said he was a stand-up guy. His photographs, far from Terry Richardson’s voyeuristic, flash-soaked style, were direct and intimate. All the pictures I had of me at that point looked the same: smiling into the camera amid a group of women dressed as early-20s college grads do, hands on my hips, body strategically positioned to look skinnier. I knew there was more to me than what those pictures showed — more sides, more angles, more depth, more secrets. If I wanted to capture this moment in my life, my body just as it was — soft, round, petite, and freckled — my direct gaze and evolving sexuality, I knew this would be the way to do it. It was a big leap for me. I came from a staid East Coast town; and then, a conservative college, where a nude photograph could ruin your life, where women were so ostracized by the appearance of revenge porn that they would have to just leave. At 25, I was busy groping my way out of that world into one that was more creative, accepting, and experimental. But I still didn’t want the photos to be public. So, we established guidelines before he came over: He was not allowed to post any pictures online unless my face was covered and he asked permission. If he ever got to do a show or book, it wasn’t out of the question that I could be included, but again, he would have to ask first. And nothing sexual would happen between us. That wasn’t what this was for. He had a long-term girlfriend, anyway. Justin arrived right on time Sunday morning, toting a big bag of equipment. In his early 40s with sandy brown hair, a trim beard, and a flannel shirt with jeans, he had the look of a young dad. He quickly put me at ease, chatting about work, other amateur models, his relationship, and pop culture. At first, I wanted direction from him, but he pretty much refused to tell me what to do. How I positioned my body was completely up to me. I rolled around on the bed, vamping and tossing coy looks to the camera. At one point he paused and frowned. “You’re crossing your legs in almost every shot,” he said. “Okay,” I said, and continued to do it. “No, really, what are you afraid of?” he said, carefully. “I’m afraid of you getting an ugly photo of my vagina,” I said. “I promise, I’m not going to put an ugly photo of your vagina up on the internet.” “But I don’t even want you to see it,” I said. Vaginas, to me, were nasty things, shameful, dirty, meant to be glimpsed only in passing in the low light of the bedroom. “I just don’t like the way it looks.” It was the most honest I had ever been with a male about my body. “You have to trust me,” he said. “You have to let yourself go and move freely and naturally. Or else, all of these photos will look the same. I promise, nobody will ever see any photos I accidentally catch of your vagina.” So, I did. I trusted him and posed recklessly, limbs scattered. I switched from lingerie to a skirt, to a vintage fur coat, to complete nudity. I balanced on the bathroom sink and sat in the windowsill. I laughed and stuck my tongue out at the camera. I fell off the couch trying to lean backward. I lounged, arched, and did yoga while his shutter clicked as fast as a rolling snare drum.
I began to understand that my nude body was beautiful, even when decoupled from the idea of sex.
He took photos from far away and then got close, focusing on the line of my calf or my spine as it braided up my curved back. I knew that among the thousands of photos he was taking, most would be forgettable. But every few minutes, he would stop and gaze in the viewfinder and softly say, “Nice.” Justin had no interest in seducing me and I began to understand that my nude body was beautiful, even when decoupled from the idea of sex. I guess you could say I was still technically posing in front of the male gaze, but after a while, it was just the camera lens and me having a conversation with each other — me moving, it clicking and beeping in affirmation. After five hours of this, I had run out of outfits, accessories, and poses. So, Justin and I quit for the day. A week later, a zip file of photos landed in my email inbox. When I opened it, at first I was disappointed. I did not glow like the models in Maxim. I had rolls of fat in some. My hair was mussed — and not artfully — in others. In some, I looked sexy. In others, I was inscrutable, bored, sad. You could tell my face wasn’t symmetrical and my thighs weren’t smooth. But as I looked further, when I stripped away my preconceptions of beauty shaped by 25 years of seeing nothing but photoshopped nudity, I began to see the beauty, joy, and sadness mingling in the photos. The photos were respectful and reverent. Together, they told a complex, multi-layered, true story of who I was, stripped bare of both clothing and the masks I wore out in the world. In those photos, I didn’t need anyone to like me, approve of me, or want me. These pictures weren’t for Facebook, or Instagram, or a lover. (They were so classy, I would even venture to say they would be useless as revenge porn. So, what if there’s a gorgeous black-and-white nude of me on the internet?) They were a gift to myself, a love letter that said, “You are a work of art.” I’ve done several more sessions with Justin since then. (You can hire him yourself for a nude photo session.) Looking back through the old photos, I can see the subtle changes time and life have wrought in just four years. Yet overall, my body is still the same. The same short legs, the same butt, the same asymmetrical face. And I love it. My life is so different now than it was then — I have a new group of friends, a different career, a fiancé, and a changed concept of healthy sexuality. Most of all, I have a strong sense of self and the willingness to be raw and compassionate with the people I love. That day, when I got my nude portraits taken, is when I think I turned a corner toward the life that I had always wanted: messy, complex, beautiful, and true. It was the first step toward not caring what people thought about my personal life and ceasing to measure my beauty by how well it aided me in seducing men. It was something that I did just for myself.