The below images may be considered NSFW.
In this image there are two black and white photos set side by side. The photo on the left is of Madonna nude taken by photographer Steven Meisel. Madonna is a small-bodied white woman, wearing clear, opened-toed high heel shoes. There is a black handbag hanging from her left hand. Her right arm is extended out, fingers clenched in an upward facing loose fist, thumb slightly extended. She has light blonde, slightly curly, shoulder-length hair. Her head is tilted slightly down and to the right. The expression on her face is confident and assuming. She is standing on an asphalt street in a traffic lane. There is an empty tree and grass lined sidewalk to left, two cars driving away behind her. The road curves slightly to the left in the distance.
The photo on the right is of Denise Jolly nude taken by Shameless Photography. Denise is a large-bodied white woman, wearing black open-toed high heel shoes. There is a black handbag hanging from her left hand. Her right arm is extended out, fingers clenched in a forward facing loose fist, thumb erect pointing toward the sky. She has dark hair pinned in loose curls just past her shoulders. Her head is tilted slightly upward and to the right. The expression on her face is regal. She is standing on a weathered asphalt street in a traffic lane. There is an empty city sidewalk to left, one car driving away behind her. The road curves slightly to the right in the distance. Behind her is a larger steel bridge and multiple office buildings.]
It was Thursday afternoon when I stepped out of the cab wearing my favorite polka dress, high heels and a handbag. My panties were tucked safely in the right pocket of a winter coat I had draped over my forearm. It was March in Brooklyn, which meant it looked like spring but felt like winter. I met the Shameless Photography team a block and a half from where the shoot took place to check in, fix my hair and practice my stance before walking to the shoot location separately, secret agent style. We met covertly, knowing that once my dress came off we wouldn't have much time to get the shot of a 6 ft tall, 300 lb. woman standing butt naked in Brooklyn, New York without attracting some serious attention.
I am 34 years old, and the first time I saw a naked body that looked like mine, worn proudly, was just over a year ago. In saying "a body like mine" what I mean is, no matter the steel cage of a corset or the taut elastic of a girdle, my thick curves pour over and out like soft dough. I have always been soft dough. This, just like my worker hands, was bred in me. This, like my strong will and stubborn heart, is indicative of both my light and my survival. I am not writing this to tell a story of how my body came to be as it is; I am writing to share how I finally came to stop and look, really look at my body and actively learn the power in what it is to redefine beauty.
Just over a year ago, I was perusing the book section at The Feelmore Gallery in downtown Oakland, CA, when I came across a copy of The Full Body Project, a gorgeous black and white coffee table book filled to the brim with photographs of large-bodied women. I looked at each page, each body and found myself looking at parts of me I had never considered worthy of seeing. While every body in the book was large, each one was unique in its shape and grace. This book is how I was formally introduced to Alotta Boutté and Jukie Sunshine. Two fierce, fat, femme, performer/activists, I have come to know and admire. Their bodies were the first big breasts, big booties, and glorious bellies that I saw as beautiful while acknowledging how similar their shape was to mine. For the first time, I thought to myself "does this mean I could actually be beautiful?" To say this moment was pivotal feels understated. Even still, 10 months passed before I stood in front a mirror and looked at myself fully nude.
During the frenzy of my 30-day body photography project, the Be Beautiful Project going globally viral, I was introduced to Shameless Photography by my dear friend, working class femme, artist/activist Blyth Barnow. In March of 2013, Blyth won a professional photo shoot through Shameless Photography's annual "Write a Love Letter to Your Body Contest". The profoundly talented and fiercely gorgeous, Shameless Photography team facilitated a life affirming experience for Blyth, complete with a professional hairstylist, makeup artist, abundant wardrobe, a showering of body affirming comments and a barrage of stunning pin up photos. It was through Blyth that I learned this amazing photo team also happened to be fans of The Be Beautiful Project and were sharing the project with their community. So I extended an invitation to collaborate artistically. The offer was met with open arms. The Shameless team (Sophie, Carey and Maxine) and I had a shared mission in this collaboration: dismantling our own internalized shame and creating work that shifts the ways in which we, as women, see ourselves and each other.
Shameless Photography has all of their clients fill out a questionnaire to help the team understand their interests and aesthetics. The first question on the form is, "Do you have images that you'd like to use as inspiration for your Shameless photo shoot?" Before answering, I sat back and thought long and hard. Who were the large bodied women represented in popular culture in the time of my upbringing? I thought about comedian and sitcom star Roseanne Barr, Cameryn Manheim of Law and Order, and Mindy Cohen who played Natalie from the '80s sitcom, Facts of Life. They were all beautiful, powerful and fierce women. But, Shameless Photography's images are about taking the the Pin Up aesthetic and giving it a feminist twist. Not one of those childhood figures wore the Pin Up aesthetic. None of them were portrayed as sexy or sexually empowered. There was one large bodied high femme that represented a pin up like aesthetic in mainstream media during my most informative years, one sexy fat being... Miss Piggy. Oh, how I loved Miss Piggy. She was bossy. She was high femme. She had a subservient adoring Kermit the Frog, who loved her eternally. Then the reality hit me, my greatest feminine influence as a large bodied young woman, was a Pig Muppet.
In the book, All About Love, by author and feminist scholar, bell hooks, she writes, "The space of our lack is also the space of possibility." When I was in first grade my friends and I would choreograph dance routines on the playground at lunchtime. Madonna's Jimmy Jimmy was featured regularly. We would dance and sing the lyrics like our perfectly naïve "love" lives depended on our voices reaching the heavens. It was the fall of 1986 and Madonna was the goddess of everything popular culture. Her album, True Blue was at the top of the charts. Her pursed red lips, dark brows and bleach blonde locks were reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. She was a preacher's daughter gone pop star, becoming boundary pushing cultural icon. At 7 years old, Madonna set the precedent for what my then-practicing Mormon, now femme, queer, body liberator self could one day become.
Every time I thought about the question on the Shameless questionnaire, I thought about Madonna and one particular photo of her taken by Steven Meisel, hitchhiking nude from her "sex" book released in 1992. The photograph is fierce, feminine and reminiscent of Marilyn Monroe. The image was so unapologetic that 22 years later, it still lives in the forefront of my memory. But I kept asking myself, who am I to be so bold as to not only get naked for a photo shoot in public but also share that photograph with the world? But the counter question came immediately, "Who am I NOT to share a gorgeous and artistic photo of me standing boldly and unapologetically in my body with the world? With that, we booked the dates and flights and BE BEAUTIFUL went SHAMELESS in New York!
When I walked around that Brooklyn street corner in March, I was present to every cell in my body. Each one was perfectly terrified. I stepped out onto the weathered street and lined up the stance I'd been rehearsing all morning. Sophie paced 15 feet away, shooting and scanning the street for the perfect shot. Carey and Maxine stood lookout and gestured directions to help get my stance perfect. My dress still on, I waited for Sophie to give the nod, at which point, I tore my dress off, threw it as far from me as possible, locked my posed body into place and prayed we'd nailed the shot.
[The photo is of Denise Jolly nude taken by Shameless Photography. Denise is a large-bodied white woman, wearing black open toed high heel shoes. There is a black handbag hanging from her left hand. Her right arm is extended out, fingers clenched in a forward facing loose fist, thumb erect pointing toward the sky. She has dark hair pinned in loose curls just past her shoulders. Her head is tilted slightly upward and to the right. The expression on her face is regal. She is standing on a weathered asphalt street in a traffic lane. There is an empty city sidewalk to left, one car driving away behind her. The road curves slightly to the right in the distance. Behind her is a larger steel bridge and multiple office buildings.]
I look back on that night at the Feelmore Gallery in Downtown Oakland and remember it took 33 years for me to see women my size living proudly and unapologetically in their naked bodies. This is unacceptable. There are women, people, bodies all over the world raised to believe they are unwanted and invisible. We are not built to be invisible; we are built to be the cast and anchor of desire, no matter our size or makeup. The Full Body Project invited me to look at my entire body for the first time. Jukie Sunshine and Alotta Boutté invited me to see my body as beautiful not by telling me but by showing me how beautiful they are. Consider this my invitation for you to experience yourself and your beautiful body in that same light and power.