My partner and I had been together for just a few years when I decided I was the kind of person who hires a photographer to take artful nudes as a birthday gift for her beloved.
I selected one of the photos and blew it up, big as a poster: full-frontal in a half-kneeling, seemingly relaxed but hard-to-hold pose. The background is a flat, black void from which I have emerged with a joint pressed between my ringed fingers. My head is in profile, angled to the left, lips pursed as I blow out a puff of air that’s supposed to be smoke — I had trouble keeping the joint lit. In the cloud’s absence, it looks like I’m whistling, or singing. Or primed for a kiss.
When Jen and I moved in together, the framed photo hung on the wall of our too-small bedroom. It was huge, absurdly so, imposing itself over the bed like an awkward third in a three-way. We took it down every time the landlord came over to apply tape and chewing gum to whatever needed fixing in our overpriced Oakland shoebox. Meanwhile, I spent a year looking at myself every day, morning and night, like gazing in an enchanted mirror, the inverse of Dorian Gray’s portrait, where my image never changed, even as I grew fitter, older, commissioned more tattoos.
When we moved again, I took the portrait down. Jen said they understood, that my comfort was paramount. I ripped the image into strips and threw it away, even though Jen still insisted they loved it, pleaded with me not to destroy it. But I wanted it gone, erased. It was the only way to keep my image within my control.
* * *
I believe in the dire necessity of the body positivity movement. I believe every individual body is beautiful. I’ve loved bodies of all sizes and shapes, with prominent schnozes, acne scars, big thighs, asymmetries. Nevertheless, I am often at war with my own body, which means I am at war with myself.
There is the endless push-pull between eating and fasting, exercise and leisure. The belly, with its soft layers of fat, begs anxious squeezing. I fear its growth, its desire to claim space beyond the confines of buttons and zippers. The breasts must always be held up by a bra, or else they weigh down the entire torso. The cellulite I’ve had since high school must be held firm under black stockings, along with its friends, the spider veins.
The photographer I chose was proposed by a mutual friend. We’d never met before the shoot. She was a young, stylish woman with an equally hip shop in the heart of the Mission, the hipster district of San Francisco. When I arrived for my session, the photographer’s sexy boyfriend was there. I was nervous, though trying to play it cool, and the presence of this man did not help matters.
He asked me what music I wanted to hear. I said Beach House because it was the first thing that came to mind — I wasn’t prepared for a Q&A. He left before I undressed, but the tone had been set: I was going to be intensely uncomfortable and struggle to pretend I was not, just as I had on so many dance floors, on so many beds and exam tables.
If I could do it over again, I would’ve told the boyfriend to put on Nina Simone. If I could do it over again, I would’ve told the boyfriend I was nervous, could he please leave? If I could do the shoot over again, I wouldn’t.
“The tone had been set: I was going to be intensely uncomfortable and struggle to pretend I was not, just as I had on so many dance floors, on so many beds and exam tables.”
I wanted photographs that represented the way I wished I felt about my body, which is the way my partner feels about my body. I wanted to see myself through their eyes. I craved evidence of my empowerment, my refusal of shame. But the photos didn’t reflect the image of myself I wanted to see. Instead, they reflected the moment: the discomfort I felt in the situation, and in my body. The awkwardness of pretending everything was fine even as the photographer, who’d never done nudes before, confessed her insecurities to me about her own body. My exposure was making her uncomfortable. She was looking at my flaws and considering her own.
Naked on the gritty floor of her studio, I attempted to reassure her. She was gorgeous, truly. A curvaceous, voluptuous young woman. But she was clothed; I was nude. The lights were far too bright, harsh as surgery.
I watched the photos upload automatically onto her laptop in the corner, an uncontrollable stream. The final results would be edited, with a manufactured cloak of darkness to cover me. But in the originals, I’m lit up, exposed against a blank white background. I wasn’t prepared to see these images, not right there, in the moment. I began to critique my posture. I’ve taken plenty of nude selfies, but I was able to curate those to my advantage. The body on the photographer’s laptop looked like so much pinkish-white clay, lumped together against a colorless, contextless backdrop. There was no correcting that. There was no correcting my body. Me.
Afterward, it felt like the photographer and I had had a regrettable one-night stand: She’d seen me naked, under bright lights, then stopped returning my emails. I felt vulnerable, humiliated. Sorry, I was out of town, said the photographer, who had apparently never heard of an out-of-office autoreply. Eventually, she got me the proofs. Most of them were unusable. I winced. My breasts looked flat. My stomach stuck out. Wasn’t I thinner than this? But I buried my doubts and discomfort and shared a selection with friends, including the friend-of-a-friend who’d introduced me to the photographer. I don’t mind, I’m proud! I told myself. And everyone else.
Then came the big reveal. Jen, my love, my future spouse, was speechless. They never could’ve guessed this was what I’d been planning for their birthday. They said they loved it — how could they not? — but asked if I was going to be OK with hanging this on the wall. I had decided I was going to be OK with this, and so I stuck to that script, even as I saw the photo was too large, too much. I was too much. I studied my belly fat again, my breasts giving way to gravity. ”It’s gorgeous,” my love said. ”You’re gorgeous.” What have I done? I thought.
Who controls your body? Who defines it — your health, your sex? Who has the right to access your body? To touch, probe, view images of your flesh? It is only flesh, after all. But it is also you. You are the flesh.
The body is sacred; the body is mundane, an everyday thing, images of it plastered on every screen and glossy page. The body is nothing to be ashamed of; the body is the source of all shame. Everyone has a body, yet whoever sees your naked body has something on you.
“I had decided I was going to be OK with this, and so I stuck to that script, even as I saw the photo was too large, too much. I was too much.”
I cannot will myself into body positivity. The injuries the body endures — the emotional ones as well as the physical — cannot be erased in the blink of a camera’s eye. I am only empowering myself if I feel empowered.
The experience of having nude photos taken, then pinning myself naked to the wall, frozen in a frame, was supposed to be the ultimate expression of confidence and self-love. Instead, it exposed raw layers of insecurity and amplified my feelings of self-doubt.
These days, I’m the fittest I’ve been since high school, despite the pandemic, or maybe in part because of it. Plus Peloton. I’m strong, and proud of my strength. My thighs are solid muscle, my ample butt dense as a sandbag. Yet every day I study my reflection with a mixture of apprehension, hope and despair. “You’re so beautiful, you’re so sexy, you’re so skinny,” Jen says, and I don’t know what to say. I want those things to be true. I also want not to even care if those things are true. I want to simply exist in my skin, so the pride I take in who I am, my accomplishments, extends to my whole self, including the flesh I walk around in. I still wonder who Jen sees when they look at me, the woman wearing my skin. I wonder if I will ever see her too.
It’s not true that I’d never do it again ― not really. I would, but I’d do it with a photographer I trusted personally and professionally, someone I’ve thoroughly vetted, who’s taken nudes before and is skilled enough to employ an old-school camera that requires the right light and settings. Perhaps outdoors, in a field. I would ask for the photos to be printed small as tintypes, like Frida Kahlo paintings, so small I could hang them up throughout the house and you’d have to look closely to find the body inside them, closer still to realize it’s mine. I would make myself smaller, yes, but I’d have rendered myself art. “Look,” I’d say, “but don’t see too much.”
Lindsay Merbaum is a queer feminist author and high priestess of home mixology. Her essays, interviews and reviews can be found in Electric Literature, Bustle and The Rumpus, among others. Lindsay’s debut queer feminist horror novel, “The Gold Persimmon,” will be released from Creature Publishing in October.