Love & Sex

Pulling It Off

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS
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I can barely change in front of my mother when we go shopping, but I'm about to be completely naked in front of a total stranger. I pull my sweater over my head and loosen the clasp on my skirt. I'm sure my hot-pink bra stands out against the pale cream of my skin, and I wonder if the man in front of me can see my heart leaping in my chest. I take a deep breath and avoid his eyes.

When I was first offered a free nude-portrait session, I jumped on it. I'd been curious for years about how it would feel to be unapologetically naked in the service of art. Would posing teach me the secret of Mona Lisa's smile? Would the session get as steamy as a young Kate Winslet's, when her titanic breasts and luscious curves were laid bare before an eager Leo? What would it feel like to — instead of constantly searching for a muse — be the muse? And after looking through artist Dorian Vallejo's Intimate Portraits online, I was reassured by how soft his subjects looked: amorphous, loose, and fluid.

Of course, as soon as I agreed — free is always good in this economy! — I remembered the reality of my curves, my recently developed muffin top, my blinding paleness in the middle of winter. And standing here in the flesh, I feel solid and weighted down, wishing my extra thirty pounds could be wiped off the canvas. I focus on a spot of paint on the floor.

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I don't want to catch the eye of the man looking back at me. But then again, he's not looking into my eyes. His hands work quickly, liquid motions over paper. I'm sure now my blanched skin has taken on a lovely shade of WTF-pink. Two minutes pass, and he nods. It's time to take off more.

I slip off my boots, pushing my tights down until they're bunched up at the ankles. I step out of them and roll them up, as if I'm putting away just-cleaned laundry, something I never take the time to do at home. I hook my thumbs into the waistband of my skirt, and stop to consider my next pose.

How far will I go? How far can I go? This is not the first time I've pushed myself past my comfort zone, and my body image is not the only thing at stake.



It was six years earlier that I used my first dildo. It was my first day as an intern for an adult personals site, and the head intern was showing me the office "naughty drawer," packed with dildoes rolling against condom variety packs, massage oils, and erotica. It held all the raw materials for any subsequent product reviews we would write. My higher-up invited me to choose something for my first test drive.

It shouldn't have been a big deal; hell, I'd volunteered to work for free at a sex site. My mother wasn't proud, but I was. A year before, I had ended a sexually abusive relationship. One month in, he had taken my virginity. I'd squeezed my legs together, not wanting it to happen and, afterwards, I had cried, not knowing whether to call it rape.

I watched porn while playing Yahtzee.

I stayed with him, though, because I thought I loved him. And I thought that loving him would cancel out the shame of what had occurred. And so, my early sexual education was reliant on him and, through him, I learned of all my numerous inadequacies. Since then, my hypercritical subconscious has spoken to me in his voice.

I stood there with my fellow interns, a purple, double-ended dildo catching my eye. Purple was my favorite color. "I've been thinking of buying one of these," I said, nonchalantly lifting it out of the drawer. There was a collective exhale; I was now one of them.

Throughout the course of my internship, I attended cardio striptease classes, achieved orgasm after orgasm with vibrator after vibrator, and watched so much porn that I became completely desensitized to the come shot. I watched porn with a notebook at my side. I gifted porn to my new boyfriend. I watched porn while playing Yahtzee. I drew the line at the vibrating nipple clamps, but I loved the way the wide-tipped riding crop sounded, slicing through the air, and I enjoyed the way that Sizzling Body Candy tasted just like Pop Rocks.

It was my own version of shock therapy, taking myself further and further outside of my comfort zone. I was a books editor for an adult news site. I did volunteer work for a magazine written by and for sex workers. I attended play parties, porn parties, and sex workshops. I purchased handcuffs and cock rings, erotica and sexual how-tos. For the longest time, if you Googled my name, the first hit was "masturbation poetry."

Throughout it all, I kept thinking: I am not the woman he told me I was. But no matter how many Rabbits I played with or Ben Wa balls I juggled, I still resented every playful grope and double entendre from the man I married. So when I was given the chance to pose nude for Vallejo, I saw a new opportunity to embrace all of me.

        

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 PERSONAL ESSAYS

        

 

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Despite the "nude" part of this operation, I worried about what to wear for an entire week. I decided to bring a range of outfits, from my favorite Cookie Monster pajama pants to a black-lace concoction that I honestly wasn't sure how to put on. It made me think of an old college friend who once purchased lingerie from Victoria's Secret only to hang it on her bedroom wall, like a piece of art, like it was ludicrous to think of actually wearing it.

But now that I'm here, I'm having trouble going all the way. Vallejo is kind and professional, and does not question why I signed up and yet remain clothed. I raise my arms awkwardly above my head and look flirtily at him, but it doesn't work: only Victoria's Secret models, duct-taped and lubed-up, look good like this. Still, Vallejo's boyish enthusiasm for his work is obvious and, though I thank my lucky stars that there are no full-length mirrors in the room, he doesn't seem to be comparing me to Heidi Klum.

He sketches me in every partially clothed pose possible. Our time's running out, and though I tell myself to just strip already, much like deciding to jump off a cliff, my body doesn't quite catch up with my mind. In a move evoking high-school gym locker rooms everywhere, I end up pulling on my pajama pants before taking off my skirt. Now I feel even more ridiculous. It's time to jump: I unclasp my bra and shrug it off. I feel the heat of my extreme blush flush my face, even as the cool air hits my nipples. As I move back to the center of the room, my emotions and my breasts are taut, and keen, and sensitive to everything.

Down go the pajama pants. I inch my cotton briefs down to my ankles. Like dipping my toes in freezing-cold water, I realize I'm not quite ready for it; I wrap a blanket around my body, hugging it close.

I inch my cotton briefs down to my ankles.

I find a new pose, laying on my stomach with by breasts resting on my arms, the blanket fully covering my nether regions. For the moment, this — knowing that, underneath my blanket, there is nothing else — is all I can manage. Still, there is a part of me that knows that if I don't bare all, I will have failed myself in some crucial way. And so, when my two minutes are up, I roll over onto my back and, quite deliberately, let the blanket slip lower.

I hold my breath.

My vagina is out.

I hold my breath some more. I consider covering it up.

But I came here for an Intimate Portrait — of course my vagina is out. Unlike Paris or Britney, I can't even pretend it's an accident. My legs open slightly. I can feel the warmth from the nearby space heater on my clitoris. Time spins out. There is only quiet, the whir of the space heaters, Vallejo shuffling paper, and me. Two minutes feel like forever but, in the space of those two minutes, I am suddenly aware that this is not the worst thing in the world. There is nothing to be afraid of.

When we eventually kneel on the floor, Vallejo's sketches laid out in front of us, it is a revelation to see the pencil drawings of myself. Lookit that, I think. I am portrait-worthy. For the rest of the day, we work on the final painting. My nakedness is an afterthought.



My husband loves the painting. The first time he saw it, he immediately wanted to drag me into the bedroom and have his way with me. He loves seeing the soft pillow of my breasts, the pink of one peeking-out nipple, and the dark V of my pelvic region rendered in pencils and oil paints. It makes him think of what's hiding underneath my clothes.

I love the painting, too, but not because of the way it makes my husband feel. Rather, I love the painting because of how peaceful I look, and how unconcerned I appear about the fact that my blanket has crept down, revealing the soft curves of my body as I slowly drift off to sleep. I look at the painting, and it seems to me that my body is just right. I haven't felt that way for some time.

I know the effects aren't permanent. The painting presents a new version of myself, and she's not someone I know intimately, yet. Still, I'll always be able to look at it and remember feeling that way: a muse for myself, whenever I am afraid and feel the need to cover up the best parts about me. Wherever they are located.  

        
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Steph Auteri is a freelance writer and proofreader who has been published in Time Out New York, New York Press, Playgirl, and other bastions of fine writing. She maintains a professional site, www.stephauteri.com, and also blogs about freelancing over at Freelancedom. You can keep up on her day-to-day by visiting her Twitter page.
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A Life in Lips by Elizabeth Manus
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By Any Other Name by Hugh Ryan
How my GLBT students taught me to love a forbidden word.
Family Vacation by Joseph Lazauskas
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©2009 Steph Auteri and Nerve.com