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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.
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 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.