“I’m ready when you are,” he said.
“Okay,” I said, peeled my dress off like I’d done it a hundred times, and kicked it into a corner of the brightly-lit room.
The camera clicked, twice.
“Just a moment, darling,” he said, in a lilting voice flavored by eastern Europe. “You’re beautiful. But right now, you’re the color of a freshly-cooked lobster.”
The jig was up: I hadn’t done this a hundred times. And while I had shed my clothes once or twice to pose for art classes in college, it was a far different thing to be here, in the studio of a semi-famous photographer, wearing nothing but smoky eye makeup and a full-body blush, doing one of the few things that girls are admonished never to do.
Taking your clothes off for the camera is widely considered a scandalous no-no; these days, you can’t go on the internet without tripping over leaked shots of some chagrined celebrity—usually a self-taken cellphone pic by an actress in her bathroom mirror— and the adult panic over “sexting” has parents warning their kids to never, ever remove their clothes in the presence of a camera. And even after I’d already made up my mind to allow myself to be photographed by this man, whose work I had seen and admired in the pages of many a magazine, I couldn’t escape the sense that I was doing something… not wrong, exactly, but certainly naughty.
“Are you ready?” he asked, as the color receded from my cheeks.
I gulped down the last of my reservations and said yes.
Being naked in front of this stranger led me to reveal more than just my body; I told him about a new boyfriend, admitting my previously-unspoken hopes that we might get married. I told him that one of my reasons for posing was an ongoing struggle with body dysmorphia— that I thought I might make peace with my body by seeing it through another person’s eyes. And when he asked what sort of pictures I was hoping to take, I surprised even myself by saying I wanted to push the envelope—that I’d rather look interesting and hideous than vacantly pretty.
By the end of the evening, I hadn’t just shed my clothes, I’d lost all inhibition. I wasn’t me; I was a model, and ready to do whatever it took to make the photos real. I slapped myself in the face and spat on the floor. I clawed raw, red welts into my shoulders and chest. And when he said, “Show me how ugly you can be,” I arched my back, contorted my face, and screamed.
When I left, he said, “I think these are going to be good.”
The pictures from that night have never surfaced except in a private digital gallery, emailed only to me by the man who took them. In the months after I posed for him, he went from semi-known to full-on famous, and went from shooting random portraits of unremarkable women to shooting celebrities for Vogue and Vanity Fair; I assume that the shots from that night have been long since forgotten. But they are good.
In them, I’m unafraid. Uninhibited. Unconcerned about being not pretty enough, thin enough, good enough. For those few hours, I was utterly in the moment; and in the last photos taken that evening, I am naked, looking over my shoulder, staring down the camera with flat, fierce confidence.
And if one of them ever does turn up, online or on a gallery wall, I’ll be proud to say, “Yes, that’s me.” I’ll even say it without blushing.
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