I want to celebrate my beauty and my body and my whole self as I am, not as I wish I were.
When my memoir Stripping Down was published in 2012, I thought I would be done with needing to talk about my risqué younger life, which included stripping and nude modeling. I would be done needing to write about nudity and body image once and for all. I’d put all that naked nonsense behind me, but I’ve since discovered that maybe I put it too far behind me.
When I was 25 and left the adult business, I became a very different person. I became an Executive Assistant and a college student. I focused on my mind as opposed to my body. I shut down the part of me that desired pleasure from being promiscuous and attention-seeking.
I left nudity and all its danger (and fun) behind me.
Eventually, I married and became a mother, a teacher, and writer. I was in therapy for my depression and on medication as needed. I was dealing with my body image issues.
I no longer needed to receive approval from the outside to feel loved. This was what I wanted: freedom from a need to be beautiful.
But that “other” woman, whom I denied her existence, that girl who got branded as needy, ego-based, and validation-seeking wasn’t all bad.
I miss her. In shutting that part of me “off,” I have lost a deep connection I had to feeling good about myself, of feeling beautiful.
I don’t think all of those feelings about being beautiful were based on the male gaze either. Dancing onstage, under those rosy-hued lights, swirling in my heels, sometimes really did feel exciting and empowering.
Even then, I never thought I was good enough or pretty enough.
I look back on photos of myself and now feel able to say I was beautiful, but back then? I didn’t feel allowed to because that would be self-centered. That would be claiming something I didn’t have the courage to embrace.
So now, at 43 with three children, I have trouble seeing my naked body, let alone showing it to others. But I have a feeling that one day I will look back on this time and wonder why I couldn’t embrace the beauty I have now.
Why must I always delay acceptance to some future me?
Why not claim that “beauty” for myself now? Instead of having to wait until an unknown future arrives that might somehow give me permission.
With that in mind, I arranged a photo session with my friend, Keyvon, a photographer. I told him I wanted to shoot.
The first step was getting clear about what I hoped to accomplish with the photo shoot: I want to celebrate my beauty and my body and my whole self as I am, not as I wish I were.
Funny that the next thing I wonder is if I’ll go all nude. How will my husband feel? Is it OK to celebrate my nudity with another man present, even if he is just there to witness my becoming?
Next, I wonder about my hair and my eyebrows. I schedule a cut and wax. I question if this is vain. If the whole idea is to celebrate myself as I am, why do I feel the need to beautify myself?
Because I want to look and feel my best. I shouldn’t take issue with myself for wanting to look pretty, which includes, for me, shaped eyebrows.
Why do I make myself feel bad about wanting to look physically attractive? About wanting to still be appealing on the outside?
Another issue—if I do go nude, what do I want that hair to look like? It’s pretty bushy now, although I do like to trim my pubic hair every month or so because it keeps me feeling cleaner. Of course, perhaps that’s only because I’ve been indoctrinated by our culture to feel that way.
Am I following along unconsciously with how society wants me to look if I shave or trim my bikini line?
I bring it back to doing whatever makes me feel good. Of course, a trim of my bikini line leads me to shaving my legs, just the bottom half, I mean, let’s not go crazy here. I’ve always been okay with the light, peach fuzz thigh hair I have.
So far, my photo shoot has a lot of girly preparation. To feel my best, I guess I do feel like I have to do these things. Would it be different if I had a female photographer?
When I know someone else other than the usual crowd (my husband and kids) will be looking closely at me, I want to look presentable—like the social norm of “pretty woman.”
Here I am, judging myself again already.
After wrestling with whether what I did as an adult entertainer was right or wrong, I decided it was more on the bad side, so I turned my back on my body, on that part of me where I feel joy, freedom, peace.
It’s not just about my body and sex, but it’s also about freedom. I want to celebrate again. Have fun, but on my terms, on what I want to do and feel.
I’ll do my best to ignore others’ judgments of me.
The day of the shoot, I feel tense driving to the studio. Questions churn through my mind of why I have made the decision to capture my body, my image, in time again.
I remind myself that Keyvon is a friend; I can feel comfortable.
I apply my makeup and tousle my hair. Slipping into a dress to begin, I feel at ease; I’m having fun.
When Keyvon asks if I’m ready to shoot nude, my stomach lurches. Will he judge my body? I don’t look the same as I did when I was a model.
I just have to do it, like I did on that first day of stripping. But I am in control now. I am doing this for me, not for money, not for fame.
As the camera clicks, I slide back into my primal zone of feeling free, of feeling empowered, but with a nagging questioning in the back of my mind the whole time.
Is posing nude wrong? I hear my therapist’s voice echo in my head, Why must everything be boiled down to right or wrong?
What does it mean to be “sexy”? Am I trying too hard? Am I fooling myself? Am I having fun or is this some kind of crazy self-inflicted torture? Why am I so obsessed with nudity and sexuality and empowerment and feminism and how they all connect? Is what I’m doing part of the problem or part of the answer?
“I think I’m done,” I say as the questions crowd out the joy, as I feel myself losing any good feelings.
I dress quickly, noticing the embarrassment of not being good enough creeping in. I know this time though that it’s all about me and my thoughts, my questions, my pressures. I will not turn this outside myself and make this about anyone or anything else.
I am taking ownership of my conflicted feelings.
Keyvon invites me to sit next to him as he clicks through the photos. I see myself on the computer screen. I witness hundreds of images of me flash by. Keyvon points out ones he likes.
I do see physical beauty in the “me” that smiles back, but I am looking for something else, something deeper now.
I am searching for the answers to my questions. I am trying to understand myself, my desires, my needs, and my uncertainties through photographic, hard copy truth.
Evidence spreads across my vision; proof of who I am today. I catch glimpses of the Sheila I am hunting for, but she is not found in the photos I study for understanding.
The answers are here for me in the looking; I have turned the gaze around. I am the viewer. I do not care what others think.
I am looking for me and what I find beautiful within me. I am not asking anyone else. I am the only judge I will listen to.
I realize, in a flash, I have the final say, not men.
Here is where my freedom lies. This is so simple, yet so hard to own.
I clutch the CD of photos in my hand. My photographic proof of what I look like today. My truth of my willingness to push myself into my questions, my fears, my insecurities.
For today, I have some answers; I have some acceptance for myself and all my questions.
I have stepped into my own story and accepted that I am my only author.
Sheila Hageman is a multi-tasking wife and mother of three who blogs for The Huffington Post. Her memoir, Stripping Down, February 2012, from Pink Fish Press, is a meditation on womanhood and body image. To learn more, please visit SheilaHageman.com or StrippingDown.com.
Photo courtesy of the author