Living alone in the city had done something to me. Until occupying a one-bedroom apartment on 18th Street with no one to keep me company except Sydney, a cuddly cat with the loudest meow, I never would have walked down the city’s busy streets without a companion. Now that I think about it, it seems silly, and I wonder, why? What was I afraid of? That people would see me and automatically think I had no friends? Or that people would look at me and mentally criticize me for being alone, or wonder what was wrong with me? That people—strangers—would actually notice me for a change? Even if they did, so what? And what was the worst thing that could happen? A man could pass me and say, “You’re looking beautiful today.”
Which is exactly how I met David John. One sunny Saturday afternoon, I ventured out alone. I wandered along until I found a nail salon and treated myself to a pedicure. Maybe that was it—the pedicure. Something about having my toes painted red always makes me feel pretty, and when I feel pretty it shows.
After my pedicure, iced coffee with a dash of cinnamon in hand, I continued to stroll along, taking in the sun and fresh air, glancing in store windows, and smiling into the breeze. Stopping to admire a boutique display, I quickly dismissed the idea of trying on the yellow and white, fitted, button-up top. That same window reflected a too-large bust and too-wide hips, obviously a good three sizes bigger than the twos, fours, and sixes that the mannequins wear.
The thin girls garnish attention; steal dates and elicit fawning. I wouldn’t know what to do with that kind of attention anyway.
A man approached, holding what appeared to be an antique camera. A photographer? His glasses and white-streaked black hair put him at about sixty years old, and although he was shorter than I am, his tan complexion and straight white teeth showing through his smile gave him a stately attractiveness—kind of an elderly hip-ness. And there was something welcoming about his smile. He reminded me of my Gramps, who always took a liking to younger females in an endearing and non-creepy way. We made eye contact, and he said hello as we passed each other. I was examining the one-eyed lens in his hand, trying to figure out what it was.
“You’re looking beautiful today,” he said without breaking the eye contact.
“Thank you.” I turned around to look at him again, and I’m sure I beamed a smile. It’s not often that men tell me I’m beautiful.
“Have you ever modeled?”
“No.” The response came out with a chuckle, almost as a question. Model. As in model clothes? As in for a magazine? As in standing in front of a camera while a photographer, and probably a hoard of folks—stylists, designers, makeup artists—stared at me? Right. I worked as a magazine editor. I knew the magazine-modeling type, and it wasn’t me.
“I’m serious. You’d make a great model.” He walked back toward me.
“Really?” I glanced down at my haphazard outfit, a black skirt and grey tank top that had come straight out of my laundry basket and my trusty red Old Navy flip flops. The only thing polished about me were my toes.
“Really. You have nice curves, and you’re not a stick like magazine girls.” He looked me up and down, then back to my eyes.
“Well, thanks. I think,” I looked him up and down. Tailored jeans. Collared, fitted, pinstriped shirt. Designer glasses, and long-ish salt-and-pepper hair. Definitely requires maintenance. He had to know at least a little bit about fashion—and modeling—to look as good as he did.
“Would you consider modeling?”
“Are you serious?”
“Yeah, I have a salon and gallery just down the street, and I’m in the middle of doing a bunch of shooting on glass plates. So I’m looking for people.”
“Uh-huh.” Glass plates? Intriguing.
“Why don’t you come by, and I can tell you more about it?”
I glanced down the street, behind his shoulder. Where was this salon/gallery? Maybe I’d been there before, during a Second Saturday art walk. Was he an artist? Maybe I’d seen his work.
“Do you have a card or something?”
His card identified him as David John. Hair stylist/photographer. So, fashion photography? He must shoot his own promotional images.
“What’s your name?”
“Janna. I’m David, nice to meet you.” We shook hands and he turned to continue on his way.
“Yeah, nice to meet you,” I said, looking at his card and flipping it over to the backside. No website?
Then he turned back again.
“Do you have a card?”
I checked my bag. Pencil. Pen. Sticky notes. Gum. Cell phone. No card. Anyway, do I just give this guy my number? I checked my wallet.
“No, I don’t have any cards with me. But I can call you.”
“Yeah, okay. Give me a call this week. Or just come by and I’ll show you my stuff.”
He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot? Makeup artists and hair stylists all in a frenzy, and in walks frumpy girl, sporting not-so-stylish ensemble, asking for the photographer. There would probably be an uber-hip chick at the reception counter with short spiky hair dyed black and a long chunk of bangs dyed a funky color, like purple or something, wearing jeggings (which, I argue, are not to be worn as pants) and gold shimmery flats. She would be tossing papers and business cards around on the desk in a frantic effort to find the phone number of the stylist that didn’t show up for the day and she’d be cursing under her breath, right when I walk in, au naturel and eager. Talk about awkward. Still, I gave in to my curiosity.
He walked away, and I thought, am I supposed to just show up at this guy’s salon in the middle of a huge photo shoot?
“Actually, are you going to be back over there today?”
“Oh, yeah. I’ll be back around two. Do you want to come by today? Why don’t you just meet me over there at two?”
I looked at my watch. One o’clock. So, if he knew I was coming, he’d be expecting me. I could say, “I’m here to see David.” No having to explain who I was, or what I was doing there.
“Yeah, sure. I can do that.”
His “stuff” turned out to be some amazing artwork. Frankly, I was stunned. He owned a hair salon. Half salon, half gallery, pristine and decorated with a modern, semi-Asian décor. Black walls exhibited his photo gallery: black and white images of flowers, landscapes and architecture hung in sophisticated silver frames. They emitted a warm vintage hue—a rich glow that results only from experience and years of refining. The photos looked dignified, and I imagined how the black-white-silver combo would pop against the vibrancy of my own coral walls at home.
As I admired the work, David shuffled about the salon, gathering flyers, postcards, and magazines and shoving them at me. One article featured him as an artist and another he had written about his photography, which I found fascinating. He used the original photography process and shot on wet glass plates. He showed me one piece of glass and I could barely see the translucent outline of an image, until he held it up to its black background and a naked woman appeared. She’s stunning. Because of the salon, I had assumed that he wanted me to do some kind of fashion or hair modeling. Nope. Several of his images were nude women and he wanted me to pose for him.
I’m sorry, what?
My body does not look like hers.
The nudes were overt, yet not obnoxious and certainly not out of place with his florals and landscapes. There was that same vintage glow. But the concept didn’t quite click in my brain until David asked if I was comfortable taking my clothes off.
Naked? In front of a camera?
I don’t think so.
“I think so,” I heard myself say, without processing. “I mean I’ve never done anything like that before, so I really have no idea.”
Mostly I wanted to think about the prospect without him staring at me. Watching me. Waiting for an answer. I could always back out.
We agreed that he would call me, and I headed home wondering what had just happened. I needed to call Sarah—no, couldn’t call Sarah. She had enough of her own issues and didn’t need to worry about mine. Jenn? No, not Jenn either. That was a lecture waiting to happen. Who to call? Wait. What was I thinking? So he showed me a couple of articles written about him in a photography magazine and a post card for one of his gallery shows, but there was no way to be certain that he wasn’t a covert porn-psycho using the artist gig to entice gullible young females (i.e., me). And what was he thinking? Did he just see the same body that looks back at me from the mirror? Maybe I should have explained that I actually wear a size twelve, sometimes even a fourteen. Or if I told him that I weigh almost 180 pounds, then he’d have come to his senses and realized his mistake. Or how about the little bulge that rolls over the top of my pants. (Only sometimes, of course. When it’s that time of the month and I’m completely bloated.) Besides, there are freckles in funny spots that had never seen the light of day—not even in my bathing suit. Who was I kidding? There was no way I could pull this off.
At home, I stripped and stood in front of the full-length mirror. The reflection wasn’t that awful from the side view—if I sucked in the tummy. Suck in. Release. What do I have to do to make it look how it does when it’s sucked in? I wished it would just stay that way. Every time I looked in the mirror, all I could see was a marshmallow where my mid-section should be. But then, did David honestly see me as he saw the other women he’d photographed? His photos were beautiful and tasteful. Artful. Sensual, but not provocative and not fashion models or centerfolds, that’s for sure. One striking photo showed a woman from the waist up, topless. Her eyes were closed and she seemed strangely peaceful and comfortable with herself. She appeared real enough to leave her scent lingering with her image. She made me wonder how I would look in a frame on the wall. And just exactly how does a woman achieve such confidence—the kind that allows the truth of her nakedness, imperfections and all, to be captured so blatantly?
I was surprised when David called. Like I hadn’t expected to hear from him. But he was serious. As we talked, my shoulders relaxed. The talking helped, so I told him that I was still trying to figure out if I wanted to do the shoot or not and asked if we could get together to chat a bit more before setting something up.
“I have time now, if you want to talk,” he said.
Damn. I wanted to have this conversation in person so that I could better gauge him. “Okay, well, I’d like to hear about what you aim to accomplish with your art.”
“Well, what I do is fine art,” he said. “This is not about exploitation, it’s about beauty. You have to understand, I used to hire professional models, but they all looked the same—so stiff and fake, like magazine girls. And I much prefer using every day people with beauty that is natural, not created or forced.”
Good answer. Something about “magazine girls,” always flipped my internal anger switch: the way that Magazine Girl gets portrayed, promoted, and popularized as the ideal; the way that women—of all ages—put said unrealistic Magazine Girl on an unattainable pedestal. The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.
But what about the actual images? If any of them turned up locally, I could just picture someone I know seeing naked photos of me and recognizing them. Then what? There’s me trying to explain to my boss—you probably did see a picture of me naked at that art show, what did you think of my breasts? My stretch marks weren’t noticeable, were they? I shuddered at the thought.
The magazine editor inside of me cringed at being a part of perpetuating that damaging cycle. I could never be the next Marilyn Monroe, but maybe I could be something of an Anti-Magazine Girl.
“Listen,” he said. “I encounter this all the time. Everyone who does this, or thinks about doing this, has different reasons. And they all have to overcome some thing.”
“Exactly.” How did he know this stuff?
“So what is your thing?”
How to speak coherently about the mess inside my head—there was no easy way to make him understand that I’m not the type who does this kind of thing—no striking beauty that turns heads here. This girl had her first legal drink before she had her first kiss. And certainly no promiscuity, either. This girl was also twenty-five before she bought a two-piece bathing suit, and then it was another two or three years before she mustered up the courage to wear it in front of her father. That was a disaster—even after losing almost forty pounds, he still pointed out my little belly-bulge. Girls like me aren’t the modeling kind and we certainly don’t pose nude. I told David that I didn’t want someone I know to see the photos and recognize me, and he said, “So let me guess. You’re the kind of girl who always does what is expected of her?”
Wow. Didn’t think it was that obvious. And the thing is, that’s exactly it. What would Dad say if he knew? Now there’s a conversation I didn’t want to have, even hypothetically. Hey, Dad, I’m thinking about letting a guy who kind of reminds me of Gramps take nude photos of me, what do you think? Most people who know me would be shocked to find out that I was even considering posing nude for a photographer.
David told me to think about it and call him when I was ready. I contemplated calling him to say that I wasn’t interested, but another part of me was tempted to test my limits—to see just how much discomfort I could handle. So I carefully shaved all the right places and showed up at the salon to meet David John for the second time. In his make-shift studio—which was really his apartment with his camera set up in the living room and one of the bedrooms converted to a dark room—he showed me more of his work and where he developed the photos. He actually had a nineteenth century camera—like something out of a history book. The monstrosity was mounted on a four-legged stand, with a light-shielding cape draped over the back. A faded blue director’s chair sat in front of the camera’s huge eye. Lenses of all sizes lined the kitchen counter and photos were propped against the walls along every inch of floor space.
“So do you make a habit of asking women on the street to let you take pictures of them naked?”
“Not usually,” he laughed. “But you seemed friendly and engaging.” He talked while rummaging around the living room. “Plus, I told you, you’re not a magazine girl.”
No kidding. My figure is even thicker and fuller than any of his photos that I’d seen. I could still change my mind. Was he sure about this?
“Okay, you can change in the bedroom and put this on.”
He handed me a green synthetic satin robe. Green robe? It wasn’t even a nice green. If this was going to work, I had to feel pretty (like with the pedicure), and the ratty thing of a robe wasn’t helping in that department. Next time I would bring my own—the pretty black one, real satin, with turquoise polka dots and ruffles. If there was a next time, that is.
Here we go. Either I would take my clothes off and put on the green robe (and I had no idea who else had worn the thing), or back out and leave. I slipped off my shoes and thought, how many other women have done this? I had seen several of their photos on glass plates, but I didn’t know how many of them there were. They all had a reason for doing a shoot like this, and I wished I knew what those reasons were.
Other women. If we sat down for a cup of coffee and shared our experiences, maybe we would have something in common. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to become more comfortable in their own skin. Maybe they would tell me they also wanted to create an alternate—a realistic—portrayal of beauty. Maybe they would tell me they also thought about other women out there who needed an Anti-Magazine Girl.
Like my sister. She and I have always struggled with our weight, but I didn’t know if the extra pounds bothered her the same way they bothered me, or if she put pressure on herself, or if she compared herself to her skinny friends the way I did. What would she say if she knew what I was doing?
Friends? Oh, those thin, adorable girls who post selfies all over Facebook. This would definitely be a different kind of selfie. Not the kind you post online. A gift for the next wedding, perhaps?
Coworkers? Also thin and adorable. Also more daring than I was and I bet they wouldn’t think this is any big deal. They all lived in happy couple-hood la-la land and didn’t seem to need the validation.
Dad? Well he wouldn’t like it, I knew that much. He’d probably even make some comment about my marshmallow belly.
I stood there. Completely naked. Thinking about my sister, my friends, my coworkers. Dad. Why did they matter so much? I’m here and they aren’t, I thought. They don’t have to know. Dad doesn’t have to know and I don’t need his approval. My toes were cold. I felt my hair on my back. I’m not doing this for him anyway.
I put on the green synthetic satin robe.
I stepped into the living room/studio and in front of the camera. David brought a stool over and motioned for me to sit down. He flicked on the lights and I blinked at the brightness. My body temperature started to rise.
“Okay. Are you comfortable?”
I nodded. Heat from the lights made me start to sweat.
“Okay. Are you comfortable?”
“Good. Now just stay there for a minute.” He rummaged again and I tucked the edge of the robe under my arm to hold it in place.
“Ah, here we are.” David picked up something and then pointed it at me. It was the one-eyed lens he had the day we met—a light meter.
“Okay. Just relax. Deep breath. Uh-huh.” He mumbled a bit, talking to himself while he looked with one eye closed, then moved and looked again.
He’d probably change his mind as soon as he saw the faint stretch marks on my hips (yes, sadly, you can get them in your twenties). Sweat trickled down my back.
“Okay, you’re doing fine. Now stand up.” I stood and he continued his routine: pointing the light meter, looking and moving.
What about the triangle of freckles by my navel—how would they show up in the photos? Or that scar on my shin?
“Good.” He moved the light meter away from his face and adjusted his glasses. “Okay, now drop the robe. Just drop it.”
Hesitating, I closed my eyes and swallowed. What about my funky tan lines?
“It’s okay. Take a deep breath and just drop it.”
Deep breath and the green satin fell to the floor.
Eyes still closed. I couldn’t watch him looking at my nakedness. My back stiffened at the thought of him examining my body—how light affected skin tone. I stopped breathing. Did he notice the stretch marks and freckles? In the darkness behind my eyelids, I imagined him trying to figure out a way to politely tell me that he had changed his mind. That this wasn’t going to work after all. At less than three feet away, no doubt he found the blemishes. And if he found them, certainly the camera would too. His back-and-forth movements forced quick bursts of air across my shoulders and stomach. What was he doing?
I kept waiting for him to say something. I was still a virgin. No other man had seen me naked before. I had no idea how he would react.
Opening my eyes, I caught him mid-point with the light meter, looking with one eye closed. He looked and moved just as he had with the robe on. It was almost sterile, he the doctor and me his patient. No show, no performance, nothing provocative. He didn’t stare or gawk or drool or do anything expected from an older man at the sight of a younger naked woman.
It was just me, and my sweat and stretch marks and scars and freckles.