I wrote this when i was 30
For four years, I took my clothes off in front of men for money. They paid me to photograph me. Some paid to draw me. Some of these men were not photographers; they were men with cameras who wanted to look at my body for an hour and I let them. And I knew they weren’t photographers. And I mostly didn’t care. One guy paid me to rub myself with oil and spread my legs and he could sketch me and ask me about my lack of health care. He spent two hours trying to convince me he could save me, provide me with something better than the slum I currently possessed, the job he was currently giving me. I waved my hand across my chateau of nothing and told him I plan to never, ever get sick. I have everything I want, sir. I am free and you will pay me and leave. I will eat ramen and I will never call you and I will be happy.
I was not happy. I was not sad. I was a very good neutral about the whole situation because I owned myself. It took me a very long time to get there. To understand that men are sometimes awful and lie to me (as this sketch artist did to get me in that position by going through a very lengthy application process at Penn to find out he is not an artist at all) and other times I prey on them to get their money. I know they’ll pay me for my nudity and I need to pay the phone bill. I approach them. I charm a little. I tell them my rate and my “concept” (pay me) and we can shoot. I used men to get money. I learned that I can do this.
The word “coercion” is thrown around in circles that pertain to women who objectify themselves for the male gaze and it holds some merit but it is given too much weight and stories of women who found their work enriching are silenced. Well, most of my work wasn’t enriching, but it wasn’t hell either. It was a good gray area of sometimes sexually exhilarating and empowering, and sometimes abusive and pathetic. But I owned myself. I had some negotiating power with price and contracts and I truly didn’t believe these guys would go very public so I had nothing to worry about. The most important thing was it was an un-taxable job when I needed it most: all of the time. And I learned how to use them to get what I wanted.
I recently quit modeling because I would rather spend my time focusing on efforts that bettered two underserved communities in my life. One is my actual job. I work with those suffering from severe mental illness and are also engulfed in the welfare system. What I do is important and undervalued. The other are sex workers. What they do is demonized and not paid enough. Since I quit, I have reflected on my decisions and the motivator for these decisions and thought it’s time to put to rest so much debate around women who work in these industries and let women speak for themselves. In an effort to amplify the voices of those who use their body for material gain, for the pleasure of men and the male gaze, and objectify themselves, I thought I would start with my own with the statement in bold that I learned to use men for money.
*Disclaimer: some of you men, I love and enjoy your photography. Some of you were pieces of shit and I’m glad you suck at your job. You do the work to figure out who is who.
“Why on Earth would you take your clothes off and BE PHOTOGRAPHED? That seems so DUMB and DANGEROUS.”
Because I really fucking needed the money.
I made this clear in my opening statement but I really needed the money most of the time. I had a penchant for following unfit partners across the country and often ended up in shambles as soon as I arrived. I had a lot of bills, I liked adventure, and I hated nine to fives. People would say, “Don’t you like modeling? You do it an awful lot.”
No. It’s stupid. I couldn’t care less about these pictures.
“But doesn’t it empower you?”
Not anymore than my college degree.
“But don’t you feel used?”
Not anymore that at my menial job I have taking on the burden of someone else’s mental health for eight hours while getting paid nothing and wiping my ass with my college degree.
In fact, I hated it for a very long time. I hated it because it was boring. I hated it because I couldn’t charge as much as I wanted to. I hated it because it was work! Sure some of the men also sucked but most of them were so fucking boring and I had to devote at least two hours of my time to them when I could be reading or texting my ex or looking at Facebook. “Pucker your lips. Reveal one tit. Frown with your mouth open. Look bored but also sexually insatiable. Make the motions of crying but then right before it hits: stop. Call it a female orgasm.” Still-frame of coquettish apathy with dollar signs floating around my head.
Some people said I could have really made it as a model with a little more clout but that’s not what I wanted. I didn’t try to be better at modeling because I never felt like it was worth it. They never paid me enough so I didn’t thrive. I picked amateurs because I could charge the most (never enough) and they would be grateful to work with me. I sucked as a model because I lacked devotion.
But I got paaaaaid.
I rarely worked for free. Pushy men would say some stupid nonsense about “sake of art” or “I will use this in my gallery” or whatever and I always gently reminded them that I have chosen to use my REAL NAME for modeling and that these pictures may one day ruin me and that what I am charging is not enough and if they don’t plan to pay women the amount of my phone bill (not enough) for a full nude shot, they should go back to shooting landscape and stop bothering us. I got paid almost every fucking time I took my clothes off.
That was where I found empowerment.
Sure, I sometimes stood in a room full of men while the flashbulbs went off and I got off on the attention but I wanted the check, the cash, the free makeup or bra. I wanted their stuff. I wanted their meals. I wanted to pay my own way. I wanted to be single and rolling in dough and modeling helped me. Nude modeling liberated me from my dependence on my partner. When I moved to Philly, he had all of the money and I couldn’t find a real job. I booked tons of shoots. Had the demand for scantily clad yet oddly saint-like women not be large, I would have suffered during the break up. I suffered, yes, but I hustled and survived and didn’t have to stay on food stamps and I could buy a car (a brand new car!) and I could eventually move out of Kensington and I would be able to travel to see my mom sometimes. I suffered but I had money.
And money is empowering.
We look down on women who provide erotic services to men because we think they can “do better somewhere else.’” Yes, they can eventually if we help them and they don’t want to do this work, but what do they want? How can we help? What do they need RIGHT NOW? Because right then and there I needed cash so I wouldn’t be evicted, so I wouldn’t drink or kill myself. Not every moment in my modeling career was seeping with desperation, but the first eight months of Philly were. I had been doing ok up until then. I had started to bore of modeling but I was broke and the job wasn’t coming fast enough. I plucked my eyebrows, I cut my hair, I put on my fishnets and I trolled the town. Two things can exist at once: empowering women to get an education or the training they need to work in the field they want as well as supporting their choice to have sex or erotic displays for money. It is that simple. And I had a degree, but so did everyone else.
Now, I’ve pissed all over it but sometimes I liked it. Sometimes I modeled (clothed) for free. Some of the guys I loved. Sometimes I found it the most fun adventure I have ever have. But I had to defend to the death that I liked nude modeling ALL OF THE TIME so other women would leave me alone. It was the other women that judged me the most. They questioned my motives (as if we have that right) and I had to lie. Oh, yes, I find it thrilling all of the time every time I do it and I can’t wait to do it again. But the truth was.
I needed the money.
Not everything a woman does HAS to be empowering to herself or other women. She doesn’t owe that to you to occupy the space that she is keeping. She has to feed herself, clothe herself, bathe herself. She has to kneel sometimes. She has to do that to keep herself alive. It took me years of my own feminism to understand that. Women don’t owe anyone anything. Including other women. That’s the beauty of it all.
But it wasn’t all bad. Modeling has it’s pluses. Why else did I model?
Because I like the attention.
This one is one of the “not allowed” ones. Number one is reason enough. I have worked numerous terrible jobs ( I sold windows door to door, ask me about it!) just for the money without ever feeling bad but then I felt like I had to come up with a reason to continue doing modeling. “Oh well it’s art.” “Oh well I really like being naked.” “Oh well I …”
I needed the fucking money.
But. I also really really like attention. From everyone all of the time. It’s a good outlet for me to do nude modeling really because I love the way I look (most of the time) and could use more eyes on me. And there’s nothing wrong with women demanding attention. There’s nothing wrong with women using their bodies to get attention. There’s nothing wrong with taking selfies to get attention. I can’t stress this enough. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WANTING ATTENTION FROM MEN.
“But don’t you advocate against catcalling and other forms of harassment?”
Yes, because catcalling is harassment. Inviting attention is very different. If I post a picture and a guy makes a degrading comment, I can take it down. I can tell him why what he says is wrong. I can block him or have a dialogue. I can control what attention I get. I like attention from men I am flirting with but not from his drunk cousin who is touching my lower back now and I am trying to run away. THERE IS NOTHING WRONG WITH WANTING ATTENTION FROM MEN AND BEING OPPOSED TO SEXUAL HARASSMENT AT THE SAME TIME.
If we don’t know the difference, we can discuss later. This is not the place for this but it’s important.
Because I like meeting people.
I met so many people during modeling and more than men, I met other really kick ass women too. I am an ENFP so I mostly float around the world making friends and sharing ideas and modeling gave me a circle to discuss all my inner thoughts and feelings when I felt safe. Some of those men I loved, as I said, and still love. They know who they are. I made a lot of close friends and had a lot of fun. It may have sucked sometimes but I laughed a lot and I got to flirt all of the time. It gave me friends. It gave me comfort. It broadened my horizons and introduced me to new ideas. I met some good male friends through modeling that I lean on today.
Because I learned to express myself
I have been taught that my body is not to use for anything but menstruation and then having babies. It stays covered. We do not show sex. We do not have sex. Nude modeling is the first time I felt like I could really talk with my body. I had been really repressed up until then. I was scared of my own power. I filtered myself for myself and my partner. Nude modeling allowed me to engage with parts of my body that I never thought about, like my ankle or the tip of my ear. All are parts of me, neglected parts of me, that aren’t stroked enough, aren’t looked at enough. I learned how to move to express my feelings.
Modeling isn’t as easy as I make it out to be. It takes skill to convey an emotion and I learned how to do that with modeling which in turn helped my writing. I sucked as a model, I did, but I got better. I learned how you hold sadness in your stomach, anger in your lungs, smiles that wane and fade under certain months. It was actually challenging and some really cool photographers taught me along the way.
I learned about myself and my body image.
If there is one way to confront your jelly rolls and uneven breasts and stained teeth and anything else uncouth photographers point out, it’s taking off your clothes and then looking at b-roll film of your body (stop sending me that shit). Holy fucking shit did I learn to like my body. I hated it. I wanted to diet. I wanted to die. My boobs look crazy. I make the same expression over and over and over. Why is my hair like that? But I got to stand firm in my statement that all bodies are not created equal. I was rarely photoshopped. I did my own makeup and hair. I wore my own clothes. I got to see me, really see me, for the first time.
That’s really where the whole “ferociously love yourself” campaign started. Because I had to. Or else I would hurt someone.
Over time, I grew neurotic about my stomach which is another lesson in societal expectations. Society expects women to have flat stomachs because that’s all we see. I got to be the model that didn’t. I got to be the women that didn’t cave even though I so badly craved to starve myself some days and just give in to the temptation of total anorexia again. But I am a woman. I am thirty. I have hips and wrinkles and flaws and blotches. I am perfect because I have survived. I have let others take pictures.
To make a statement.
I made a lot of statements actually. Over the years. Publicly. One of them being: I can do whatever the fuck I want. I can be naked and still hold a job. I can be naked and get paid. I can be objectified and also prey on men. My boobs can be uneven and someone will pay to see them. Someone will pay me not to shave for a month and shoot me. I can do this and be cool with it.
And so can you.
If I choose to be an object, does it count? Well, money is empowering. So is choice. So is independence. So is being a naked woman in a suited man’s world. I didn’t have to empower or liberate anyone but I did liberate myself. I hope other women have felt better about their bodies or feminism or sexuality or private sex work because I have been so public about mine. But I didn’t have to do that for anyone.
Because the bottom line is
I kept a roof over my head because I modeled nude for money and had I not, I would not have survived, and selling my body as a commodity got me off of my emergency food stamps and got me to pay all of my bills and eventually paid for a lot of frills. And I learned a lot about what it means to be a woman by doing it. It means I do what I want. I own myself. I defend my choices without feeling like they “have” to empower anyone else. I am not a martyr for this. I don’t owe anyone anything. My voice matters though because we can stop shaming women for their nudity and support their labor rights to sell their body for money. We can empower women with erotic work if we stop infantilizing them in the process.
Go own yourself.