The intimacy of nude photography was both exciting and dangerous to me. A game of Russian roulette. I tripped on the power I had in front of a camera to be a nude goddess. These days, I reflect on those days and wonder why I chose the experience of art modeling.
I had been obsessed with my body developing into a womanly body for so long that I wanted to somehow celebrate it, capture it. Having a curvy womanly body has been a source of pride and accomplishment for me. I was a late bloomer. I began my menstrual cycle and developing breasts later than the girls around me. I felt inferior somehow, like my body was failing me, preventing boys from seeing me as attraction. I wanted to be wanted. This coupled with childhood trauma and feelings of ugliness because of my skin made me want to be desired. Now I understand that I needed this because I didn’t love my self. I didn’t want myself. I didn’t like how weird I was or how incredibly sensitive I was. As I got older and interested in men, I hated how intense I was. I didn’t want to feel anything.
I find that not having wanted my self became giving my self away to the first available person willing to take it. I have learned that relating to men sexually was normal – it was what I saw around me growing up in high school. Being raised Catholic meant a deafening silence on the subject of sexuality. My father worked long hours to support our family, so I rarely saw him. I used to resent him because as I began to examine why I have had such an unhealthy way of relating to men. The realization that his emotional absence and having no other consistent male role model made me angry with him. I spoke to him about this a few years ago and he told me was just doing what his father had taught him.
It was this conversation that allowed me to forgive him and feel compassion. Yet there is a fine line between compassionate and enabling, but that’s a post for another time. I was still left to explore how all the forces at play in my life were manifesting my reality. I remember that the driving reason to have my first sexual experience was that I wanted to get it over with. I wanted to know what it was all about. I learned quickly that suddenly I was attractive to men because of my body, and I began to blur the line between sex, acceptance and love. I’ve been sexually active for 9 years and it was only halfway through that I began to understand my sexuality as an experience that belonged to me. I had always felt that a man was responsible for my pleasure and that somehow I was sexual only in relation to a man. I remember being conscious that there was a double standard between women being seen as whores for expressing their sexuality and men being praised for it. It hasn’t been until the last 3 years that I understood how I have internalized the sexual repression and taboo of the culture I was raised in.
There was this feeling of being a bad little girl for much of my sexual life It was a feeling I’ve had since I was 6 years old and I experienced molestation. When it happened to me at that age, I remember feeling sick to my stomach. I felt that I was evil and impure, spending much of my life feeling as though I was a white cloth with a massive black stain on it that would never go away. I swallowed my emotions and it was the first time I left my body. It was too painful for a long time to recall that memory and what it meant to my life. The more I grew into my body and as a woman, the more impure I felt. Feeling drawn to sex and wanting to explore it made me feel dirty. My mother being crude about it did not help. I remember being lectured when she found out about different people in my life and would disdainfully comment on how a proper woman only had one sexual partner. Logically, I had been on board with the notion of women having the birth-given right to be free and yet there was trauma that continually set an unconscious cycle in motion when it came to sex. My first sexual experience at age 18 taught me that my emotions had no place in sex. I felt the urge to cry that first time and that person quickly told me to stop.
I suppose then, as I reflect on my life as an art model for 4 years, my body was my currency. It was how I got what I wanted – validation. It allowed me to have power in my nakedness, of drawing all attention to just my body and hanging in the delicate balance of becoming sexual prey. It was a strange paradox. The less I had on, the more I could hide my emotions. It was a way to leave my body, to become more and more detached from it because I didn’t want to be in it. I would learn later in my healing journey that often people who are deeply traumatized leave their bodies to protect themselves somehow. Leaving my body prevented my self from feeling the trauma deeply. I’ve learned that it also prevents me from feeling deeply at all.
Eventually, even the body has limits. I stopped being an art model after two things. My mother called me one day and yelled at me for being an art model, which in this conversation she called me a prostitute and probably a whore for my lifestyle. That was painful. It was even more painful when I brought it to her attention and she saw no need to apologize. The second was my first and only pornographic photo shoot 4 years ago. I had promised myself, when I saw ads that wanted women to participate in shoots that were more focused more on the sexual than the art, that I would never go there. That I would never completely expose my self or my yoni. At this point, art modeling for schools and private artists was how I was paying the rent so I felt desperate to find gigs that paid me well. I swallowed all the nausea and vehement rejection in my body and spread my legs and lips. It was the last time because even the photographer felt uncomfortable and told me it would be the last time we ever worked together. He said my eyes looked hollow, that I looked depressed. Shortly after this, I buried my self in shame that I had ever done something like this. I felt horrible. I felt nauseous. I felt. I finally felt what I could not ignore – the danger I was putting myself in, the inappropriate circumstances of the relationships I had with certain artists, and the cheapening of my body.
I had my first nervous breakdown around this time, in the fall of 2008. That was the first break. I didn’t begin to integrate the realization that I was harming my self by how I was engaging with the world around me until the last few years. When I started to go to therapy and took my healing journey to the level of deep release, I began to talk about my traumas, the childhood ones, the ones that have manifested in the last 5 years and how they were not just sexual but on all different levels due to the passing on of a dangerous legacy of violence unto the black woman body, the entire continent of Africa and all its descendents. Reading about other’s experiences and learning more about the effects of trauma helped me contextualize my experience as not an isolated incident but a symptom of a deeply sick collective human psyche.
Looking at art modeling from a healthier place, I don’t regret any of the experiences I did have. I learned a lot from the peculiar men and few women who met me under the unusual circumstance of nudity at first sight. If I ever did it again, I would return to it in again in a much more tasteful, honest, respectful and graceful way. In a way that I am fully in my body and present, not hiding behind an illusion. It is my hope that releasing this shame, sharing my story and being honest about my life will in turn set free the other stories of women who are also coming back into their bodies.