There are Naked Women on My Wall 01
They are there for inspiration rather than titillation.
I first began seeing photographs of nude women before I was old enough to grasp the concept that sex sells, so instead of regarding these photos solely as a function of male privilege and as an object to incite lust, I thought of them differently. When I was young, I thought it was another standard of what might now be called adulting, and I began to think what inside of me needed to be fortified to do what they were doing. To me—both the prepubescent iteration and my current middle aged one—it seemed like being nude in front of the camera represented an empowering triumph over inhibition and self-doubt. Even though I soon grasped that men didn’t, by and large, do that sort of thing, and more importantly, it wasn’t expected of them, I still felt that celebrating physical self confidence was a worthy endeavor.
Being much more geeky than athletic, I was engulfed in body issues; mine wasn’t capable of things I thought it was supposed to be, and it was certainly nothing to look at with anything other than sympathy and disdain. Yet these women took clear pride in theirs, which I found far more compelling than the potential sexual stimulation (I mean c’mon, it’s a photograph). Also, these women also represented a bold and daring willingness to define themselves without regard to the mainstream thought; conventional wisdom mostly regarded—and unfortunately still regards–a woman in various states of undress as a bimbo, even if most of that kind of stereotyping in other areas is frowned upon. I didn’t think of these women just as sex symbols (even if in many cases that *is* part of their aim); a woman’s sex appeal is typically a small part of the overall individual. I preferred to think of them as superheroes who had conquered inner villains—especially inadequacy issues–that I was and am still battling. In that context, this series is designed to parse that concept further.
Ten years ago, in the midst of an email exchange about body painting, a friend of mine sent me some photos of a woman we’ll call Grace (not her real or professional name but bear with me, more on that later), and I was equally awestruck and terrified.
I was awestruck because of her beauty, she had an easygoing smile that radiated charm and a fit, svelte physique, and I was floored by her amazing paint jobs. Some were full body extravaganzas: one was similar to a lavender zentai with strips of fabric cut out and messily sewn together like a punk rocker’s outfit; another was like a robot, and a third was an abstract pink design with splotches of blue from which a network of tubing ran. I readily imagined those creations taking hours, and the poise to stand naked while being painted for a long duration impressed me enormously. Some were costumes that probably took only a few minutes but were no less delightful to witness such as a Playboy Bunny, a Victoria Secret lingerie ensemble, a racy wedding outfit, a Batman inspired bikini ensemble, and a trompe l’oeil work that involved chains and a lock at the crotch (perhaps the hippest chastity belt ever created). Each “outfit” was sported with such cheerful panache that it suggested in an ideal universe Grace would awaken daily and rather than dress like the rest of us, simply be painted and march out into the world, conquest on her agenda. Just looking at her photos, I immediately felt bashful and self-conscious for wearing jeans and a t-shirt.
To me Grace was the best example yet of normalizing my conception of nudity. I had developed a spin on Jean Jacques Rousseau’s famous prose, “man is born free but everywhere he is in chains.” Men and women were indeed born free (and nude) but everywhere they were chained by inhibition and doubt. Yet with lack of clothing being accepted solely as an act of sex appeal, it felt like inhibition had been institutionalized. To my ideology, the photographs of Grace were an eloquent rebuttal. A naked woman, rather than being an object, could be a subject triumphantly leading her life as she saw fit.
For me the photographs were reviving an interest in bodypainting that began when I was young and browsing my Dad’s copies of Playboy and Penthouse. It seemed like an artful act of extremity. I loved the work of Veruschka who in collaboration with Holger Trulzuch had created works where her painted body blended in with decaying backdrops in nature. I also loved the work on Jon Stevens, a painter who worked entirely in silver creating brilliant reflections of light off of the body. To me being nude its self was transformative and primal; it recalculated the balance between the mental and physical. Being nude and painted took that transformation to another level; it built on this boldness to create a new identity. It also solidified that new identity in a way. A nude model can simply throw on a dress or whatever and be a member of the dominant (clothed) society again. A fully painted one cannot within seconds double back into the fold.
Grace was part of the awe, the rest of it was the context. Had these photos shown Grace in a studio, I would have been floored by her physical self-confidence. I feel self-conscious in my own home seen only by my stuffed animals if I don’t dress within minutes of showering. Yet, here she was on the streets of some festival amid what appeared to be hundreds if not thousands people, many of them obviously tipsy, if not outright drunk. That she felt comfortable amid that mayhem upped my already high admiration of her to stratospheric levels.
My correspondent explained that Grace was a regular at Fantasy Fest, an annual autumn Mardi Gras like bacchanalia in Key West. It routinely attracts upwards of 75,000 people for a week or so of street parties, parades, body paint competitions and the like. It seemed like a post-millennial version of the ’60s adage, “let your freak flag fly.”
To me Grace wasn’t just flying a flag but staking a claim and celebrating a liberation. To my way of thinking being nude wasn’t allowing a revelation of weaknesses that might now be considered TMI, but rather an unfurling of strengths that were all too often hidden beneath the social acceptance of clothing. I also admired nudity as a way of sticking your neck out and being willing to stand apart from the mainstream. I am the son of Great Migrators, and they vividly recalled living in times and places where sticking your neck out often led to lynchings. Thus, we admired non conformists like Muhammad Ali, Kareem Abdul Jabbar, Angela Davis, Janis Joplin, The Beatles, and anyone else who blazed their own trail. To me Grace fit right into that lineage, asserting that her body wasn’t some obscene commodity but something artful and natural especially when enhanced by paint. And it was hard for anyone not to admire how ballsy it was (yes ballsy, and yes, women are often far more ballsy than men); in most of her pictures, it seemed that Grace was among thousands of clothed people and many blocks away from any shred of clothing, yet she didn’t seem the least bit diminished by that circumstance. She seemed to shrug off both detractors (in many pictures there were side eye glances of chagrin from clothed women) and catcallers with equal aplomb. To me, she was retaking her body from the antiquated tropes of women existing to please men. She was no doubt a pleasing sight to my heterosexual male preferences, but she was also the definer of that sight. In other words, she wasn’t just the star, but the producer and director of her own movie, and the self-confidence she and about a dozen other painted women who were regulars at Fantasy Fest displayed was well beyond anything I’d ever seen.
I studied the photos my pal sent me, and I drilled down into the web, finding her Yahoo! Group and other photographs, but then terror began to set in. How was I, at this point in my life, older and overweight, supposed to find the same inner strength that she had. I try to learn from the photographs of people I see and admire, but with Grace, I began to feel that I’d met my match, and not in a romantic way.
After a few days of sulking, I began to realize that photos of a woman who oozed charm wearing nothing but paint amid thousands of clothed party people was beginning to depress me. This was an untenable response, so I rolled up my sleeves, yes I was still clothed. I’m a big believer that conquering our internal barriers is a necessary first step to demolishing external ones. And in the years immediately before seeing those photos, I’d walled up my insides. After more than a decade of happily showcasing my fit physique in flamboyant clothing, I’d added dozens of pounds and returned to the painfully introverted state of my adolescence where invisibility was preferable to any sort of notoriety. Maybe I’d never walk down Duval Street in Key West, naked but for bodypaint being celebrated for my boldness and the artistry of my painter, but the inner strength to do that felt like a reasonable goal. It would set me toward breaking down those walls. .
I’m also a big believer that I can learn something from everyone I encounter (save for a few knuckleheads of course), so I wrote her a long, adoring email, figuring that hearing her thoughts on how she mustered her enormous self-confidence might put me on the right road, and to my pleasant surprise she responded almost immediately with a long, yes, gracious email answering my questions. She explained that she had often felt ignored as a girl, so in some ways, her boldness was a means of making sure that she wasn’t ignored as an adult. I related to that in a way. I didn’t feel as if I was ignored (except to the degree that it was preferable), but rather than I felt I was valued for my mind as I was an honors student and outstanding chess player, but I was discouraged from seeking comparable success in physical activities. In high school, with most of my graduation and pre-collegiate requirements behind me I signed up for a dance class only to have my guidance counselor tell me “oh no, that’s not for you, your talents lie in Algebra” and he changed my elective from Modern Dance to Pre-Calculus. It was as if you could be brainy or buff, but not both. When I became fit, I felt like it was a celebration of both/and over either/or mentality. I began to admire Grace as an ally in that regard as her writing demonstrated that she was both smart and pretty.
I also read her other writing as her Yahoo! Group contained a blog in which she wrote about etiquette around nude and bodypainted people, clarifying that she was a nudist, not a swinger, and she wrote a long extensive post about her 2004 Fantasy Fest visit. In that post, she dealt in depth with her feelings about being nude in public (it felt natural to her), precautions (after midnight the crowd grows younger and drunker which is a daunting environment for a woman clothed or not), and her feelings about her encounter with a policeman with whom she argued vehemently that nudity should not be criminal.
The focal point of Grace’s Yahoo! Group was the forum, which was about half comprised of posts from men calling her beautiful, but the other half intrigued me. It featured men and women both praising and discussing her life and beauty and parsing changes at Fantasy Fest. I felt right at home.
Grace was beginning to get fitness and bikini modeling gigs, which was unusual for a woman deep into her 30s, but very well deserved. I was happy to cheer her on. Also she dispensed fitness wisdom, which led to several useful dialogues about my new regimen as I was discovering it was not so easy to do what I routinely did in my 30s now that I was well into my 40s. I also noticed that she was beginning to speak of her visits to Fantasy Fest in the past tense, and yes, she didn’t plan on returning. This was disappointing but then came a true shock. She was closing the group. She also asked her members to remove any nudes of her that they had on their blogs or websites (and in a remarkable instance of web courtesy they did. Photographs of her from this phase of her life are very hard to come by on the internet). A week of goodbyes followed then just like that the painted woman vanished from the web. She would later explain in another forum, that her abrupt departure was due to urgent circumstances. She had remarried and she and her new husband were in a contentious custody battle for his kids from a previous marriage. In addition, some of her new prospective modeling employers were not especially tolerant.
I was initially crestfallen, but I began to think about it and I realized that it was the indomitable spirit of Grace, not the prospect of hanging out with her in Key West that inspired me. That spirit would live on in her photos, and I collected a few dozen before her retirement. I studied them closely. I wanted to build the strengths she had. I created an agenda
First off I had to get back in shape. In my late 20s and early 30s, I befriended—and occasionally dated several women who happily strutted the streets of the city wearing only a catsuit or some variation thereof. Their self styled body positivity provided the motivation to get in great shape, which I was eager to do in order to prove that the notion that you could buff or brainy no longer held the slightest sway in my life. And for several years, roughly 1992 to 2002, I did. Catsuits and other lycra garb were staples of my wardrobe, and I loved it. Judging from the responses I continue to get today, some 15 years later, so did my neighbors. Sure, there was the conquest of my inhibitions, but I also wanted to recontextualize the male body. There was nothing predatory or narcissistic on my agenda; instead I was simply submitting my physique and outfit for approval and confidently celebrating success in that regard. I felt that that was what my catsuit pals were doing and what Grace and her FF comrades were doing too.
But getting in shape hit a serious obstacle. Post Great Recession, professional and economic pressures were much tougher. I was no longer so confident of my workload, and I often sat hunched over a keyboard instead of going to the gym and yoga classes. And then just as I was settling the work issue with a full time job in the food biz, injuries struck. The full time job entailed being on my feet 45-55 hours a week or so and without properly supported arches, my lower body descended into a textbook case of cascade injuries: a stiff right knee would lead to a sore left hip, which in turn would lead to an aching right ankle and so on. This lasted three years. I put away my pictures of Grace and those like her. My goals shrank from a peak level of fitness and celebration of physical self confidence to just being able to walk down a flight of steps effortlessly or getting up from a chair without using my arms.
In late 2014, two fortuitous things happened. I left the debilitating job and found a new one with in walking—well, hobbling at first—distance of my apartment and even better it was close to my gym, and two, my writing work skyrocketed suddenly. My income wasn’t stable, but it was stable enough so that I could start rebuilding my physique. Several months of gradual activities built into a yoga routine and occasional bike trips were building into a weekly regimen and spinning classes hovered in the offing. After several months of this regimen, I had lost 20 pounds slipped down two sizes in jeans; the Buddha Belly was down to a mere bump. I was ready for pictures of Grace again. I felt I was on the path toward being self confident rather than self conscious.
I opened my folder of Grace’s photos and perused the contents. I was delighted that I continued to find things to marvel about in the photos. Sometimes it was a detail in the paint job, sometimes it was the charm of Grace’s response to the situation around her, and sometimes it was the situation itself. I was again floored by her poise and cheerfulness; she usually seemed not in the least inhibited by self-consciousness or doubt. I chose two pictures, printed them out and put one of my refrigerator and the other on a pantry cabinet.
The one I put on my fridge was of Grace looking in the mirror after the full body purple paint job. Her left foot is in front of her right and turned out slightly. Her hands are at her side though it looks from her posture as if they’d be on her hips but that would risk smearing the paint. Her eyes are flashing with a rising confidence and a warm smile is just starting to spread across her lips. The moment feels like a magic instance of her boldness solidifying. Yet there is also an underlying streak of toughness, a steeling that any woman heading out among drinking men knows. Grace was keenly aware that she would soon be among thousands of revelers and photographed hundreds if not thousands of times, yet she didn’t seem the least bit daunted. She is also a few hours from being judged in the bodypaint competition where she and the artist who usually painted her, John Neyrot, were the defending champions. She looks ready to defend the title (and in fact, they won again).
Women have a complex relationship with the mirror. It’s their first and most frequent reminder that they are not Beyonce or Jennifer Anniston or whatever, but the flipside is that it’s their reminder that Bey and JA aren’t them. I don’t have any relationship with a mirror; I look at the one in the bathroom when shaving but that’s about it. Like most men, I take solace in the presumed invisibility of being male. It has led to a horrific complacency, and I think it’s a lie. People do see me, they do judge me; the increasingly warm responses I receive as my weight decreases have reinforced this notion. Just because I pretend they don’t doesn’t make it true. I’d far rather be ready for their judgments and pro-actively influencing them. It doesn’t mean I put my full length mirror back on the wall, but it did mean I made it a goal to be distinctive and look at it every day with the same satisfaction that Grace had. I wanted to be as confident in my daily presentation, and I’d like that presentation to rebel against the dull jeans and a shirt conformity. I know that in terms of appearance men play on a much easier side of the bracket, but that doesn’t forgive aesthetic laziness and inattention to detail.
The photograph that I put on the pantry cabinet was of her arguing with that Key West cop. She was painted as a Playboy Bunny and was pulled over one afternoon en route to a party. The cop asked her if she was wearing any clothing and then when she told him it was all paint he threatened to arrest her. She made the point that if he couldn’t tell, then he wasn’t the only one, that a thong wasn’t really going to make much of a difference in her stage of undress, and that we shouldn’t be ashamed of our bodies. Yes, I chose the name Grace for her graciousness, but also because I think this is an example of extreme grace under fire.
Race creates a completely different relationship for me with the police. I was once thrown against a wall by an officer who told me he had me on camera selling drugs an hour ago. I had responded that no, I was in a yoga class; the yoga mat sticking out of my backpack evidently wasn’t persuasive enough. OTOH, individualists always have detractors, I just adore how Grace handled the pressure there, especially since a beam of sunshine is hitting her squarely on the butt, and I don’t know from experience but I’d imagine that feeling sensations in places that you don’t routinely feel them would be a little distracting. In the end, Grace took the thong that her husband was carrying in a bag, donned it until she was out of site of the cop then removed it again.
“Be yourself, no matter what they say,” is one of the hardest adages to live up to on a day to day basis. I thought this was a great example of Grace asserting herself to a level and degree that I needed to learn again. After all, there are figurative police everywhere, and I was assigning them the credence and authority of the ones with guns.
So yes, I have photographs of a naked woman on my walls. I don’t mind if people’s first reaction is that they are there to stoke lust. I’m happy to explain that the photos not there for that purpose (I live in New York City, I see dozens of lust provoking women every time I step outside my apartment; I don’t need pictures to check that box just clean eyeglasses). I like to explain to my visitors that a man can seek to emulate strengths they see in women without being a drag queen. Women like Grace are way more physically self confident than most men, and her example inspires me toward a most worthy goal.