My journey to accept my body and disability has not been simple or straight. How does one learn to accept what one cannot change? How does one unfold? When rheumatoid arthritis invaded my life as a child, much of my self-esteem disappeared. My hands are always hidden in old photographs, or I would be purposely standing behind someone else. How did this shy young woman with no body awareness come to be posing nude at a professional photo shoot at age forty-two?
How It Started
One would think sipping espresso vodka while lounging lightly clothed upon plush furniture would be a relaxing experience, but my nerves were jangling. Soon I would disrobe for the camera. I wondered how Jesus, the make-up artist would transform me. I’d never done anything like this before.
If you had asked me 10 years ago, I would have said “hell no!” I agreed to pose nude. What was I thinking? I took another sip, actually, a gulp, and steadied myself as best as I could for the bright lights.
It all started at a Center for Independent Living (CIL) board meeting. CIL assists people with disabilities in Miami, Florida by providing resources otherwise denied to a largely ignored population, and I’ve been doing my part since 2004. But despite the nobility of their cause, I found myself fighting a losing battle to boredom the morning of my decision, when Vanessa of the PR staff presented a fundraising possibility that woke me from my mental slideshows.
Vanessa and I are Capricorns, lived in New York City (she raised there, I went for grad school), love obscure films, read Ann Sexton, have disabilities (hers hidden, mine visible), and were single. In the past, we worked on a gallery fundraising event, and our similarities paved the ground for a fast friendship.
Vanessa is blonde, bouncy, and loves to be the center of attention, especially around men. I shrink in her wake. And this was no different. Her idea that startled me to wakefulness was simple, striking, and some would argue, absurd — she wanted CIL to publish a calendar of nude disabled women.
To help stem the rising tide of skepticism, she passed around gorgeous nude images of able-bodied women from her photographer friend, Stefano. An artist with an eye for the beauty of the female form, he planted in Vanessa’s mind the idea to photograph women with disabilities nude. And I loved this idea.
The board was surprised. The idea of nudity provoked hesitancy, and words like “controversial” and “exploitative” polluted the air. This antediluvian attitude from the board, which consisted of mostly older male members, didn’t startle me. But when Bob, their poster boy, asked, “Shelly, would you be one of the models?” I was surprised, by the idea and my reaction. Without hesitation I voiced a strong affirmative – I didn’t think it through, analyze, or obsess, as usual. I just said, “Sure.”
Later, as I processed this startling development with Vanessa she affirmed, “Really, Shelly, you’ll be great. Definitely, do it.” We joked about the board members’ antiquated thoughts and decided to pursue this, even if we had to go it alone. Excitement brewed. Part of me thought the idea would never develop and I needn’t worry. The other part was thrilled it might actually happen.
When I viewed more of Stefano’s photos I knew I wanted this. He was cool, slick, Italian; but when he spoke of his vision, his motives seemed pure. Sex sells, I thought, but I couldn’t shake the idea that the calendar felt gimmicky and commercial. I had my own ideas of the concept: Grainy black and white photographs showing suggestive nudity displayed on walls.
“We, women with disabilities,” I ranted, “are just not viewed as sexual. Our bodies aren’t displayed in the media, if they even show us at all. It seems as if men don’t think women in wheelchairs can or even want sex.” Stefano found my views refreshing. I am posing nude for the camera! Saying it made it more real.
Eventually, with much persuasion, the CIL Board gave our project the green light. As producers, Vanessa and I expanded our committee, changed photographers, and for the next year worked on turning vision into reality. Through fights, tears, and many meetings over pizza, our impulsive expression during a boring meeting evolved into Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty, a photography exhibit which opened to much acclaim at the Dorsch Gallery in the spring of 2006.
Despite our original concept, the shock of showing disability raw – the nude body – was alienating to the models, and many expressed hesitancy. So Vanessa and I allowed each model to choose from one of three themes: sensuality, empowerment, and/or inspiration; their choice to be nude.
I chose nudity! I was one of three women out of twenty-one who had enough guts (my mom would say “chutzpa”- many Miamians say “cojones”) to pose in the flesh.
Photoshoots Not In The Nude
Reflecting on how I got to the place of saying “yes”, I realized that photography was pivotal in my life. So it made sense that photography could also deepen my body acceptance. As a teen growing up in the late 70’s, I devoured Seventeen magazine and fantasized about a first kiss with Shawn Cassidy. In those magazines, not one model ever looked like me, but I wanted to look like them. So, at nineteen, I asked my father, an amateur photographer, to take some glamour photographs of me.
We went to a park, and at that point, I barely wore make-up. I had never kissed a boy, and despaired over slim prospects. Lukewarm about clothes. I never counted calories, as I was a stick. And while my friends flirted, my visible arthritis made me insecure around boys.
Hiding behind my curls and baggy t-shirts, I barely said two words to boys. I had never even looked in a full-length mirror, and had no sense of my body or self. I didn’t think I was pretty, yet I wanted to be photographed. I wanted “sexy”, but I didn’t know what that meant.
The photos were not what I wanted. They showed me what the rest of the world saw, that which I wasn’t ready to see: fingers bent and small, and surgical scars on my feet, wrists, hips and jaw. When I was fourteen and using a wheelchair, I wasn’t worried about never walking, I obsessed about having curves and growing boobs. So what if I was bionic, I wanted boobs and my period like my younger sister.
But those photos from my first pseudo “photo shoot” accurately reflected the hard truths that my soft body reflects. I don’t even remember what I wore; I lacked fashion sense. My first stab at modeling was a disaster.
Forget his good intentions; never let your dad be your fashion photographer. Fathers can struggle with seeing their daughters as young women; they want to keep their little girl, little. I so wanted to be seen as desirable, but my dad couldn’t see that part of me.
After the shoot with dad, after college and graduate school, I still hadn’t dated. I was definitely a late bloomer, but wondered about my shyness with men.
Here is a poem I wrote in my twenties which illuminates where I was on my journey:
at a green eyed woman
do they know
about her body betrayal
she hears their
her own eyes look
at puffy hands
string bean legs
scars remind hidden flesh
her train wreck childhood
her young body
so eyes close
into ballerina child
gliding, to a sad violin
freeing her pain before betrayal
her eyes long
will men desire her
as a woman
will old/young body
scare them away
unfolding a temptress
who devours man
or a nymph who dances
soon eyes must open
do open eyes see
dares body truth
Second Photo Shoot Not Nude
I felt, no, I knew no man would ever want me because of my arthritis. How could a man ever see beyond a young woman’s arthritis? Although slowly unfolding through therapy, seeing my beauty behind the broken bones eluded me.
Kelly, an old friend who was now an architect and photographer convinced me to pose for her on my thirtieth birthday. By then I was a bit less clueless and a little wiser: I had discovered alcohol, and had overcome my fear of men and lost my virginity. But Kelly still had to convince me to pose. I thought, Why me? I’m not pretty, I’m not a model. Yet secretly I so wanted this.
Kelly’s Miami City Ballet friend joined the shoot. Kelly had me sitting in my blue wheelchair, fully clothed, while a dancer posed in classical positions while using my chair as an accessory for him to straddle with his long, muscular legs. Kelly picked the black one-piece fancy jumpsuit I wore because it accentuated my bust. The edgy photographs were supposed to be a juxtaposition between the able-bodied and the disabled; the lean contrasted with the lumpy, the straight with the skewed.
But after the shoot, I felt no awareness of my body or beauty. I noticed the grainy contrasts and edginess, but I didn’t see me. I still could not see beyond the arthritis. In fact, despite my participation, I was not involved and felt like a prop, not as an empowered woman with a physical challenge. But even though I didn’t know it then, photography was emerging to help me push back my visibility fears.
When I had reached the edge, overlooking forty, I met a man who would be crucial. We ended badly, but he taught me to know myself as a sexual woman. After David, I was less self-conscious, and I started to see and know my body as beautiful. I finally looked in the full-length mirror. I realized that men are not repulsed by me. I saw my shapely bum, green eyes, and bouncy curls – not the scars, gnarled fingers or skinny legs. This, mixed
with a bit of age, a dash of wisdom and occasionally, a shot or two of alcohol, allowed me to say, “Yes, I’ll pose nude!”
People gawked anyway, so why not let them stare at professional photos of me? Inviting people to stare, how liberating!
The Look For The Nude Photo Shoot
As the project gained momentum, I contemplated the meaning of beauty. When do I feel most beautiful and sexy? How would I be photographed? I would not be clueless like I was at nineteen nor controlled as when I was thirty. I liked the shock value of telling people about the photo shoot, especially men.
But as the day approached my apprehension grew, and I relied on my dear friend, co-worker, and stylist extraordinaire, Michael. “You went into the wrong profession, my dear,” I teased, “You’d make more money at this than as a social worker.” As I laughed, he surfed the ‘net religiously for inspiration. One day he cried, “I got it! I see you as an early Janis Joplin in jeans, naked on top with strands of beads covering your breasts. Your green eyes should be smoky like Faith Hill’s!” As he continued to throw his suggestions at me, I splayed photos from magazines on my dining table.
I called it my “alter-ego inspiration altar.” I looked at it daily, adding, subtracting. A collage of wet haired, sexy women in Calvin Klein ads covered my table. Darryl, the photographer, loved an ad I chose of a beauty reclining on a Barcelona chair with a strand of pearls slithering across her bronze chest. He said, “I have a Barcelona bed. Let’s use it.” My nerves returned. I dreamed of Trya Banks, music, scenarios, colors, make-up, and how to be nude.
I realized I felt most sexy in an old pair of stretch Angel jeans that clung at my hips, accentuating my derriere. I wanted a shot in them with a sheer jade wrap I cherished; Darryl had suggested going to a thrift shop where he sent his models for brainstorming.
I wondered, should I be me, or delve into a whole other persona? Should I be someone new? How fun that could be! At the store, gorgeous costumes beckoned: belly dancer, Indian princess, leather-clad hippie chick, but I didn’t try them on. It’s hard to dress and undress without assistance, and I loathe asking for help. Besides, it was best to be me. I intended to display myself as a sexy, beautiful woman who didn’t hide her disability.
So I bought huge antique hoop earrings, beads, and a large black-and-white polka-dotted hat, thinking to hold it suggestively over my breasts, but Michael was firm regarding the two looks: the hippie, barefoot-with-beads covering-breasts pose, and a more sophisticated one using a man’s long, white dress shirt, a strand of pearls, black heels, and nothing underneath. I nervously concurred.
As far back as I can remember I dressed as the hippie girl on Halloween. But I also wanted something new and glamorous, so I said yes to the more sophisticated look. I wanted to go all out and step outside my comfort zone for this once-in-a-lifetime experience.
Before I get to the day of the photo shoot, I remembered another crucial photography turning point. When I was dating David, the man who began to open me up sexually, I was invited to attend the Latin Grammy awards at the American Airlines Arena. It was surreal being on live TV. I went with some friends, dressed to the nines in a long, slinky, black dress, velvet cover-up and gold, shimmery boots. I went commando, David’s
Floating on martinis during the after-party, I stood alone as my friend
searched for appetizers. An attractive European looking man approached me with, “You are glowing.” He handed me his card, said he was a photographer and was doing a series on interesting hands and wanted me in it. At first, I didn’t know what to think, he only wants me because of my unique hands. But I didn’t care; I felt flattered. Nothing came of it and I never called.
Flaunting my sexuality so overtly was new for me. Believing I was beautiful was getting easier but integrating this knowing into my body was still simmering. And I began to wonder, photography keeps showing up, there is a reason.
The morning of the calendar shoot in my apartment, I brewed coffee, prepared bagels, and began to sip espresso vodka. Darryl, the photographer, raved about the natural light. I stared at the Barcelona bed, alone on the red Oriental rug. When I realized it was too low to get up from by myself, I freaked. Because of knee replacements, my knees don’t bend
well and I don’t have strength to lift myself up. I avoid low chairs. I sipped more vodka and fiddled with the stereo. I tried not to stress, as I viewed the strobe lights, green backdrop, camera stands, and leather cases Darryl and his assistant were using to slowly transform my home into a set.
My friend Ann, living with multiple sclerosis, agreed to be photographed first because she was a model and actress in her former life. Ann’s shoot
lasted all morning. And she made it look easy, as if she was as comfortable acting in her new wheelchair as she was on her old legs. I thought, if Ann could do this, then I could, too.
She was nude as Darryl sat her on big pillows, “I love your carpet and I want it in the photograph,” Darryl insisted. Ann acquiesced like a pro; she stretched out, completely nude and floated beyond her wheelchair. I began to shake my head. I could never be totally nude, I whispered. I’m not THAT brave.
After a lunch that I barely ate, Jesus, the make-up artist asked, “Are you ready? You’re up.” My brain bounced, and I was giggly from the early sips of breakfast vodka. Jesus knew I was nervous, and his gentle tone reassured as he transformed my face with false eyelashes, smoky shadow and pink lipstick. My green eyes popped; my brown curls were wild and slightly pinned up, the way I like them. I felt relieved: I was having a good hair day.
Just Look Natural For the Camera
And that brings out my inner poet.
“Just look natural for the camera-
she stares in the mirror and does not recognize herself.
Everyone is watching her; she is a real model, beautiful,
yes, breathe, beauty overwhelms her disability, wow,
move this way, that way, the light is better through the door…
Just look natural for the camera-
she poses in tight jeans and a see-through green wrap.
As the music, alcohol fuzz her brain, she begins
to trust the photographer and see only him. She disrobes and for
the first time she considers using ice to make her nipples hard.”
Smiling While Nude
Darryl laughed at my ice comment, but he agreed. Jesus brought ice. Where does one look, focus? I tried to relax and think sexy thoughts, but how do you make love to a camera when the bright lights, heat, and stares overwhelm? I was glad I wasn’t in-between boyfriends and although Rocky lived in Phoenix, he called often, easing my anxiety. Honestly, it still felt important to have validation by a man who saw me as beautiful.
I stood wearing the green sheer wrap and jeans between two French doors. I held the handles and straddled the doors, feeling awkward and unsure. I had an audience, not just the camera’s clicking, but, as the shoot progressed, I forgot them. Darryl and I laughed about my tush obsession. He knew I wanted my best asset featured. “Relax, beautiful. You’re doing great,” he said as he clicked. “Just look right at me,” coached
Darryl. And that’s what I did.
The afternoon blurred. My jeans were discarded then the underwear. Did my underwear really just come off? I was only half-aware of my nakedness. The alcohol fuzzed my senses while the Hair soundtrack blasted my concerns. When Jesus placed my sheer gold scarf on top of me as I lay on the bed, I was totally nude. This was uncomfortable and so hard to turn on my stomach, but Jesus was helping. He was so nice and this was what I
wanted, so I couldn’t back out now.
We shot through the afternoon. My up-and-down energy increased toward the end, as I remembered the wet-haired look I found sexy, strands of hair half-covering my eyes. Hair (and alcohol) blurred my eyes, but Darryl kept the camera in constant focus. I trusted him and did whatever he asked. Reflecting the next day, I realized he wasn’t looking at me as a sexual object; he was visualizing an artistic work-in-progress. I was the vehicle for his creation. For him, my nudity did not represent in-your-face, something- must-be-done sexuality; it was a means to express my original beauty.
Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty
Two months later, Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty premiered at the Dorsch Gallery. Over 500 attended the fundraising cocktail party. I found myself in the midst of the crowd that stood in front of the billboard sized photographs of me. The guests standing next to me didn’t know it was me, and actually, neither did I. Who was that pretty woman up there? A few people inquired if that photo was me; I smiled, standing taller, “Yes, that is me.” Watching people viewing the photos to linger on my two and listening to their expressions felt surreal. I felt like the fly on the wall with a twist, I was so visible, yet hidden. “Look at her exquisite jade eyes; they follow you around like the Mona Lisa,” “I love the grainy black and white Rubenesque nude,” were comments I heard.
And I reveled and owned my beauty for the first time in my life. I often wondered if men stared at me because of my arthritis or because I was pretty. What I saw on those photos began to take precedence over what others saw. I was uncovering and owning the truth of my beauty.
Being Nude. Being Me. Being Free.
Today, because of this experience I am in a different place. I’m not the clueless girl of nineteen or unwise, controlled young woman of thirty. The experience of posing nude at forty-two altered me, as did all my photography journeys. I look through a new lens now. I see myself with clearer vision. I no longer hide my hands in photos. I now see a beautiful, confident, radiant woman of forty-six who happens to have skinny legs, scars and small, bent fingers, but who also has a kick-ass ass.
Sometimes I feel low and lose my center; arthritis is a pain. But then I stare at those professional photographs hanging on my walls as witness to my beauty truth and scream, “Yes, nudity at fifty here I come!”
Give us your thoughts. Would you pose nude?
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Shelly Baer, LCSW is director of Leadership Training Initiatives at the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine’s Mailman Center for Child Development. At three, Shelly was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis. She is the founder/co-director of the Bold Beauty Project, a photography exhibit that showcases the beauty, sensuality and empowerment of disabled women. You can find Shelly at www.boldbeautyproject.com.