By Sheila Hageman
When my memoir Stripping Down was published, I thought I was done needing to talk about my risqué younger life, which included stripping and nude modeling. I was done needing to write about nudity and body image. I put all that naked nonsense behind me, but I’ve discovered I may have put it too far behind me.
When I was twenty-five and left the adult business, I became an Executive Assistant and a college student. I focused on my mind as opposed to my body. I shut down the part of me that desired pleasure from being promiscuous.
I left nudity and all its danger (and fun) behind me.
I married and became a mother, teacher and writer. I no longer needed external approval to feel loved. But that “other” woman, whom I denied, that girl who got branded as needy and validation-seeking, wasn’t all bad.
In shutting part of me “off,” I lost a connection I had to feeling beautiful. Dancing onstage, under those rosy-hued lights, sometimes did feel empowering.
I look back on photos and realize I was beautiful, but then? I didn’t feel allowed to think that because that would be self-centered. I didn’t have the courage to embrace my own beauty.
Now, at 43 with three children, I have trouble seeing my naked body, but I have a feeling that one day I will look back and wonder why I couldn’t embrace the beauty I have now.
Why must I delay acceptance to some future me?
Why not claim that “beauty” for myself now? Instead of having to wait until an unknown future arrives that might somehow give me permission.
With that in mind, I arranged a photo session with my photographer friend, Keyvon. I then got clear about what I hoped to accomplish with the shoot—to celebrate my beauty, my body and my whole self as I am, not as I wish I were.
Then I wondered if I’d go nude. How would my husband feel? Next, I wondered about my hair and my eyebrows. Is this vain? If the idea is to celebrate myself as I am, why did I feel the need to beautify myself? Why did I feel bad about wanting to look attractive?
There I was, judging myself again already.
After wrestling with whether what I did as an adult entertainer was right or wrong, I decided it was bad, so I turned away from “enjoying” my body. But it’s not just about my body and sex; it’s about freedom, too. I want to celebrate again, but on my terms. I’ll do my best to ignore others’ judgments of me.
The day of the shoot, I feel tense. Questions churn through my mind of why I have made the decision to capture my image in time again. I apply my makeup and tousle my hair. Slipping into a dress to begin, I feel at ease; I’m having fun.
When Keyvon asks if I’m ready to shoot nude, I wonder if he will judge my body. I don’t look the same as when I was a model. But I am in control now. I am doing this for me, not for money.
As the camera clicks, I slide back into my primal zone of feeling free, empowered, but with a nagging questioning in my mind. Is posing nude wrong? I hear my therapist’s voice in my head, Why must everything be boiled down to right or wrong?
What does it mean to be “sexy”? Am I trying too hard? Am I having fun or is this some kind of crazy self-inflicted torture? Why am I so obsessed with nudity, sexuality, empowerment, feminism and how they all connect? Is what I’m doing part of the problem or part of the answer?
“I think I’m done,” I say as the questions crowd out the joy. I dress quickly, noticing the embarrassment of not being good enough creeping in. I know that it’s all about my thoughts, my questions, my pressures. I will not turn this outside myself and make this about anyone or anything else.
I am taking ownership of my conflicted feelings. Keyvon invites me to sit with him as he clicks through the photos. I see myself on the computer screen. I witness hundreds of images of me flash by. I see physical beauty in the “me” that smiles back, but I am looking for something else, something deeper.
I am searching for the answers to my questions. I am trying to understand myself, my desires, my needs and my uncertainties through this photographic, hard copy truth. Evidence spreads across my vision; proof of who I am. I catch glimpses of the Sheila I am hunting for, but she is not found in the photos I search.
The answers are here for me in the looking; I have turned the gaze around. I am the viewer. I do not care what others think. I am the only judge I will listen to. I have the final say now, not men.
Here is where my freedom lies. This is simple, yet so hard to own.
I clutch the CD of photos. My photographic proof of what I look like today. My truth of my willingness to push myself into my questions, my fears. I have some answers; I have some acceptance for myself and my questions.
I have stepped into my own story and accepted that I am my only author.
This post was originally published on Role Reboot. The image was contributed by the author.
About the Author
Sheila is the ultimate survivor and risk taker—she’s a former stripper and nude model who became her college valedictorian, a yoga instructor, a writing teacher, an author, a mother and a Body Image Expert. She lives with her husband, three children, father-in-law and three cats in CT. She teaches writing at University of Bridgeport and Housatonic Community College and squeezes in some acting when she can. Her memoir, Stripping Down, February 2012, from Pink Fish Press, is a meditation on womanhood and body image. Her Decision-Making Guide and Self-Discovery Journal, The Pole Position: Is Stripping for You? (And How to Stay Healthy Doing It), Every Day Create, December 2011, helps women to further value their own identities through their quest to understand their motivations for stripping. She blogs about her stripper past, motherhood, body image and other women’s issues at StrippingDown or you can follow her on Facebook or Twitter. Sheila has appeared on numerous TV shows including Today Show, ABC News, NBC News, and as an expert on Bill Cunningham and Anderson Cooper. She has been featured on Salon, Mamalode, Mom Babble, Say It With A Bang, She Knows and The Huffington Post. She has a novel, Beautiful Something Else, forthcoming 2016 from 48Fourteen.