by Lex Voytek
I posed nude for the first time just after my eighteenth birthday. I never had delusions that I would be a professional model. But I struggled with my body as a teenager—as so many teenage girls do, and I had seen beautiful photos of local girls who had shot with this particular photographer.
I was shot with soft light and simple black backgrounds. The photos came out nice. In fact, I suffered most of my teen years with various eating disorders, but these photos made me like the way I looked: healthy, lean, and comfortable in yoga-like poses.
I was also lucky—the photographer never touched me or even verbally made me uncomfortable. I wasn’t paid, but I felt that for a first-time amateur nude photo shoot held in some stranger’s home, I had probably dodged a bullet.
After the shoot, I began to hear a lot of snide remarks: “I hope you don’t ever want to get into politics,” or “You’ll never be the president with that skeleton in your closet.” Having grown up watching what sexual deviancy does to women in the eyes of society, I wasn’t wholly surprised by these reactions, even though I thought the photos were artistic, rather than sexual, in nature.
Still, my vulnerable body was on display and immortalized in a photo. There could be no denying that I had posed nude. And having grown up with Monica Lewinsky demonized—almost more than the president with whom she participated in a sex scandal—and countless female celebrities shamed for leaked nude photos, I knew that I wouldn’t be running for any political office any day soon. I was also only eighteen, so I had no big plans to be the future governor.
So, I embraced this level of rebellious body autonomy and booked more nude shoots. For more than a year, I had the opportunity to become comfortable with how I looked and see myself as a focal point of art and choice. I felt empowered by my courage to do with my body what I wanted. Not that posing nude is the only way to feel empowered, but for some reason this route worked for me. Meanwhile, I kept hearing about my reputation and how it was risky to do what I was doing. I could lose job opportunities, respect from the community, and I could even lose family members.
I was nineteen when I booked the last photo shoot I would participate in for years, and even when I finally did get in front of the camera again years later, it was only with a lover I deeply trusted. This last photo shoot was one where I posed as a strung-out looking Cheshire Cat for a coffee table book about Alice in Wonderland and other children’s stories gone dark. All I wore in the shoot was body paint.
The photo shoot went well, and I was actually very pleased with the overall product and collaboration of all the artists involved, from the photographer to the makeup artists to the other models. After several days of shooting, when we called it a wrap we all went to the caterer’s house to celebrate.
One of the girls offered me a ride home later so I let myself get comfortable at the party. I was only nineteen, but I remember accepting a couple of glasses of wine to celebrate. It was getting late, and I needed to get home, so I looked for the girl who offered me a ride. I couldn’t find her. The photographer noticed that I was looking for my ride and told me that he had sent her home because he had to drive up near my house and would drive me instead.
I asked if it would be okay to leave right then, and he agreed. I had put my purse in one of the back rooms for safe keeping, and I went to collect it. The photographer followed me as I retrieved my belongings.
He followed me into the room and closed the door behind him. My heart sank as I heard the latch click. As he moved closer to me and tried to put his hands on me I tried to reason with him: “I know you’ve already seen me naked, but . . .”
He was not convinced, and even told me that only a certain kind of girl gets into amateur photography, especially the kind where nudity is involved. He mentioned that this was a very normal part of the deal. I kept pleading, telling him I had a boyfriend—which I did, but I always hated using that as a bargaining chip to dissuade aggressive men from advancing on me.
He should have just taken my word that I didn’t want his advances.
His response: He had a wife. It felt hopeless and without letting him, but without kicking him in the nuts and trying to run for my life, he overpowered me and got his way. After, he even drove me home.
I didn’t model again for a long time, and my body dysmorphia gripped me again. This time I thought there had to be something wrong with me to have allowed for something like this to happen. I threw up my meals for months, if not years, after, because I thought anything entering my body could harm me.
His reputation was never affected from what I could see and no one really took my story seriously, given that I had already had a reputation for posing nude all over town.
For years I was afraid of my reputation, wondering when an old photo might pop up and what professional opportunity or friend or potential lover I might lose if they saw these photos. I was also afraid that my reputation would put me in more physical danger with men that assumed I was an easy target because I was willing to expose myself.
As the years went on, I became more resentful of this fear of my past. I had been assaulted by a photographer. I had not participated in a scandal. I had made art—and even if I had made porn, it was my body. I didn’t hurt anyone with my choices.
The years continued to solidify my resentment as I watched the First Lady shamed for her nudes. She was admonished as much (possibly more in some circles) than the president’s “locker-room talk”—grabbing women by the pussy—much like the photographer had done to me.
These actions actually do hurt people.
I had been punished for posing nude, as many women are. My brief moment of “empowerment” and acceptance of my naked body quickly turned to a worsening of my eating disorder. I threw up nearly every meal the year before, because I was afraid that not only food would make me fat and ugly, but I was also afraid of anything entering my body. I felt like food would poison me, or even like it was violating me.
I was punished as I watched other amateur models take on big professional gigs, and I thought I could have been so lucky if I hadn’t ‘given up the goods’ by posing nude the first time. I heard the make-believe voices of other people telling me that if I want to protect myself from the animals out there, I should respect myself more and stop presenting myself like a piece of meat.
Mostly I was punished because I was caught in a spot where I believed, perhaps by conditioning and mainstream media, that the only road to empowerment was to be sexy, beautiful. And when my body was taken from me temporarily that evening, I felt I had failed. I felt like the pressure to be sexy and beautiful was a scam and I walked right into it.
But no one told the photographer that he would be ruined for shooting nude photography, and worse yet, taking advantage of young women. I bet he believes he could be president someday if he really wanted it.
And even still, in 2017 I hear the words haunting me: “Hope you’re not planning on getting into politics” or “You know you’ll likely be limiting yourself because of your choice to pose nude.”
Lex Voytex is a restless wanderer, and writing—and sometimes a good whisky—can remedy the inner chaos. She teaches English to Chinese students and tutors in math to appear well rounded.