Liberation has no age.
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 25 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 mom, 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'll 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 was 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.
I wondered, if I went nude, how would my husband feel? 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 wanted to celebrate again, but on my terms. I'd do my best to ignore others' judgments of me.
The day of the shoot, I felt tense. Questions churned through my mind as to why I made the decision to capture my image in time again. I applied my makeup and tousled my hair. Slipping into a dress to begin, I feel at ease; I was actually having fun!
When Keyvon asked if I was ready to shoot nude, I wondered if he would judge my body. I didn't look the same as when I was a model, but I was in control now. I was doing this for me, not for money.
As the camera clicked, I slid back into my primal zone of feeling free, empowered, but with a nagging questioning in my mind: Is posing nude wrong? I heard 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 said as the questions crowded out the joy. I dressed quickly, noticing the embarrassment of not being good enough creeping in. I knew that it was all about my thoughts, my questions, my pressures. I wouldn't turn this outside myself and make this about anyone or anything else.
I took ownership of my conflicted feelings. Keyvon invited me to sit with him as he clicked through the photo and I saw myself on the computer screen. I witnessed hundreds of images of me flash by. I saw physical beauty in the "me" that smiled back, but I was looking for something else, something deeper.
I was searching for the answers to my questions. I was trying to understand myself, my desires, my needs and my uncertainties through this photographic, hard copy truth.
Evidence spread across my vision — proof of who I am. I caught glimpses of the Sheila I was hunting for, but she wasn't found in the photos I searched.
The answers are here for me in the looking; I turned the gaze around. I'm the viewer. I don't care what others think; I'm the only judge I will listen to. I have the final say now, not men. Here's where my freedom lies. This is simple, yet so hard to own.
I clutched 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've stepped into my own story and accepted that I'm my only author.
This article was originally published at Sammiches and Psych Meds. Reprinted with permission from the author.