We had allotted 15 seconds to get the shot. Any longer than that, and we’d probably get arrested.
It was a cold March day in Brooklyn; the snow had finally melted earlier that week during a few tantalizing days of false spring, but now the wind chill had driven the temperature well below freezing.
Denise Jolly, a body-positive activist and a 6-foot tall, 300-pound woman, was about to take off her dress and pose fully nude on the streets of Brooklyn.
And it was our job to capture her on film.
Shameless Photography is a business with a mission to help women access the kinds of beauty usually reserved for models and movie stars. I have the wonderful fortune to collaborate with two phenomenal photographers –- Carey Lynne and Maxine Nienow. Every day we roll up our sleeves redefining traditional beauty standards by welcoming women of all colors, ages, sizes, shapes, gender identities and abilities, and inviting each of them to create a new standard of beauty with us. Our shoot with Denise had been in the works for months -– ever since a conversation we’d had over beers and curly fries at Sparky’s, an all-night diner in the Castro.
“I’ve been thinking about doing a nude shoot,” Denise said.
Denise is the kind of person you only meet a few times in your life -- someone who radiates joy and possibility, who has found a way to not just live her own truth but to share that truth and use it to transform the world around her. Her Be Beautiful project had chronicled a 30-day photo project to celebrate the parts of her body that she most reviled. Denise shared our fundamental mission: to help people cast off shame and fully embrace the beauty of their bodies.
Personally, I'm obsessed with beauty. I’m fascinated by how we decide what's beautiful, and how those understandings slowly change over time -- or are radicalized in a single moment. How did we get from the Venus of Willendorf to the Birth of Venus to Marilyn Monroe to Angelina Jolie? We’ve valued completely different kinds of beauty over time, and as women, we've nearly destroyed ourselves in our attempts to chase these shifting ideals, whether through eating disorders, toxins to alter the color and texture of our hair, or surgery to change everything from our breasts to our noses to our labia.
Like so many of us, I spent my adolescence painfully comparing myself to models and movie stars.
I was fascinated by what made them beautiful: I even measured their faces and bodies to try to find that magic formula for beauty. That was how I concluded, mathematical evidence in-hand, that I wasn’t and would never be beautiful. Anybody who said otherwise was probably trying to butter me up (those boys at school), or was simply deluded by their emotional attachments to me (my mother). I began to slide into what are now well-worn ruts of self-loathing, despising myself for my cellulite, my frizzy hair and the stubborn cystic acne that started at 14 and got worse and worse. The only compliments I could swallow were the scathing ones -– the college roommate who told me I had such a cute figure that she wanted to kill me, my sweetheart’s ex who wrote on her blog about my pretty eyes and how she wanted to tear them out.
It wasn’t until I became a photographer that I came to truly understand how arbitrary beauty standards are -– because I realized that with my craft, I could actually help to create new standards from scratch. These days, when I look at images of models, I see the hours of preparation, product, lighting and Photoshop. I know these images are fantasies that were fashioned by creative people like me and funded by companies who benefit from aligning these fantasies with their products.
Here’s a little secret: Anyone can be a model. You can be a model, too. Yes, you. We, all of us, decide who’s beautiful. We decide who to revere, who to raise up on a pedestal, who to lavish with admiration and desire. What if we decide that anyone can step up there and strut her stuff, be admired for exactly who she is?
Which brings me back to that icy day in Brooklyn. We were in a remote part of DUMBO, where the crowds dwindle and the brutal wind comes straight off the ocean. It took over four hours to scope out the perfect location for the shoot, and by that time my fingers were a curious shade of lavender, and I was holding my Nikon under my shirt like a beloved pet so that none of its delicate parts would freeze up. Carey, Denise and I were prepared to get arrested if necessary, and all our lawerly friends were on high alert.
Maxine, however, had just recently received her coveted artist’s green card, and -– while she was completely fearless -– the rest of us wanted to avoid anything that would make homeland security look twice at her.
We decided we would take a page from the spy handbook and each walk to the shoot location separately. All our plotting and preparation would take place at a safe distance, two blocks from the site. The four of us were giddy and wide-eyed with anticipation as we practiced the angle and the pose, then ran over our game plan one last time.
“How are you doing?” I asked Denise.
“I’m terrified,” she said. “But I’m ready.”
I’ll never forget the moment she lifted her dress over her head and stared the camera down, her body proud and her chin lifted high.
She was glorious. She was defiant. She stepped onto the pedestal and lit up as bright as any Venus. She stood tall and brazen in the frigid cold and posed her heart out for a perfect 15 seconds.
Then, before any passersby had a chance to round the corner, we grabbed our things and hurried off in opposite directions, as if nothing had happened. When we reunited a few minutes later, we laughed and hugged and twirled.
When we looked at the images we’d captured, we photographers yelped with delight. Denise’s reaction was quieter: she uttered one subdued “wow,” then silently appraised her own image.
Seeing yourself naked in broad daylight is new and difficult for most of us, even badass body-positive activists. And contemplating sharing that with the world would be terrifying for anyone. The fact that Denise was willing to go public with this image is an act of hardcore bravery –- and a gift to all of us.
Denise has convinced me of something: Our bodies are a miracle.
Think of it: Your body has survived so much. Your body grew from a few cells into everything that you are now. Your body is millions of fibers and nerves that come together to make an arm, a leg, a heart. Your body is the workhorse organs laboring thanklessly even as you sleep. Your body is the shapeshifting contractions that bring laughter, pain, ecstasy. Your body is beautiful -- because your existence is beautiful.
It's up to us. We, all of us, decide what beauty is. And it’s a gift we can give to each other. I challenge you to start today. Start by acknowledging the beauty you see in others: the amber flecks in your mother’s brown eyes, your best friend’s graceful stride, your sister’s adorable thinking expression. You might be surprised at just how much you see.