I Broke My Nudity Rules to Let Someone Photograph My Vulva

I don’t get naked with or near people I don’t trust, unless I’m in basic training. And I never, ever let anyone photograph me naked. Until this week.

Jun 20, 2012 at 1:04pm | Leave a comment

(Disclaimer: If you know me in real life, you might not want to read this article. There will be a degree of TMI/ potential over- disclosure that may make you uncomfortable. Folks that see me on a regular basis won’t be very surprised, but if we’re related, well, you might want to skip this one. Your call!) 

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PROOF: I am generally photographed with my clothes on.

I’m not exactly a naturally modest person.

I went through military basic training, where swapping out under a shower-head with four other women was just how things were done. I change efficiently but without any shame or scurrying in gym locker rooms. I don’t spend too much time focused on how I look under my clothes, most days.

I have the bits that I worry over -- the deep, permanent indentations left by my shots in some areas (it’s called lipoatrophy, and it’s caused by my Copaxone), and I have a scar on my right thigh that I try not to show, but other than that I don’t think about it much. It’s my body: It’s how I get around. 

It took me a long time to get the point where I felt that way with my clothes on, but weirdly enough, once I’m naked I never really have any worries. It’s all about context, I think. If I’m naked in a room with someone else I’m generally in one of these several stress-free situations: 

  • We are about to have sex, so obviously, you’re into me. Nothing to worry about, then.
  • You’re my doctor, so this is all science. Nothing to worry about, then.
  • You’re here to wax me: you’ve seen this all before. Nothing to worry about, then.
  • We’re engaging in/ have engaged in some sort of sports- like activity and we are in the changing rooms. You may be busy worrying about me judging you. I am not judging you. Nothing to worry about, then. 
  • We are close enough friends that I feel cool changing in a hurry to get ready for A Thing in front of you. If we’re that close (say it with me now, everyone) nothing to worry about, then. 

I have a two rules about nudity. The first rule is that I don’t get naked with or near people I don’t trust, unless I’m in basic training (no real choice there).

The second rule is that I never, ever let anyone photograph me naked. 

Until this week.

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The only esthetician I know who can make you look forward to a brazilian bikini waxing appointment. See? I TOLD YOU THERE WOULD BE OVERSHARING.

Meet Shannon Reilly. 

Shannon is amazing. She owns Charm City Skin here in Baltimore. I lucked into finding her about a year ago based on Yelp recommendations, and I’ve never gone anywhere else since.

In January, she told me she was thinking about putting together a book that dealt with how women view their labia. Shannon sees women from the waist down every day as a part of her work, and she wanted to talk about how comfortable that constant exposure to the diversity of female genitalia made her feel with her own body in a public forum; more, she wanted to take that experience and try to bring to to other women.

She and I talked about how many women expressed self-consciousness or insecurity when she worked on them, and how little exposure most women have to each other’s genitals -- who really has any concept of what “normal” labia look like? So when Shannon told me she was beginning to put together a collection of stories, essays, and photographs that dealt with labia awareness and acceptance, well, I started to reconsider Rule #2. 

I have abided by Rule #2 for all 35 years of my life. I’m sure there are naked baby pictures of me somewhere, but I don’t consider those a breach of the rule: Rule #2 only counts from puberty and beyond. There are no topless photos, no coy side-boob shots, no Glamour Shots boudoir sessions, not so much as a nip-slip.

I have lived Rule #2, because THE INTERNET IS FOREVER, people. Even before the Internet, I was smart enough to know that if there was a photo, there was the possibility of that photo getting lost, or stolen or passed around by a pissed-off ex. 

So, Rule #2 has always struck me as pretty prudent. I let it go anyway.

It comes down to this: Until I began to sleep with women, I didn’t have any real idea what we looked like between our legs. I’d done the whole 1970s, consciousness-raising peering-at-myself-with-a-hand-mirror thing at about 12, but that isn’t as accurate as you’d think, and it’ll give you an awful pain in your neck.

Being intimate with other women’s bodies -- in a far different way than what Shannon is talking about in her daily work, but again, that objective proximity to the female form -- those experiences made me realize that there is no normal. There isn’t a normal for breast size, no standard issue nipple, no general guidelines for labia shape or even how a woman keeps her pubic hair. 

That’s liberating as hell: There’s no prescribed format. 

There are about a million images, ads, magazines, articles, TV shows and pop songs that are dedicated to changing my mind on this subject, but I’ve been there. There’s a vast amount of diversity between our bodies -- even bodies that look relatively similar when clothed -- and there’s something wonderful about that. I’ve been to the promised land, so to speak, and I can tell you, it’s pretty damned sweet. 

The shoot itself was a breeze. I met up with Shannon, undressed from the waist down, and climbed on a low table. Shannon took a photograph of my number; all the models are given a number to keep us anonymous. Then she climbed onto a stool leaned above me, and zoomed in on my groin.

She gave me four positions: legs straight out, left leg drawn in, right leg drawn in, both legs drawn in. I found myself mainly concerned with composition; as I drew my feet up, I was careful not to draw my heels too far up; don’t wreck the shot by putting your feet by your business, I thought. That was it. 

After I was dressed, she showed me the photos, and the first thing I thought was such a surprise: I look so small, I thought. I look delicate. Pretty. I didn’t expect that. I didn’t expect to think that at all, or to see that, either. I don’t think of my sexuality in those terms; I think of my sexuality in words like fluid, strength, athletic, not delicate or pretty.

There it was, though: me. Small. Delicate. I had the strangest moment of mental double-take where for the first time I wondered what I looked like to the people I had slept with, and then realized: Oh, well, of course. This. 

Driving home with my husband, I said, “I let someone take pictures of my junk.” 

“Well,” he told me, “that’s what we came here for, right?” 

“Yeah, but I let someone take pictures of my junk, sweets.”  

“Right. Regret it? Feel any different?”

I didn’t, though. I was surprised that I’d done it, and surprised that it had been such a small thing, in the end. I’m usually pretty serious about my rules, but I believe in this. I like this idea, I like that I’ll be a part of it (I’ll be writing an essay for the book, too), and I like that I broke my rule for this project. The book is tentatively titled “Ladyscapes,” it should come out by spring of 2013, and you can contact Shannon Reilly to learn more -- or to volunteer an essay, or volunteer as a model, by contacting her at charmcityskin@gmail.com.