When this journalist decided to undress in the name of feminism, it became a story of power, love and a fair amount of Prosecco. By Gillian Drummond
The invitation came via Facebook one evening: Would I join 100 or so other women to pose topless in black underwear?
I didn’t need much persuasion – only the names attached to the event. These were Jes M Baker and Liora K, body positive blogger and photographer respectively, and together a pair that is giving feminism, sizeism and girl power an almighty kick up the backside. Their mission: the second annual ‘Expose’ photo shoot, one that would be shared with the world via social media. Last year they gathered a crowd of women in white undies for a shoot to celebrate all body sizes. This year the undies would be black.
Jes and Liora fascinated me, with their feminist derring-do, their creativity, their following, and their media presence. (One entry from Jes on her blog, The Militant Baker, can lead to a Huffington Post or CNN headline; a post on her Facebook page can get tens of thousands of likes.)
I had been following this pair’s work for some time, and reporting some of it in 3 Story. Jes’s Smash The Scale project encouraged women to start off their New Year doing just that. In Lustworthy, Liora photographed a series of mock perfume ads showing the plus-sized Jes posing seductively with a hunky and regular-sized male model.
And then there was the set of photos that first gained them worldwide media attention: Attractive & Fat, a great big public poke at Abercrombie & Fitch and sizeist comments made by its CEO Mike Jeffries. They featured Jes and another regular-sized male model publicly challenging the assertion that attractive and fat are incompatible, with Liora once more behind the lens.
So anyway, back to that evening. What was I thinking when I clicked ‘Join’ on the Facebook event? Two things: 1. that this would be a great story; and 2. my journo’s appetite aside, that it was time for me to support Jes and Liora’s efforts as well as writing about them.
I shared the flyer on my own Facebook page with the words, ‘Tucson gal pals, I feel we must… Whaddaya think?” Then a funny thing happened: nothing. Not one like, nor comment, nor share. Certainly no commitments to get almost-naked and join me. My Facebook world went eerily quiet.
No matter. By then I was all in. I told my husband and kids. Hubby was cool with it and called me brave. The seven-year-old just giggled: “You’re doing what?” The teen got straight to the point: “Mom, you can’t. Your boobs hang down to your waist.” And that, right there, was incentive enough.
Still, the reality was now setting in. Here’s what went through my mind: Thought #1: It’s only two weeks away. Oh shit, that doesn’t give me much time to lose weight. Thought #2: You silly cow, Gillian, the whole point is you don’t have to look perfect. It’s a love-your-body event. Thought #3: Help! I don’t love my body. I really don’t. Wtf have I done?
I am Scottish. I was raised Presbyterian. We liked our clothes, and our modesty. I was a chubby kid, and weight issues followed me into adulthood. So for me to get naked, do it in public, and actually celebrate it, was a big ask.
Apparently I wasn’t the only one thinking that way. My Facebook post remained untouched and ignored – no likes, no comments. It was a digital tumbleweed moment. And then I was having cocktails with a business acquaintance and new pal and happened to mention my forthcoming stripping-off. “I’m in,’ said C. “I’ll do it with you.” Cue Thought #4: I am only just becoming friendly with this woman, and yet on Sunday we will disrobe together.
I determined that alcohol would help. An hour before the shoot, C and I opened a bottle of Prosecco. We got to Tucson’s Maker House feeling buzzed, and the party was starting – the bar busy, the room hot and noisy and excited. We downed another two glasses of bubbly. And then we ordered a bottle.
Liora explained that with so many people and not a lot of time, she’d be whizzing through the portraits. When it came to our turn to pose, we should tell her straight away whether we planned to remain anonymous and not show our faces, she said. C and I had already agreed to remain anonymous. We figured that showing our boobs and bodies was one thing, but we weren’t ready to be identified to the world.
Jes gave us all a pep talk, reiterating that this was a positive space. We shouldn’t be down on ourselves, and we should be only upbeat in our comments about our bodies. It was also a safe place. (For that reason I was banned from interviewing anyone for this article, or from publishing anyone’s photos – scroll down for the links to those.) And with that, Liora and Jes whipped off their tank tops and encouraged us to do the same.
I tell my daughter all the time: “People come in all shapes and sizes.” And I wish she had been there to witness how true this statement was that summer afternoon in Tucson. There were big boobs, little boobs, hardly any boobs, pregnant boobs. Pregnant bellies, Caesarean scars, other scars. Briefs, thongs, boy shorts, high-waisted Spanx affairs, and some undies removed altogether. There was a ton of ink – to the point where my tattoo-less body felt almost rebellious.
As each woman took her turn to pose, Liora gave a few suggestions: stand sideways, turn around and show your bum, stick it in the air, ruffle your hair, make like you’re a body builder with strong arms. I was in awe of the women who strode up there all ready to roll – grinning, posing, provocative, strong. It helped that the crowd cheered and whooped. Then again, that in itself was nerve-wracking. I had imagined that Liora would shoot in a corner of the room, out of sight of the others. But the photography took part on a makeshift stage front and center of the room, with everyone’s eyes on the subjects. C and I looked at each other, panicked. “What do we do up there?” I kept asking her. And we drank some more, putting off our turn.
Then, at some juncture, Liora turned around and nobody was lining up to pose. The initial rush had died down. ‘Who’s next?” she shouted. I grabbed C’s hand and led us both up there. The next 30 seconds (because that was all it took) was a blur of laughs, grins, a few hasty, silly poses and – crucially – a great wave of cheers and applause from the crowd as the two of us posed together.
It was a high all in its own category. But there was a problem: not one of our poses was anonymous. In the heat of the moment, we hadn’t told Liora to obscure our faces. “You realize we didn’t…” I started to say to C. She nodded and said, “It’s OK.” And it was. Standing up there, we’d both realized that there was no point in doing all of this and not showing our faces.
The few hours I spent there were electric and empowering and funny and sincere and loving and sore and very, very emotional. One woman had brought along her infant. I held him to me, skin on skin, for the longest time. I realized how much I missed breast-feeding, smelling and loving on my babies and their nakedness against mine all these years ago.
We women admired each other’s underwear and hair. We oohed over tattoos. We laughed a lot. Some wept. The cheers were deafening as Jes led one or two who were shaking with fear and tears, and posed alongside them. As Liora said afterwards: “It’s really intense, like very very raw inside out type stuff.”
It also felt subversive, conspiratorial. Out on the street afterwards, fully clothed again, we strangers were smiling at each other knowingly. We were bonded, like a female Fight Club. Except without the violence, only love. What Jes calls body love.
But wait, there is a Post Script to this. As Liora emailed us our photos for a sneak peek, we returned to that same Facebook page – a closed, private group, only open to those who took part – to share our feelings. Tears surfaced again for some as they shared their picture with the rest of the group. Yes, there were tales of feeling bold, newly confident, liberated, loved. But there were many stories of anxiety and self-doubt. One woman regretted having done the shoot. A couple of them said they hated the end result, but were glad to have had the experience. Even the mighty Jes Baker, who has had images of her flesh published worldwide, admitted to a moment of pause when it came to sharing her own naked photo – one of her most candid to date.
Me? I like my photos, and force myself not to pick them apart or dwell on the cellulite. I’m proud I took part, and I feel I’m walking taller as a result. But I’m nervous about the world’s media seeing my exposed body on Jes’s blog and beyond. Tellingly, I haven’t told my parents I did it.
And the experience took its toll. I was exhausted, emotionally spent. I also comfort-ate carbs and sugar for days afterwards. Still burying stuff. Still, truth be told, uncomfortable with baring all.
But there will be a next time. I’m already thinking about my next pose.
* In the mood for some more body love? Read photographer Jade Beall’s Mother’s Day letter to herself: “It’s glorious feeling comfortable in my skin.”