There were women, there were books, and there was a whiff of sex. How a fundraising lark turned into something much more: the birth of the Sexy Lady Bookworms. By Gillian Drummond.
“We didn’t have volunteers, we had disciples,” says Steve McMackin of a project that doesn’t come along too often for photographers: snapping women looking bookish and at the same time sexy.
When the call went out on Facebook for women who love to read, who’d be prepared to strike some come-hither poses, the volume of responses surprised everyone.
Sixty women came forward, some dressed as their favorite literary characters, some as superheroes, many bringing along their favorite books. Steve and three other photographers descended on Bookmans, Antigone Books, Mostly Books and Heroes &Villains comic book store in Tucson for about a dozen photo sessions. The result? The images went on calendars and sets of playing cards, with proceeds to national literacy charity Kids Need to Read. The Mesa-based national non-profit aims to get books in the hands of children by donating them to institutions that lack sufficient funding to buy them.
It all began as a conversation between Steve’s wife, Rachel Garman, a public librarian, and a male friend of hers. He was ripping her about men’s perceptions of librarians, and she shot back with the comment that it’s not (and never was) pencil skirts and buns, that librarians are sexy in different ways.
So he suggested she get some librarians together for a sexy photoshoot. “I said, ‘That’s brilliant!'” In the cold light of the next day, she still thought so.
She cast the net wider than librarians – to women who love to read. The women who came forward ranged from models to feminist bloggers, Star Trek lovers to Superman fans. “My message was ‘You’re not too old, too big. We want women of all colors, all shapes, all sizes.’ As far as I’m concerned, if you’re a smart, intelligent woman you’re sexy and that should be celebrated.”
It was a potentially very challenging situation, says Liora K, one of the photographers. “To work with first-time models, especially if it’s a sexy shoot, it’s an intimate moment, and to have it in a public space, it’s scary. But they really pulled together.” How did she do it? “Jokes.” Adds Rachel: “And there would be a couple of other girls behind them, putting them at ease and encouraging them.
What came out of it wasn’t just playing cards and a calendar. What transpired surprised everyone. There was a feminist coming-together, a surge of empowerment. Ordinarily shy people found that they loved being in the spotlight. Others felt all the more strong about themselves, after reading the comments men posted on the SLB Facebook page. Women involved in the so-called “body positive” movement gave the project a thumbs-up and many got involved (feminist blogger Jes Baker of The Militant Baker was one of them). And lots of friends were made.
“It was life-altering. It gives you power. Bringing out this confidence I think was a huge goal for this entire group,” says Lana Fawn, model, hairstylist and milliner, who took part in and styled some of the shoots.
“I put wigs on some of them, hair extensions, false eyelashes. A lot of the girls had never had a professional photo taken before. You’re talking about people that have a couple of Facebook photos on their phone and that’s it,” adds Lana.
“It was totally a lark,” says Steve. “I don’t think we were thinking of it as a vehicle for positive social change. But it implied a certain attitude about the world that people jumped on.”
Lana says they had to turn models down in the end. The feeling she came away with was entirely positive: that this was a project that was not only a worthy fundraiser, but made women happy, and opened up doors for women who were tinkering with modeling and photography. “There were so many good vibes, and it was all for the good.”
Librarians have never been so celebrated, analyzed and discussed. Google ‘librarian’ and ‘style’ and you’ll find a host of blogs about their wardrobes, and commentary about how librarians can be stylish, kooky and boundary-pushing. Why? “Librarians have changed, the job has changed. The perception is pencil skirts and button down skirts and a bun and glasses. But there’s a lot of librarians that have piercings, tattoos, different-colored hair,” says Rachel, who is already considering a Sexy Gentleman Bookworms project (Lana would like to see a Sexy Artists one too).
The job has indeed changed, says Anne-Marie Russell, executive director at the Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) in Tucson. “The organization of massive amounts of information is perhaps the greatest challenge of our era. Libraries today are much more than musty stacks, they are data centers and community hubs, where we strive to make sense of the complexity of our world. What used to be called a “librarian” is now actually one of the most important positions in a global, digital world,” she says.
“Personally, I’m obsessed with taxonomy and fashion,” adds Ann-Marie. It was seeing Parker Posey in her hipster librarian role in the film Party Girl that did it for her. “Since then it’s been a fabulous cultural trope that has come into its own.”
Anne-Marie is behind a MOCA Tucson talk on the librarian’s wardrobe on March 28th. The speaker is Nicole Pagowsky, Instructional Services Librarian at University of Arizona Libraries. Fitting, since Nicole’s blog, Librarian Wardrobe, documents exactly that.
Her blog’s function is two-fold, says Nicole. It not only shows people that librarians are “normal people”, but it gives them advice, too. “New librarians are a little bit unsure about what’s appropriate to wear to work. Some might wear jeans, some have to wear a suit.”
But don’t get Nicole started on the subject of ‘sexy’ librarians. Of the Sexy Lady Bookworms, a project she says she was asked to take part in but declined, she says: “I know they’re trying to do something positive and raise money, but I don’t think they realize they’re reinforcing a negative stereotype.” The librarian profession is 80% women, says Nicole. “Generally, overall, the majority of people in the profession are opposed to having this sexy stereotype following us around. It objectifies us.”
The participants of Sexy Lady Bookworms would argue the opposite, since several of their members are strong in their feminist positions. One of Liora K’s self-described “passion projects” is a set of feminist-statement images involving women (and sometimes men) with statements scrawled on their skin, among them “Don’t whistle, I’m not a dog” and “My birth control is not your business.”
Liora gets similarly excited about the SLB project. “To me, oppression is when somebody dictates what sexy is. If you’re getting up there and saying ‘The fact that I love to read is what makes me sexy’ then it’s something different,” she says.
For her part, Nicole says she certainly won’t be turning anyone away based on how they dress. She hopes they wear what they want, and if there are pencil skirts and high heels, then all the more reason and opportunity for a good old debate.
* Hear Nicole’s talk at MOCA, March 28, 2013, 5:30 pm-6.30 pm at 265 S. Church Ave., Tucson. Tel: 520 624 5019
* See Liora K’s latest show on feminism and body love, Turns Out I’m Human, at Cafe Passe, 415 N. 4th Avenue, March 9th to April 31st.