I took my clothes off in front of a stranger holding a camera.
Most of my life, I'd been shy about nudity, sometimes even when changing clothes in front of other women. If I had to strip all the way down in a locker room, I'd sometimes do it in a bathroom stall instead of amidst the other undressed women. But I suddenly found myself wearing nothing at all, making pouty come-hither looks at a rapidly clicking camera.
It wasn't for money. Rather, I paid the photographer to do it.
I began toying with the idea of having nude pictures taken when my husband Dan left on a six-month tour of duty in the Middle East. The half-year of celibacy looming before us occupied my mind. On his previous two- and three-month deployments, I'd sometimes snapped a few pictures of myself sans clothes, either holding my camera at arm's length or setting it to automatic. The results were usually dark, crude, blurry and always artless.
"These are great," he'd say upon receiving them.
"I don't know," I'd say. "They never turn out how I want them to. They're too seedy-looking."
I'd heard of boudoir photography a few times in the movies and on TV but didn't know how plausible the service was in real life. Out of curiosity, I Googled the term and my current city and received several results. Many of the photographers performed wedding or other family photography in addition to boudoir shots, or "intimates." It was expensive, but manageable, especially with deals coming up for Valentine's Day.
So this is real, I thought. There was nothing standing in my way if I wanted to do it. I knew it could be a terrific valentine for Dan. The idea of being naked in front of someone I didn't know still rattled me, but as I scanned more pictures of smiling and seemingly relaxed women, I realized that this could be fun, too.
I compared prices, browsed artists' online portfolios, and held my breath as I e-mailed my top choice photographer, Elizabeth. She had the biggest portfolio, full of romantic and varied sets, poses and lighting, and her Valentine's Day special included a hair and makeup appointment before the shoot. She replied to me less than twelve hours later, and before I knew it I was booking an appointment with her for after the New Year. The anticipation prompted me to work out more than usual and omit the occasional indulgence of ice cream or popcorn or cherry Danish.
There were, of course, unforeseen costs. Once I decided to do it, I knew I wanted to do it right. I bought a new piece of lacy, lipstick-red lingerie and splurged on a manicure, pedicure and bikini wax the day before the shoot.
The morning of, I woke up with nerves akin to the day of a job interview. I laughed, thinking about the types of jobs that would require an interview process like this. I showered, moisturized and left the house free of makeup and hair treatment, as I'd been instructed. I followed the driving directions to Elizabeth's studio, rang the apartment's bell outside and chewed my lip as I waited.
Elizabeth greeted me and showed me upstairs. She had a cute, short-styled haircut and a warm smile. I supposed she had to be friendly in this line of work, getting clients comfortable enough to take off their clothes and feel sexy. She introduced me to my makeup and hair stylist who painted and curled me while Elizabeth set up her equipment and arranged the furniture.
"Just to let you know, I have a bruise on my leg," I said, lifting my left sweatpants leg to show her. "I slipped on some icy steps the other day."
"No problem," Elizabeth said. "My photo-editing software can edit that right out."
She asked me what type of photos I had in mind.
"You mean, like, poses?" I asked.
"More like the tone and style of your pictures. Would you say you're more into doing hardcore, BDSM-type photos, or soft and sensual?"
"Soft and sensual. Definitely."
I was tempted to ask if clients who chose the former brought their own ball gags, handcuffs and whips, or if she provided them herself. Instead, I asked about her experience with boudoir photography.
"I've been doing it for about three years," she said. "My husband and I are both wedding photographers, and then I branched out to this too. When I started doing boudoir, I'd say about three out of ten people I talked to had heard of it. Now, it's more like eight in ten."
I asked if she ever photographed models. She said that most boudoir photographers train with models, and that she held regular seminars to teach other photographers about the field, paying a model to be present for the training.
"I actually had to hire a model for a client's photo shoot once. The woman wanted pictures of herself with another scantily clad woman—she thought that would be up her husband's alley, so to speak."
"Wow," I replied. "There's a level of dedication I don't think I'd pursue."
The idea behind these photos for me was not to indulge some male fantasy, but to capture my body. Dan hadn't seen my physical form in months and was currently in a place of much emotional turmoil and little sensory stimulation. I just wanted him to see me, and I wanted the view to look good.
When my hair and makeup were finished, I looked in the mirror at the 1950s pinup girl who gazed back. It wasn't me, but I loved it. Impossibly long fake eyelashes, glossy ruby lips, rosy cheeks, and hair curled into a Marilyn Monroe-esque 'do, high up to my jaw. If only I had her bust line to match.
Elizabeth flipped on her CD player, which pumped out upbeat songs to loosen me. I perused her collection of costume jewelry, high heels and accessories as I slipped out of my sweats. I selected a pair of black patent leather heels to go with my first outfit—an unbuttoned white dress shirt, black lacy panties and sunglasses.
"Love it!" Elizabeth said. "I think we'll turn the fan on you to get your hair blowing for more of that ultra-glamour look."
It was January, and I was standing in a large open room with lots of windows and a hardwood floor. Nevertheless, I sucked it up and attempted sexy poses, all the while trying to conceal my chattering teeth, before Elizabeth acquiesced and turned off the fan.
I became comfortable enough to lose the shirt and shades.
"You're good at varying your poses and giving the camera sexy looks," she said, to butter me up, I assumed. "Some women who come in seem so out of place that you wonder if they're even doing it voluntarily."
I hoped everyone chose to participate voluntarily. It seemed too archaic nowadays for a man to coerce a woman into being photographed nude. Perhaps the out-of-place subjects were just unprepared for the reality of this intimate act. Maybe it made them feel vulnerable instead of empowered.
I changed into my new red corset with matching G-string to be photographed on a chaise lounge, windowsill and wooden stool. I had to admit that I was enjoying the experience. The big hair and dramatic makeup helped me to step outside myself. No, I did not have a perfect body. I had cellulite, pale skin even by winter standards, an asymmetrical back and waistline thanks to scoliosis, and plenty of other flaws. But standing there, confident, nearly nude, with a camera capturing my every gesture and facial expression, I wasn't aware of any of them. I felt sinuous. I felt stunning. I felt uninhibited.
"Your husband is going to love these," Elizabeth said.
I smiled. He didn't even know I was doing this yet. I was going to wait until I mailed the pictures so he could be surprised. I knew he was going to enjoy it more than the watch or cycling equipment I'd given him for past Valentine's Days.
Then I started to think how this gift didn't need to be purchased for a significant other. I suspected that I might enjoy these shots also. It was my body, after all, and unlike the many unflattering, nonphotogenic pictures taken of me throughout my life, these would forever document me, at this one point in time, as alluring and uncovered. It was vain, perhaps, but every woman deserves a chance to celebrate her body.
Then it was time for the big show. Elizabeth strategically placed me in positions that would hide my nether region, as I had requested, but showed everything else. She, of course, saw it all. But at that point, I didn't care. As I lay on a fluffy white rug, or wrapped in a transparent sheet, or leaning against the wall, I didn't feel naked. I just felt sexy.
On February 14th, Dan and I connected via video to open our gifts together. The package containing a small photo album and disc with the electronic files had reached him in Kandahar a few days earlier. He assured me he wouldn't open it until our Internet date.
That morning, I saw him on my computer screen. His hair was buzzed short and he wore one of the tan T-shirts that went underneath his desert flight suit. We videoed about twice a week during his deployments, but I still wasn't used to seeing him reduced to a two-dimensional image on my laptop. I was grateful, though, to see him move and talk and smile, to hear his voice.
"You go first," he said, indicating the package I had received the week before. After prying through layers of tape, I freed a silver necklace with a star-shaped pendant and purple stone in the center. I put it on right away so he could see me wear it.
"I bought it from one of the local Afghani jewelry makers," he said. "The vendors sometimes bring their merchandise onto base for us to buy."
I was excited to have a gift from where he was living. "You next," I said.
He was in the room he shared with five others, but each man's small section was separated by a hanging sheet, so we had privacy. I sat on the edge of my desk chair as he pulled at the box flaps. He lifted out the album, the cover of which featured a black-and-white photo of me from the side, nude, kneeling, hand over my breasts.
I could see his eyes widen, hear his breathing deepen from the other side of the world. A smile formed at the corners of his mouth and slowly spread across the width of his face as he flipped open the book to find me, and more of me, and even more.
Title image used with permission of the writer and photographer. Copyright © Elizabeth Craig 2013.