Get My Body Back
Jun 27 ● BY Sammie Downing
Tonight, my girlfriend and I talked about my errands and her day in the studio until suddenly she said, I have to tell you something. Whenever she says, I have to tell you something, my chest shrinks, and it feels as if my lungs have nowhere left to run—it is a primal and caged feeling. I say, should I be worried? Normally, this is her cue to say, no, no, everything’s fine. But instead, she says, you might feel weird.
* * *
The first time I took a nude photo of myself I was 19 years old. I was in my childhood bedroom at my grandmother’s house talking to my best friend when I said, I’m sad because my body will never look like this again and there’s no one here to see it. While I was flippantly making a teenage judgment about bodies and youth with a larger acknowledgement of mortality and the inability to stop time, I was also expressing a palpable loneliness. I hadn’t found anyone I wanted to share my body with and yet I desperately wanted to be seen. I wanted to be held. I wanted someone to embrace me with their gaze. I wanted to hold nothing back. So, I posed in front of the Photobooth app on my ancient MacBook laptop and waited for the three clicks and then the false flash. I’ve kept that photo for 12 years in a private folder on my computer, transferred from device to device.
* * *
My great-grandmother had dementia. In her final years of life, she accused the Mennonites in her rural Nebraskan town of stealing from her. She also paid my family members to lose weight. My mom had a mole on her nose that made her look like a witch and my great-grandmother begged her to slice it off. And she did.
Growing up, various women in my household attended Weight Watchers. Sometimes I would wait in the car and watch the women file in—I loved their little books! They were so organized! Each book felt like a record of life. If only everything in the world could be given a point; if only I could track what was too little and what was too much about every aspect of my life. Around the time we moved in with my grandma and my mom started Weight Watchers, I started secretly making brownie batter during the winter months. I’d store the tub of batter in the piles of snow outside my bedroom window and eat it in secret.
* * *
My girlfriend sits next to me on the bed and takes out her phone. She shows me how she was going through her photo reel in Dropbox in an attempt to organize files for work when she came across a photo of me, from behind, completely naked. She continues scrolling. On her phone are dozens of nude videos and photos of me. Most of them are the same, a picture of my back and butt and legs. But some are not.
It’s not what you think, I say. But I feel like I’ve fallen into an episode of Sex Education, and I desperately want to cut to the next scene or put the TV on mute so I don’t have to witness my own embarrassment. I feel like a hose has been shoved down my throat and water is flushing through me.
* * *
I didn’t start taking nude photos in earnest until I was twenty-five years old, after the boy I’d been seeing for a few years told me he wanted to be with someone else. After our first date, my ex-boyfriend said that something he missed about his ex-girlfriend was that she never finished her food. He meant that he wanted to eat my leftovers. But I had none. The implication was that my appetite was too much, that I ate more. I felt ashamed that I had eaten all my pasta and cherished every bite. This same boyfriend exercised constantly and said, I’m working on my figure.
Exercise was one of the few things we did together. When I was naked, he’d ask me if I was just bloated. He devised workout routines for me. I’d ask for them. I wanted him to like my body. I wanted him to be pleased by my work.
After we broke up, the eating disorder I’d barely kept in check soon transformed into orthorexia. I spent my lunch hours running around the river and I ate only nuts. One night, in unbearable pain, I went to the emergency room where they discovered I was malnourished and anemic and needed infusions. Around this time, I started seeing a therapist for the first time in my adult life. I broke down in panicked tears in her office.
She said, I want you to stand in front of the mirror and name five things you love about yourself. Different things every day.
* * *
I never told anyone about the photos. They are literally my only secret. My closest friends and my little sister know everything about me—they know my biggest shames and my biggest fears. But these photos were private and never intended for anyone else’s gaze—they were taken for me. I try telling my girlfriend this and she says, But they’re so… sexual. And it’s true. Some of them are very sexual. But they’re still for me.
* * *
I have nothing against watching porn—I think it can be healthy if done respectfully and on sites where sex workers are protected and safe. But I do think porn is dangerous when young women, especially young women in heterosexual relationships, watch it with their partners and are not given any other context about sexuality and pleasure. My first introduction to sex was through porn and, more specifically, porn that I watched with my boyfriend. I didn’t understand that what I was watching was fantasy and that a lot of women can’t orgasm through penetrative sex. I didn’t understand that it was okay to admit that fast sex hurt or that none of those things turned me on—I just assumed that if I wasn’t like the women in the videos, something was wrong with me. I believed my labia to be grotesque and too large, my breasts too small, my vagina deficient because I was unable to find satisfaction from repeated pumping. I didn’t even know it was possible for two women to have sex. I knew women could love each other, but I couldn’t imagine how the vision of sex I was presented with on Pornhub could fit into a relationship between two women.
* * *
Even though I grew up in a fairly liberal household, my family didn’t talk about sex, and I was known as the “prude” among my friends. I’d never been very interested in boys. I used to pretend to be asleep when my first boyfriend came to visit my dorm room so I wouldn’t have to kiss him. I didn’t know where to turn. But when I was twenty-five, I bought a used copy of an old book describing the female orgasm. I read it late at night when I thought my roommates were asleep. I lit candles like the book suggested, put on soft music, and tried to touch myself the way the author described—without expectation or need, just for pleasure. I wanted to discover what felt good and what touch I truly desired. I hid the book behind the mattress. When I moved and discovered I’d left it behind, I was so ashamed to even possess this book that, when I came to pick it up, I told my roommate I had borrowed it from a friend.
* * *
I will never be able to properly express the shame I felt watching my private and intimate photos unfold on my partner’s screen.
When I saw them, it definitely scared me a little, she says.
A few years ago, my computer kept crashing so my girlfriend backed up my device in her Dropbox. She dragged my folders into her database. It never occurred to me that Dropbox would take my folders and fold those files into her feed. But there they were, my previously private folders casually absorbed and displayed. We’d both forgotten that had ever happened.
They’re just for me, I keep saying. I took them to have a record.
A record of what? She asks.
Of my body.
And it’s true. My therapist asked me to look in the mirror and name five things I liked about myself. But I didn’t have a mirror that showed my whole body. So, I used the Photobooth on my computer instead. Over the years I’ll occasionally look through the photos and recognize all the rooms I’ve stood within and all the shapes I’ve lived inside.
I have a harder time telling my partner—I took those photos in order to show myself that my body is beautiful at every stage, that even as I change and grow older, I can still love myself. I took those in order to see that I am a body, I am a person, to love.
They weren’t masturbatory photos in that I’m not touching myself in the photos, nor have I ever touched myself while looking at the pictures. And yet, it was through them that I learned to love myself. I learned to accept and cherish my body through documenting its transition.
Aren’t you scared? To have those on your device, in this day and age? she asks.
* * *
Yes, I have sent nudes to old partners. When my ex-boyfriend and I were long distance, I sent him photos of my naked body in the office bathroom. He said he wanted ones that were closer, so I sent a very intimate shot and he said, that’s not what I meant. I was embarrassed and wished I could delete the photo from his thread too. I still think about the fact that he could still have those photos and fantasize about hiring a private detective to break into his computer and destroy the evidence. How much jail time would I get for trying to take my body back?
The first time I heard Julia Jacklin’s song “Body,” this secret shame within me was ripped open and expelled.
I remembered early days
When you took my camera
Turned to me, twenty-three
Naked on your bed
Looking straight at you
Do you still have that photograph?
Would you use it to hurt me?
Well, l guess it’s just my life
And it’s just my body.
In her voice I felt safe and I felt seen.
* * *
It’s okay to send nudes—it’s a normal and healthy way to express our sexuality. But nude photos are the perfect metaphor for the act of engaging in a relationship. You give a person access to your body, your space, and when it’s over, you can’t take those experiences back. Suddenly, experiences of your body, your space, don’t belong to only you. It is a disturbing truth that has been difficult for me to accept.
* * *
We go through her Dropbox and delete the photos. Even though I’m embarrassed and scared by how easy it is to lose control of your digital life, I know I don’t want to delete the photos in my private folder.
These pieces of my body never belonged to another person. They’re a tangible reminder that my body is my own. I look at them when I’m feeling insecure and the eating disorder that will never truly go away threatens to return—I look at them and feel safe and in control. I feel proud to be alive, to be flesh and bone—a person with an appetite. I feel excited to be a person who knows she likes to be touched and how she likes to be touched when she likes to be touched. My nudes remind me that I need not give my body to anyone else in order to exist.