Donna George Storey

Beauty in the Eye

My first foray into public erotic expression was not a story at all.  Yet when I walked into the photography studio in Los Altos, California carrying a bag of lingerie, I felt just as tingly as I do when I’m writing a scene that passes my own wet test.  Ever since I’d seen my college roommate’s boudoir photos at her baby shower a few weeks before, I’d been planning for my own sexy photo session.  I was hoping to get pregnant soon myself.  That would mean bye-bye forever to smooth skin, a slim body, and any claim to be worthy of the camera’s attention.

My roommate’s photo album was gorgeous, but she’d mentioned feeling uncomfortable with a few of the Playboy-style shots her male photographer requested.   I decided then I wanted the more empathetic eye of a woman behind the camera.  I found a wedding photographer in the phone book who also listed “boudoir” in her ad and arranged for a consultation.  I was impressed by her arty portfolio and a feature in a local newspaper in which satisfied customers attested that the boudoir session made them feel beautiful, not to mention their husbands adored the results.

My own husband happened to be thousands of miles away working on emergency assignment in Tokyo for three months, which made it easy to schedule a secret session, although it also meant a very lonely summer.  I couldn’t join him because I was finishing up my dissertation. Always dependent on external approval, a Ph.D. seemed inarguable proof that I was “smart,” although to be honest I still wasn’t convinced.   After a year of intense focus on my dissertation, all I felt was numb.

The boudoir session was the perfect tonic.  The shopping alone made me feel excited, alive, and very much in the body I’d basically ignored as I labored over successive drafts of my chapters.  Suddenly I had a new desire, a goal I hadn’t let myself consider before. I’d always been “the intellectual one.”  What if I could be sexy as well, at least for a few hours?


On that warm August evening, we started off the session with me in a black body suit and thigh-high stockings against white satin.  Next came a series in the peignoir I wore on my honeymoon, set against blue velvet. “Beautiful.  That’s perfect,” the photographer purred.   I’ll admit I felt prettier with each compliment, each click of the shutter.  Then came the time to take off my clothes.  Raised by a mother and two older sisters who were all quite comfortable being naked in each other’s presence, I was never especially shy around other women, but I did pause for a moment.

Lingerie was one thing.  Naked was the real thing.

I’d been admiring female nudes since I could remember, especially high-brow, black-and-white compositions, which sometimes produced secret stirrings that helped me understand why men enjoy porn.  But those women were chosen by the (undoubtedly male) photographer as a muse, and thus were certified as beautiful works of art and emblems of desire.  And just as I needed teachers to tell me I was smart, I needed the approving gaze of men to feel pretty.  The light in their eyes was my proof, whether the steady flame of a lover’s or the momentary flicker of a stranger’s on the street.  Without that spark, I was invisible, even to myself.

Commissioning my own nude portrait—not being tricked or charmed into by some libidinous male—suddenly felt impossibly bold, even arrogant.  I was making myself into Beauty, fearlessly daring unknown eyes to see me in the flesh, even if these photos were meant for my husband’s eyes alone.

What if I didn’t make the grade?

Fortunately, I was so at ease with the photographer, so certain this was a risk I had to take for posterity, that I soon lost myself in the yoga-like shifts of my body.  The photographer and I worked together:  sometimes she instructed me to tilt my head back farther, turn a bit more to the right, sometimes I chose poses that felt like me.   When the session ended, I was exhausted and glowing, with a new appreciation for the hard work that models do.  Finishing a Ph.D. is an achievement, but those golden hours in the studio made me feel strong in a whole different way.

Back in the days when cameras needed film, there was one final step in the process—a return visit to look over the proofs.  I spent the week on that same rollercoaster of hope and dread you feel when you submit a story to a magazine. Would there even be one photo worth printing?  Would the camera’s cool eye show me up as ridiculous, laughable?  That was the cynic’s view of the boudoir session, a way for photographers to relieve plain women of their money or even worse as a kind of masturbation, what losers must settle for when they can’t get the real thing.

I remember my heart pounding as I opened the album.

My eye settled on the first picture, the one I still use as my official erotica author photo.  Not bad, I thought.  You have your moments.  I continued turning pages.  Satin peignoir turned to bare flesh.  I’d never realized my back had such a classic hourglass shape to it.  Not bad at all.

Is it too pathetic to admit that I never really saw beauty in myself until I looked at those pictures?


I know of course that a photograph cannot make you sexy. It can only reveal an erotic spirit that already lies within.  As viewer and “object” all at once, I also understood that no model is passive, a naked ass to serve as a blank screen for the viewer’s fantasies.  By making an active decision to pose nude, I was defining myself for myself, proving I could be both intellectual and sexual, in spite of society’s abundant messages that a woman has to choose one or the other.  And if it was masturbation, it was the kind of self-pleasuring that taught you about the depths of your own desires in a way that would enhance sex with a lover.  Indeed what I learned about myself from the experience gave me the courage to start writing erotica four years later and to keep challenging those stereotypes in my writing with each new story.

And perhaps it’s no coincidence that erotic photographers and bare-all portraits are a recurring theme in my stories?

When I walked into that studio seventeen years ago, I thought the boudoir session would be a way to memorialize my youth and sexuality that would soon disappear.   Today I see it as the stirrings of a passion that would enrich my life for decades to come.  And because of what I create in my art as an erotica writer and my equally creative work as a mother, I feel sexier than ever.

That’s the naked truth.

***

Donna George Storey is the author of Amorous Woman, a semi-autobiographical tale of an American woman’s love affair with Japan.  Her short fiction has appeared in numerous journals and anthologies including Penthouse, Best American Erotica, The Mammoth Book of Best New Erotica, and The Best of Best Women’s Erotica 2. She also writes a column for the Erotica Readers and Writers Association, “Cooking up a Storey,” about her favorite topics— delicious sex, well-crafted food, and mind-blowing writing.  Self-exposure of every kind is a major theme in her work.

17 Responses to “Donna George Storey”

  1. Oh Donna, this is beautiful. Stunning. A perfect blend of flesh, mind and spirit.

    You made me laugh with your musing on the “inarguable truth” of PHD’s, and made me gasp with the beauty of these pictures. The nerves of that space in time when you waited for the photos to come back were palpable; this is why I love to read your stories.

    The means that you selected your photographer, and how important this choice turned out to be shows an awareness of what you were going for, though you did not yet know the ultimate destination. A bravery in forging ahead but doing so in wise, measured steps.

    Very Donna.

    It is not at all pathetic that you saw beauty in yourself when you looked in the photos. The beauty in this moment was that you stepped outside yourself, and looked back in, and that you saw beauty from that vantage. Not external validation, but internal embracing of your external self.

    At the beginning of this tale, you told how you were planning to get pregnant, and that meant That would mean bye-bye forever to smooth skin, a slim body, and any claim to be worthy of the camera’s attention.

    Of course, this reflects our modern social standards, but as someone who has had the pleasure to meet you in person, I want to weigh in.

    These photos are stunning, and stands testament to how beautiful you were then.

    But there’s no doubt about it, you’re more beautiful now.

    Yes, that’s the naked truth.

  2. Donna,
    You’re a sex-pot super star…with one hell of brain and creative spirit! How’s that for celebrating a symbiotic relationship? I love your very exposing narrative. I think everyone feels shy, or uncomfortable about exposing themselves: their flesh; their heart, their soul…it takes guts to do it – but damn, doesn’t it feel really good when we finally just say, “fuck it” and just be… naked? Brava to you for going for it and not letting the brain talk the body out of the pleasure! Woot!

    p.s. me thinks your boys are very lucky to have you as their mom. :-)

  3. Donna, this was so gorgeous it took my breath away. And that’s both the pictures and the narrative — they seem to complement each other so astonishingly. I already knew I found these pictures profoundly beautiful, and the narrative you’ve just offered alongside them both affirms and further illustrates that.

    I really did catch my breath when I read your penultimate paragraph that begins with, “When I walked into that studio seventeen years ago . . . .” This piece, like yourself, seems to me a profound inspiration.

    Thank you, truly, for so generously sharing it.

    “you stepped outside yourself, and looked back in, and that you saw beauty from that vantage. Not external validation, but internal embracing of your external self.”

    Nicely put, Craig.

  4. Beautiful photos, Donna, and I love your meditation on the taking of them. Very thought provoking.

  5. Wow, I don’t quite know what to say–want to just give you all a great big hug :-).

    Thank you so much, Craig. Very well put about the power of stepping back and getting perspective which you can’t really do with just a mirror, lol. And it didn’t hurt that I had a hand in creating my image. Of course there is a timeless appeal to being chosen and molded by a male artist, but I’m definitely glad this was a collaborative effort.

    And Neve, hey, the quickest way to a mom’s heart is to invoke her little darlings. I hope their glad to have me as a mom. I try not to be a prude, anyway! I know we’ve spoken about how empowering it is to be naked, that’s why we started this blog, and your beautiful photographs are eye-pleasing and teasing proof. I do think every woman should do this to heal. Maybe men, too?

    Emerald, I have to say the biggest compliment I could ever receive is that my ramblings in some way inspired others to think and write and get naked on the page or elsewhere. You are a constant inspiration to me, too.

    Thanks for reading and looking, too, Jo! Let us know your thoughts if you care to share :-).

  6. Wow, Donna – I’m late to the party, but that was beautiful in so many ways! The photo shoot seems to have been so very brave and empowering, one of those life events that has had such a lasting impact. So interesting to ponder your post and Shanna’s. Body image is such big factor in many people’s lives — it is so important to be comfortable in one’s own skin!

  7. Beautiful Donna. I’ll be back with more thought through comments shortly.

    xx

  8. This is a marvelous piece. I’ve long admired your gorgeous boudoir photos, and I knew the basic “story” of how you came to undertake the photo session, your genesis as an erotica author, and your confrontation of society’s smart/sexy dichotomy … but here you’ve taken all this to the next level by highlighting the interrelationships of these trajectories. I feel I’ve gotten to know you even better now, on both the intellectual and the emotional level. It’s a beautifully told (and beautifully illustrated!) story, rich in both insight and feeling. Brava!

  9. Donna,
    I like this piece! Beauty as a process, not an easy category or experience. A discovery, brilliant and true, and how you challenged yourself in this way. Great piece. (Oh, and what sexy legs!… the photos stand up as if they were taken yesterday.)

  10. Jeremy said,
    “I knew the basic ‘story’ of how you came to undertake the photo session, your genesis as an erotica author, and your confrontation of society’s smart/sexy dichotomy … but here you’ve taken all this to the next level by highlighting the interrelationships of these trajectories.”

    Yes, that is exactly how I felt. It was such a profound, articulate, concise, beautiful illustration of what I thought I already knew, shown on such a deeper, and more personal, level.

    Thank you again, Donna.

  11. Everyone seems to have said everything that needs to be said, and beautifully.

    It is so important for us to see ourselves, naked and otherwise. The evolution of these photos and their lasting impact on your psyche and self image and their enduring endorsement of beauty and sexuality.

    Photography is a powerful medium of reflection and I recommend everyone take as many images of themselves as they can and get a real feeling for who you are. I return time and again to the theme that there is something, or many things, very beautiful about each of us. As Donna mentioned, the exquisite (my adjective) hourglass shape, which if you’ve seen other images of her you wouldn’t expect, she seems so delicate, and that beautiful small breast. The softness of everything. One doesn’t immediately think PHD, but that is an added dimension. It could be both intellectual and sexual, in spite of society’s abundant messages that a woman has to choose one or the other.

    The evolution of the process is fascinating and validating.

    it was the kind of self-pleasuring that taught you about the depths of your own desires in a way that would enhance sex with a lover.

    Beautifully stated.

    xx

  12. erobintica Says:

    I read this yesterday, but couldn’t form words out of my thoughts. Same thing is happening right now. Hope to get back later with something more coherent. This was lovely though.

  13. Hey Marina—so nice to hear from you! I miss our spicy meal planning. Body image was a huge factor in my younger days. I wasted so much time on it and I think the scars are still there, but this session was definitely a huge step in the healing.

    Thank you so much, Jeremy. I didn’t fully realize how much the photographs were part of the my erotica writing until this blog. Writing really does teach us about ourselves in that way, doesn’t it? A kind of psychic photograph?

    Thom, I love that idea of beauty as a process. I think “smart” is a process, too, and I’m on the slow path to discovery, but I’m definitely enjoying the journey more now. Guess all that walking has been good for my legs ;-).

    And Isabel, I’ve always found your faith in the beauty in everyone to be so inspiring (and true). It’s so much easier to see what’s going on with others, to see how capitalism and religion and all the other entrenched powers benefit from making us feel ugly or not good enough. But for me, I still felt (and sometimes feel) on dangerous ground when I assert my own goodness and strength. So it was quite therapeutic to frame this experience.

    I do so appreciate everyone’s responses—and another hug to you, Em! Would love to hear more of your thoughts, Robin. We’ve talked about this before and I know you have wise words on the topic.

  14. One other brief thought. I like to read an image like I read a story and our stories and strengths come out in our images, and you’re right Donna, it’s fascinating how your erotic journey started there paying homage to your body and erotic spirit. xx

  15. erobintica Says:

    I kept coming back trying to get a sense of what I was feeling in order to write it, and as soon as I saw Isabel’s comment – “Photography is a powerful medium of reflection and I recommend everyone take as many images of themselves as they can and get a real feeling for who you are.” – I knew what I was trying to say.

    So many women I know (myself included, though that is changing) hate to have photos taken of themselves. This speaks so loudly – of body image issues, of popular culture, of the close-minded attitudes that pervade society.

    I’d write more, but I think I have my own post forming in my head and need to get that down.

    Shanna, Donna, & Neve – this is truly an amazing project.

  16. What a great post, Donna! You do look fabulous in all the pictures. Particularly the very last one — to me at least — seems to capture both the beauty and brains your writing exudes. A nice pensive and sensual photo. I’m glad you took this plunge and shared the whole experience here with us!

  17. Thank you, Robin, we look forward to your post! And Susan, yeah, that last one is a favorite, probably the one I’d pick if I had to choose one! But then I did always admire your aesthetic taste. Thanks for stopping by and thank you everyone for reading and looking!

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