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.