I started out as a five-year-old starlet perched on the round coffee table in my parent’s living room, the paparazzi photographer none other than my Kodak-camera infatuated father.
In this kindergarten diva phase I’d ham it up with arms flung wide, gleeful smile and mischief in my eye. I loved being the center of the camera’s attention, probably because it was a way to receive my busy father’s undivided, focused love (even if half his photos were often blurry, his attention was laser-like).
Fast forward to Grade 8, the year of gangly with braces and the appearance on the scene of a boy bully who loved to call me “ugly.” The year that demolished what had been an unselfconscious acceptance of my appearance. Though as a tomboy I’d never considered myself even pretty, now I believed I must be downright unattractive. Cameras would only provide evidence of this homeliness, so for my highschool years I avoided any attempts by friends or family to take my picture.
In my twenties, I noticed I wasn’t ugly after all, that photos showed a fairly good looking woman. I was the classic example of someone focused on her perceived flaws (pudgy nose, high forehead) rather than the overall impression others would have of me. The captivating new viral video of the sketch artist drawing women from their own self descriptions is an object lesson for me: while others can see the overall good, I for years focused on what was wrong with my looks.
Nowhere was this more evident than when looking through photo albums—I could still see in all of the pictures the girl afraid of being seen as that ugly duckling, shamed by the boy who for some reason hated her. I could never just relax in front of a camera, let alone have fun. My smiles were often tentative and my posture contained. I hated the camera.
Then, on the cusp of turning 50, as a birthday gift, my husband hired a well known photographer to do a nude photo shoot of me and then an artist to create a painting from one of the images. You’d think I’d be terrified. But oddly enough, I was fine because the focus was not my face.
I saw myself as doing a tasteful Bottocelli’s Venus type stint, with my yoga-toned body happy to oblige. I didn’t worry about my less-than perky breasts or my post-babies belly. This was art!Photo: Heather Pennell
Then on the edge of turning 51, I took the plunge. I needed a photo-shoot of me as publisher of a new online magazine called Rebelle Sex, scheduled to launch in June, 2013.
I was faced with having to embody the Rebelle Sexy vibe in a photo-shoot that could give life to the magazine’s zealous tagline of a “Bedroom Revolution.”
“We are a dynamic hub of erotic knowledge for the sensually curious. We are all about breaking bad in the bedroom and championing a taboo-free, consensual adult love life…we embrace the erotic creature in each of us.”
We embrace the erotic creature in each of us? Did I really write that? Clearly, it wouldn’t do to come to the photo session with an unerotic fear of my unattractiveness lurking beneath the surface.
I needed to find a bridge between the nobility of being a 50-year-old woman and the playfulness of my pent-up pin-up girl that had for so long been quashed. I needed to over-ride my fear of looking desperately silly and instead call on the ghosts of pin up divas like Marilyn Monroe and Audrey Hepburn to cheer me on.
The photographer I chose to work with, Heather Pennell, captivated me with her website where she pitched more than a shoot. She promised a photo mantra, where “through my unique system I’m able to take you from a person who hates being photographed to someone who jumps in front of a camera.” Deep breath. Okay, that sounds like the medicine for me!
And it turns out she was right in alignment with my desire to find my inner-sexy beast for the camera. In her words from her elephant journal article on embracing our authentic sexy:
But in hiding our sexual energy we snuff out our potential to radiate what makes us truly unique. This doesn’t mean you have to wear a super tight dress, show the ta-tas and stick out the booty. (But embrace it if that feels good for you!) It means you know and show what it means for you to be a woman.
To figure out what it means for me, days before the shoot I filled out an indepth questionnaire and collaborated with the photographer to choose outfits, props and share ideas. By the time we finally got together my excitement had begun to override my fear. I was starting to feel the delight of the five-year-old coffee-table starlet captured in the squares frames and off-colors of 1960’s Kodachrome.
Our photo studio was the penthouse apartment of a healer friend, a luminous place where I had always felt at ease. I brought Prosecco, appetizers and music, along with my dress-up box filled with a wig, floggers, cuffs, corsets, cigars, and dresses demure and saucy.
I even brought along a model to accompany me in twosome shots and to be the red-headed mascot for Rebelle Sex. The shoot included a professional make-up artist. “Choose any color that comes to mind,” she said. I picked purple and then found out this will be my eye-shadow and can’t help but cringe, thinking I’ll look like a clown. But instead, when she was done and handed me the mirror, I smiled when I saw a softly sophisticated woman staring back at me.)
In the end, something magical happened. I was having so much fun I forgot to be afraid.
Instead, as the camera snapped away and Heather encouraged me to show up as the Queen Bee of Rebelle Sex, I found myself laughing and playing. And in the fun, came the key piece, the ka-thunk that made all the difference between trying to be sexy and letting sexy out.
I felt, for the first time since I was a little girl on that coffee table, bien dans ma peau—or comfortable in my own skin.
When I was that child, and my father snapped away with his kodak camera, I was completely at ease with myself. Life had not yet taught me to feel awkward, insecure or shy in front of people or a camera.
Like any good soul retrieval, this shoot became the reclaiming of this part of me that had no fear, that delighted in showing off for a father who was a terrible but earnest photographer.
The good news?
Not only did I get my on-camera confidence back, I found a photographer who (unlike my well-meaning father) knew how to focus a lense so that I am not a blurry sexy chick but one in sharp imperfect relief: A five-decades-old woman with crows feet and laugh lines and a crazy willingness to play in the mythic photoland of pin-up girls, sex kittens and smile-for-the-camera divas.
Now, that was the most scary fun I’ve had in a long time.
More pics from the shoot and a chance here to win a free photo mantra session with Heather Pennell worth $2,500 (contest ends May 21).