As the trend for posing naked for empowerment gathers pace, Emma Gannon explains why she decided to bare all.
There’s a certain type of vulnerability that comes with being entirely, unapologetically naked in front of a camera. It’s unnerving, frightening even. And when I recently did just that, I was predictably terrified. As a professional photographer - and perfect stranger - first pointed her huge Canon lens at me, instructing me to ‘act sleepy’, I was awkward, nervous, self-conscious and slightly remorseful. Yet, as soon as it was over, I wanted to do it all over again.
I'm one of a new wave of women taking their clothes off in front of a lens with the hope of empowering ourselves. We're taking ownership of our bodies as more than just sexual objects for men to desire, and celebrating them for being ours.
Getting naked is officially trending, thanks partly to Lena Dunham's refreshing willingness to expose her body in its unfiltered, unphotoshopped glory in Girls (and on her Instagram feed). While there were inevitable complaints from some men who found the sight of her un-modelesque body objectionable, there were far more cries of 'bravo!' from women who were relieved to see a woman so at ease in her own, imperfect skin.
Since then, the movement has been gathering pace. The actress Caitlin Stasey’s inspiring website Herself.com features naked photographs of ordinary, diverse women to provide a counterpoint to the glossy images we constantly see. Danish activist Emma Holten’s Consent project gives women who have been victims of revenge porn a way to reclaim their bodies by posting their own self-approved nudes online. The #FreeTheNipple campaign - a protest against the banning of women's nipples but not men's on social media - has become a global phenomenon. Rihanna's Instagram account was shut down after she posted a picture of her naked posterior, but later reinstated, leading many to question the point of the no-nudity rule in the first place. Scout Willis was so enraged by the ban that she walked topless through New York in protest, while Cara Delevingne posted several photos of herself on Instagram with just her nipples covered.
Celebrating my own body in this way isn't something I ever thought I'd do. For years, I was the girl with a skinny picture of Kate Moss circa 1994 stuck on the fridge for inspiration. My sister had long, willowy limbs and I felt like the fat sister, a paranoia heightened at my all-girls' school, where I compared myself to my taller, prettier, thinner friends. As I grew older, my role models changed. After watching Girls, reading comedian Mindy Kaling's books and watching Bridesmaids - all of which celebrate clever, funny women - obsessing over my body seemed outdated. I learned to get my highs from someone complimenting my writing, ideas or cooking instead of my looks. But interviewing flawless models in my job a as a social media editor at Fashion Week always reminds me that I still have hang-ups about my body - the curve of my hips or the tops of my arms.
I didn’t even notice how much these body confidence issues were feeding into my sex drive and ability to stop worrying about how I looked at certain angles and let go. Though my boyfriend, Paul, and I had been together for years, I’d always felt our sex life was one of the strongest parts of our relationship - until last year when, with no explanation, my sex drive began to wane. Although I hadn't stopped fancying Paul, something had shifted and I started making excuses, saying I was tired or had 'a big meeting' the next day. We both knew I was lying.
Then, one night at the pub last year, I had a conversation that would change the way I saw myself. An old friend, Laura, confessed that she’d had a naked photoshoot (in a field, no less) to celebrate some recent weight loss. And, after hearing Laura’s reaction - her new found confidence, her adoration of the photographs - another friend Megan had immediately done it too. We called it ‘the nipple effect’.
They told me it was the best thing they’d ever done. Seeing them so excited about their own bodies was inspiring. It made me think how much more empowering it would be if, instead of trying to create the illusion that we have a thigh gap on Instagram, we embraced our bodies as they really are.
‘There are two things here,’ says psychologist Susie Orbach, author of the classic book Fat is A Feminist Issue. ‘One is that women are taking control and saying “this is who I am.” It’s about reclaiming their bodies as their own and being confident about who they are.
‘The second thing is that, by having a professional photographer, they are showing themselves that they can look as good as the pictures they see every day in the media, even if they don't look like models.'
Two weeks later, I was sitting in Laura’s house wearing nothing but a charity shop shirt and a pair of old cotton knickers. Alex Cameron, the photographer Laura recommended to me, casually asked me to lie back on the bed and place my hands about my head. I was more nervous than the first time I’d had sex.
Yet this was not a ‘sexy shoot’. These real-life photos had nothing to do with being sexualised or having an audience. I was asked to take my remaining two items of clothing off. And, as the camera snapped away, I started to feel strange - relieved. Proud, even.
On receiving the photos back days later, I felt strangely emotional. At first I was embarrassed and didn’t want anyone to see, snapping at Laura and Megan when they asked if they could have a look. But, later that day, as difficult as I found it to admit, I realised I loved them.
I looked really, really good. I saw my body in - literally - a different perspective. The hang ups I’d focused on paled into insignificance. My body hadn’t changed, but the photoshoot was transformative. And as a result, my sex life turned around completely. I felt more confident, more relaxed, less uptight. For the first time, I actually wanted to be naked.
I’ve decided not to share my photographs publicly, simply because I want to keep them for myself - though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit to them having pride of place on my computer desktop.
Maybe in a few years I’ll be that embarrassing person with a huge frame naked photo above their fireplace. Because getting snapped in the buff is the best thing I’ve ever done for me - for only me. If you’re slightly tempted, free your nipples too. Trust me, you won’t regret it.