Even in an age when sharing mundane details online is standard, it’s easier than ever to control the way others see usuntil, as people often say on social media, someone’s been “exposed.” Welcome to Exposed, a monthly column where author and activist Chris Stedman invites you to get a little more vulnerable.
“Do you want to go by your actual name,” the photographer asked him, “or do you want to use an alias?”
Raymond looked up and suddenly it hit him all at once: This is actually happening. I’m really doing a nude photoshoot.
He never could have predicted he’d reach this moment. Born just outside Mount Zion in the Saint Anne Parish of Jamaica, Raymond had spent most of his life in rural Midwestern towns until he moved to Minneapolis, Minn. at 21. It was the biggest city he had ever lived in, and it felt full of possibility.
A year after moving, a popular photographer contacted him through Scruff. Unprompted, the photographer asked if he was interested in doing a nude photoshoot. Raymond was intrigued, but he had a few hangups: How would his body look on camerawould he appear desirable? Mostly he worried, though, about what his new friends would think if they found out about the shoot. Would people judge his decision? What if the photos got out?
But the more he thought about it, the less anxious he feltespecially because there were actually already nude photos of him on the internet.
Curious about how his body looked in a photograph, Raymond set up his camera, disrobed, and took his first nude while he was bored one afternoon years earlier. He never shared that photo with anyone, but it was an intensely validating experience. Looking at the folds and muscles of his body, he felt like he was able to see for the first time how someone else might see his body and what was attractive about it.
I felt similarly the first time I took a nude. Starting at a young age, I’d felt like an alien in my own body. My siblings were solid, sturdy, and athletic, and I was weak, wimpy, and lanky. I didn’t have arm hair for years, which made me feel even more effeminate than I already did. I resented my body for betraying my efforts to conceal my queerness, for communicating things about me that I was trying so hard to hide. I picked it apart, fixating on the things about it that I thought were telling truths I wasn’t ready to share.
As I went deeper into my mind as a closeted adolescent, I felt further and further removed from my body. And this body anxiety continued as I got older and internalized more cultural beauty standards. Why wasn’t I more muscular? Was my face symmetrical? Was my body even worthy of desire at all?
But when I finally took my first nudejust a basic mirror portrait inspired by one I saw on TwitterI started to see myself the way others might instead of in the distorted ways I’d been imagining myself. It was a simple act, and I deleted it the next day without sending it to anyone, but it helped me begin to shed some of the self-loathing that characterized my relationship with my body for so long.
Raymond loved how it felt to take a nude, too, and a few months later he impulsively submitted a photo of himself standing before a mirror with nothing on to a popular website. After they posted it, he decided to share it on his Tumblr profile. The response was instantaneous and uniformly positive, and it opened a floodgate. From there he posted nude photos and videos regularly, and people would respond in beautifully affirming ways, saying that he looked sexy and happy and seemed like he was having fun. And he was.
But the responses haven’t always been so celebratory. One time Raymond got an anonymous Tumblr message from someone who said they had gone to high school with him and never knew he was “that kind of person.” For a moment he worried about what they might do with his photos and videosup until then, there had been no crossover between his “offline” life and his activity on Tumblrbut he never heard from them again.
He’s also gotten anonymous messages calling him a “slut,” but he generally ignores those, writing them off as the bitter musings of anonymous bullies. One message, however, cut deep.
On the same day Raymond wrote a Tumblr post about an experience of sexual assault that left him so traumatized that he didn’t date or use Grindr and Scruff for a year after, someone replied by implying that he had no right to express pain about an experience of assault because he posts nudes. He was stunned; it was the first time his nudes had been weaponized against him.
But the thing that Tumblr user didn’t understand is that, for Raymond, taking nudes has actually been a part of how he’s processed and healed from his assault; it’s also how he’s dealt with depression. Though these are certainly not his only or even his primary reasons for posting nudes, making himself vulnerable by sharing photos and videos online has helped him feel more at home in his body. Even though he doesn’t like the idea that people should have to justify their reasons for doing so, posting nudes has been a way of taking his power back after a devastating violation. It makes it easier to claim autonomy over his own body.
For months leading up to his nude photoshoot, Raymond worked through his fears about it. Finally in mid-August, the day of the shoot arrived. But just hours before they were scheduled to begin, the photographer texted him that something had come up and he wasn’t sure if he would make it. So Raymond responded with a nude, saying: “Well I guess I did all this grooming for nothing then.”
Less than a minute later, the photographer responded: “I’ll be at the studio in 15 minutes.”
Raymond rushed out the door, but he got lost on the way. By the time he finally made it to the photographer’s second-floor studio, he was drenched in sweat from rushing around in the awful humidity of Minnesota August and buzzing with nervous energy. The photographer handed him a clipboard with a release form for the photos they would take, and asked Raymond to present him with a photo ID. As Raymond handed over his driver’s license, the photographer asked the question that stopped him in his tracks: What name would he use?
Unexpectedly, a childhood nickname that he’d coined for himself when playing pretend on the playground with friends popped into his head: Amun Wolfe. It was familiar, something he already associated with himself, but that would also allow him to maintain some anonymity. Best of all, it literally translated from Egyptian to “anonymous wolf.”
With the form filled out, the shoot began, and as the photographer asked him questions and invited him to remove an item of clothing after each question, Raymond felt his fears fall away like the sweat dripping off his body. He was becoming another version of himselfthe bolder and more adventurous self that he doesn’t always share with friends or even lovers. With each minute he was becoming more like the wolf he’d named himself, and less defined by the traumas of his past.
Taking and sharing nudes has also helped me move on from past experiences where I’ve been assaulted or made to feel shame about my body. Yet for yearsworried about what might happen if my body were to be subjected to public scrutiny and shaming, or linked to my public work as a writer and activistI refused to share them with anyone.
But several years ago I was approached about a government appointment, and after learning more about the vetting process, I passed. Though they weren’t the number-one reason for saying no, the questions about whether or not there were any scandalous photos in my past definitely played a role. I didn’t want to make decisionsor not make decisionsbased on fear of how they might be used against me.
Turning down that invitation was a catalyst to stop worrying so much about how others might see me (and how much of me they might see). Like Raymond, I have decided that it is OK to have a body, to share and celebrate it, and that I won’t be shamed for it.
Several months after the shoot, Raymond was at the grocery store with his boyfriend. As he was putting a bag of chips in the cart, the photographer messaged him with a link to the photos on an encrypted site. He rushed home and got online, and as he scrolled through the images, he burst out laughing. Not because they were bad, but because they captured one of the happiest moments of his lifea time when he felt totally comfortable, seen, and at home in his own body.
Raymond’s favorite picture from the shootthe one that immediately jumped out at him as he was first scrolling through the photos, and the only one he’s shown his mom sinceis one where he’s sitting on a green couch, his leg propped up, his head arched back, his eyes looking up, and his mouth split open by an enormous grin. Taking in the photo for the first time he felt an unfamiliar mix of euphoria and contentment, even more so than when he took his own nudes. I have never felt more at home in myself, he thought, and I know I’ll never have another photo quite like this one again.
Is there a risk in taking and sharing nudes? Of course. But perhaps the greater risk is that we will live lives ruled by the fear of being made vulnerable. Stripping yourself down and sharing yourself with others can feel scarybut, as it did for Raymond, it can also help you find a home in yourself.
Want to get exposed? Email Chris at [email protected] with a short description of a time when you felt truly vulnerablein either a positive or a painful way (or both).
Want more? Check out the previous installment of Exposed.
Header image byAjhan Sinzin / EyeEm