I spent most of my teenage years and some of my adulthood beneath the shroud of oversized sweaters. Hiding my body. Concealing curves and cellulite and pale skin. I would pull a sweater over my head—the bigger the better—every morning, willing my body away. In the summers, I would lie to family members who questioned my attire, telling them that my body “ran cold,” as sweat dripped from my breasts into my cargo shorts. Sometimes, I would even swim fully clothed, in a T-shirt and shorts, citing my false fear of potential sunburn. That girl was unwittingly feeding and feeding her shame. It had a boundless appetite. She could never have conceived that one day she would be standing naked in her living room, preparing for somebody to take photographs of her, preparing to put those photographs on the internet.
It wasn’t one thing that led to that moment in my living room. Rather, it was countless little moments, wedged between that girl hiding in the sweater and the twenty-nine-year-old woman I am now. Last year, the idea of my body was on my mind—a lot. I thought about it first when I woke up in the morning. I thought about it when I put my arms through the puffy sleeves of my winter jacket. I thought about it on subway cars where I would watch other commuters—people who seemed, to me, to be blissfully unaware of their bodies and how those bodies were perceived. I thought about it when I would catch the silvery flash of my reflection in the mirror before I went to sleep. I thought about my beauty. Or my ugliness. I thought about it all the time. I thought about it until I couldn’t decide which one described me. Which one I possessed. Or which one possessed me.
For a brief time, when I was just a kid, my idea of beauty was synonymous with my mother and the moles speckled along her back. That idea didn’t last. There were too many other ideas: glossy magazine spreads, infomercials for magic weight-loss pills, that scene of Oprah equating the weight she had lost to chunks of fat she rolled out in a wagon, and Britney Spears circa 2000, emerging from a curtain of jewels and beads with her flat, tanned belly in low-rise pants on the cover of her second album, Oops!…I Did It Again. It wasn’t hard to become the girl in the corner of the change room Houdini-ing herself out of sweaty gym clothes and back into school clothes, making sure not a sliver of skin showed. Of course, I was the girl who deliberately turned from the mirror before getting dressed. I was the girl who wore a sports bra for most of the early 2000s just to avoid seeing the shape of my breasts.
Until that moment last year in my living room, I had rarely been naked unless I had to be. I was exhausted. I wanted to look at my naked body without wincing. I wanted to think about my naked body without thinking about a man and how he would perceive it. How and if he desired it. I wanted to explore a question I had always been too scared to seriously ask: Was I ugly? I wanted to not care about the answer.
If I were to conduct this experiment, I needed evidence. I called one of my younger sisters to ask if she’d take nude photographs of me. We decided to use a Polaroid camera. It forced me to let go of control (as much as possible) over the situation, over my body. I couldn’t easily delete the photos if I didn’t like them or obsess over the photos immediately after they were taken. I couldn’t use an app to edit them, to smooth my bumps and cellulite or add warmth to my skin colour.
I didn’t exactly like the first few photos I saw develop inside the stark white frames of the Polaroid. They were hard to look at: the milky flesh of my arms, the creases where they bend, the height at which my breasts sit on my chest, the shape of my nipples, the cellulite rippling across my left ass cheek, the hollow-looking dimple on the other cheek, icy-blue veins spreading at the edges of my hips, stretch marks snaking from my kneecaps. So much fixing and eliminating to be done. My first thought was that I was ugly. It knocked against my brain and quickly sank into my stomach. There was my answer. There was the proof to my hypothesis. I had secretly hoped I was beautiful. Conventionally beautiful.
But we kept going. It was the only thing I could think to do. I didn’t think it would change the outcome. I didn’t think I would suddenly transform before my own eyes. That I would suddenly feel beautiful. But maybe, I thought, if I didn’t stop—if I didn’t immediately seek illusory refuge beneath a bulky, hooded sweater—maybe I could accept my body. And, to my own surprise, as the hours passed, as I was standing naked in my dingy bachelor apartment in Toronto, something did change. More and more, my body became just a body: skin and bones and muscle tissue and fat. I had lungs to breathe with and a heart that could beat. Something became clear, for the first time in my life: these were the everyday intricacies I was made of. There is an abundance of beauty to be found in that, which I had been taking for granted my whole life. I work hard to hold on to this truth, to let the knowledge settle in my pores. I retell the story of my body to myself as often as I can. I tell myself: this body is more than enough.
Still, there are many days the new story seems too far-fetched to believe. Decades of ingrained beauty standards don’t completely disappear in an afternoon. After the shoot, I put the photographs in a drawer. And there they sat for months. Until, one day last year, I cleared out my Instagram account on a whim. Suddenly, I had a blank slate. A blank slate and more than sixty nude photographs. I thought of my body, of beauty, and of the type of beauty we see most often on Instagram. I thought of contouring and the Kardashians. I thought of the standards and ideals our culture seems to crave. And I looked at the photographs. And then I began to write, “This body is not allowed” over and over again. I posted the phrase, repeated in red, next to a picture of my folded, naked body.
After that, I decided to try another experiment. Could a naked female body and, even more specifically, could my naked body, ever be just a body in a public space? Could a woman’s body exist in a public space without it being sexualized? Could it be empowered? Could it just exist? When I posted that first naked photo on Instagram, on some level, I surrendered. I no longer had control over the idea of my body, my nudity, or how the photographs would be perceived. I no longer wanted control. What would happen if I took my body out of my mind and put it into spaces that made me feel uncomfortable? Could I challenge those spaces and the kinds of bodies that dominated them? Since that first photo shoot, I have posed for nude and seminude photographs in my bathroom, in a dimly lit laundromat in the Junction neighbourhood in Toronto, at two different subway stations, on a populated subway car, at bus stops, in an underground parking lot, and in city parks. I’ve posted many of them on Instagram.
Women have been using their naked bodies to achieve disruption, reclamation, and empowerment for decades, says Diane Pacom, a professor emeritus at the University of Ottawa’s School of Sociological and Anthropological Studies. In the 1960s and ’70s, women used their bodies as symbols of peace and free love during protests in the United States. And now, over the last decade or so, women have used nudity to express what Pacom calls the newest wave of feminism. Whether it’s through politically public displays of nudity—a common tactic of the European Femen movement, which organizes topless protests while advocating for women’s rights—or in your apartment with your sister, in front of a camera, women’s naked bodies have become an act of defiance. Nudity, adds Pacom, has become a means to criticize the system.
Historically, says Pacom, a naked female body has been a means of disruption in a way that a naked male body has never been. I thought about the reason that could be. I thought about how I felt shedding my clothes in front of the camera. In some ways, it felt as if, in my nudity, I had also peeled off the social contract, the ideas and expectations that had been placed on me my whole life. I know that some people won’t understand the freedom I’ve found in posting those images online. I’ve learned that the internet, much like the dark, dark woods in the fairy tales of my childhood, contains lurking trolls. I know there’s violence online for women. But, too often, that’s the only version of the story we get. We hear about how young women are exploited and abused through the use of social media. But we don’t hear often enough about the young cis and trans women who take back their bodies and their sexuality on social media.
The internet is a different place than it once was, and young women, in particular, are setting down new rules. A quick scroll through Instagram will show many women lifting each other up in comment sections and together taking down the men who are trying to get in the way. I myself have publically shamed a man who thought it was perfectly normal to send me photos of his genitals. Naked female bodies are not permission for bad male behaviour, and women on the internet are working to get that message across.
Brianne Cail, founder of the Toronto-based blog Sincerely, Bri, often takes revealing photos and posts them on social media. Cail’s photos are taken by her best friend, usually in one of their homes. Many of her blog posts and photos centre on the idea of body positivity—growing it within herself and inspiring it in her followers. Her first nearly naked photos came out of a partnership with Knix, a Canadian undergarment company, in which Cail walked down the runway in only a bra and underwear. The runway show featured women of different backgrounds, races, ages, body shapes, and sizes. From there, Cail began posting more close-to-nude photos on Instagram. There is one of the plus-size blogger wearing a bathrobe that exposes a fold across her abdomen. In others, Cail is wearing just her bra and underwear. The Knix experience, she says, forced her to think of her body differently and edge closer to a place of acceptance.
“People don’t look at the little things as much as you think they’re going to,” she says. In fact, she guesses that many of her social-media followers had no idea she was born without part of four fingers on her right hand until recently. As she shows more of her physical self online, however, those followers seeing all of who she is. After our conversation, Cail decided to post an Instagram photo of herself, displaying her right hand prominently. She had never done it before. And she did it in an effort to address her “disability”—a word she feels forced to use but incredibly limited by. Body positivity, she stresses, isn’t just about size; it’s about your whole body. Aside from opening jars, she adds, her hand has never been something that has stopped her.
I’ve had mostly positive reactions to my Instagram nudes. But some people have questioned my morality, my mental health, and whether or not I was making a strange, pornographic cry for help. Pacom assures me, though, that nudes like mine shouldn’t be confused with pornography. To her (to me, and to people like Cail), they should be seen as statements of “how the female body disrupts the social order.” They are small, brave moments of women cataloguing and exploring their bodies. Although Instagram itself doesn’t always see it that way.
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I have had a photograph of my ass taken down, and my nipples, pictured at Jane subway station, were also considered offensive enough for Instagram to send me a prompt warning after the photo was posted. I reposted it. An ugly black line now tears across my chest in the photo. I loathe it. It reminds me that, like for much of history we, as women, find ourselves being told how to behave, how much to wear, and what it means to do so in a public domain. “The ones who are trying to censor what’s happening,” says Pacom, “don’t see it in its right value.”
They don’t see that we are not catering to destructive sexual fantasies; we are disrupting them. They don’t see what I do: that my nudity has become an act of resistance. I don’t think I’ll ever be rid of the girl in the oversized sweaters. She’s like a muscle memory. Her shame, her fear of being ugly—I will never not know what it means to be her. But now I also know what it means to be the naked woman, in her living room, somewhere between beauty and ugliness.