Getting a voicemail from my mother explaining that she had found topless photos I took from nearly three years ago was the last thing I needed to hear. My mother is a devout Christian and fairly conservative black woman. She’s conservative in that she doesn’t oppose Planned Parenthood, but believes sex before marriage is a sin.
This is what Hester Prynne, from ‘The Scarlet Letter’, must have felt like when she was branded with a scarlet “A” on her chest.
My mother didn’t respond to my calls for a couple of days. To be honest, I wasn’t sure what to say. This moment has reminded me of another horrifying one from my early 20s, when my mother found out I wasn’t a virgin anymore. It brought me back to the shame, the anxiety, and disappointment of embracing who I really am. But it happened and the question I ask myself is, ‘Now what?’
To give this story a little context, every year one of my alma mater’s papers like to produce a “Naked Issue.” It’s the only limited edition issue that’s never published online, just in print. I attended a stereotypical liberal art school where body and sex positivity are praised. During my last semester there, my friends and I had a pact that involved a bucket list of things we wanted to accomplish before we graduated. The list varied from getting our first tattoos to visiting a hidden spot on campus. We believed that this would be our last time to get our young shenanigans out-of-the-way. In the next couple of years, we would all be spread out across the world trying to put our degrees to work. We decided we should conquer the “Naked Issue.”
We viewed ourselves as proud feminists and womanists. College really opened my eyes to how we, as women, are stigmatized about being proud of our bodies. When we take away the male gaze, we’re called a slut or a whore for embracing our sexuality. I realized that the idea of women having more control over their image frightens the patriarchy. Just admitting that you enjoy sex as a woman could get you virtually stoned to death by sexist trolls on the internet. Women are told not to be free in their own skin or enjoy pleasurable sex.
As I got older, I’ve become more comfortable showing off a little more skin. After years of being self-conscious about my thighs, I can wear shorts and dresses without feeling overly exposed or unattractive. I no longer feel like I should ask myself, ‘Why aren’t my legs as thin as that girl?’ My thighs and I have a rocky relationship, but it’s getting a lot better.
Most young girls have a warped relationship with their bodies. According to a study by Common Sense, 80% of 10-year-old girls have been on a diet at one point in their short young lives. The same study also revealed that more than half of girls between the ages of 6-8 want thinner bodies. Children as young as 6 aren’t happy about their bodies, thanks to an entire culture that promotes thinness over health. Considering the way parents, the media, and now social media shapes a child’s worldview, it’s not surprising that girls’ greatest desire to be thin. Everything tells us that ‘thin’ is right and ‘fat’ is wrong.
My own mother has had a rocky relationship with her body. She’s probably one of the most beautiful women I know, yet she struggles with accepting her weight. Even to this day, I have to remind my mother that no matter what, she’s beautiful. Unfortunately, over fifty years of telling yourself that you’re not good enough can be hard hard to shake.
As alarming as these statistics sound, they aren’t new. Almost every woman you know probably has some sort of issues with her body. This is why I wanted to tackle the ‘Naked Issue’.
The day of the photo shoot for the ‘Naked Issue’, we weren’t sure how much we were willing to reveal. I had no intention to bare it all, but I wanted something that was empowering. Something that said, “This is me, unapologetically proud of the skin I’m in.” I also wanted to have fun.
I eventually decided I’d go topless by quickly flashing my goods.
The three of us arrived at the shoot a little hesitant. The first few photos we took featured us pretty much covered up. I was still feeling a bit nervous about flashing my breasts at the camera. Finally, towards the end of the shoot we just said, ‘fuck it‘ and opened up our jackets to reveal our fleshy tits. The photographer started snapping like crazy.
One tiny grainy photo was chosen.
At the end of the day, breasts’ main function is to feed babies. They’re extremely sexualized in our society, mothers can’t even breastfeed their children in peace. Yet we also enjoy looking, pleasuring, and adorning breasts. It’s a messy contraction, but all of this is true.
Honestly, I forgot about that photo. It was stored in my old bedroom I haven’t lived in for almost two years. It would be easy to apologize to my mother and tell her, “Hey, I was being dumb and young and I regret those photos.”
But I don’t.
After a couple of rocky days, we eventually talked about the photo. I realize my mother and I will never see eye to eye on this. I’m glad at the very least she understood where I was coming from. She finally saw me — not as a whore, slut, or a disappointment — but as a young woman who stands by her convictions. My feminism will never be her feminism, but at least she knows we’re all in this together.
Sometimes disappointing your mom might lead to her respecting you for coming into your own.