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Sell your body

Sell your body

By: Ellen McQueen

A naked photoshoot. In Central Park. Is this art or is this porn?

I’m twenty-one. Freshly twenty-one. My roommate is a gallery girl in the Lower East Side of Manhattan. We’re fabulous! We’re young, we’re beautiful and I’m just starting to break from the cocoon of small-town-girl upbringing, growing fresh wings of confidence (too much) and a desire for thrill (too often). I’m sitting at a bar on the Upper East Side with a photographer I met (was accosted by) at an opening last week to whom I gave my number and from whom I’ve received many insistent texts. I like your look. Check out my website. Let’s do a shoot. I promise I’m not a creep.

He’s not a creep. We’ve already hung out once, in his apartment under the pretence of discussing the shoot I agreed to, a discussion that resulted in a few bottles of wine and a few (naked) “preliminary test shots.” So here we are in this bar and I know he’s not a creep. And we’re on our second bottle of champagne. And he’s ranting about the last girl he photographed. And I’m thinking to myself, how naked, exactly, am I willing to get in Central Park?

What stops me, or rather, what slows me down, are the somehow moral somehow existential questions that have been brewing for a few days: Does this constitute porn?  Who will see this? Will my parents see this? Will this guy expect something? Does it matter?  Does this make me cool? Does it mean I’m beautiful? What is the point? Is he an artist?  Does that make a difference? Is nude model a euphemism for whore, like actress was in the 1930s? I imagine calling my parents from a jail cell: busted for stripping down to nothing in the middle of Park Avenue, in the middle of the day, in the middle of my college education. 

At the end of the day you live with yourself.  

At the end of the day it’s you who can handle or not handle the slew of scrutiny that stems from exploiting your body. I try to distinguish the lines from the grey: between exploitation and admiration, scrutiny and showing off. And find… I am not disappointed or horrified when my best friend tells me she registered for sugardaddy.com to pay for her college education. I am in fact jealous to learn she’s been paid four hundred fucking dollars to have pleasant conversation over dinner with a man who afterwards calls her an Uber home. Nice. Straightforward. Easy. Her new job is less exploitative than those desperately seeking attention on social media for the sole purpose of “likes”. I find that I respect the craft that makes porn more than I do the pointless pretty-pretty produced by social media addicts. A selfie can prostitute you, just as well. Don’t be the pretty girl with no purpose. 

Once before a creative writing class a fellow student bragged about how much money she made over the summer performing S&M, and how this income allowed her to quit her New York job and focus on painting for the semester. My best friend in Paris works as a stripper to maintain a life there, because living in Paris has been her lifelong dream, and Paris is hell on the bank balance. With her ecdysiast earnings she was able to ship her entire Brooklyn life, English-lit-major-sized library included, to France. With her stripper money she was able to shop in cute Parisian stores and go on solo trips to the countryside. With my writer salary I am stuck in my student wardrobe, and the countryside seems as abstract as a Mondrian. 

Questions bigger than ourselves. As a group we love to lash out at others for their behaviour, their insincerity, their flaws or mistakes or actions outside the box. As individuals it’s important we reflect most upon our own, decide for ourselves, for it’s the only way to actually make it outside that fucked up box lined by society’s bullshit judgments.

This monologue, this self-imposed future-defining test, is running through my champagne-infused twenty-one-year-old mind as I sit with a photographer preparing to get naked in Central Park on a perfectly lovely day in June.  

At the end of the day you live with yourself.  

To me then, twenty-one and learning to be beautiful and learning about the sacredness that is my own possession over my own body, and to me now, twenty-four and still asking these questions and still agonising over whether my parents will see the photoshoot I did as a model with an established lingerie line and whether or not that is “okay”, it’s about the question: Do the ends justify the means? Is the goal more important than the road? The owner of the lingerie store scouted me at Charles de Gaulle, liked my look, I loved her clothes, I made good money, cut into a chunk of my student loan debt. So, yeah, I think that was totally “okay”.

From Donna Tart’s The Goldfinch: “And isn’t the whole point of things – beautiful things – that they connect you to some larger beauty?” Let all your exploitations be beautiful because you say they are. Let your body be a vessel to carry you towards a higher goal, a force bigger than yourself, a determined fuck-you to anyone who tells you no. If you’ve independently assessed the situation, if you know what you’re doing and you are fine with it and you are thrilled about where it’s taking you… seize the damn power. 

I’m twenty-one drinking champagne in a bar on the Upper East Side with a photographer who I’ve known for all of a few days. He’s not a creep. He asks, “are you ready?” I say, “let’s go.” If this particular artist’s art is nude digital photographs of beautiful young women, hell, I’ll take the compliment. At the end of the day, at the end of my day, if I’m creating art or aiding others in their creations, I can live with myself. And fuck the scrutiny.

Twenty-one in the middle of Park Avenue’s June tulips, pulling up my skimpy black dress as cars pass in both directions and an Upper East Side housewife walking a Goldendoodle does a double-take. A big fuck-you as I strip down to nothing in front of the Boathouse and the jaws of suited diners drop into their oysters. A tipsy inspiration to deploy nudity as art among tourists, runners and fellow citizens. The camera clicks and clicks again. The sun feels good against my skin. This is fun, this is exciting, this is beautiful.