A while back, I was upskirted in Whole Foods.
I was reaching—naturally—for a grapefruit, palpitating each specimen, headphones blaring, when someone tapped me violently on the shoulder. I turned around to see a woman teary with rage.
“THAT MAN JUST TOOK A PHOTOGRAPH UP YOUR SKIRT.”
She gestured to a wiry man tearing out of the store like he’d just committed a political assassination, upending produce and cacti. I took out my earbuds as the woman stood there, hyperventilating, expecting me to do something.
I shrugged: I only had an hour to shop for groceries and make my way uptown to a meeting. I didn’t have time for this. It was just another day in my body in New York.
Frankly, I didn’t care—until I wound up next to that woman in the check-out line. Her breath was still ragged, and her disappointment in me vivid. I’ll never know what her trauma was, but it was right there in front of me. I had let her down.
A few months later I found myself in Rome for, of all things, a lingerie shoot. Weirdly, I was in it—marking a left turn from my regular existence behind my laptop. My friend Cicely Travers had decided upon a more unusual casting route for her Isosceles campaign that year. I was told in advance that Amy Gwatkin’s photographs for the collection were meant to reference Roy Stewart, a man who, let’s be clear, no one is mistaking for a feminist theorist.
When I arrived in Rome, Cicely emphasized the importance of the female gaze, and the deliberate choice of a voyeuristic, joyously pervy male photographer for a starting point. She wanted the photographs to tell the story of a woman—one with an office job and a suit jacket—who had a hell of a time tearing around town, flashing, teasing, taking pleasure in another day in her body in Rome. She would even upskirt herself.
Cicely had a bone to pick: when she shot her first collection, Guy Bourdin was the reference point. As with our Rome shoot, all participants were women; Cicely felt confident her intentions came across. Yet, a friend of hers—one breaking into politics—announced she wouldn’t be caught dead in those positions. Cicely was horrified.
As she told me about her fear of being misconstrued, I thought of my own relationship to social media. Whenever I feel moved to post a moment I enjoyed or a vista I want to share of…Fuck it, let’s call a spade a spade: a picture I look hot in, I worry I will come across as vain or vapid or immature. I wonder what exactly constitutes maturity: hasn’t Instagram rendered us all into tweens, anyway? Why must women exhaust their humor, their wit, on creating space to present themselves to the world? Why do we feel a need to create a context in which to enjoy ourselves?
The platform is problematic. It is reductive and transactional. As such, it forces us to censor, to dumb down. We say we are in the #MeToo Era, but that hashtag is a red flag; it circumscribes a feminist moment within the confines of social media platforms. We cannot be self-possessed when the medium owns us.
Taking ownership of how we are presented and how we present ourselves—not just to others but to ourselves—in a way requires us to objectify ourselves. The female gaze needs to supersede the male. It’s become a cliché to point out that women don’t wear lingerie for men, but Cicely and I are both grateful our mothers taught us this early on. Cicely loves to tell the story of how her mother attended St. Martin’s on scholarship and spent her entire stipend on one Pucci bra she still recalls with ardor—the bra that allowed her to feel she’d arrived in London. When my mother saw the slings and arrows of puberty taking their toll on me, she brought me lingerie shopping. She knew I’d feel better about my body, no matter what cruel prank it was playing on me that week.
What sits next to your skin has everything to do with how you relate to the rest of the world. How, quite literally, you shape yourself. Throughout the shoot, all of us talked constantly about our bodies and our insecurities. It was hilarious, it was exasperating, but it was without pretense: there is no such thing as ironic nudity.
A woman’s mind is tethered to her body. It both doesn’t matter at all and it is vital to tell you that I am a writer, paid to use my mind (Surprise! Underwear modeling wasn’t my day job in my late 30s), and that every single day I wonder why the hell I take myself so seriously AND when I will grow the fuck up. Why I do so has everything to do with my body and my perception of it.
That is why I was delighted to upskirt myself for a group of talented, mischievous, vulnerable, resourceful, brilliant women. We discussed what it even meant to playact this lewd little scene on an ancient staircase in the Eternal City. Personally, I don’t know what it all adds up to, but I know I wasn’t acting at all.
And if that isn’t self-possession, I cannot tell you what is.