Shelly Baer: Posing nude at 42...when you're not a 10
Sipping espresso vodka, waiting for my turn, I wonder how Jesus, the makeup artist, will transform me. Soon I will disrobe for the camera. I take another sip, actually a gulp, and get ready for the bright lights. I agreed to pose nude, but how did I get here?
It started at the Center for Independent Living, an organization that advocates for people with disabilities. In an effort to fund-raise and consciousness-raise, the board of directors agreed to sponsor a photography exhibition to capture the spirit, beauty and courage of 21 disabled women (I have rheumatoid arthritis). I was one of three women who had the nerve (my mom says chutzpah – others say cojones) to model in the flesh. I reasoned that since people gawked at me anyway, why not let them stare at my image on the wall of an art gallery. Inviting people to stare. How liberating!
My friend, Ann, and I are doing this together. She is a former model and actress who is now confined to a wheelchair with multiple sclerosis. Ann acquiesces like a pro; she stretches out, completely naked, and floats beyond her wheelchair. She makes it look easy. I think, "If Ann can do this, then I can, too."
Darryl, the photographer, is pleased with the natural light streaming in through three sliding-glass doors. He has brought strobe lights, a green backdrop, camera stands and leather cases, and is slowly transforming my apartment into a set. Jesus, the makeup artist, arranges shadows, brushes, blushes, false eyelashes, pearls, clips and belts on my weathered Asian coffee table.
We tell stories.
We tell stories to make sense of our lives.
We tell stories to communicate our experience of being alive.
We tell stories in our own distinct voice. Our own unique rhythm and tonality.
Transformations is a weekly story-telling column. The stories are written by community members who are my students. Our stories will be about family, love, loss and good times. We hope to make you laugh and cry. Maybe we will convince you to tell your stories.
— Kathrin Seitz
“Everyone, when they get quiet, when they become desperately honest with themselves, is capable of uttering profound truths. We all derive from the same source. There is no mystery about the origin of things. We are all part of creation, all kings, all poets, all musicians; we have only to open up, only to discover what is already there.” — Henry Miller
Kathrin Seitz teaches Method Writing in Rockport, New York City and Florida. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Standing on my red Oriental rug, I stare at Darryl's good-looking Barcelona bed. When I realize it is too low for me to get up by myself, I panic. Because of knee replacements, my legs won't bend far enough to lift myself up. I avoid low chairs at all costs. I turn up the music, alternating between R Kelly, TLC, the Hair soundtrack and the Madonna mix Darryl brought.
After a lunch of Domino's pizza that I barely eat, Jesus asks, "Are you ready? You're up." My thoughts scatter and I start giggling from the early sips of breakfast vodka. Jesus senses my butterflies, even about the makeup. I'm a minimalist regarding makeup and am concerned it won't look natural. His gentle tone is assuring, as he transforms me with false eyelashes, smoky shadow and pink lipstick. My green eyes shine emerald; my brown curls are wild and slightly pinned up, the way I like them. Thank god, I'm having a good hair day.
When I suggest using ice to harden my nipples, Darryl cracks up. He tells me models really do that. Jesus brings the ice. The cold water slides between my breasts. Where do I look? What do I focus on? I try to relax. I can't believe I said that about the ice. I try to think sexy thoughts about my boyfriend, Rocky. Although he's in Phoenix, he calls all day, encouraging me and easing my anxiety. I'm glad I'm not in-between boyfriends. How do I make love to a camera? How do I look natural when bright lights, heat and stares overwhelm me?
I stand between the two French doors that open to my bedroom. I wear a green sheer wrap and jeans. I hold the handles and straddle the door, feeling awkward and unsure. I have an audience, but as the shoot progresses, they seem to fade away. Darryl and I laugh about my tush obsession. He knows I want my best asset featured. "Relax. You look beautiful. You're doing great," he says, as he clicks away. "Just look right at me." I trust him and do whatever he asks. The afternoon blurs. I slowly discard the jeans, then my underwear. Did my underwear really just come off? I am half-aware of my nakedness. The alcohol fuzzes my senses while the Hair soundtrack blasts in the background. Then Jesus places my sheer gold scarf on top of me as I lie on the bed, and by then, I am totally nude. The Barcelona bed is uncomfortable, and it's hard for me to turn. I try to work out the kinks in my joints. But this is what I want, so I can't back out now. We shoot throughout the afternoon. And Darryl captures that wet-haired look I find sexy, with strands of hair half-covering my eyes.
Strands of hair may have blurred my eyes, but for Darryl, the camera was always in focus. The camera was his eye. He wasn't looking at me as a sexual object; he was visualizing an artistic work-in-progress. For him, my nudity did not equate with sexuality; it was a means to express beauty and originality. He was the creator and I was the vehicle, on a private "unfolding" journey.
Two months later, Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty premiered in Miami at the Dorsch Gallery. More than 500 attended the fundraising cocktail party. I found myself in the midst of the crowd that was standing in front of the larger-than-life sized photographs of me. The guests didn't recognize me and actually, neither did I. Who was that pretty girl up there?
My journey to accept my body and disability has not been simple or straight. In earlier photos, I would hide my hands in my pockets or behind my back. I would purposely stand behind someone else. When rheumatoid arthritis invaded my life, much of my self-esteem disappeared. How does one learn to accept what one cannot change? How does one unfold? The experience of posing nude in front of a camera altered me. It helped me get to a different place. To look through a new lens. To see myself with clearer vision. I now see a beautiful, sensual woman who happens to have skinny legs, stubby fingers, scars and a kick-ass ass.
Shelly Baer, a licensed clinical social worker, has worked in the Miami community for more than 20 years. She's employed at University of Miami Miller School of Medicine's Mailman Center for Child Development as coordinator of The Emerging Transformational Leadership Program and associate director of the Leadership Education in Neurodevelopmental Disabilities training program.
Ms. Baer was diagnosed with juvenile rheumatoid arthritis at age 3, but it has never slowed her down. She pushes boundaries and doesn't let her disability hold her back. In 2006, through her involvement in Center for Independent Living, Ms. Baer co-created Uncensored Life: Raw Beauty, a photography exhibit that showcased the beauty, sensuality and empowerment of women with disabilities.
She has a coaching and counseling business helping individuals find love and have healthy relationships. Recently married, she is working on a memoir about her dating dramas with a disability and another project with her husband. Check out her website, love-ABLE.com.