The Boston Phoenix
July 22 - 29, 1999

[Out There]

Me, naked

How to keep from dying of exposure

by Michael Joseph Gross

Fame and nudity, a perennially sensational combination, are no longer all that scandalous. Vanessa Williams has bounced back fairly well since abdicating her Miss America crown over pictures in Penthouse; more recently, radio host Dr. Laura Schlessinger lost not one tittle of her moral authority when a Web site published an old boyfriend's snapshots of her private assets.

The risks for obscure people, however, may be a bit greater. Christian Curry, a rising star in Morgan Stanley's real-estate investment-banking division, got canned last year shortly after he posed nude for Playguy. Morgan Stanley says Curry was fired for expense-account discrepancies; Curry has filed a discrimination lawsuit.

One wonders what makes a person feel the need to bare all in the first place. The Internet has created an open line of distribution not only for images of Brad Pitt standing naked on his hotel balcony, but also for pictures of you spread-eagled, posted by a vengeful ex. Today the risks of posing naked are enough to make a guy cling to his briefs like Elizabeth I, who, for fear of the plague, didn't change her underwear for months at a time.

So why would a person, famous or obscure, take it off for the camera? Let's look at this question from the perspective of a representative obscure person, who found himself semi-erect in front of a photographer he didn't know from Adam.

That would be me.

It started last spring in an Internet chat room. I met a photography student who was looking for models for a class project. The solicitation appealed to my vanity: skinny kids like me have image problems like nobody's business. I'd been celibate and closeted for 24 years, and had recently begun going to the gym and developing some curiosity about how sexy I actually was.

The photographer and I decided to meet for a beer. He didn't seem like a creep, and four days later I was dropping trou in his studio on Beacon Street. At first I felt like a dork, and pictures from the early parts of the session show a very tense person whose general stiffness was mitigated only by his fearfully flopping thing. I asked the photographer what I should be thinking about.

"Marilyn said she always thought about men," he offered.

I conjured up my fondest sexual memories. "Oh, that's great," the photographer exclaimed, the auto-advance on his camera ka-chooming like a toy gun. "That's great. I can't believe you've never done this before." Part of me was still smirking "bullshit," but a bigger part was letting myself become the hot guy he said I was.

When I saw the photos for the first time, I was surprised by my visceral reaction -- a mostly pleased, appreciative feeling that bore little trace of my customary disgust when facing a mirror. In this state of pleasurable narcissism, the words "Wow. I'd sleep with me" shot across my synapses. On-the-record nudity had been, I realized, a good idea after all.

That was before his class project went public.

Several weeks later, a professional colleague sent me an e-mail titled "Slippin' Outta That Leather Jacket. . . ." He had happened upon the photography show in which my pictures appeared and had come away with a much fuller sense of my personal capabilities than I display in most professional settings.

A little flare of panic went up. This person who I work with, who makes decisions about what projects I can or can't do, who always wears clothes, has seen me naked. But my line of work is, fortunately, more liberal than investment banking, and something in me had the good grace to laugh and shoot back some little joke.

Then, being a Protestant mensch, I had to have an earnest go-round with myself over a cup of coffee. Shame about my body was an old habit; I'd flagrantly flipped that off by posing naked; I had then gotten caught working out my personal stuff in a public setting. But, I figured, the guy who saw those shots probably came away with the idea that I am less self-conscious than I actually am, which might result in his treating me as if I have more self-confidence than I really do, which might result in my responding to him as if I have more self-confidence, which might result in actually having more self-confidence.

What dummy ever said that full exposure weakens the imagination?

When I told a few friends about the pictures, several of them responded by telling me that they have naked pictures of their own. One friend has nude pictures taken every year on his birthday, to track time's treatment of his body. Another told me she had naked pictures taken as a young woman (one of which is framed and hung discreetly in her apartment) because she wanted to press the flower of her youthful self. A few admitted that they'd had pictures taken for the sole purpose of Internet cruising. South End photographer Peter Urban, who frequently makes portraits of men in various stages of undress, says this last is the most-cited reason for his clients' desires to bare all. "It's marketing," he says. "People want something that's gonna work for them."

What's interesting about naked pictures of obscure people is very different from what's interesting about naked pictures of famous people. Tracking down Dr. Laura nude on the Web is a falsely intimate event in a falsely intimate relationship. We fetishize the naked famous for the same greedy reason that we look at pictures of their houses. We love to push the false promise that stardom always makes -- that stars, though realer and better-looking than we are, somehow belong to us.

Looking at naked pictures of yourself, by contrast, is an actually intimate event. Unlike an ephemeral mirror image, or the awkward snapshots we collect from travels and parties and dinners, naked pictures can provide a stable, almost comprehensive image of the body around which the mind can wrap itself -- and, maybe, to which it can reconcile itself.

These days the photos sit in the darkness of a filing cabinet beside my desk. Every once in a while I think about having another set taken (I mean, I've gained 10 more pounds of muscle since then, and my visible abs have gone from four to six). I doubt I'll go through with that. The first set of pictures made their point, and I think the job of proving it further is better left to the imagination.

Michael Joseph Gross is a freelance writer living in Boston. He can't wait for his parents to read this.

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