Recently, I did a photo shoot for a swimwear magazine. I can’t tell you how alien that sounds. Even now, months later.
The “invitation” called for “professional women to share their healthy living secrets with our readers”. Well, as a freelancer and part-timer I was as ‘professional’ as full-time parenthood allowed, and, since having the kids, enjoyed a healthy lifestyle based not so much on self-control as self-denial. I had secrets, sure, but did I really want to share them with faceless readers?
And then there was that little fact that I’d be showing quite a bit of, well, dimpled skin. Just how much (for instance, would I be required to slip into a one-piece or—god forbid—bikini?) would be determined only on the day of the shoot when walking away was no option. I was hearing alarm bells alright. Be still my bleating heart.
True, I wouldn’t be doing it alone. A couple of my closest colleagues had also received the call and, to my dismay, were seriously considering it. My pleas of sanity fell on deaf ears, and it was my resolve that was starting to sound strangely obtuse.
“Oh, come on,” urged colleague number one, a stubbornly youthful 53-year-old. “What have you got to lose?”
“Yeah,” quickly added spry 26-year-old colleague number two, who’d just had her first baby. “Besides, we’ll be doing it together and there’s safety in numbers. Don’t forget, we get our hair and make-up done…”
“…And a free pair of bathers.”
There it was. The bribe stripped bare. So what if we were required to pose outside our comfort zones, flash more than our pearly whites and surrender our darkest thoughts to the lights? Inside the warm camaraderie I was powerless to resist—a mini makeover and a free swimsuit suddenly seeming more than fair compensation.
But, in truth, for me there was something else at play, too. Like many women I’d known I’d wasted too many good years wrestling with the usual suspects—guilt, confidence and common sense. In my teens, as an act of misguided rebellion, I signed up for a modelling and deportment course and—with mirror in hand—embarked on my own version of abstract expressionism.
Unfortunately, the face starring back at me never quite lived up to the Dolly standard. Even then there was nothing streamlined about my curves. By the time I entered my 20s, I wore self-doubt as a fixed accessory. It stayed with me throughout my 20s and, to an extent, early 30s.
Today, the losses, the laughter and the sleepless night are there for all to see—and that’s just across my brow. What’s more, despite all those years testing the limits of facial elasticity, I’ve taken what I’d call only one truly good, natural shot. I’m serious. And, judging from my repose, I was blissfully unaware of the camera.
It took me 44 years, but I can now say that I’ve grown accustomed to my imperfections; or at least I thought I had. So here was my chance stand up for the right of average women my age to take an average photo (of course, whether or not the image would later be Photoshopped within a DPI of reality was out of my hands).
In short, if I had something to prove it was that I had…well…nothing to prove.
I held fast onto this notion as I struggled inside the tankini and shorts I was given to wear for the shoot. We were at the photographer’s house-cum-studio, having just had our hair and make-up done. The morning began as benign as a hen’s party. The leveller came later, as we were handed our costumes and directed to the bedroom-cum-change-room. Semi-naked together we realised, finally, that we really did have nothing to hide.
I can still feel the heat from those lights. I imagine this doesn’t faze that rare breed whom the camera loves. For his part, the photographer did a great job. Personable and encouraging (well used to working with children and animals, I imagine), he did his best to put us at ease.
But this was my armistice. Here was an opportunity to coax out a winning smile, and push aside those niggling anxieties over my bikini line, varicose veins and just what to do with my hands.
Was I happy with the results? It’s an interesting question, and one made more complicated by it being a group shot. What I can say is that after a critical scanning, I quickly shut the book on that chapter of my life. Does it look like me? Yes, of course, but it’s a version of me trying hard to look okay with it all. And that’s what bugs me.