I’m 18, I’m standing under a spotlight with no clothes on, and the photographer is pointing at my thighs.
This is what I mean, he says in a Czech accent. I must airbrush this now! You must start jogging more.
Right, I say, and I tilt my head down so that he won’t see the spot on my chin, inexpertly concealed with powder. He takes a few more shots, asking me to straddle a chair then look dreamily into the rafters then smile as if I’ve just heard a good joke.
The studio is the size of a school classroom and smells of dust. Even the floor reminds me of school – scuffed beige lino, the same as the gym room.
Later, I have to lie flat on my back while the photographer uses the macro lens on my pubic hair, nipples, jaw-line, and eyes. I pass the time by revising words for my English exam. Acquiesce, I think. Viscera. Obsequious.
Afterwards I step out into another rainy Glasgow night, the spotlights burning my eyes. That was the last, I think.
It begins with SuicideGirls, a website of nude girls with tattoos, piercings, and dyed hair. Like most teenagers I have low self-esteem and body image issues – but also a tattoo, several piercings, and dyed black hair. SuicideGirls claims to get a million hits per week.
I gather my two best friends and a bottle of vodka. Sophie the tomboy styles, Alexander the in-the-closet homosexual photographs. We drink until it all seems like a great adventure, then I climb into the empty bath while Alexander watches me on the tiny screen of my digital camera. I peel off my black bra and pink mesh hot-pants and Halloween cat ears. I press my feet against the taps, arching my back and blurring my eyes like the girls in the magazines.
We like these, says SuicideGirls, send the rest. I hadn’t thought that I would need more. Capturing my nakedness has already pushed the limits of my friendships. I take the photos and list myself on several modeling portfolio websites. Photographers email, offering an hourly rate for me to take my clothes off.
A middle-class girl with a job in a bookshop, good exam results and a place at university, I don’t need the money. I need a spotlight trained only on me. I am so pretty, so classy, that people pay to immortalize me as a work of art. I am no porn star, no topless model; I am Bettie Page. I fill myself up with other people’s desire for me. I feel the same emptiness as all teenagers, a black pit to be filled by experiences, opinions, original thoughts. In time, I know I will become a well-rounded person. But I have never been good at patience.
I bring my boyfriend to the first shoot at a man’s house in a Glasgow suburb. In preparation, I paint my toenails purple and borrow my mother’s Clinique eyeliner. My bra is printed with rainbow-coloured skulls. The man’s bedroom has bare walls and a view of someone else’s window.
Open your legs, he says, and though it’s not what I think Bettie Page would do, I do it. I think about my boyfriend on the man’s couch, fiddling with the TV remote and listening to the clicking of the camera.
On the train home I can’t decide whether I’m a third-wave feminist or just a victim.
On one shoot, a man brings along a pair of knickers he wants me to wear. He asks in a nice way, apologetic. I refuse. I don’t think it’s hygienic, I say.
All the photographers are men. Most are twice my age, though one looks barely legal. He says he is an art student. He spends a lot of time arranging the lights.
Each photographer has an odd request that they state as if it is common sense. One does not want me to have any body hair whatsoever. One wants me to show all my teeth when I smile. One does not want me to smile at all. One will only use special lenses that have to be put into the camera under a black cloth. I smile, and wait, and think of Bettie Page. In Art class I make a heart-shaped papier-mâché box to store my earnings. I am saving up for a laptop so I can sit in coffee-shops and write a novel about these experiences.
I imagine myself on the cover of pulp fiction novels, twisted around snakes, holding a whip. I imagine myself in Bizarre magazine and late-night MTV videos and photography journals. I imagine myself on the front page of SuicideGirls, but I never email them back.
Six months after those first photos, in a studio that smells like dust, a Czech photographer tells me I have cellulite. I am 18 years old, weigh 112 pounds, and have a 26-inch waist. I am tired of spreading my legs. I go home and open the papier-mâché box.
The Rumpus Sex Blog.
Antonia Crane’s Recessions Sex Workers series.