Beauty is ...

In a word, beauty is vulnerability. So says my friend and photographer Shannon Michelle.

She photographed me a few years back in my lingerie. It was a boudoir shoot that became a framed photograph for Andy. Even though I’d known Shannon for a while, I had to down a couple of drinks just to loosen up and feel comfortable enough to take my clothes off in front of a professional lens.
I’ve always had a pretty good relationship with my body. It has flaws, like all bodies do, but I’m mostly good with mine. My grandmother stressed good posture growing up so I almost never slouch. I don’t exercise much and, thanks to genetics, I don’t really have to. I eat well and makes sure I’m not taking in more calories than I can burn. I’m also terribly vain. If I notice a few clinging pounds, I cut back/move more/change things to “fix” that. I wish my butt and hips were a little fuller (like BeyoncĂ©) but everyone wants what they don’t have, I guess.

After that boudoir photo shoot, I had Parker. And as a mother I’ve become more aware of bodies in general. Her little body is crazy beautiful to me, so smooth and soft and unscarred by experience. She has boo-boos, sure, but those will fade long before she becomes fully aware of her body as major part of who she is.

But as I consider my own body “issues,” I wonder how body consciousness can turn to shame so easily. So many young women are ashamed of what their bodies look like to them. Shit, we all went through that awkward, gangly phase in the early tween years. Many of us grow into strong people who learn to live with the bodies we have.

But too many of us HATE the body they see in the mirror. I’m not talking about the little things that annoy us about our bodies (like mine not looking like BeyoncĂ©’s). I mean there are people who hide or alter their bodies because they don’t look how the “world” tells them they should. I would consider myself a failure as a mother if The Biscuit hates her body, no matter what shape it ends up being.


In 2012, I attended a conference where I happened to meet Matt Blum, a photographer out of Minneapolis. He’d just completed a new series of photos of nude women as part of The Nu Project. I remember looking at those images and thinking how strong, happy and empowered they looked in their nakedness. They looked genuinely happy to have their bodies on display even they weren’t “perfect,” airbrushed or manicured.

I also noticed that 90% of the women were white. I asked Matt why. Everyone of the pictures is of a volunteer. These women stepped up to declare their bodies beautiful. Then he asked if I wanted to volunteer. Me and my big mouth, right? But the more I thought about it, the more I felt compelled to participate. For me, for P and for black women in general.

Let me explain: black women’s bodies do not belong to them. It cannot be said better than by lovely young lady Amanda Stenberg:
“While white women are praised for altering their bodies, plumping their lips, and tanning their skin, black women are shamed although the same features exist on them naturally.” (Please read more:
Research has shown that black women are not considered beautiful by white men (Andy is a big exception, obviously). The bodies of black women don’t conform to the Western cultural idea of beauty. This isn’t new. It dates back at least to the 19th century, when Saartjie “Sarah” Baartman was taken from her native South Africa and paraded through Europe as “Hottentot Venus,” where she was mocked for the size of her buttocks and genitalia, and eventually died in France from smallpox. The stakes may not be as high for black women today, but the ostracizing is in the same spirit. Just this summer, Serena Williams and Misty Copeland both had to endure being scrutinized and called unfeminine because they don’t look like white female athletes. And remember when First Lady Michelle Obama’s toned arms were all anyone could talk about?

If we’re not viewed as too masculine, we’re fetishized and viewed as hypersexual and promiscuous. A wax sculpture of Nicki Minaj was repeatedly sexually assaulted in Las Vegas and had to be removed. WTF?! The saddest part about that was that another rapper predicted exactly that would happen right after the sculpture was unveiled. The portrayal of black women as lascivious by nature is an enduring stereotype. We are described as seductive, worldly and lewd. Historically, white women, as a category, are usually portrayed as models of self-respect, modesty and even sexual purity.

So … mainstream images of black women generally fall into these two, bi-polar categories: undesirable or sexy Jezebel. Which leads back to me, Matt and The Nu Project.


After meeting Matt at that conference I told Andy that I wanted to volunteer to be photographed. Naturally, he wanted to know why:
  • because every body is beautiful no matter what it looks like.
  • I want The Biscuit to know that nudity and nakedness are nothing to be ashamed of.
  • there aren’t enough positive representations of black women’s bodies in the world and I should be the change I want to see.
  • if more people of color see my photos, maybe they’ll want to volunteer too.
  • woman need to own their physicality and accept their imperfections. Your body is YOUR body and should be celebrated as it is instead of what it should be.
  • I grew up in a house that focused too much on outward appearance with little discussion on why that was so important or how it could be harmful down the line.
  • while men are judged by what they do or how much money they make, women are still measured by how they look, regardless of what they accomplish. I think the world should REALLY look at what they can’t usually see. Maybe they’ll start treating us as equals.
  • there is immense beauty in vulnerability.
Thankfully, my husband is awesome and supportive and allows me to express myself in a number of ways. He gave me his blessing and I reached out to Matt, who was planning a business trip to NYC anyway.

Matt came over to our apartment yesterday. We hung out for a couple of hours just chatting while he shot pictures and I moved around with no clothes on. It was more like having an animated conversation over coffee than posed nude photography.

The idea of that has confounded a few of the close friends I mentioned this project to. One even referred to it as “kinky.” Apparently boobs are kinky and being naked for a photographer is almost always associated with pornography. The Nu Project is sooooo much more art than porn. The comments didn’t surprise me but made me think about what prudes Americans can be.

Matt posted a quick one on Instagram as we were finishing up. I was never nervous or anxious. It felt unnatural, yes, and awkward at times but never uncomfortable.

Afterwards over lunch, Andy and I talked about the experience. He had a visceral reaction to me being naked with another man but that faded quickly. He expected me to have more anxiety about all of it. Honestly, I felt silly but really strong.

I don’t know if my picture will make it into the next book but it will find its way to the website. Matt and his wife edit the pictures so I don’t have any control over what’s presented. It’s really better that way since I’m sure I’ll be critical of every single one.

In the meantime, support this art. Go buy Matt’s books with more pictures of more silly, strong, beautiful people.


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