I'm standing in the Nashville City Cemetery, clutching a blanket around my body on a pleasant, sunny afternoon. The freshly cut grass tickles my bare feet as I tiptoe past old graves, some nearly two centuries old.
"Hey, are you buff under that?"
I'm startled by the presence of another (live) human. I turn in the direction of the voice and see a woman driving through the cemetery, just a few feet from me. Her car window is rolled down, so I can clearly see that she's eating a hamburger. I nod sheepishly, clutching my blanket around my shoulders.
Who says "buff"? She grins and gives me a thumbs up — hamburger in hand — and drives off. Who eats a hamburger in a cemetery?
But who am I to judge? I'm completely naked — under this blanket — in a cemetery.
Although seeing somebody naked isn't that big of a deal anymore, is it? Our fathers and grandfathers had to stash copies of Playboy under their beds or sneak behind "the curtain" at the neighborhood video rental store to see some skin. But modern Americans can freely access porn a smartphone or ogle a nude Kardashian on a magazine cover. Aren't we all desensitized to nudity by now?
This is what I told myself when my photographer friend Ashley Hylbert asked if I would pose nude for a series she was working on. Ashley's photos are artistic, tasteful and slightly mysterious, because each subject wears nothing but a mask.
I know I am not a porn star, an extremely ripped man or a Kardashian. But I do know that at 36 years old, things are only going to get worse, and if I'm going to pose nude — for art — it's now or never. So, I agreed to meet Ashley in the historic Nashville cemetery, a convenient place to be if I embarrassed myself to death. Which is exactly how I pitched it to my mother.
"How can you pose naked?" she shrieked. "You wouldn't even flash your boobs at Mardi Gras!"
She's right. I was the lone prude in my group of fellow college girls who trekked to the Vieux Carré 15 years ago. I still remember how uncomfortable I felt as I pushed through the packed streets, dodging drunk men leering at seemingly drunker women who repeatedly lifted their shirts for the paltry reward of some plastic beads or a shot that might have had Rohypnol in it. That was supposed to be fun?
But doing a photo shoot with a friend I trust could be fun, even if my boobs don't look as great as they did a decade-and-a-half ago. Shit, nothing on me looks as good as it did 15 years ago. I started to wonder why I didn't do this sooner.
Until the day before the shoot ... that's when I started to panic. Why didn't I try to lose 10 pounds? Why didn't we get a bigger mask, perhaps a wig? Why didn't I go on a juice cleanse instead of eating a giant dinner of barbecue and bourbon the night before?
The next morning — knowing that the only way to lose 10 pounds at the 11th hour was to chop off an appendage — I headed to the cemetery, as is. At least, for once, I didn't have to worry about what to wear.
After I discarded my security blanket, I timidly followed Ashley's instructions to pose, lifting my arm in one direction, extending my leg in another, sucking in my gut to the point that I forgot to breathe. Under her direction, I eventually relaxed, so much that I suggested back-bending over a headstone, which seemed like a good way to work gravity in my favor whilst showing off some hot yoga skills.
I'm not sure how long we were there, but it was long enough to scare a jogger (who jogs in a cemetery?) and to warrant the attention of the police, whom we managed to outrun. I hope that any statutes of limitations regarding public indecency have expired.
The resulting portrait was haunting. Artistic. Tasteful. Mysterious. And I was naked. Like, really naked.
I wish I could have enjoyed the freedom of being naked, but I was too worried about my abs looking flabby, or butt looking fat. Which is ridiculous. Does anyone worry that her vagina looks fat? No. I wish I could say the experience gave me a new appreciation for my body, a newfound comfort in my own skin. But as much as I hate to admit it, I'm probably always going to want to lose 10 pounds, no matter how much I weigh, which is ridiculous. That isn't a real problem.
But I'm sure I'm not the only one who thinks that way about herself, or who wistfully looks at photos from 15 — or 30, or 50 — years ago. I bet I wasn't the only one who wanted to look different back then, which was also totally ridiculous. Why can't we just be comfortable in our own skin?
Maybe someday we won't care anymore. And maybe that's what freedom feels like.