What I Discovered About Feeling Sexy
In today’s post, Team O’a member, Alicia Ostarello, shares her boudoir shoot experience with us all. We are inspired by her bravery, honesty, vulnerability, and beauty!!!
Sexy is not a word I describe myself, because sexy is not how I see myself. Yes, my online dating profile begins with I can be glamorous, persnickety, sexy, intelligent and savvy all at once, but that’s more an ideal of how I want to be seen. I see myself as cozy, adorable, a little too trusting and hopeful to the max.
Which is probably why I panicked about forty-three seconds after I booked an appointment for a boudoir photo shoot. I have absolutely no idea how to be sexy.
Panic requires company, so I called my friend Grey for support. Grey had inspired me to try a shoot with All Things Boudoir after confiding she’d had photos taken for her fiance as a pre-wedding surprise. I didn’t have a sweet-someone to gift the photos to, but I liked the idea of having them as the start of a modern-day hope chest. And just in case I didn’t find someone until I was well past my physical prime, I could at least show him that once upon a time, I was sexy.
I have a love/hate relationship with the word “sexy.” Ever since I caught sight of Julia Roberts on the cover of Pretty Woman, at an age when I was still struggling over the vocabulary in Charlotte’s Web, I’d wanted to look like her. I didn’t understand why, or what it meant, or what her job actually entailed (to my mom’s relief, when I announced “I want to be a hooker when I grow up!” while setting the table one evening). But I got the impression pretty women were the ones people wanted around, and I understood there was an expectation of what those women looked like.
I’d like to tell you I grew up and learned about feminism, unrealistic expectations (I even discovered that the cover photo didn’t even feature Julia Roberts because her legs weren’t “long enough”!), and varying personal tastes and chucked the whole “sexy” idea to the birds. But what really happened is I got a little older and it became apparent by the time I’d moved onto Judy Blume books that I was never going to be the ideal woman. Maybe it was rooted in giving up, but I’d like to believe I embraced this fact: I’d come to equate cozy with sexy.
But Grey’s photos were sensational. They were effortlessly seductive, as though plucked off the tree of knowledge along with Eve’s apple. She looked eyes-wide-shut, flapper-esque, lanky-curvy. I wanted to see myself as that woman too; the sexy woman I used to think I’d inevitably become.
Grey becomes my All Things Boudoir spiritual guide, firmly pulling me away from my initial idea of wearing my rainbow socks to the shoot, and suggesting that I wear lingerie. And heels.
Crumbs, I don’t own any of that. Well, I own business heels. My dad bought them for me after college so I could look put together at interviews. Those will do. I ponder sending a mass email to my friends asking if I can borrow lingerie, and even draft the email, but thankfully come to my senses before hitting send. As free-thinking as my friends are, even they probably didn’t want me going through their underwear drawers.
Like magic, I find an email waiting for me from All Things Boudoir with a coupon to Adore Me (because ATB consists of professionals, aware that women who are a little phobic of showing off their skin exist in the world). $25 and free shipping later, and I have my first ever bra-and-panty set on its way. Check.
But I have more questions.
- Did I need to wear make-up? (Cracker-crumbs! I didn’t have that either, and even if I did, it’s not like I would be able to get it on my face.)
- Did I need to get rid of my bikini line? (Razor burn sparked me to give up shaving this year, and the concept of waxing wigs me out.)
- Would I ever know anyone who wants to see these photos besides me? (Cue self-consciousness about being over 30 and single.)
- What if my inner critic was right and I was not actually sexy? (Ah-ha! I knew my cozy-as-sexy feeling was a defense mechanism for something, and this is it. Also, these questions are getting out of hand…!)
Grey assures me worrying about my bikini line not being perfect is moot – as is not having perfect hair. “I was surprised by how hot my photos turned out,” she says one night over the phone (we were teens in the 90’s so yes, we still talk on the phone like it’s 1999). “Since then, I’ve been a lot more forgiving of my body and appreciative of how sexy I am. In the end my body is quite miraculously taking care of me and allowing me to live a fabulous life. The photoshoot and photos are an objective outside view of what you look like. What you look like from the outside.”
It was funny she should mention seeing myself from the outside. While double fisting water and coffee, my friend Emory recently told me about a theory his dad told him. Each person has three identities: who they see themselves to be, who other people see them to be, and who they really are. And the closer those three identities were to one another, the happier you will be. I portray that I’m glamorous, persnickety, sexy, intelligent and savvy. Yet, I see myself as cozy, adorable, a little too trusting and hopeful to the max. I wonder who I really am. I want to know what I look like from the outside.
Grey also told me I should wear makeup. These were photos, after all.
I’m up early the morning of the shoot, bustling around my room to pack a canvas bag of things I might need during the day. I pack my new lingerie and the only nice bra I own. I’ll realize during the shoot I accidentally packed a thong instead of hipster boy shorts (whoops) but for the moment I feel prepared.
Are you sure tall socks aren’t sexy? I text Grey, before leaving to meet my friend and professional makeup artist, Nessa Nemir.
Nessa is actually glamorous, persnickety, sexy, intelligent and savvy. And she’s a close friend who promises she will make me up to still look like me (and not like a telenovela star, which happened the last time I let someone paint my face). For a second I wish it were her going to the shoot – she’d be so good at being a tempting vixen.
I’ve been instructed to meet my photographer, Tamara, in a hotel room, which my a little too trusting side didn’t think was weird until I arrive and find a woman sitting outside the room.
“I just came with my friend to make sure this wasn’t a ruse,” she says. “But they’ve been laughing in there the whole time. Sounds almost like a slumber party, not a photo shoot.”
And indeed, when it’s my turn, that’s a very close comparison. Tamara is my age and wields a camera almost as big as her face the way I hold a pen: like we know what we’re doing. We bond over loving Of Monsters and Men, and we’re singing along to Little Talks as she helps me pick my first outfit. Because I’m nervous and keep wrapping my arms around my stomach, she suggests the most covering one.
Though about seven months pregnant, Tamara demonstrates the poses she wants me to be in: Perched on the corner of the bed. With my legs on the headboard. Lounging casually with a book. Tamara says, “Look at me and say “Ahhhhhh.” It’s part relaxation technique, part How To Make a Sexy Face on Demand 101. She directs me to “Stick your butt out!” and “Pop that hip!” Internally, I yell at myself “Suck in your stomach!” which was a common refrain throughout my childhood, one of only a few directions I never seemed to get right. There’s no time to think too hard about what I’m doing and why, it’s more go-go-go.
I’m thankful for the pace, because Pandora seems intent on taking us down my personal musical memory lane, playing “our song” from the three significant relationships of my life. Bright Eyes’ First Day of My Life conjures visions of my grad school boyfriend playing me a bootlegged copy of the tune. Kenny Loggins’ Danny’s Song reminds me of a man too much like my father in all the wrong ways. And finally, Ho, Hey by the Lumineers, the song playing when I offhandedly first told a man that I loved him after he opened a cattle gate for us while hiking. The playlist is doing its best to remind me I have no one to show these photos to.
And then, I remember, I do. I didn’t sign up for this shoot so someone else could look at me. I signed up to see myself clearly. I have me to see these photos.
By the end of the shoot, Tamara feels like a friend. She’s a fellow female small business owner. We’d talked feminism and boudoir, photography and art, babies and boyfriends. We trade email addresses and shake hands before I leave.
“I didn’t feel sexy during the shoot,” I tell Grey a few hours later. “I feel exhilarated having done it. But I never once was like, yeah, baby.” If I was telling her the whole truth, I’d admit that I even felt a little silly at moments.
“Me either,” she says, and I release the breath I didn’t know I was holding. “But I don’t think the process itself is sexy. It’s fun and active. It’s the product that is supposed to be sexy. I will say the process made me appreciate the modeling and photography skills that go into Victoria’s Secret shoots. Yes, the women are starting off way hotter than I am, but it’s a painstakingly detailed process to get just the right angle that will look just right for that shot. One misplaced elbow or wrong blink of the eye and the whole photo is ruined.”
“I wonder how painstaking the Photoshop process is?” I muse. All Things Boudoir does touch-ups to the photos taken. They don’t try to take away your body shape, or your size, but they do smooth everything out. And I’m scared I’ll look far too good to be true. Or worse, I’ll look bad, even with Photoshop. As though even a professional can’t fix me.
“Honestly, I fucking loved being Photoshopped,” Grey says. I’ve known her over half my life, and I was not expecting that response. “I’ve never looked hotter. Obviously. And yeah, technically I’m not that hot, but – I really am, if that makes any sense. I’m at least as hot as that Photoshopped photo, because a photo doesn’t capture your essence. It’s a microsecond of a moment caught on film. A photo can’t capture your radiance. It sounds cliche but it’s true. So in some ways it seems like a little bit of Photoshop is only fair to try to even out the score.”
And just like that, my spiritual guide Grey has scrubbed me free of doubt. Talking to her can be like a baptism of my mind.
On the day of the photo reveal, a process done over a screen-share with the photo-editor, I’m not nervous. I figure the hard part was the photo shoot, and that turned out to be a cakewalk. All I had to do now was pick some photos I liked and shazam! Done.
I hate my body. It’s the only thought I have from the second I see the first photo. It’s a loud thought. A clear thought. And it’s followed by a haze of memories, voices of family members, friends, and strangers past all blending together. It’s not like you can’t lose some weight, and You’d be thinner if you were a vegetarian, and What a cute pot-belly you have! They used to be other people’s voices, but they became mine long ago.
Here I’d thought seeing the most bare-all photos of me ever taken was going to make me feel sexy, and bring out the loving voices, the ones that have told me with a look of shock and awe as though they were the luckiest men on Earth, You’re beautiful. You’re sexy. You’re the most interesting person I’ve ever met. And instead, it’s a body-hating bonanza.
Why can’t I just see what I wanted so badly to see? Why can’t I see me (whoever that is)?
And that’s when the memory of Grey’s voice from one of our first conversation about a boudoir shoot hits me. “I wish I had done this in my 20’s,” she’d confided. “I probably would have felt way more insecure about myself, which is ironic because I was way skinnier, but it would be amazing to have photos like this of me from that time. Imagine being able to remember how insecure I felt and be able to wonder what I was thinking because I looked so hot! The photoshoot has given me some great perspective retrospectively, now and hopefully going forward.”
Since I can’t see myself through the eyes of old lovers and I don’t want to see myself through the eyes of anyone unsupportive of my body, I try to look at the pictures through the eyes of future me, the way I look nostalgically at photos from high school now.
And I have to say, future me is IMPRESSED.
I might never like the way I look in the moment, but I am allowed to let future me celebrate what was. For now, that’s as close as I’ll get to celebrating me in the present. While I’m not proud of that, I’m okay with it. And I feel like I’m one step closer to loving my body the way I’m told is possible, to feeling the gratitude Grey feels. As envious I was of her super hot photos when she first showed them to me, what I really wish I had was that kind of appreciation for me.
I surprise myself by buying five printed photos, not including the two below (which are the most revealing of the seven I bought). I want something special for future me – and for the potential future partner I can’t give up hoping for.
As for if it’s possible for me to feel sexy, I’m still not sure. So I asked Grey over text if she did anything that made her feel sexy. She responded: Dancing to Ellie Goulding – by myself and with my husband. Taking luxurious candle lit showers. Sinfully rich food. Slowing down. Having tea in the evening, when there’s a million other things I should be doing. Trying on lingerie for myself. In short, taking care of myself in very feminine ways. Grey’s been right about a lot of things, so I’ll probably try some of those (though I’ll have to ask what a feminine way to take care of myself is. I have no idea what that means).