Feature image by Hans Neleman via Getty Images
I’ve written a lot about my body, for Autostraddle and for other publications. I haven’t shied away from expressing the moments where I’m in love with my body and those where I am not. I think it’s important to be honest about the work we do to be okay with ourselves.
A few months ago, I was, as a woman sometimes wants to do, taking nudes. Poised on the edge of my bed with my stomach out and my hand strewn over my chest, I started taking shots of myself, freshly showered and moisturized. Some of them were bad. I couldn’t quite figure out how to position my face at the angle I was taking the pictures at.
I kept snapping and deleting, snapping and deleting, until I got one picture down. In it, you can see everything but my areolas and my vagina. It was a very modest picture, and also, to me, very sexy. I even loved the way my stomach stuck out in the picture, the way my arms looked, and how the fat on my sides rolled in and out.
I debated what to do with the picture for days, not knowing if I should post it somewhere or send it to a beau. I loved it so much that what I ended up doing was sending it to an artist friend to have them paint a portrait of me.
This is a friend whose art you may have seen before. They created the image for The Drop, the column on all things Black and queer Shelli Nicole and I used to do. Their name is Key Gabriel, and you can find more of their art on Instagram. They have painted countless things for me; I’ve commissioned them many times before but never for something this intimate.
My favorite color is purple, so the background of the portrait is a stark eggplant color. They used oil paint, so the texture in the portrait is rich and layered. My body looks incredible, my hands and nails a bright blast of color next to my brown skin. I loved it.
If you are fat, Black, disabled, trans, or anyone that has been conditioned to see their body in a negative light, it’s a wonderful idea to commission someone for a nude portrait. It doesn’t even have to be completely nude, whatever level of nakedness you are comfortable with will suffice. I think you should get a portrait done for many reasons, but here are just a few:
As a gift for yourself or for a lover
My plan for my portrait has always been as a gift for myself. I haven’t hung up the art in my new place yet, but I plan to very soon, and the portrait will go in my bedroom along with the rest of my racy lesbian art. l will be honest about the fact that it can be nerve-wracking to have someone, even a trusted friend, see your naked body. Ultimately, I love Key very much, and they are truly the only person I would trust to do a portrait like this. I suggest you find an artist friend that can do the same or, if you don’t have one, find an artist who does portraits you like and really study their work.
This portrait is a gift to me because I’ve been through the wringer with my body. The pandemic weight gain has been rough, and sometimes I rush past the mirror in order to not catch a glance of my naked self. When I look at this portrait, I fall in love with my body all over again. I see it as it is, big and beautiful and brown. I appreciate what it has done for me. It makes me want to care for my body even more.
To reconnect with your body after change or trauma
A long time ago, another artist took some topless pictures of me for a school project on sexual violence. This was not very long after I had experienced my assault. I often revisit those images when I want to remember the rawness and emotion I felt after being violated in that way. In the images, I’m moving, so there is a blur on some of them that obscure the more delicate parts of my body. The movement also conveys a sense of chaos, a sense that I felt to my core at the time.
As I’ve said, I had the nude portrait done after gaining weight. My body changed, and so did my perception of it. I became more critical and judgmental of my food choices and my lifestyle. To subvert this critical voice in my head, I took the nudes and found a love for myself I thought was waning. The portrait was able to do for me what the picture did for me all those years ago. This is not to conflate change with trauma. My body changed after I was assaulted, and my body changed during the pandemic. These snapshots of myself exist to help me honor who I am in that change during both stages of my life.
To have a unique piece of art you can carry with you forever
At the end of the day, a portrait is a piece of art. Prepare to spend at least a couple hundred dollars to fairly compensate the artist who is doing the work for you. With materials and time spent, you’ll have a unique piece of art that you can cherish for as long as you keep it. Having this piece of art is a source of pride for me, not only because it is my body. My friend spent hours creating something for me in an exchange that required vulnerability from both of us, and now I have this gorgeous portrait.
I love this portrait because it is beautiful, but also because my friend made it. This is a friend that has seen me through a lot, and I with them, so it makes the portrait and the exchange all the more tender even though money was involved. If you hire an artist you don’t personally know to do your portrait, you may not have this experience. That doesn’t mean it isn’t worth doing. It’s your body, and the artist you choose should have a style you like, that you think can capture who you are in a few strokes.
When I do finally hang up this piece of art, I will do it with pride. The pride of someone who loves her body and the pride of having a good friend’s art displayed in my home. I want that for you, reader. To not only feel a deep appreciation for yourself and how you were made but to have someone paint you in the most beautiful light. It is an experience that I would pay for again, and probably will in the future. If you do go through with it, use a picture where you felt the most yourself, or the most desirable. I chose one that made me look at my own body with that kind of desire, and I think it comes across perfectly in the portrait. If you need help taking a good nude, Autostraddle has a few resources on that, too. I truly hope you do go through with it and experience the satisfaction I have as a result. We deserve to feel like art, to feel wonderfully made.