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How Naked Selfies Taught Me To Love My (Big) Body

Remember your first time? That first kiss? First love? First naked selfie? The latter may just be me, but I remember taking my first naked selfie because I remember my revulsion at seeing it. I remember my blurry body, on the screen of a Samsung flip-phone, laid bare before me looking nothing like I had hoped it would.

The naked selfie seems to attract an ongoing cycle of dispute– legally, culturally and economically. There’s the question of adolescents under the age of consent sending naked selfies to other people – and who should be penalised for what is ostensibly the circulation of child pornography. There’s the debate over whether they’re empowering for women, or reinforce the male gaze (see the uproar surrounding Kim Kardashian’s efforts).

And then there’s the fact that, by virtue of reinforcing certain beauty ideals, naked selfies can fuel the profits of the beauty, diet and cosmetic surgery industries – which are known to peddle products designed to absolve us of our insecurities – the same insecurities those industries create with their marketing tactics.

Since childhood, there have been rolls underneath my clothes; since puberty, cellulite and stretch marks on my body.

The problem with my selfie – I felt at the time – was that I was, and still am, what some people might call a “big girl”. Since childhood, there have been rolls underneath my clothes; since puberty, cellulite and stretch marks on my body. When I walked across the playground at lunchtimes as a kid, people hurled the word "fat" at me, and I knew at that age, around 11 or 12 – by the fact I’d never seen another larger woman naked, or even positioned in a desirable light – that my body type was not a popular one.

Growing up, if I saw a plus size woman in the media, she was usually the source of derision (like Monica from Friends’ former fat self) or a matronly figure (Mrs. Weasley from Harry Potter). She was never, ever sexy, even if she was having sex. Even a comedienne like Dawn French, ferociously funny and clever, was always reduced by words like "roly-poly" before anything else.

These examples made me feel like my future was destined to be shaped by my weight, and seeing my body through the lens of my grainy little phone camera was horrifying because it only reinforced the feeling further.

It is in fact seen as so unusual to find someone with a larger body type attractive, that a whole term, “chubby-chaser”, exists. As though it’s a fetish, to be whispered across tables during dates and furtively searched for on specialist porn sites. And even if someone does find your body attractive, they too are made to feel like it’s some kind of taboo – something they can’t speak about.
I was so ashamed of that photo that I deleted it just as soon as I’d taken it. This body of mine wasn’t just unsexy, it was sexless. The poses you see glamour models and celebrities contorting themselves into in men’s magazines and newspapers aren’t intended for curves like mine. So I dieted and starved in the hope I had a future as someone else, like Monica from Friends did. I prayed my body was just a fat-suit, too.

Some people would argue I was wasting my time trying to look sexy – that it's just a construct designed by and for the male gaze, and any photo taken with even a hint of titillation is just complying to that patriarchal diktat. By wanting to take a nude selfie, some might say I was letting the side down. And that’s not even taking into account the risks. We’re told about the "rise" in sexting incidents where pictures go public, with the possibility of blackmail, or worse, making it hard to see why anyone would want to take or send a naughty picture at all.

In a recent article for Lenny Letter, model Emily Ratajkowski, of Robin Thicke’s Blurred Lines video fame, wrote powerfully about her experiences being sexualised as a child by the adults around her, and how this has influenced her feelings on her body and her sexuality. In March she posed for a topless selfie with Kim Kardashian, who herself has endured countless episodes of shaming for being photographed in various states of undress.

Ratajkowski explained that, "We are more than just our bodies, but that doesn't mean we have to be shamed for them or our sexuality." Other people may impose meaning onto your body, but Ratajkowski argues that this doesn't have to define you or anyone else. Kardashian wrote something similar in an open letter following controversy over one of her topless Instagram selfies: "I am empowered by my body. I am empowered by my sexuality. I am empowered by feeling comfortable in my skin."
While these women are models whose bodies are viewed by society as more attractive than my own, I realised that this message applied to me just the same. Loving yourself means loving all of you, including your body and all its perceived flaws, and taking my own photographs was a key part of that acceptance process. Just because someone might choose to reduce you to your sexuality, and just because the male gaze is present, does not have to mean that this is the only thing guiding women who choose to be photographed sexily.
Around the same time that I read Ratajkowski’s letter, I discovered plus size model Tess Holliday’s Instagram. This may well have been the first time I had ever seen a body that unashamedly had the thighs and the curves that I had come to fear as my own. There she was, in all her (US) size 22 glory, in beautiful lingerie (or less), and holding herself like her weight was the most irrelevant thing in the world. She looked incredible.

Holliday runs a movement, Eff Your Beauty Standards, which sees people of all body shapes and sizes submitting selfies of themselves, clothed or otherwise, to be featured on the affiliated social media. Elsewhere on the Internet, Tumblr blogs like Love The Chub operate on the same premise. There is a disclaimer on the photographs shared here: "Please no porn or fetish reblogs." It is written because no matter how sexy the photographs could be perceived by an outside observer, for whatever reason, that is not why they exist.

In a roundabout way, that’s what I learned from these women: Whether or not someone else finds us sexy is irrelevant. My sexiness is for me. And so, I took another picture.

The first time, all those years ago, I had been hoping to see a body that looked more like the mainstream conception of beauty than I ever would or could. I wasn't trying to love my body, I was trying to will my body to be somebody else's.
This time, I looked at my body exactly as it is, knowing that there were folds and creases and dimples that I'd ordinarily wish to have Photoshopped out. Instead of magnifying my flaws, though, the naked selfie served to reinforce to me the fact that beauty and sexuality are as much mine as anybody else's, albeit not necessarily the same.

I’m still a "big girl". Those parts of my body that horrified me as a teenager still exist, albeit with the tweaks and edits that come with growing up. I’m no Emily or Kim, but to take a photograph of myself, to position my body in a manner in which it could be considered desirable on my own terms, rendered all of that meaningless. This was about my body, and accepting it as it is, right now.