In early April, I was a couple of weeks into quarantining with my mother in Las Vegas. I’d recently been laid off. My life as I knew it had all but vanished. And I was horny.
I found myself yearning to feel sexy, but I had no romantic partners or prospects to sext. When my friend sent me a picture of her topless in bed, something inside of me sparked. Exhilarated by this newfound outlet to express my sexuality, I kneeled naked on the bed facing the full-length closet mirrors, hips jutting to the left, hand strategically placed over my vagina. The lighting was romantic and forgiving. I felt really beautiful. I sent it off to her.
“Omg so gooood stealing this pose,” she immediately responded. “You have great bewbs.”
Now I wonder: Why hadn’t I always been swapping nudes (with consent) with the women I love and trust most in the world, rather than send them off to men who often don’t fully appreciate them—and could potentially weaponize them? Even before COVID-19, many of us were lonely. In 2018, Cigna’s study of 20,000 adults found that almost half of Americans feel somewhat or always alone. And a late-March poll from research firm Benenson Strategy Group found that 55 percent of Americans felt their mental health was affected during the coronavirus crisis. During a time when social distancing makes IRL dating impossible and people are feeling more isolated and stressed than ever, sending our private pics in group chats with close friends can be a safe and healthy way to tap into our sensual sides and get a quick confidence boost.
Women trying to enjoy their full sexuality has long been fraught. Gigi Engle, a certified sexologist and author of All the Fucking Mistakes, says, “There are so many [sex-shaming] messages for women around their bodies. If you send nude photos you’re a whore; even if you take nude photos you’re a whore.” Engle points to well-known examples of sexual exploitation, including 2014’s Celebgate—when more than 100 celebrities had nude or intimate photos leaked online (“a huge violation of privacy,” Engle says)—and former Congresswoman Katie Hill’s resignation after her ex-husband disseminated nude photos of her online. There are now revenge porn laws in most states, but the sexist stigma attached to nude photos still has the ability to destroy women’s lives in an instant.
“All girlfriends should be encouraging each other to send their nudes to each other to celebrate.” Engle says, adding, “That’s how we make the world generally more feminist.”
Karen D’Ambrosi, a friend who I first swapped nudes with, said she felt a void as a result of not having physical contact with anyone outside her family during the pandemic—one that platonic sexting has helped fill. “I think there’s something cute about all of us during this pandemic, lonely in our rooms, and then thinking of one of my friends disrobing and taking photos specifically for me,” she says.
A former coworker of mine, Maddy M., says she has also sent nudes to friends as a way to help fill troubling new gaps in her life. When she joined her parents to quarantine, in turn losing her normal work and dating life, her mind immediately went into a “starved mentality,” she explains. She turned to cultivating beautiful photos of herself and sending them to friends as a necessary form of self-care. “I’ve never felt like more of a sexual being than during COVID-19,” she says. “For me to send a nude of myself is so much more about me than it is about that other person. It's cool to carve out time to give myself a break and take care of myself.... It makes me feel so much better about this reality.”
The risks associated with sending nudes (including job loss, bullying, or suicidal ideation over leaked images) means some women won’t send or even take them. But others are trying to combat such sexism and sexual abuse, disrupting the male gaze and taking back the power of their own body images. Recently, controversial influencer Caroline Calloway posted her own nude photo on Twitter; artist Katy Pryer saw it, drew it, and posted the recreation on her Draws Nudes Instagram. (Pryer, an East London resident, takes commissions from people to draw their nude photos, turning them into permanent works of art.)
“Looking really closely at my body and [the] parts that only a lover would see helped me fall back in love with my body,” Pryer says. “I’m single, and I don’t think [nude photos] should be reserved for people that are only in relationships to feel good about themselves. Your relationship with [a friend] is perhaps steadier than in a romantic one. There’s a kind of intimacy and closeness to it that has nothing to do with sex.”
The day I decided to have a solo nude photo shoot, I, too, craved intimacy. And I wanted to feel better about my body. In this stressful, sad time, I’ve turned to comfort foods and alcohol more than I normally would, and my body bears the effects. As much as I reminded myself that this was not a time to self-hate for the reasonable ways my body and mind were coping, my negative body image was weighing on me.
I pushed myself to experiment. I leaned my phone on the edge of a shelf and set the self-timer for 10 seconds. I took a series of photos lying on the couch with one leg thrown over the top; another on the floor with my back arched; more with my ass splayed toward the camera, looking back with hunger in my eyes. My best assets were on display, showing me my body was still here, beautiful and desirable.
I worried some of the pictures were too graphic to send—I didn’t want to scare my friends off with something that would be judged as too intimate. So I did a bit of artistic cropping and, after confirming consent, I sent pics off to three friends. Their positive responses flooded in: “Girl you look AMAZING!! Your tits are truly a great asset!” “Omg you’re so fucking beautiful and sexy!!!” “Uhhh how are you this bangin’ girl? Save some hotness for the rest of us, thank you.” Their uplifting, enthusiastic feedback confirmed for me that I’ll send sexy photos to friends again in the future, and offer myself up as a safe outlet for my friends to do so in turn.
In the picture I’m most nervous about, I’m lying on the floor, my back curved up so my breasts and stomach jut out. My armpit stubble is on display; stretch marks dot my upper right hip; my pubic hair peeks out. My body looks hard and muscled.
“This one’s fav,” Karen says in response. I smile, and save the photo to look back at another day.
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Jillian Anthony is a writer and editor in New York City. She authors the newsletter Cruel Summer Book Club about change, heartbreak, and healing.
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