The week of October 5, 2014

Living in fear of my own personal Celebgate

By Olivia Cole

I live my daily life with the fear that my nudes photos will be leaked. I don’t think about it every day: I’m not cringing under the dining room table waiting for the bomb of my nudity to be dropped on my head. But I think of them occasionally, my nudes: floating out in cyberspace somewhere, on the storage unit laptop of a bitter ex-boyfriend, lurking on the external hard drive of a pervy photographer in college. I imagine them as digital, less-hot clones of the current me: posed awkwardly and waiting for me to come collect them.

Nudes get leaked all the time. Sometimes by the intended recipient, sometimes by a pimpled hacker giggling in his mom’s basement, sometimes by other forces bent on humiliating the subject—usually a woman. 4chan, for example, is just one of the online shame factories dedicated to finding, leaking, and distributing nudes that were never intended to see the light of day—as seen recently with the Hollywood leaks dubbed Celebgate. There are entire websites built on the concept of revenge porn, where women’s nudes or homemade sex tapes are leaked. Often visitors to these websites also find out women’s employment information, calling their jobs to “report” them as whores. Occasionally these women lose their jobs. Nudes can have unexpected consequences, as if the humiliation of having our bodies nonconsensually exposed isn’t bad enough.

Nudes can have unexpected consequences, as if the humiliation of having our bodies nonconsensually exposed isn’t bad enough.

It’s always a source of wonder to me that the men who leak these images are more interested in humiliating women than they are in continuing to receive nudes. (It sets a dangerous precedent, after all: If nudes continue to be leaked, the flow of nudes might just dry up. Don’t bite the hand that feeds you nakedness.) But shame and power are more important than sex. As we saw during the celebrity nude leak scandal, the rhetoric around sending nude photos is similar to the useless, misogynist caution we throw at rape survivors: You shouldn’t have been wearing that skirt, you shouldn’t have thought about sex, you shouldn’t have trusted other people to do the right thing. Even if you’re a victim, like Jennifer Lawrence, you still get blamed.

I remember the first nude I ever took. I wasn’t actually naked, but shirtless with my back to the camera. My girlfriend took it with a Polaroid, and I looked at the photo for a long time afterward, enjoying how sexy and carefree I looked. I—a tomboy who had always felt a little out of my place in my own body—gazed at the photo of my naked back, my teenage sideboob, and felt sensual, womanly, in control of my body and what it was becoming. It was different than looking in the mirror: The photo was like a tangible piece of my self-image.

So I gave it to a boy at school, a boy I liked very much and wanted very much to like me back: to look at that photo and see what I saw—woman, sexy, in charge. I remember sealing it in a note that said “for your eyes only” and gave it to him at lunch. Is anyone reading this surprised that he showed every boy in our grade? I’m not now, but back then the wound was unexpected, sharp, and deep. I never saw that picture again. Maybe it’s still out there somewhere, or maybe it ended up in the trash, discarded for racier nudes that appeared as we all got older.

I tried to memorize which way of standing made me look sexy, reminded myself to stand like that from now on.

Using a roll of film to photograph different angles of my semi-nude body sounds vain now, but in truth it was the opposite. I was becoming something. Ugly duckling eager to become swan, I flipped through the pictures of myself, poring over my breasts, my legs, gazing at my kneecaps and wondering if a boy would find them bony: Was my belly button weird? Was my waist too square? Would I look better with bigger hips? Which angle was my best? I tried to memorize which way of standing made me look sexy, reminded myself to stand like that from now on. I think I remember my eyes in those photos: staring at the camera, unsure, hoping to be seen, hoping to transform into something with wings.

I never saw those pictures again, either. My older brother had friends over and the photos disappeared from their box in my room, no doubt added to someone’s spankbank, forgotten at the bottom of a drawer, then unearthed by nosy parents, the girl in the photos dismissed as trash and thrown in the garbage, perhaps torn in half.

I didn’t learn. In college, I tried again, this time with a photographer who claimed to be doing a project about real beauty, taking photos of real women’s bodies in their natural state. I thought “natural state” meant without makeup. He didn’t tell me that it meant topless until we got to the shoot location, 40 miles outside of Chicago. I wanted to be a real woman in her natural state. I was a little afraid of him. I was 40 miles outside of Chicago. I took off my bra and stood on a hill by the beach, squinting in the sun, branches prickling my back. He told me my breasts sagged and I should try putting my arms above my head. I put my arms above my head. I never saw the photos. They (and he) disappeared, no matter how many times I emailed.

My nudes are out there somewhere: naked orphans of mine, moles and smudged eyeliner and half smile.

Perhaps the nude well never actually dries up. Writing this, I realize I’ve been burned again and again, and it didn’t stop me from sending almost-nudes to my fiancé when he was still just my boyfriend. But maybe that’s why they were almost-nudes: My areolas never saw the light of day again after the beach photographer. Yet still I found some fascination with photographing this body—sagging breasts and all, bony knees and all—and looking at that image, admiring it, criticizing it, loving it… and then pressing send.

My nudes are out there somewhere: naked orphans of mine, moles and smudged eyeliner and half smile. The girl in those photos is wearing a red satin bra one size too small. She’s floating in cyberspace, between the pages of a dusty yearbook, or perhaps plastered on a bar’s bathroom wall, eyes blacked out with Sharpie. Some days I think of the photos and am filled with dread. They are exposed specters of a girl searching for beauty in her own bones, her body rising from the grave to sink her teeth into my throat, dragging me into a bottomless pit of ruined reputations.

But other times I think of them and am filled with a strange nostalgia, a bizarre hope that one day they will resurface from whatever deep into which they’ve sunk, my raccoon eyes looking out of the film to remind me of a time when I was searching for who I wanted to be, reminding me that maybe I still am.


Photos via Sheila Tostes/Flickr (CC BY 2.0), anika/Flickr (CC BY SA 2.0), and David Fulmer/Flickr (CC BY 2.0) | Remix by Jason Reed