IT IS AN ODD THING, to sit in a hotel room and wait for someone to come take pictures of you naked. Or nearly naked. I should have eaten something. I should have had a drink. To ease my anxiety, I alternate between sit-ups and push-ups. Last minute offerings to the fitness gods, praying that I look better than I feel.
On the TV, there is a special about the pyramids of Egypt. They were built as memorials, undeniable testaments to a king’s or queen’s glory.
I do another set of push-ups. I’m trying to get my breasts to perk up. I’m 34, and while the girls are still within whispering distance, they’re definitely not where they were ten years ago.
The minutes tick by. I drink a little water, but not too much. I don’t want to bloat.
I’m not nervous about being naked in front of a stranger. I love being naked and have always been fascinated by exhibitionism. I once attempted to be a stripper thinking I would embrace female empowerment and make some extra money. It only lasted a few weeks and I wasn’t that good. For one thing, I am not naturally bubbly or charming. For another, I have very little coordination and lived in fear of falling off the pole.
I go to the closet and run my fingers over the lingerie I’ve purchased for the photo shoot. The cobalt blue bra with faux-diamond embellishment is my favorite. It’s from Victoria’s Secret, and I’m hoping I look half as good in it as the mannequin did. I’m nervous about the garter belt and stockings, but it seemed like a prerequisite.
The special on Egypt tells me the great temple Abu Simbel was built to honor Nefertari, unrivaled beauty and beloved queen of Ramesses II. She later tried to rule without her husband and became known as the Heretic Queen.
My grandmother was infamous in her small, New England town. She was a beauty, tan and blond and legs as long as a summer day. She was scandalous, a shameless flirt, a back-stabbing boyfriend snatcher. Lock up your brothers, your beaus, your sons and your husbands. Ginger was a siren on land, singing a song of abandon and ecstasy. And once you loved her, you never forgot her.
We traveled back to her home town together several years ago. She hadn’t been home in decades, but when we walked into a deli owned by one of her old flames, he immediately recognized her. He was blind, so he couldn’t see her, and her voice had to have changed in the 60 or so years she’d been gone, but he knew her. I’ll never forget the joy and wonder in his voice when he called out, “Ginger!”
She was a juggernaut of flirtation and charm. I grew up watching her bat her eyes, reach across the table to touch a hand, or drop one of her delicious laughs. Her advice was always not to take life too seriously, to have more fun. There was no problem a little music and a handsome man couldn’t cure.
Cleopatra rolled herself into a rug to sneak a visit with Caesar. He was the only person strong enough to help her keep her throne.
My mother rejected everything that her mother was–man-crazy, co-dependent, and irresponsible. My mother was one of those girls who grew up beautiful but unaware of it. She was, and still is, uncomfortable in front of the camera and most of her posed photos show a tentative smile and a distant gaze. But I’ve seen pictures of her riding her old horse Prince, or climbing oak trees barefoot, or singing with friends around a campfire, and in those photos her beauty is undeniable. She is the unexpected beauty of quiet strength and uncomplicated grace.
She married a devastatingly handsome man who, like her mother, needed attention from the opposite sex to feel validated. My mother allowed her husband his flirtatious dalliances and occasional crushes. They hurt her, but she smiled and fed the kids and paid the bills and slowly disappeared from photographs. Meanwhile, my father flirted and petted women to show affection and approval.
I loved all of these people: my wild and gorgeous grandmother, my quietly beautiful mother, and my charming rake of a father. I am parts of all of them.
The photographer, Candra Cain, texts that she’s in the parking lot and will be up shortly. The special on Egypt is almost over. Many of the kings and queens of Egypt became monarchs when they were very young. Nefertiti was 15 when she married Amenhotep IV. Cleopatra was 18 when she ruled Egypt, and 21 when she seduced Caesar.
I grew up an uncomfortable Lolita. I wasn’t willowy or athletic, my teeth were crooked and my laugh tended to bray rather than bubble. But I was adventurous, fearless in the face of male sexuality, and so hungry for attention that I drank down the good, the bad, and the abusive. I didn’t know if I was beautiful. I didn’t care. What I cared about was convincing a man that I was beautiful. Sometimes I was my Nana, sometimes I was my mother. Always I was the inevitable conclusion of my beloved father’s misplaced philogyny.
Vanity and vulnerability, insecurity and seduction. I am Cleopatra still hiding in the rolled-up rug.
Candra arrives, a whirlwind of energy, shaking me out of my reflective reverie. She scatters rose petals on the bed, pops open a bottle of pink champagne and starts sorting through my Pinterest inspiration board. We have a lot in common. She loves that our playlist is Deftones and Tool, and that we both frequent the same local tap house. I love her easy laughter and no-bullshit attitude about female empowerment. While I sit down for hair and makeup, we talk about why I am doing this. I say it’s an engagement present, but when pressed admit that I am not engaged.
Why am I doing this?
When my hair and makeup are ready, I pull on the black push-up bra and stockings set. Candra helps me with the back snaps. I am surprised at the big, luscious blond curls around my face, the suddenly luminous gray-green eyes. “I look like Brigitte Bardot!” I exclaim to Candra, who agrees.
We get started. I drink two glasses of pink champagne to loosen up, but it does nothing. I can feel my side roll when I sit down. I should have run more, I should have eaten less, I should be prettier, thinner.
Candra moves the long-stem rose from the bed with an impatient flick. “It looked like a rose was trying to swim into your vagina.”
I laugh so hard my eyes water. I have to stop laughing or I’m going to look more like Baker than Bardot. And that’s when I give up trying to be anyone other than who I am. A mid-thirties woman who loves to be sexy even though I don’t have thigh-gap, jutting hipbones or gravity-defying breasts.
The pictures, when I eventually see them, are breathtaking. Sure, there is a little extra skin here or there. My nose is still a little crooked, my butt a little more jelly than jam. But, I don’t care. These are for me. This isn’t a testament for others to witness my glory. That’s not why Candra and I spent three hours in a hotel room taking pictures of me in various states of undress.
Why did I do it? Because my grandmother taught me not to take life too seriously. Because my mother showed me that real beauty is revealed when you’re happy. Because confidence will always outlive physical appearance.
The real Cleopatra looked nothing like Liz Taylor. She was not like Nefertari with timeless and inarguable beauty. There are no surviving busts of Cleopatra, so we cannot know with certainty what she looked like. Some historians have said she was “brilliant to look upon,” while others say her features were nothing striking. Coins struck with her image depict her as fair and lovely or mannish and hook-nosed. Yet she seduced one of the greatest rulers of all time.
What rolled out of the carpet wasn’t an unparalleled beauty, but an unparalleled spirit. Perhaps what seduced Caesar wasn’t just one more nubile young girl throwing herself at his feet, but a woman who was equal parts intellect, charm and bravery.
*Many thanks to Candra Cain Photography for helping me feel fabulous.