Regrettably SFW

I Destroyed The Nudes I Took For An Ex. I Wish I’d Kept Them For Me.

I should never have thrown them away.

A few years ago, I was cleaning out the musty storage unit we rent in our Brooklyn apartment building. I hadn’t peered into its depths in quite some time, and my husband — after several winters of wrestling our son’s snow sled out from under a pile of New Yorkers circa 2003 — demanded I purge some of its contents.

It took me an entire afternoon, and as I pulled out feather boas, a fully functional hot pink gas mask, CAT scans of my brain, and bags of rubber novelty teeth, I felt like I was excavating the tomb of someone I’d known long ago. Who was this person? Obviously someone who fancied herself whimsical but who perhaps suffered from an anxiety disorder.

Then I pried open a bright red, water-stained box, and to my surprise found it contained several nude photographs of myself from about 25 years ago, when I was in my early 20s. Not just of me but also of an ex (or two). I had completely forgotten these photos existed, and now that I knew they did, I was taxed with figuring out how to dispose of them.

I hauled the box upstairs, and explained its contents to my husband.

“I thought maybe I could just dump them all into the shower then run water over them to ruin them? Then throw them away?”

My husband — who is a pragmatic software engineer from Northern Ireland, not an essayist who can’t recall how she acquired multiple pairs of tap shoes — shot this plan down, explaining to me how I’d be sending toxic chemicals directly into the New York City sewer system.

If I were to send my husband a nude now? He would likely call an ambulance, assuming I’d experienced some sort of brain bleed.

“Then what am I supposed to do?” I asked. I couldn’t just throw them away, as this incited visions of the bag ripping open in the sanitation truck and a photograph of my ex’s testicles wafting its way through the streets of Brooklyn and coming to rest upon an elderly woman’s Wegman’s bag. If I lived in the suburbs, perhaps I could have barbecued them, but our nearest barbecue pits were at the local park, and I doubted anyone would welcome me torching my bush alongside the corn for their daughter’s quinceanera celebration.

My husband didn’t seem particularly interested in helping me problem-solve my nudes quandary and only shrugged. Then inspiration struck. I dumped all the photos into a garbage bag and proceeded to empty an entire container of honey over them.

My husband took in this scene with a single raised eyebrow, while I explained my theory that no one would ever want to mess with sticky nudes. And also would he please assist me with holding the bag?

He would not, wanting no part of this plan, and simply watched as I squeezed out the final drops from the bear-shaped container. The bottle emitted a faint, glutinous gasp, as if the bear itself couldn’t quite believe what it was seeing.

It’s been a few years since the honey incident, and I’d largely forgotten about those pictures. But then recently it all came back to me, as I began to think quite a bit about nudes. Two of the shows I watched earlier this year featured 40-ish women sexting. There was Bad Sisters, where a woman snaps a gynecologically intrepid photo of herself for a paramour. And Fleishman Is in Trouble, where a divorced dad is deluged with the nudes of middle-aged women.

Watching Jesse Eisenberg scroll through the nipples of strangers, I started to wonder if it was weird that I’d never really shared nudes with anyone. That my nudes had existed on actual Kodak paper? My husband and I met right around the time cellphone cameras came into existence, when selfies still looked a bit like ultrasounds, as if we were all texting each other pictures of our second trimester. And if I were to send my husband a nude now? He would likely call an ambulance, assuming I’d experienced some sort of brain bleed.

But what if I were to divorce, or God forbid, something happened to my husband? Would I be thrust into the world of nudes? Would sharing Lo-Fi-filtered photos of my labia simply be a part of the dating landscape?

Not a nude: The author poses in the clown wig, purple feather boa, and bright pink gas mask she discovered in her storage unit. Courtesy of Johanna Gohmann

I am well aware of how old timey I sound on this topic, as if I am a time traveler who has just stumbled into the room, lantern in hand, clutching in confusion at her dressing gown. It’s similar to how I sound when trying to discuss TikTok or how my mom sounds trying to talk about the Apple TV: ignorant of the particulars, and with the hazy, resigned understanding that we’re likely going to leave this Earth never quite grasping how it actually works.

I mean, yes, I know nudes are the norm for many, from the old to the (disturbingly) young. And I honestly can’t imagine being a kid today and being pressured to send “sexy” photos. The thought sends a bone-quaking shudder through me, as I envision what sort of pose I might have struck at that age — me in my plaid Catholic school pinafore, enormous perm held above my head by nail-bitten hands, the flash glinting off my braces and bifocals. Really, I should have been thanking Jesus nightly that cellphones didn’t exist.

But lately, I’ve been thinking about nudes more in terms of posterity. The other morning I was enjoying my coffee when my 10-year-old glanced up over his iPad to inquire why my neck looked so “scrambled.” As if my neck were a plate of limp diner eggs waiting beneath a heat lamp. And I suddenly had a flash of anxiety that maybe I should have more carefully documented my décolletage in its pre-Denny’s-breakfast days? Maybe I shouldn’t have so carelessly tossed the sticky portraits documenting my nubile youth, which now lie in a landfill somewhere, likely decimated long ago by some disgusted but desperate ants.

So many of us spend our lives locked in a doomed dance of never quite appreciating or seeing our body as it is.

I have an actor friend who was once on the cover of Playboy. She was in her mid-30s at the time, and I remember how she spoke of the photo shoot with extreme urgency. “I told the photographer, we need to do this NOW! The clock is TICKING!” As if her breasts were time bombs that might deflate into flaccid windsocks at any given moment. She’d wanted her body documented immediately, preserving it in its prime.

In my pre-baby years, I didn’t get it. Around that time I worked at a portrait studio, the sort of place where parents had pricey baby portraits done, bringing in red-faced newborns clad in crocheted caps that cost more than my coat. I was quite surprised one day to open what I thought was yet another picture of a child trying to eat its own fist but was instead a massive, 6-foot photo canvas of a naked, smiling woman, stretched out upon a sofa. I asked the photographer what the story was, and he explained that the woman was turning 40, and she’d wanted to be able to remember how good she once looked.

Oh, how I bit back my amusement at this. Her portrait seemed like such an elaborately over the top way to commemorate one’s collagen. (Not only that, but where on Earth would it hang? Over the very sofa upon which she’d lain?)

But now, at 47, a part of me understands her impulse. At the very least, I commend her on her ability to recognize that she felt beautiful, and knew she wanted to celebrate that beauty via a life-size photo portrait.

So many of us spend our lives locked in a doomed dance of never quite appreciating or seeing our body as it is, forever looking back on photos and remembering the body as it once was. I know I would personally like to reach through my iPhoto and strangle the 28-year-old me who thought she needed to wear a Miracle Suit to Miami.

But while I might not possess a gallery of nudes, down in storage that day I did rediscover another artifact of anatomical documentation: a plaster cast of my vagina. It was from when I was 36, and on assignment for a magazine. I’d written about participating in a sculpture project for which an English artist made a “Great Wall of Vagina” composed of 400 plaster casts of different woman’s vulvas. The sculpture was meant to encourage body acceptance, though I have no idea what happened to it. It could be the wall of a pub bathroom in Liverpool for all I know. But I was given a cast of my own to bring home with me. I’d forgotten it was tucked away beneath our camping equipment. Unlike with the photos, when I found it, I felt no need to destroy it, and simply tucked it back under our pop-up tent. Who knows, perhaps if I am ever thrust back into the world of nudes, I could simply send a photo of the cast? “If you like this, just wait until you see the real, not so dusty version…”