I Posed for Playboy

I was eighteen. I was a feminist. How did that even happen?

Photo by Agata Create on Unsplash

It started with a small ad in the campus newspaper. “Models wanted.” Followed, in short order, by a big article in that same newspaper, decrying the small ad and all that it stood for.

It was UC Berkeley, after all; and even though it was the heart of the Reagan Eighties, Berkeley still held fast to its radicalism.

Playboy Magazine had decided to recruit nude models on our proud leftie campus?! Exploitation! Insanity! The very nerve!

I read both article and ad with great interest. They were offering $100 for “clothed,” $200 for “semi-nude” (just boobs, I guess), and $400 for “fully nude.”

Four hundred dollars was a lot of money in those days, my friends. Heck, it’s nothing to sneeze at today. Back then, it was as much as I made in two months in my work-study job — a job where I was always careful to ensure I was scheduled for Wednesday afternoons so I wouldn’t miss the weekly Donut Hour, an important part of my weekly caloric intake.

But I didn’t do it for the money. I mean, I did, but there were other, more complex reasons that drew me…

I had a boyfriend then, one who would subsequently become known among my friends and family as The Evil…hmm, oh, let’s call him Joe. The Evil Joe was greatly in favor of his girlfriend posing for Playboy. I guess it would give him bragging rights, or something; I’m not even sure I remember his arguments, because they didn’t matter. I didn’t want to do it because The Evil Joe wanted me to do it. I already wanted to.

You may know I was raised by hippies on a counterculture commune. We swam naked in the river every summer; kids ran around without their clothes whenever it pleased them — heck, adults did too. I grew up with a very casual acceptance of the body and of nudity.

Of course, I lived in the real world too. I understood, even as a small child, that at school, we wore clothes; at public swimming pools, we wore these stupid binding contraptions of straps and elastic (why, why??). But body modesty has just never been a thing for me. (Amusingly, I periodically have the naked-in-public dream, but it’s never an anxiety dream. It’s always more like, Oh, gosh, I’m naked, I wonder if I should find some clothes before I make the others uncomfortable…)

Another thing my hippie upbringing gave me was actual exposure to actual adult magazines…Playboy and Penthouse and, um, other ones. I learned all sorts of interesting things from all those publications, which were left lying around the house freely for anyone to read. I have to say, the Playboys always looked the most like art. Like appreciation of the female form. The women were photographed so beautifully; the golden light streaming down from above made them look like angels. They were naked, sure; but there was a soft, gentle aspect to their portrayal.

The other magazines were more, shall we say, clinical. That’s a good word, we’ll go with that. As a young woman growing up, trying to understand who I was and what this world was and what was considered beautiful…I could see it, in the Playboy photos. I had a harder time with the others.

But I could always see the appeal of posing for Playboy.

Still, I never gave any of this serious thought till that article in the Daily Cal. I was instantly excited, and also nervous. I remember I carried the number around for a day or two until I drummed up the courage to call.

I was told that they would be “interviewing candidates” at the Claremont Hotel in a week or so, and was given an appointment time.

My boyfriend The Evil Joe was ecstatic. Even at the time, I found this a little weird, a little off-putting, but I shrugged it off. (The red flags I ignored in that relationship went so much further than this little fetishization-fantasy of his — plenty for another essay, should I ever choose to delve in such unpleasant memories for long enough to write it.)

But that brings me to the most important reason I had for wanting to pose: specifically as a feminist, the idea of owning my own bodily agency was foremost in my mind. The idea that I could decide that I wanted to do this, for any reason whatsoever — that I thought it was cool; that I liked the magazine; that four hundred dollars was a lot of very useful money; that the moon was in Scorpio; whatever — that it was my decision and my decision alone: that is what appealed to me the most. Anyone trying to shame me away from it — or creepily pressure me into it — they didn’t matter. Yes, yes, I had taken Women’s Studies classes where we talked about the power of the patriarchy and its money and how it can control you and the male gaze and all that sort of thing…but hey. I was eighteen.

You don’t see things with a lot of nuance when you’re eighteen.

The Evil Joe accompanied me to the interview appointment, though of course, he had to wait in the hall while I went into the hotel room to meet the photographer. By now, of course, I was entirely nervous. The Claremont is a super-spiffy resort hotel a few miles from campus, the kind of place parents would stay when they came to visit their kids. Not my parents, of course; and not the parents of anyone I knew; but rich parents. Fraternity and sorority parents. Business-school-student parents.

Even so, what was I going to find behind that hotel room door? Was this creepy? Surely this was creepy. But no, it couldn’t be. It was Playboy, for crying out loud. It was the “Girls of the Pac Ten,” it had been in the newspaper, there had been protests, it was a national magazine, they published serious articles too, it was legit…was it creepy? Was this okay? What was I doing?!

I knocked. A fully dressed woman answered the door. Whew! She let me in, introduced herself, handed me paperwork. Of course there was paperwork. Paperwork is very reassuring. I filled out the paperwork.

But I couldn’t help noticing that the room in which we sat opened onto a large, fancy bathroom. Sunlight streamed in from a huge window, illuminating a woman with her top off, and a man taking Polaroid pictures of her. Her breasts were HUGE. So much bigger than mine.

They were never going to choose me.

Then it was my turn. The huge-breasted woman dressed, came out, and left; the man introduced himself as David Chan. He was quiet and unassuming, hardly said a word other than to give me polite directions. We went into the bathroom, with the door standing open, leaving the main hotel room (and the fully dressed woman) in view.

It was very ordinary. I took off my shirt and bra, and he took Polaroid pictures of me. At least I was premenstrual, so my boobs were bigger than usual, though nothing like that last lady. After only a few minutes, David Chan handed me one and said, “Give it to your boyfriend.”

How did he know The Evil Joe was waiting in the hall?

Then I was thanked and I put my shirt back on and out I went, after being told they’d call me if they wanted to do a photoshoot.

Well, that was that, I thought. At least I tried.

I got the call. It would be a one-day shoot, at a private house in the hills far above campus. Since I had opted for the Full Four Hundred Dollars, no need to bring any fancy clothes or lingerie or anything. Also, there would be a hair and makeup person; I was to arrive unadorned.

There are two important things you need to know here. One is that, despite being a student at UC Berkeley and grandly independent and all of eighteen years old, I was a hippie child still. Hair and makeup? Ohhh-kay, sure.

The second is that…remember that “premenstrual” business above? Well, now I was menstrual. GREAT. Perfect time for nude photos! But I was so nervous and excited and overwhelmed…Playboy wanted to take my pictures!!!…there was no way I was going to ask if we could reschedule.

Anyway, that’s what tampons are for, right?

I drove to the remote house in the remote hills. (I must have borrowed The Evil Joe’s car; I couldn’t afford a car of my own for several years.) I once again worried about whether this was weird and creepy and dangerous. I once again was reassured when I got there.

This time, there was not only the same fully dressed woman as before — she was the hair and makeup person, as it turned out — but there was also another woman, an assistant of some kind. She dealt with lighting and props and whatnot. It was all very…ordinary. These were people, doing their jobs.

David Chan himself remained mild-mannered, entirely professional, seemingly quite unfazed by what was actually going on here. In fact, when I googled to make sure I had his name right, I found this adorable, tone-deaf puff piece from a few years after I posed. (Puffery aside, the article pretty much tells it like it was, although I see the pay rates nearly doubled in just a short time! Harumph.) He was just a guy, who took pictures of naked ladies for a living. You know. As one does.

But the hair and makeup. Oh my goodness. After the fully dressed woman (I have entirely no recollection of her name) finished with me, I was unrecognizable. At that point, my long thin straight hippie hair fell nearly to my waist; she did something with hot rollers that gave me gentle flowing curls and waves barely past my shoulders. WITCHCRAFT. And she painted me to within an inch of my life — but I didn’t look painted. I just looked like…someone else.

Then it was time to take the photos.

If you’ve never modeled, you might not know that it’s actually hard work. A natural-looking pose is usually very unnatural, especially if you have to hold it for any length of time. (I’ve done a bit of artist’s modeling over the years, and that’s even harder than photography work; it’s considered impressive if you can hold a pose for five or ten minutes. True professionals can do twenty minutes, holding perfectly still. Try this at home…it’ll surprise you.)

But I did my best, and David Chan had made his name working with nonprofessionals, so he was patient and kind.

Mostly, though? It was boring. I’m so sorry to have to tell you this. It may have been empowering and sexy and daring and naively feminist and whatever-all else it was…but in the moment, it was dull and a bit uncomfortable. It was kind of a cold day, to be sitting outside naked, my bare ass on the concrete next to a hot tub.

But boring wasn’t the worst of it, it turned out. After an hour or so, the nice fully dressed makeup lady called a break, and pulled me aside. “You’ll want to tuck the string of your tampon in…” she whispered. “It’s showing up in the photos.”

Crap. Crap crap crap. Now they knew I was a complete amateur. Why hadn’t I asked to reschedule? Jeez. Plus my boobs were all small again. Everyone was obviously just putting a good face on things, going through the motions here. This whole day was a complete waste of everyone’s time.

We got through the day. Everyone remained completely professional. I don’t even remember if they fed me lunch — they must have, because I don’t remember starving, but I’m sure I didn’t eat a lot, or my belly would have pooched out.

What I do remember is more paperwork at the end of the day. I was keenly disappointed to learn that a check would be mailed, within four to six weeks…I had somehow expected to walk away with my bounty at day’s end.

And then there was the question of the name. In my proud proto-feminism, I had indicated on the initial forms that I intended to use my own name. I had nothing to be ashamed of! The nice fully dressed makeup lady wanted to talk to me about this, to be sure I really wanted to do that. “Most women choose a pseudonym,” she said. “Their families…”

“I don’t care about that,” I said, though my parents weren’t hippies anymore, and I knew my mom would be horrified to learn I’d done this — I’d decided I only needed to tell her if the photos actually got published.

“Yes, but your classmates…” she said.

I thought about the issue of the magazine coming out, right when the fall semester began. The new friends I’d make. The new professors… “Okay,” I said, chickening out. I chose a fake name.

Then I went home to go back to my life, and to wait and see if they would use the photos. Because of course they wouldn’t inform anyone. We all just had to wait for the issue to come out.

A month or so later, I got a phone call from my mom. Mid-week, so I knew something was terribly wrong. “Why is there an envelope addressed to you from Playboy Enterprises?”

My stomach suddenly had that feeling like when the elevator floor drops out from under you. “What?”

“In today’s mail. An envelope, for you, from Playboy Enterprises. Should I open it?

“Um…sure…” What had they done? I’d given them my campus address! Except they’d also asked for a “permanent” address…the morons had mailed the check to my mom’s house!

Her tone was icy. I had to tell her everything, to get her to mail me the check. She was so disappointed, so horrified. Just like I’d thought she would be.

“Well, we won’t tell your grandma, unless the photos actually get published,” she finally decided, in a textbook illustration of the perpetuation of disgraceful family secrets.

Spring semester ended. Summer passed. Fall semester started. This would be (if I remember correctly) the September issue, on the newsstands sometime in mid-August.

I went to the newsstand every day, checking to see if the issue was out.

And then. One day. It was.

I bought the issue, without even looking inside. I figured I’d want to own it, either way.

I hadn’t yet broken up with The Evil Joe by then — in fact I’d rather ill-advisedly moved in with him — but we weren’t doing well. This was not a moment I wanted to share with him.

This was just for me.

I found a quiet place on campus. I opened the magazine. I found the spread: “Girls of the Pac Ten.”

I paged through it quickly, and then more slowly.

I did not see myself.

Not even the crazy-curled, painted thing that myself had been for a day.

I went through one more time, reading the captions. Every Pac Ten university was represented, sometimes by a few “girls”, sometimes just a photo.

Then I saw the Cal Berkeley photo. Three $100-girls, in full bathing suits, sitting together at the edge of that hot tub where I’d frozen my ass for a day. Smiling at the camera.

I was so relieved, and so disappointed.

Now I wouldn’t have to wonder if everyone in my new classes was looking at me, thinking, Is that her? Have I seen her naked? I could just be myself, without that whole extra layer of weirdness.

But, why hadn’t they chosen me? Was it the small boobs? The tampon string?

Was I just not pretty enough? Not sexy enough?

Had I not measured up?

I still have that issue of the magazine, though I’m not entirely sure where it is at the moment. Probably in one of those boxes on the top shelf in the garage, with all my old journals, and the particularly important school assignments, and other memorabilia I couldn’t bear to throw away.

I do joke that if I ever get really famous, those photos will surface. Because, beyond that one Polaroid that I dutifully gave to The Evil Joe, I never saw any of them.

I’m not an impressionistic young woman of eighteen any more, though I still applaud my determination to make my own decisions about my own body. I understand with a lot greater subtlety what Playboy and all the other “men’s” magazines were for, and the part they have played in making and reinforcing this exploitative, screwed-up world we’re grappling with now.

Yet I’m not sorry I did that. It was interesting; it was an adventure; it’s given me an insight into a world that not everyone gets to see. It was a rush to get chosen, even if I didn’t make it to the finish line. The $400 (when it finally arrived) was super helpful.

And I wouldn’t be sorry to see those photos someday.

Writer, editor, thinker of things, living on Orcas Island, Washington state. https://www.shannonpage.net

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