Rowan Pelling: 'Penthouse' I rejected. But now I'm ready for you to see me in the buff

Ten years ago I would never have posed for a naked picture. So why now, in the age of Size Zero?

Share

When I was 33 and at the peak of a certain small-scale notoriety as the plummy-voiced female editor of an erotic literary journal, I was amused to receive two unusual, yet identical, requests one rainy Wednesday (though not as outré as the old gent who wanted me to smack him with a hairbrush while singing "Jerusalem").

The editor of GQ, the men's style magazine, and the editor of Penthouse, the rather less stylish men's mag, both wondered if I could be persuaded to disrobe for their readers' pleasure. The editor of GQ promised me a top photographer and great lighting; the editor of Penthouse offered me a wodge of cash. Despite these inducements, I said no.

I didn't have huge problems with the nudity per se. Most claims I had to modesty disappeared long ago and, as a lifelong skinny-dipper who belongs to Cambridgeshire's most venerable naturist swimming club, I'm not too anxious if someone glimpses me in the buff. I had also been photographed in my scanties with my staff to publicise the relaunch of my magazine. Desperate measures for desperate times.

But in this instance I wondered who and what I would be stripping for. I wasn't Jordan, my career didn't depend on it, my husband wasn't mustard-keen on the notion and, having once worked on GQ, I was all too aware of what being photographed by men for male readers of a men's mag involved: generally speaking, hands stuffed down knickers, mouth hanging open as if about to perform a blow-job, and the ever- stylish-legs-akimbo-pose.

I'm not knocking the time-honoured tricks of the trade - very nice too, if you want a quick hand shandy. I just wondered whether I found it interesting or affirmative to join the long queue of women who testify to an already well-proven fact, namely, that any moderately young, slender and comely childless female can be readily made to look like a wet dream.

And then there's the fact that, as anyone who has suffered from an angst-inducing dream where you suddenly find yourself butt-naked in M&S will tell you, nudity is all about context. Of course, for many people there's no more appropriate context for discarding your knickers than the pages of a men's mag, but it seems to me that's mostly true for pop chanteuses, models, starlets and Russian tennis babes.

I had only been asked to strip because in recent years some men's mags, and GQ in particular, have developed a strange appetite for inducing female journalists with posh voices to take their kit off. I suspect this has more to do with male hacks' laddish wagers, as in "Bet we can get that leggy bint at the Torygraph to get her jugs out", than with readers' demands for seeing Nicola Formby or Celia Walden in the altogether. If you have no clue who I'm talking about, my point is already proven.

So why the volte-face? Why bare my all now? I know the conventional reason is to say I'm doing it for breast cancer, abused donkeys, Peta (can someone tell me why small furry animals are saved from a clubbing by the sight of Sadie Frost's bum cheeks?) or the WI.

In actual fact I sat for some naked portraits in the summer of 2005 because, firstly, my talented photographer friend Circe asked me whether I would. Secondly, the request came at a time when I felt my body was evolving from sufficiently explored territories into a more interesting yet treacherous terrain.

Until the age of 35 I'd never been in hospital in my life, but in the previous 18 months I had had a pregnancy terminated after the foetus was diagnosed with a fatal condition, my mother had died of cancer, my son had been born by emergency Caesarean, I'd had a biopsy on my breast, an emergency appendectomy and, following an unexpected collapse, I'd had a cardiogram and been diagnosed with a heart murmur. There's nothing like a brush with mortality to make you embrace your imperfections.

Circe, who is best known for artful erotic portraits of svelte young NY beauties, had decided she wanted to undertake a more subversive photographic project; one that would counteract the cult of size zero waifs and bland, cosmetically-enhanced, digitally-altered female perfection. She told me she was looking for older, larger (magnificently curvaceous in some instances), less conventionally attractive women than her previous subjects.

"Gee, thanks a lot, Circe," I said. She wanted women who had lived a little, or a lot, and who had learnt that tough trick of being comfortable in their own skin. Women with their own specific ideas of sensuality that weren't dictated by the male gaze - a number of Circe's subjects are lesbians.

With two fresh abdominal scars and a post-baby belly to celebrate and my 40th birthday winking at me over the horizon, I found myself challenged by Circe's approach and surprisingly amenable to it. Whereas 10 years ago I might have worried, if snapped naked, that the size and colour of my nipples didn't in some way conform to the accepted norm, now I am just happy to have breasts. So, armed only with a bottle of Sancerre and a Roxy Music CD, I found myself draped over the soft furnishings in my uncle's Pimlico flat while Circe snapped away with an occasional exclamation of, "Oops! I can see your lady bits." As with most examples of age-inappropriate behaviour, it was an incredibly liberating experience.

It seems I'm not alone in finding what would've once been deemed undignified behaviour for a woman past her biological prime curiously invigorating. New research for Woman & Home magazine revealed last week that the majority of middle-aged women shop in stores that are more customarily associated with teenage girls. The survey also showed that one in five women in their forties have a partner who's younger than them, while two-thirds of women over 40 think they look younger than their age. A coinciding Mintel report also talked about the "10 years younger" effect and attributed it, in part, to Madonna and Carol Vorderman - who are apparently leading a charge of well-groomed, middle-aged lovelies who are gloriously, if barely, contained by scraps of Lycra and thigh boots.

If I had read these stats 15 years ago, I wouldn't have believed a word of it. The myopic triumphalism of youth rarely admits to sensual gains to age. It seemed impossible to me from that perspective that the onset of grey hair, crow's feet, drooping breasts and those flabby bits you can clutch great handfuls of on your own back (or is that just me?) could herald greater physical confidence. But it's only by waving goodbye to your totty years you realise there's blessed relief in the fact that advancing years winnow out men who only leched after you because you were young and had breasts.

Yes, you may miss the wolf whistles, but did any woman ever really relish flirting with men who thought the answer to Channel 4's question How to Look Good Naked was quite simply: be 17? Fewer men may flirt with you, but the ones who do are more chivalrous and enquiring. And the friendships you develop with men are more matey, tender and equal, because sexual tension is not so insistent. But it's waving goodbye to youth's tedious, self-loathing insecurities that's so exhilarating.

At 18 I was bulimic, thought myself hideous, and wouldn't have shown my naked body to anyone. At 38 I have three naked portraits by Circe hanging in London's Camera Press Gallery and - forgive me - a nudie pic in a national newspaper. It's not that I think myself especially attractive nowadays. Nor do I think it a dignified, grown-up or modest thing to do. But I no longer give a monkey's. And that's true freedom.

'Bona Fide Women', photographs by Circe, The Camera Press Gallery; 2 November to 1 December

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Marketing & Sales Manager

£40000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A reputable organisation within the leisure i...

Tradewind Recruitment: Science Teacher

£90 - £140 per day: Tradewind Recruitment: I am currently working in partnersh...

Recruitment Genius: Doctors - Dubai - High "Tax Free" Earnings

£96000 - £200000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Looking for a better earning p...

Recruitment Genius: PHP Developer

£32000 - £36000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A rapidly expanding company in ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
British Prime Minister Tony Blair (L) pictured shaking hands with Libyan leader Colonel Moamer Kadhafi on 25 March 2004.  

There's nothing wrong with Labour’s modernisers except how outdated they look

Mark Steel
 

Any chance the other parties will run their election campaigns without any deceit or nastiness?

Nigel Farage
Isis hostage crisis: The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power

Isis hostage crisis

The prisoner swap has only one purpose for the militants - recognition its Islamic State exists and that foreign nations acknowledge its power, says Robert Fisk
Missing salvage expert who found $50m of sunken treasure before disappearing, tracked down at last

The runaway buccaneers and the ship full of gold

Salvage expert Tommy Thompson found sunken treasure worth millions. Then he vanished... until now
Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Homeless Veterans appeal: ‘If you’re hard on the world you are hard on yourself’

Maverick artist Grayson Perry backs our campaign
Assisted Dying Bill: I want to be able to decide about my own death - I want to have control of my life

Assisted Dying Bill: 'I want control of my life'

This week the Assisted Dying Bill is debated in the Lords. Virginia Ironside, who has already made plans for her own self-deliverance, argues that it's time we allowed people a humane, compassionate death
Move over, kale - cabbage is the new rising star

Cabbage is king again

Sophie Morris banishes thoughts of soggy school dinners and turns over a new leaf
11 best winter skin treats

Give your moisturiser a helping hand: 11 best winter skin treats

Get an extra boost of nourishment from one of these hard-working products
Paul Scholes column: The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him

Paul Scholes column

The more Jose Mourinho attempts to influence match officials, the more they are likely to ignore him
Frank Warren column: No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans

Frank Warren's Ringside

No cigar, but pots of money: here come the Cubans
Isis hostage crisis: Militant group stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

Isis stands strong as its numerous enemies fail to find a common plan to defeat it

The jihadis are being squeezed militarily and economically, but there is no sign of an implosion, says Patrick Cockburn
Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action

Virtual reality: Seeing is believing

Virtual reality thrusts viewers into the frontline of global events - and puts film-goers at the heart of the action
Homeless Veterans appeal: MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’

Homeless Veterans appeal

MP says Coalition ‘not doing enough’ to help
Larry David, Steve Coogan and other comedians share stories of depression in new documentary

Comedians share stories of depression

The director of the new documentary, Kevin Pollak, tells Jessica Barrett how he got them to talk
Has The Archers lost the plot with it's spicy storylines?

Has The Archers lost the plot?

A growing number of listeners are voicing their discontent over the rural soap's spicy storylines; so loudly that even the BBC's director-general seems worried, says Simon Kelner
English Heritage adds 14 post-war office buildings to its protected lists

14 office buildings added to protected lists

Christopher Beanland explores the underrated appeal of these palaces of pen-pushing
Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Human skull discovery in Israel proves humans lived side-by-side with Neanderthals

Scientists unearthed the cranial fragments from Manot Cave in West Galilee