The first time I had sex, I kept my shirt on. I was 15 years old, two weeks shy of 16, and my boyfriend and I weren't altogether prepared for the mechanics of putting our bodies together. It was clear he was focused on making sure I felt good with little consideration for himself, and I thought that was a good thing. He wanted me to be comfortable. He didn't even try to remove my shirt.
At the time, my relationship with my body depended entirely on whomever I could get to love it. I volunteered Brett for a job he hadn't desired or consented to. I had one other boyfriend before him who was manipulative, and, ultimately, violent with my body. Brett was a hard turn in the opposite direction. He was a brilliant musician, and I fell in love with watching his hands moving over the keys of his saxophone. He was gentle. He never made crude comments about women, and he never pressured me. I trusted him. I was eager for him to show me what there was to love about my body. All things considered, I used him.
There were six months between the first time we had sex and the second time. Brett said he wanted to wait until I was on birth control, which made sense. But once I started taking birth control, he wanted to wait longer — this time without as clear a reason. I was profoundly confused and embarrassed by my boyfriend's apparent lack of interest in my body. I was desperate for him to want me; it seemed so much more attainable than wanting myself. Eventually, we worked our way up to having sex pretty often, but never as much as I wanted, and almost never instigated by him. He blamed a low sex drive and insinuated that mine might be unusually high. I felt like something was wrong with me, or that I was dirty. Once, I watched him playing his saxophone — he loved that goddamn instrument — and slowly realized I was jealous of the ease with which he held it.
If you have ever found yourself depending on another person's gaze to see yourself more clearly, you know what happened next: I became weather and Brett became my barometer. The nights he wanted me, I was beautiful and necessary. The nights he turned away from me in bed, I felt cold or, worse, hideous. My body became inextricably linked to his libido. Every television show, song, and book I'd read about teens and sex assured me that men wanted women so badly, they could hardly help themselves. This was my first consensual sexual relationship, and the man in question could take me or leave me. Sometimes he chose to take me, but often, he left me lying beside him. I'd curl my knees up to my chest and stare at his back, watching him pretend to sleep, wondering who would stop pretending first. We went on like this for five years.
He tried to come out to me twice before he actually said the words. "I'm so sorry, Ashley. I didn't mean to be like this. I'm so sorry." I rubbed his back in circles, and spoke softly, "I'm sorry too. This must be so hard for you." I meant it. It was clear that his life was about to get far more complicated than mine. But I had no idea what life would look like without him as my focal point. There was no one I trusted to take care of me more than him. As he lay crying in my arms, it seemed less important what he saw in me than the fact that it had taken me six years to actually see him.
After we broke up, I fell into my junior year of college. We stopped talking for some time. Then, my grandmother was diagnosed with breast cancer. She told me over the phone. "Call Brett and tell him too. I know y'all ain't doing so well, but he's practically family. He should know." When I told him, I couldn't help crying and neither could he. We didn't catch up past apologies and tears. Whatever happened during our radio silence would stay there.
By winter, I had tried and failed to find someone else to tell me what to think of my body. I spent Christmas break with my grandmother. She'd gotten me a Kodak digital camera. Brett took pictures. Great pictures. A picture he'd taken of me won him a college scholarship. His photography teacher once stopped me to say, "Your boyfriend is a true artist. Anytime he wants to take photos of you, let him." There was really no need for her to worry. The photos he took of me were the only pictures of myself I liked.
I'd always loved taking pictures of my family and friends, but I'd become so isolated, I was only interested in taking photos of myself. Brett had taught me a few things about photography, the rule of thirds and whatnot. But he almost never took self-portraits. I was his main subject, and now, I wanted to be my own. I started taking photographs of myself. I felt free to pose in ways I wouldn't be if the pictures were for public consumption. I posed like I was gorgeous, in outfits I no longer wore outside, and eventually, I posed for myself nude.
Once I'd uploaded the photos to my computer to get a closer look, I noticed something. Where I'd seen mediocre looks — a woman unworthy of being desired — was actually a fairly attractive girl. My skin was clear and smooth, my breasts full and lovely, and even my stretch marks looked like an artist had drawn them just so over my hips and thighs. I couldn't stop looking at the photos. The stomach I thought came out too far looked soft and begging to be caressed.
Soon, I was obsessed. I started taking more nude photos of myself playing with lighting, being half-clothed, and even writing things on my body. I pored over the pictures using editing software to change tints, highlighting, and shadows. Over time, I fell in love with my body. I loved it the way it had always meant to be loved: ferociously and compassionately. I did not like the way I looked every day, but I loved myself overall. And as I became more comfortable with myself, I became comfortable with Brett too. Comfortable enough to visit each other, talk about dating.
Two years after we broke up, I came out as bisexual to Brett, my ex-boyfriend and best friend. He threw his head back and laughed. "I knew it!" I blushed and hid my face behind my palms. He grabbed my wrists and pulled them apart. "You can't hide from me. I see you."