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For years now, I’ve had nightmares about being once again photographed for the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. In those dreams, I’m in a bikini in some fabulous place, a sandy beach with palm trees and a glorious sunset. Although I’m ready for the photo shoot—makeup and hair in place—I just sit there and watch other young models pose. The photographer is yelling “fabulous” and “beautiful” while I wait and wait and the sun is going down. The truth is that I know I am a middle-aged woman and I can’t compete with these beautiful young women. I have other things to offer, but not in this setting. Here, on a beach in the sunset, the only thing that matters is how I look. One doesn’t have to be Freud to get the gist of it. In my opinion, nothing ages as poorly as a beautiful woman’s confidence.
When SI called right before Christmas to ask whether I was interested in doing something for them, my immediate reaction was “no way.” The pathos of my dream was still fresh in my mind, and at 52, I may have the assurance of knowing my strengths and weaknesses, but as far as modeling goes, my expiration date has passed. There are women older than I who can still pull it off, and bless them, for they are freaks of nature, but I am like a slightly worn piece of clothing, comfortable and clearly having seen better days. Then SI told me it was about words. Words and nudity. Now they had my attention. Reading is hands-down my favorite activity. I write. Words are my life. And as for nudity: Having grown up in Sweden, I was taught that being naked is healthy and honest. (Although nude photos are often sexualized, it’s usually the reveal of it—or the not reveal—that makes it so.) But believing nudity is fine doesn’t necessarily translate into wanting to pose nude for a photograph. Once your nudity is captured, it belongs to others who can and will dissect it and judge. And as I said, although I feel more confident as a person, this in no way translates to being confident about my looks. At 52 and unaltered, people tell me I look good for my age. This is not the same as being told you’re beautiful.
But melding me the model with me the writer was an irresistible offer. I would get to use my body in a new way: to make people read!
The shoot was scheduled for two days after Christmas, not optimal given my cookie intake throughout the holidays. I scrubbed and depilated and hoped for really good light. The photographer was a young woman, the whole set was going to be all women. I was told I could pose any way I wanted and the words that were to be painted on to me could be whatever words I wanted. This was even more anxiety-causing to me than not being in perfect shape. I had to pick the right words. My nights were filled with words popping up just as I was drifting off to sleep. Or when I was in the shower. Or when I was taking the dogs out for a walk. Words wouldn’t leave me alone, especially when I had nothing with which to write them down. This was important: The words I chose would represent me. Who I am. Who I think am, who I hope to be. The words were what would give me the confidence to bare it all.
When I arrived at the photo shoot on a 17°F morning, I had found it. One word. It was one that represented and encompassed everything I believe in, everything I aspire to be, everything I think would make the world a better place. The knowledge that I had found it warmed me like a little pocket warmer. Which was good, since the photo studio was actually a garage. A garage in Brooklyn with three parked cars and no heat. A corner had been fenced off with paper dividers, and that was the set. The four young women there were all dressed in parkas, gloves and hats. I must admit it took some deep breathing on my part to not just bolt out of there. The makeup artist kept apologizing for her icy hands on my face, even as her makeup began to freeze in its bottles. I’m not a quitter. And I have been in worse circumstances while modeling, like that time I almost drowned in a waterfall, or had to stand in stilettos on top of the cage of a live, terrified jaguar as we were both lowered by a crane from the roof of a Los Angeles high-rise in the middle of the night. But at this stage of my life, this isn’t my job, I have no one I need to impress with my modeling skills. I probably would have left if Taylor, the young woman photographer, hadn’t shown me the photos she had already shot.
They were beautiful. Women of all different sizes and ages, naked, their skin shouting words they wanted the world to see. Fierce. Human. Lover. Real. Mother. Optimist. Genuine. Strong.
None of it was sexy or coy, just vulnerable and honest. The beauty lay not in the perfection of the bodies, quite the contrary, it was in the confidence and bravery it took to reveal their imperfections.
I realized the word that I was so proud of having picked wasn’t just mine. Although none of the other women had used it, they had the outcome of that word scribbled all over them. One word that demanded we gather our confidence. Demand we be seen. Demand we speak. Demand we are heard.
See all of Paulina's incredible images from SI Swimsuit 2018: