Who among us hasn’t fallen prey to the siren song of a group-coupon website? You, in the back, put your hand down, we’re being honest here. For my part, Living Social has introduced me to a few great and several adequate restaurants, a ton of new workout programs, and even a cooking class that my dad and I took together for Father’s Day one year, all of which provided the service I expected, and cost me very little money.
So, when I saw a coupon for 92% off of a photo shoot that featured a model in cute boy shorts and linked to a website with a section on the elements of pin-up style, I bought two and began planning a girls’ day out with my mom. I didn’t even bother to check with her before I bought them; this was the woman who instilled in me that one must have a costume (the campier the better) for every occasion, and here was an opportunity to put on our matching fifties-style bathing suits, blow up a beach ball or two, and ham it up in front of a camera. Sure enough, she was all in, and we spent several months gathering sequined tops and polka-dot shorts for the pictures we’d take individually and together.
When the day came, one of the first things we mentioned to the woman who greeted us at the door was that we wanted to take at least one photo together, something we rarely do. Mom happily explained that she wanted to send it to her sister. The woman visibly twitched: “Together?” We grinned and nodded, confident that the two of us could camp it enough to rival any old-school calendar. The receptionist couldn’t see it yet, but that was fine. We knew we could pull it off.
Now, this is probably when one of us should have noticed that all the photos on the walls were images of women in varying states of undress and lingerie. We probably also should have noticed that the “boutique” was stuffed with lacy non-clothes, not a stitch of which would have been remotely appropriate for a mother to wear in front of her daughter or vice versa. Oh, hindsight: this is when we should have noticed these things, but alas, it was not.
After signing our waivers – another missed cue – we began our package experience. The receptionist, who was also the wardrobe consultant, makeup artist, hairstylist, and general handler, instructed us to unload our bags. The first step would be choosing our outfits, which would set the tone for our makeup and hair.
We empty our bags onto the couch between us. The handler sorts through our costumes – short shorts, modest bustiers, a western-fringed apron, and of course our bathing suits – and dismisses them all. Our playful clothes are not sexy enough, she says. Did either of us bring thigh-highs?
Finally (finally!) the reality of the situation starts to dawn on us. The wind totally out of our sails, we turn to the boutique. Each of us chooses a discounted corset as a part of our package (yet another sign I missed), and I am stuffed into a cherry-print monstrosity behind a rack of sheer underthings, I accept reality: I have brought my modest, borderline uptight mother to a no-holds-barred boudoir photography session.
With the corsets padding our dismal wardrobe, the handler takes us downstairs and does our makeup and hair. Mom and I try to decline the makeup application, saying we just want to look like ourselves. Our handler looks at us absolutely horrified and insists that we do not really want to look like ourselves, trust her. We want to look like pretty versions of ourselves, which is only possible if she spackles us with makeup. This is not really what I want to hear, and makes me want to skip it just to spite her, but ultimately she talks me into it. When she is finished, Mom is shocked, just shocked, at how much better I look after the effort. Under the circumstances, this does not feel like a vote of confidence. As she curls my hair, I consider wearing makeup more often, and then mentally slap my own wrist for being so easily swayed. And actually, the woman was right; each of us looks like herself, but a softer, more romantic version. We look like ourselves in soft focus.
While we wait for the photographer to finish her smoke break, the receptionist offers us a drink. I jump at the glass of wine I’ve needed for the last half-hour and wonder if they will give me a second one. Mom, who doesn’t drink, eyes my wine as she sips a glass of water and wonders out loud if one glass of wine would really count as drinking. Oh, this is going to be fun.
I go first. Despite the difficulty we had getting to this point, the photography session itself is a lot of fun. To my surprise, the photographer is a well-known artist in her native Argentina, and she does a wonderful job of getting me to relax about my thighs and my not-adequately-sexy underwear. She is also fantastic at modeling the effortlessly sexy poses she wants me to assume. Unfortunately, they require more effort and flexibility than I possess.
“Just curl your arm around the back of your head and sweep your hair up in front with your hand,” she says, contorting herself into a position I couldn’t pull off even if my arms were long enough to hit it, which they aren’t. “Open your lips a little, but don’t smile,” she coaches, snapping away. I do, and…wait, isn’t this snarling? “…actually, let’s just have you smile.”
We go through the shoot with her coaching me not to self-consciously hide the parts of me I like the least, but instead to deflect attention to my strengths. I spend a lot of time bending forward over my loose stomach and plumping my breasts with my biceps, and assuming an over the shoulder peek-a-boo position. Throughout my hour, I alternately feel like a cartoon centerfold trying not to break an ankle in platform heels, and wondering how Mom is going to handle this when it’s her turn.
When she disappears into the studio, I can tell that Mom is terrified. A few minutes later I hear her talking loudly about things I would never think to discuss with a stranger while I was in my underwear, but hey; everyone has her own way of diffusing tension. In the same way that she does not do shellfish, cold water, or serious movies, Mom does not do nudity, and though I’m certain she would prefer all of those other things combined to removing her clothes for a photographer she’s just met she will not back down from a mother-daughter bonding activity, no matter how uncomfortable. I try to focus on my book and vow to read all the fine print on coupons from here on out.
I shouldn’t have worried so much. By the end of the session Mom has made friends with the photographer, who kisses her on both cheeks as we leave and promises to come visit soon; she has been thinking of buying property near my hometown and Mom has (somewhat inadvertently) invited her to stay with she and Dad while she house-hunts.
On the way back to my apartment we both fall quiet. Dad, who is driving, doesn’t know what to do with us – didn’t we have a good time? Was everything all right? It was, we assure him, but the gap between expectation and experience threw us. We struggle to tell him how we feel. Playing sexy for the camera pushed us beyond our limits. We were surprised that we hadn’t felt particularly insecure in our bodies, but we had in our attitudes. Mom and I can do playful and cute, but bombshell femme fatale is foreign territory for us and we weren’t quite sure we could pull it off.
A few days later we return to the studio to view our photos. We are led down into a small room with a very large monitor that is queued up to a close-up my ass, which is not-quite-covered by a scrap of blue lace. I glance at Mom. She seems unruffled.
I’m surprised at the way I feel about my body when I see it in the context of the photos: exposed, vulnerable, and whole. The belly I try so hard to minimize looks well-proportioned above my hips. That it is not flat is actually a boon; I look like the kind of woman that should lounge around a bed wearing lingerie. The photos I expected to dislike for exposing all of my flaws end up being some of my favorites, because they show me that those flaws become assets when I do not judge them separately from the rest of my body. I remember the photographer telling me to pose for the seventy year-old self version of me who would look back at these pictures one day, but sitting there I realized that it is really the real-time version of me who needed to see those photos. Present me, who needs to make peace with her belly, who needs to know she has a bombshell inside.
Mom, not surprisingly, was not particularly thrilled with most of her photos. I recognized the discomfort on her face in many of the early frames, but toward the middle the photographer managed to coax genuine smiles and laughter out of her, and those were beautiful. The part that took us both by surprise was the way the photos showed us to be the same. We looked like mother and daughter.
Of course, you think, you are mother and daughter, but this has never been a given for us. Except that we are both short, Mom and I have always been physical opposites of each other. I curve where she is thin and angular; my hair is a mess of unruly curls while hers is stick-straight. I remember once, as a young girl, being approached in the supermarket by a well-meaning stranger who wanted to know if that woman was my real mommy, or if I had been stolen. But on that huge monitor screen, there was no denying that we share the same ribcage, the same collarbone, the same slope to our hip.
Like many daughters, I have jokingly shrieked about my hands becoming my mother’s hands, and like many other mothers, Mom has laughed out some words about revenge. Recognizing those small parts of my mother in myself has always been a cliché, plain and simple. But after thirty years, to see hidden parts of yourself in your daughter? I can’t really imagine what that feels like. Destiny? Joy? I’m not sure. All I can tell you is that when we saw those flashes of her body in mine, we didn’t joke the way we do about our hands. Instead, Mom’s eyes filled and her voice broke, and I reached over to put my hand in hers for the rest of the slideshow. And that moment alone was worth the pratfalls, discomfort, and $29 that we paid.
Elis Bradshaw owns more workout pants than real pants. She lives in Oakland, California, and sometimes writes stories on Cowbird.