There she was, a woman I knew very well, but had never seen naked until this very moment. I didn’t know if I wanted to be her or if I wanted to have sex with her.
I had a bad habit of scrounging and shuffling through my parents’ boxes in the attic of our house. They were getting divorced and the ladder was left down quite frequently. Boxes of their 20-year marriage were half opened, taped shut, and thrown out. I was roughly 11 years old but even then I had an affinity towards old objects, memories, and collected items.
Finally, after enough make-believe between the Pink Panther and wooden boards, I noticed an unlabeled box. I peeled back the cardboard and there they were, in all of their glory, my father’s infinite and quite impressionable Playboy collection. I remember feeling stunned and simultaneously thrilled to be sorting through the issues one after another. The box was deep, and heavy, and had at least 100 issues stacked inside. One after another I flipped with temptation. Finally, I found it. It was the September 1985 issue and on the cover was a familiar face. The text read, “Unlike a Virgin… For the Very First Time.” Madonna stood there, clothed in all black, her hair shuffled into her signature headband, and her string of rosaries around her neck. My Catholic school girl boots were quivering.
I don’t remember what other issues my father collected, but this one, I hold on a pedestal. Being exposed to Madonna in this way was different than all of my other early queer memories. This was more intimate than the moment Claire became my first kiss in her basement. This was far removed from Sarah and I experimenting with one another in the bathtub in 1st grade.
I was raised in a highly conservative and Catholic family. Finding my father’s secret, and probably hidden, collection was a holier than thou experience. His confidential dirty magazine stash was passed down to his daughter — something he probably didn’t plan to occur — and shook the pears from her tree. One by one, I turned the pages of every Playboy magazine, joyfully exposing myself to the sleek and shiny pages decorated with flawless women.
As I opened the Madonna issue, I quickly scanned for her spread. The photographs were in black and white and shot by Lee Friedlander. Later in life, while studying to get my photography degree, I would think back on these images and use their inspiration again. The photographs weren’t typical of a Playboy issue. They were intimate, like the viewer was the lover, and they had just finished a long sexual encounter. The moments Friedlander captured were mid-movement and unpolished — just like Madonna.
I gazed at her body and her underarms, all unshaven. I remember looking at her shape, at the way she folded her legs, and how different she appeared without clothing. I was seeing her through the eyes of the male gaze. Hunched over and fascinated, did Playboy know that an 11-year-old girl would be unhinged at the sight of this particular superstar?
There is one particular photograph where Madonna is seated without any clothing and she’s looking down at herself. Her legs are unshaven. Her body is smooth. I was awe-struck, and still am to this day when I look at it. I wanted to steal the magazine and stare at her forever. In that moment, I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be her or I wanted to have sex with her. My queer wheels began to turn. I couldn’t get enough of what I was seeing, I wanted more. The female body being presented to me in such a sensitive and penetrating way felt right. I wasn’t confused or ashamed. I felt, for the first time, that I firmly loved the female body. Although, it would take me years to discover the entirety of my queer identity, it is rooted in this childhood memory.
Looking back and detailing my initial thoughts of Madonna, and Playboy, makes me wonder how I am any better than the concept of the male gaze. My eyes sexualized Madonna just like Friedlander and the Playboy consumers. How am I any better? Is it because I was an innocent child who stumbled upon the box by accident?
At the end of the day, Playboy is entertainment magazine for men. It supplies written articles, and still does to this day. Its beginnings in the 50s and rise in the 70s shaped sexuality for men and women across the nation. While we can criticize Playboy for its many sexist mishaps, being exposed to female nude bodies empowered me. I saw a woman I already idolized taking ownership of her body. My own self-discovery as a queer individual is entirely based off of my little after-school field trips to the attic where I would gaze and sigh over the large and vast magazine collection. My freedom sat inside of that box.
The hyper-sexualization of the women in Playboy sparked a craving inside of me. My queer senses began to tingle when I saw Madonna’s arms lifted above her head. Her natural body triggered something deep inside of my stomach. I didn’t know what that feeling was at the time. It was my little secret.
I simply sat on my foot, day dreamed about her as I fell asleep, and eventually, I grew up.