On a June day in 2008, I found myself in a novelty sombrero. I was dangling my feet in the deep end of a swimming pool at a ranch outside of Santa Fe, sporting a red Forever 21 sundress, $1,000 worth of borrowed turquoise jewelry, and wide sunglasses, which I hoped would make me appear glamorous … and anonymous.
It was the afternoon of day two of Playgirl’s annual Campus Hunks photo shoot, an event that I’d coordinated, budgeted, contracted, and conceptualized. And the hunks were coming.
In the last 48 hours, I’d gotten to know this ragtag pack of models pretty well. I knew all about their girlfriends or wives. All about their ambitions and their day jobs—pro basketball, fitness modelling, veterinarian. All about their rationalizations. Carl, who had the adorable, dopey, eager-to-please countenance of a golden retriever, spent long hours in the hotel hot tub explaining that, though he was definitely straight, he did gay porn videos as a sort of cockeyed Christian goodwill mission. “I’m here on this planet to make people happy,” he insisted. “And if it’s by having sex with another guy on camera—if that’s my talent—well, as long as I’m putting positive energy out there into the world, then I’m so happy to do it!”
Despite how strange and sweet and human these men were, it was hard not to see them just as oversize (and anatomically correct) Ken dolls. The truth about asses and dicks is that they’re basically just muscles, like pecs and biceps. When they’re all bronzed and polished to perfection, they don’t even have the qualities of human flesh. They seem like plastic—or machinery.
And now, here I was, posing for it. That I would end up in a swimming pool full of naked men was precisely the nightmare my mother had when I told her I’d been offered a job at Playgirl.
She’d dosed me heavily, after all, with Free to Be You and Me and Our Bodies, Ourselves. As a kid at the food co-op in our rural New England town—an uncommon outlet, in the mid-80s—I pored over colorful buttons protesting Apartheid and the Iran-Contra affair. I went to Montessori school and later to underfunded but well-intentioned public schools, where I started environmental movements and student newspapers. I had holistic peanut butter in my lunches and strict instructions that girls could do anything.
In seventh grade, I picked up a copy of Sassy at the newsstand in the mall. For the next several years, I read it obsessively, as if it were a bible, stitching dresses out of pillowcases, treating my skin with avocado, and working myself into abortion-rights frenzies. From my little backwoods bedroom, Sassy gave me a window into a world beyond the front yard: a world full of books and movies and music that were imbued with the meaning of life (and also, they were cool), one where the personal and the political intersected seamlessly. One where awesome women had awesome jobs making awesome magazines.
By 2007, the year I found myself living in New York, having an awesome job at an awesome magazine seemed like an increasingly unlikely prospect. In college I’d studied sociology and wrote for the radical student newspapers, railing against the IMF, sweatshop globalization, and eating disorders. I interned for a progressive economics magazine run out of a dusty church attic in Boston. I intended, I said with particularly 1990s adolescent earnestness, to do social justice journalism.