The first time I ever took a nude, or what I called an artsy nude, was in high school. Partial nudes had become popular in 2011, and I spent most of my evenings scrolling through Tumblr, admiring pretty girls in pretty bras posting “dirty” GPOYs (gratuitous pictures of yourself).

Then, one day, I realized I could post them, too, from one of my private accounts. I can’t remember what bra I was wearing, but it was probably the only nice one I had.

Over the next few months, I took dozens of photos using Photobooth, learning all of my angles and lighting — what made me feel hot and what didn’t. I loved turning to paintings of renaissance women and Greek goddesses for inspiration. Venus looks so serene in that Botticelli painting “The Birth of Venus.” She’s completely naked and looking right at you. I had no idea if she was afraid. But she felt alive.

And that’s how I took my nudes: learning how to look alive for no one except myself. In the end, I didn’t even end up posting most of those pics.

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In 2012, my boyfriend at the time went to college and we chose a long-distance relationship over breaking up. It was then that I thought all my secret work around taking nudes would finally prove useful.

On weekends, I would get into my sexiest underwear and find the corner of my bathroom where I could carefully place my laptop so the camera could get my whole body. I would arch my back and bend my legs in ways that felt and looked desirable.

Then we broke up by November of that year, and I stopped taking nudes — not because I didn’t want to but because I had entirely forgotten the joy of taking nudes for myself. Nudes without a recipient felt pointless. This need for affirmation from someone else had taken over, and those pictures have since disappeared into the ether of the computer world, burned up with the accidental death of my Macbook.

Sending nudes for romantic appreciation is not the point, anyway.

It was 2015 when I started taking nudes again. This was for my first serious relationship as an adult, which was long-distance for most of the time. I rediscovered the angles I loved, the curves I appreciated, and the smirks I enjoyed giving the camera. And after we broke up, I kept taking pictures.

By then, I’d also been in therapy and had a lot of amazing friends in the queer community who made me feel confident. Nudes instilled the same exploration of self-love as they had when I was younger. I relearned the lighting, the filters, and how self-empowering vulnerability was.

Now I take nudes all the time. I put my fingers in my mouth. I lightly drape my hand over one shoulder. I look into the camera and look away. I don’t look for anyone in particular. Just myself. And I keep the photos I like in an encrypted app for safety and privacy.

I also think about my nudes often. I think about how so many people I know have only thought about nudes as something you take for someone else’s pleasure and not your own. I think about what a disservice this is.

A recent New York Times op-ed proposed that nude selfies are now a “high brow” cultural phenomenon. And nudes have become an even bigger communication tactic since stay-at-home orders have been in place. But it feels remiss not to mention that sending nudes to sexual partners is not a risk everyone can take without having to worry about revenge porn and the like — which is one reason I send my nudes to friends I trust, people who have shown they can accept my vulnerabilities.

Nudes don’t have to be high art, either. They can be messy and imperfect, and that’s OK, because nudes should be first about self-affirmation.

In my head, I call them nudes parties. In these “parties,” I’ve also become an advocate for everyone — within people’s boundaries and comfort levels, that is — to take nudes for themselves. They can send them to me, if they want, for extra affirmation.

There’s no need to send nudes because you feel like it’s a popular thing to do, especially during isolation. If you genuinely feel uncomfortable with it, don’t let anyone coerce you into doing so. But if you’re curious, understand that taking nudes can also be about being seen as worthy of love. Our bodies are ours, not anyone else’s.

Sending nudes, on the other hand, can be about creating an encouraging atmosphere where the most vulnerable parts of you are seen and affirmed. So when it comes to talking about nudes, I remind everyone that we all deserve to feel good about our bodies.

In isolation, when there are so many ways we can’t be physically seen, sending nudes back and forth is like confirmation that we can still be close to others and share intimate parts of ourselves. It isn’t just necessarily about being horny. It’s about getting as much affirmation about our vulnerabilities as we can.

A few weeks ago, I’d just taken some really good nudes and felt really hot, so I texted my good friends: “Does anyone have any objections to receiving some nudes right now?”

“Absolutely not, send them,” one replied almost immediately.

As soon as the pictures were received, I got compliments on my boobs and my smirk, which made me happy, of course, but mostly I felt validated. This kind of platonic intimacy has always been important to me. It’s a reminder that validation and desirability don’t have to be tied to sexual desire at all. Desirability can be rooted in appreciation, and nudes don’t necessarily have to be about turning someone else on or even being turned on.

“Are we doing this? Is this just a nudes free-for-all? Can I send my nudes too?” they asked.

“YES!” I said.

This interaction has become even more common since the pandemic happened. (*avatar voice* Everything changed when the nudes parties started.) By now, getting a text from a friend saying, “I took some really good nudes that I spent a lot of time on. Do you want to see them?” is basically just a normal Wednesday.

It’s only as an adult that I understand how nudes play into my own growth, quite literally. Nude parties with friends, specifically, have helped me become someone who responds to others’ vulnerability with affirmation and acceptance. I’ve learned to create space for self-love and empowerment.

I encourage my friends to take their own nudes, whether they share them or not. I tell them that they deserve to feel hot, as we all do, and find what makes them feel good. You don’t have to have a partner, sexual or romantic or otherwise, to feel and look desirable in your own skin.

And there’s nothing weird about it. In fact, nudes parties make me cherish our friendship more. I’ve been given and trusted with the softest parts of them, which in turn makes me feel more open to sharing my own. My friends don’t have to ask if they are safe with me — they know they are.

Elly is a New York-based writer, journalist, and poet who also loves to host parties for her friends. Primarily, she’s Brooklyn’s resident pun enthusiast. Read more of her writing here or follow her on Twitter.