(WOMENSENEWS)--I had already ventured several times to the nude beach, but I still felt my stomach tighten as I unzipped my camera case. Twisting out of my skirt, I surveyed the fleshy landscape for my next victim.
"Someone should be taking your picture," a dreadlocked surfer teased as I tossed my bra to the side. I winked and sauntered past the rainbow of beach towels strewn across the gray sand, glancing surreptitiously at each body. At last I halted in mid-step, my gaze falling on a suntanning woman.
"Hi, there," I began. "I'm an intern for the local paper. I have a bit of an unusual question to ask. Do you have a few moments?"
It was my first story outside of a college newspaper. Believe it or not, it was about trends in pubic hairstyles; in particular, what people say about their preferences for shaving or not shaving. Hardly a subject worth selling your soul for, but that only makes what happened that much worse.
My assignment was to look for actual examples of shaving or not shaving among those on a nearby nude beach. It was for a local weekly with a circulation of about 4,000 that could be found reliably stacked on the grocery checkout counters in tiny tourist towns along the edges of remote, pristine beaches on the Pacific coast.
This idea wasn't mine exactly. Yes, I had expressed an interest in nude beaches, but someone else at the news meeting suggested the pubic hair idea. It was a stupid idea from the get-go.
And I should have realized that my editor could have been crossing an ethical line when he told me to take my own clothes off to get the best story possible.
Plucked From the Stack
Here's how it all happened.
A few months earlier I'd spotted a want ad--block letters in all caps--for a journalism internship. After nailing an interview with a heartfelt speech about my watchdog journalism ideals and general indifference to salary, I was selected from what the newspaper editor insisted was a hip-high stack of applications.
A few weeks later I jammed a U-haul full of ratty boxes bulging with clothes and literature--I was certain I would need little else--and sped from my home in Colorado to Northern California. I battled leg cramps during the drive, consoling myself that my housing luck--an affordable room in the home of a divorced hair stylist--portended a summer of literary enlightenment.
On my first day I entered the newspaper's office--a tiny shack--feeling thrilled.
During the introductions at the first news meeting, however, my spirit began to wilt. The other interns--three men and one woman--had either just entered graduate school or completed it and were roughly eight to 10 years older. One seemed to be an art expert; another an experienced environmental reporter. What, I wondered, was my value?
After I stammered out my college paper experience, my editor snorted and muttered that my introduction lacked gusto and I should tell everyone a zany personal quirk.
The comment fit his nature; the gnome-like 30-something with protruding pot belly lived by his constant impulses. An irrational part of me flared at the chance to prove that what I lacked in experience I made up for in derring-do.
"I think I'd like to visit a nude beach," I declared.
An Attempt to Impress
It was an empty attempt to impress, but my editor's eyes, which had already made a few indiscreet voyages along my torso, lingered there even longer this time, lost in thought.
"While you're there, you should do a story," he said, adding, "naked, of course," as an afterthought.
His eyes floated up his eye sockets as he mused over possible angles.
One of the male interns piped up. "What about trends in pubic hair shaving?"
My editor raised a "well?" eyebrow at me.
From the corners of my eyes, I saw the other female intern staring at the floor. I imagined what she was thinking: "What kind of a journalist covers a story naked? Better yet, what kind of a woman uses her body to get attention at her job?"
I wondered the same thing but there was my editor's daring expectant stare.
My first several visits to the local nude beach proved uneventful, and I found most people eager to discuss the fine points of the artistry behind various pubic hair trends.
But then came that moment when I was scrambling around the tan naked woman, my photo lens zooming in and out.
I suddenly became distracted by a nearby beachgoer watching my actions with intent interest, his bemused smile compelling me to pry for any anecdotal morsels he might offer my story.
Lecture on the Beach
Before I knew it I found myself in the middle of a suspiciously detailed waxing lecture.
"Now, some women really don't need to shave that much," he opined, "take yourself, for instance." His eyes dropped to my bare nether regions. I blushed all the way to my ears, but said nothing. Instead, I forced my eyes onto my notepad and began scribbling incoherently.
Then there was an odor. I tried not to believe it, but it was impossible to ignore the fact that he had brought himself to orgasm.
I found my clothes, got dressed and fled. Back in the office, co-workers chuckled at the story. But I saw the silent glances they exchanged. They thought I deserved it.
I delicately asked my editor when we were alone in the office if I should use my looks to glean stories. His bushy eyebrows knotted together scornfully.
"Not using your looks is like not using your intelligence," he replied flatly.
"But it's not something I've developed, like my intelligence," I resisted.
"Like you're not on a StairMaster two hours a day?" He retorted, and I couldn't argue.
"Now, there's a party going on across the street," he continued. "Get over there for your drunkard story and get some photos. Do what you have to to get in, you know? Flirt, offer dates, anything. Use what you've got."
He turned and tramped down the stairs before I could protest.
I felt at a loss, ashamed that I allowed someone else to write the ending to my story, not the one about the nude beach, but the story I was living, the story about my complete submission to what could only be labeled as workplace sexual exploitation.
I took a breath, paused for a moment, then grabbed my notepad and unzipped my camera case.
Alecia Warren is a recent graduate of the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Her work has also appeared in the Columbia Business Times, Vox Magazine and the Columbia Missourian.