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Written by Liz Talago.

Images by Laura Schneider.

A few years ago, the University of Oregon published a study hypothesizing that young womxn who posted sexy photos on social media were perceived as less competent than their conservatively dressed counterparts. Elizabeth Daniels, the lead researcher for the experiment, advised that womxn only post social media photos that showcase their identity (i.e their hobbies and interests). “Don’t focus so heavily on appearance,” she said, “focus on who you are as a person and what you do in the world.” 

Let’s unpack this for a second…

Sexual expression is an important part of identity. For many of us, it’s a major source of empowerment. We also know that sexual repression continues to plague our culture and that it can lead to significant emotional harm. So if you’re sensing something eerily familiar about the subtext of the University of Oregon study, you’re not alone. It’s just one more reminder that we’re supposed to believe that modesty commands respect and that honest sexual expression does not. I see right through all the holes in that argument and I’m pretty fed up with the victim-blaming — and I bet you are too.

But how does this insight really play out in our workplaces? Can we refuse to participate in oppressive systems that tell us what not to post on Instagram and still bring home a paycheck? In short, can we really ignore these findings?

Many of us don’t have the financial or social capital to walk off the job when our work is misaligned with our moral compass. In light of this harsh reality, I’m inclined to say those of us with the privilege of mobility should be making the most noise on this topic.

When I’m not building my own business, I take on freelance modeling jobs that feed my soul. This isn’t true for everyone, but for me, showing my skin helps me feel more at home in it. And when I walk into a boardroom or pitch new business, it is partly because of (not in spite of) this work that I’m successful. Ask anyone who makes a living in the naked arts — burlesque dancers and strippers alike — and they will tell you that the skills they learn onstage can translate into huge gains in business. It’s all about giving yourself permission to take up space; it’s about building confidence.

It’s all about giving yourself permission to take up space; it’s about building confidence.

To give you some context, I’m a veteran of thirteen years of Catholic school, and I now live in Nashville, Tennessee. This city has a progressive veneer that wears thin when you spend more than a few days here, after which you’ll soon be reminded that it’s really just a big, crusty rhinestone in the center of the bible belt. My upbringing and my current surroundings mean that the shame struggle is alive and well in my life, and sometimes I wonder if womxn on the coasts or in bluer places feel like I do.

Recently, my all-female crew, Next Door Creative, produced a shoot for the woman-owned lingerie boutique Darlin. The photographer, Laura Schneider, and the makeup artist, Erika Pareja, were an absolute dream team. We set out to create an honest portrayal of strong femininity through unapologetic sexual energy, and I am proud to say I think we nailed it.

I felt a familiar twinge in the pit of my stomach. As much as I’m compelled to share what I do, I still worry about being judged for it.

I am so proud of what we created, but as we began to review the photos, I felt a familiar twinge in the pit of my stomach. As much as I’m compelled to share what I do, I still worry about being judged for it. I wonder if I can afford, quite literally, the criticism I’ll receive when I, a nice “professional” lady, use these photos to promote my business and express myself. Even with all the privilege I’m granted because I move through the world passing for a white, cis, and straight, I still wonder sometimes if it’s worth the risk.

I’m happy to say that for the most part, being authentic has been really good for my business. It’s been a great litmus test to weed out any potential partnerships that I’d likely regret down the road. The truth is, if you won’t hire me because of the photos in this post, I don’t want to work with you anyway. Believe it or not, I have many clients who’ve hired me because of my blog and my visual content, because they feel a sense of true authenticity from me, and that’s what they want me to create for their brands. These small steps toward greater transparency continue to help me grow, and I’ve found that this congruence suits me just fine.

Looking around, it seems that attitudes about female sexuality are shifting, and this will continue as more womxn make their way to the c-suite. For example, GM CEO Mary Barra recently made some waves when she overhauled GM’s lengthy dress code policy. The first female CEO of a major automaker, she replaced ten pages of employee regulations with two words “dress appropriately.” And when asked what could be done to most improve the lives of womxn at work she simply said: “Stop making assumptions.”

I dream of a day when my sexuality isn’t a professional liability.

Leaders like Barra give me hope for a world of work where women, trans, and non binary people are judged by our abilities and trusted to make sound judgements about how we portray ourselves. I dream of a day when my sexuality isn’t a professional liability, when pantsuits aren’t prerequisites for promotions, and when a womxn is safe to celebrate a full spectrum of self. Until then, I’ll keep posting what I want and speaking up about exactly why I’m doing it. 

Liz Talago is a writer, brand strategist, and freelance model living in Nashville, TN. She writes about money, sex, women, and work at where she shares actionable, unfiltered career advice for the #metoo era. As a co-founder of Lean-In and Ladies Get Paid in Nashville, Liz loves finding ways to empower and uplift her tribe in person and online. Follow her on Instagram @immaculate.confessions.