Personal Essays | Crossing The Line

Photo Credit: TJ Smalls

By Sarah Alba

My then-boyfriend, Brian, and I were driving through Pacific Beach when I first came up with the idea for a photo-shoot, I looked up and saw a MetLife Insurance sign that read “Rates so low, it’s like they got Lipo.” I was pissed, and the statement hit me hard, as I struggled to adjust to San Diego’s Perfect Culture.

I worked at a restaurant, and I can’t tell you how many times I heard 13 year-old girls talking about calories and skipping meals while their parents encouraged them. There were a few times when I walked in on girls making themselves throw up, and I wanted to just hug them. It’s a little awkward to hug a stranger, though.

This is a city where there is a plastic surgeon office within five miles of every grocery store.

At work the other day a woman even advised me that to “keep my age I’d need needles and knives.” Of course, I couldn’t respond that every wrinkle is a story, and I would love to have laughing wrinkles when I’m older. So, the photoshoot was born.

I wanted to take everyday girls and undress them, expose them—expose all of the lines. I needed each girl to be different, unique; I’m actually still on the hunt for some more models. I talked to only one photographer in depth about the concept of the shoot before I met TJ and Tiana Smalls.

When we shot the first time, I knew it had to be these two to work with; they would understand the shoot and be as passionate as I was about this. I wanted to change the world, and I knew that they could make it amazing. Tiana’s makeup skills and pose knowledge really brought the photos to a new level of artistry. TJ’s love for photography was what I needed to make this shoot a political statement. I also knew that they would be sensitive and understanding because of the emotional intensity of the shoot for the models.

When TJ was drawing lines on me, he used the lightest touch and kept apologizing, shaking his head and cursing himself for messing with God’s work. He kept reminding us women that we were beautiful just the way we are. Tiana lavished us with her sweet smile and added words of gentle encouragement as she painted us. I had been preparing myself for this shoot for weeks, mentally and physically. Rose Le Craige, one of the models, flew in from Vermont. My friend, Connie Novello, did a flawless job with the hair. Everything was ready to go.

Personal Essays | Crossing The Line

Photo Credit: TJ Smalls

I knew that it was going to be hard, and at times I wanted to cry. I could feel the lines burrowing into my skin; the places that were marked on my body are also my most insecure places—my target zones. I had picked myself apart numerous times, but when I looked in the mirror for the first time after with the actual lines drawn on my body, those insecurities seemed like a challenge. They have been my secrets, and now I was going to let the world see them. Lyrics from the song “One Girl Revolution” started popping up in my head.

During the shoot we started making faces and getting silly to keep up the mood. But underneath, we had a mission that forged a deeper bond. We all hugged before we left.

Right away, all of us women started texting each other rabidly, asking if anyone had heard anything about the photos, if they had been edited yet, if anyone had heard anything from TJ. We felt even more naked after the shoot than we had when we first started.

When I got home I scrubbed my skin raw, and Brian made sure to kiss every inch of my face and reminded me how much he loved me. That night the first round of photos came in, so Rose and I started going through them, texting them and posting them everywhere. We kept telling each other how strong and brave we were to do something like this. It was shocking to see myself in that way. We all agreed that Photoshopping and heavy makeup would be used to really push the point forward, and when the final results came in it was 100 percent worth it.

Personal Essays | Crossing The Line

Photo Credit: TJ Smalls

For days afterwards I thought about my body, traced my fingers where the lines used to be and apologized to myself for being a jerk about my body at times during my life. I started correcting negative language about myself and about the other women around me. I have always hated body-shaming, and strongly supported healthy body images, but after the shoot something clicked—a stronger need to get women to stop hurting themselves by hurting other women.

Really, the only thing that’s keeping us from equality is ourselves. We need to stop fighting each other and accusing other women of not being the “right” kind of feminist. We need to stop using derogatory terms towards each other. We need to realize that even if we can’t see them, everyone has those lines drawn on them.

Visit the photography site with the Lines project here.


Sarah Alba is the founder of Tales of the Traveling Nerd. She loves good craft beer and plays way too many video games for her own health. When she isn’t playing video games or touring breweries, she is off adventuring and being a wild child.

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