My special guest today is Sheila Hageman and she’s talking with me about her new book, Stripping Down: A Memoir.
Sheila Hageman is a mother of three and author of Stripping Down: A Memoir, a meditation on womanhood and body image, and Beautiful Something Else, a novel.
Please tell us about your current release.
At twelve years old, everything changed for me with the discovery of my father’s porn collection. Found locked away in a corner of the basement, the glossy images ignited in me an unrelenting desire for attention and adoration. I lost sight of my dream of being a writer and became obsessed with exercise, working out every day for hours and barely eating. I became that which I thought men adored—a stripper and a nude model.
Many years later when I discovered my mother had breast cancer, I was faced with who I had become and what I had used my body for. I quit stripping and returned to college to graduate as valedictorian; I also became a yoga teacher through which I learned how to take good care of my body and not be obsessive in my looks. I began writing again and then went to graduate school for my MFA in Creative Writing. At that time, reflections on my past as a stripper permeated my thoughts as I took on the new roles of mother, caregiver and wife. While helping my baby daughter take her first steps, I nursed my mother through the final stages of breast cancer and truly faced who I had become and who I had been. The resulting memoir was Stripping Down. I am living my dream of writing everyday and helping other women to reach their own dream through exploring their lives in words.
What inspired you to write this book?
I always knew I would write about my stripper past because I felt my experiences might help other women to understand their own choices in life. I also felt that for me to come to terms with my past and poor choices I had made, I needed to explore my journey and try to figure out what set me on the particular path I ended up on.
Excerpt from Stripping Down: A Memoir:
I feel the weight of the hammer from the dusty workbench in my sweaty palm and hit the padlock. My heart thumps in my bony chest. I listen for the humming sound of my mother’s car backing into the driveway. I hit again. I listen. The lock pops open.
I lift the musty boxes from the top of the chest and set them aside. I pull the lock off, claw my chewed fingernails under the thin lid and push it up.
What was this? Stacks of magazines with women on the covers. I reach my pink fingers out toward the first one. A busty, brunette Mrs. Claus bending over, offers me a shiny wrapped Christmas gift. Her breasts squashed together, lopsided. She is not smiling; she is opening her moist lips. Years later when I would be told “Lick your lips, no, don’t smile,” for a Leg Tease cover photo shoot, I will remember her.
The magazines had various titles. There was Hustler and Penthouse, Playboy and Oui.
In them were women in various states of undress, but not like the images from our educational book upstairs that showed black and white images of males and females standing nude, stoic from babies to senior citizens. Those models were lined up, standing in the same basic pose, completely desexualized. The porn women sucked their fingers, licked their lips, opened their legs, and crouched in unusual positions.
I tasted orange juice in my throat. I couldn’t swallow. Women weren’t supposed to appear like this. Something was not right. My father was straight-laced, ordinary. Didn’t only dirty men look at nudie pictures?
One spread stopped me—a young woman with pigtails wearing denim shorts and a tied gingham shirt. She was on a farm, leaning against a fence. As I flipped through the pages, she lost her clothing, piece by piece, and ended inside a barn lying naked on trampled bales of hay. She looked out at me, called me to enter her world. Her pubic area was completely smooth. In another shot, she straddled a man’s bicycle with the bar just beneath her stripped crotch. This was one of the pictures I went back to and looked at many times as I developed into a woman. She was young like I was. Innocent.
This was right after my parents’ divorce and amid impending puberty. My mother, my older sister, Peggy, and I had moved into my grandparents’ house for three months while my father packed up his stuff, searched for a condo, and moved out. As part of the divorce settlement, my father got almost all the furniture.
A search of the house revealed there was one thing my father didn’t take—a locked green chest in the basement. When I asked my mother, she said it was definitely his. Peggy laughed. I wanted to know what I was missing.
“There’s probably a dead body in there,” I said.
“Or something.” Peggy slammed her bedroom door.
“Photos of monkeys,” my mother said and went to lie down.
What could be such a secret that it had to be locked away? I would run downstairs after school every day, head for the mildewed corner. Whatever was in there was important enough to my father that he kept it locked up, but not important enough to take with him when he left.
I was a girl entering the age of womanhood, entering the real world, the adult world. All at once. No slow entry, rather a flinging open of the doors.
I don’t know what I hoped to accomplish by looking at the magazines. I was a girl—I wasn’t supposed to want to see other women naked. Was I trying to understand who these women were and why they did what they did? Who they were as little girls? Why my father collected them? Why he hid them down in the basement? Did I think about my father looking at them? Did I wonder what my father got out of looking at them? Or was it simply curiosity that drew me to look?
Now, where blankness has been for so long, a specific cover emerges. There is a meat grinder. A woman is being lowered into it, underneath is hamburger meat. I felt sad, awful. I wasn’t stupid. This image was trying to say something, but I didn’t know what.
Today, a quick Internet search reveals: Hustler’s June 1978 cover. I look at it now and feel the same fascination as my twelve-year-old self.
I go to the basement in my mind, and the images come more quickly. Me crouched on the floor with a magazine on my lap. Me seeing women pretending to be furniture. A woman on her hands and knees, a desk that a man stacks paper on. A woman as a chair. A woman as a horse, a bridle in her mouth. I want to see more.
The corner where I squatted was shadowy, dank, as I pushed through the stacks.
The women look like they enjoy it. They looked like they wanted to be treated that way, and I don’t understand. Is it the attention that makes the humiliation worthwhile? Or do the women actually enjoy being photographed nude? My parents raised me to believe that as a girl I am worthwhile and I can be anything I want to be. I am equal to boys in every way. But I never really believed that, and perhaps I didn’t because I suspected that my parents didn’t believe it either. These photos confirm that girls are different. These photos teach me that a woman is prized for being naked, dumb, and subservient. Boys have power over girls. If girls want to be loved they have to make sacrifices of the flesh. And then men will look at them. And then men will love them.
The world I had known no longer existed; I did not fit in anymore. I was stuck somewhere in the middle—no longer a little girl, but not yet a woman like I saw in the photos.
My father left and began again without me, a new life. I would have to learn to leave my old self behind, too—start a new life.
I took a stack of magazines and hid them in my closet. The magazine women, always waiting there for me, brought a sense of safety. They modeled a possible way to know myself, which I hadn’t yet found on my own.
I felt a sense of fear, I could feel the two parts of myself separating, the innocent girl from the bad sexual woman.
I learned from the magazine women. I could showcase my beauty, and then maybe I would be admired. Maybe I would be loved.
What exciting story are you working on next?
I am working on another memoir dealing with body image and eating disorders. I’m also working on fiction. My romance Beautiful Something Else was published in June and I’m now working on something more toward the erotica side of romance.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I was a girl I fully saw myself as a writer. In my late teens, I got distracted by acting and kind of forgot that vision of myself. It wasn’t until I returned to college in my mid-twenties that I began to see myself as a writer again.
Do you write full-time? If so, what's your work day like? If not, what do you do other than write and how do you find time to write?
At the moment, I work at a college full-time as an Academic Mentor; I also adjunct teach at a few colleges. I’m almost to the point where I want to trust myself enough to write full-time, but it’s a scary step for me.
I write in the little moments of time in between my job and taking care of my three kids. It is not easy. I’m usually very tired! I brainstorm new ideas on my daily commute by talking into my mobile phone email app, which transcribes what I say and then I can simply edit later.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
My interesting writing quirk is that when I’m on a roll I can write up to 8,000 words a day. Well, 8,000 was my record, I think. But I can really pump out the words for a rough draft quickly. I’ll go full-out like that for weeks and then just be resting for a few weeks before I start editing.
As a child, what did you want to be when you grew up?
A writer all the way. Also a horse jockey for a little while because that’s what my sister wanted to do.
Anything additional you want to share with the readers?
I encourage everyone to write, even if it’s just for his or her eyes. We can learn so much about ourselves and the world by following where our thoughts lead us on the page.
Thanks for being here today, Sheila!