Tuesday, April 10, 2012


An Unanticipated Titanic Legacy

Although it’s been 100 years since the Titanic went down, it’s been only 15 since James Cameron’s Titanic. I was a freshman in college, and Titanic was one of three movies (along with As Good As It Gets and Great Expectations) that offered nude drawing scenes that year — beautiful Rose donning nothing but jewels; doomed Jack, sketching her feverishly, his eyebrows impeccably tweezed. Not coincidentally, that was the year I posed nude for an art student.

If “posed nude for an art student” suggests formality, or financial gain, the language misleads. It was, like most things that happen in college, pure fun. But I was like Rose — in love with the magic of an insular world, oblivious to its impermanence.

Not then, not ever, did I identify as “one of the guys.” In my experience, “one of the guys” means “feigns enthusiasm for televised football” and “will tell the men that you have a yeast infection.” But on my hall in the dorm that year, I didn’t fit in with the girls. They laughed about things I didn’t know were funny. And they wore occasion-specific outfits — cute leggings with off-the-shoulder T-shirts (hang-over apparel), monochromatic sweat suits and pigtails (studying-in-the-library apparel) — while I wore a T-shirt that decreed, Harvest The Sun. No Nukes. I had no idea what that meant, only that our uniforms divided us. So I spent my time on the other end of the hall with Tyler, Michael, and Sam, all of whom wore the Pumas of the era with bright, fat laces; always had pot; and liked to rock climb (at least in theory). That was the year Wyclef Jean’s The Carnival came out, and we played it until it made us sick, Michael and I on the Salvation Army couch in Tyler’s and Sam’s room, Sam in the desk chair, Tyler perched on the bottom bunk bed. Maybe I didn’t have much in common with those guys (they enjoyed genteel pastimes, like rubbing Gold Bond on their balls to make them tingle), but we had never-ending conversations, as if we’d been waiting eighteen years for them, as if we would never catch up. 

Sam was a Fine Arts major who, like Jack from Titanic, was always drawing on a sketch pad. Sometimes he drew Michael and me sitting on the couch. Sometimes he drew the tree branches through the window. Once, when Michael spilled a jug of Carlo Rossi on the carpet, Sam sketched the still life before painting it on a canvas. When he told us, right after we watched Great Expectations, that he was sketching nudes in his drawing class, I thought, I could be a nude. I loved easily attainable acts of rebellion. Months earlier, when I’d graduated from high school, I’d lied about my age to score a job in a bar and gotten a couple of piercings. With each act, I felt the rush and promise of adulthood. I thought that being grown up was the same as being free.

“I could draw you,” Sam said, reading my mind.

In my fantasy of my nudity, I was Gwyneth Paltrow as Estella — an angel face by a window, my hair platinum, my body waif-like, my crotch erotically clouded by cigarette smoke.

“Okay,” I said.

And just like that, in front of three boys, I took off all of my clothes.

Once naked, because I was not, in fact, Gwyneth Paltrow (or Kate Winslett, or Helen Hunt), I was only brave enough to lie stomach-down on the couch, the front of my body hidden, my feet hooked over the arm rest, my cheek resting on my folded hands. At first, no one was sure how to act. Tyler picked a scab on his arm. Michael, who had stood to give me the run of the couch, stayed standing. We weren’t used to one of us being undressed, or to acknowledging that I was different from them. My heart thumped against the couch cushion.

I didn’t know what to make of my body. I saw its imperfections, and its femininity, through three pairs of male eyes. Silently, I dared them to say something lewd, or to try to touch or disparage me. What did I know? What did they? We were eighteen years old. We’d just been released from childhood. We could have made every mistake. Instead, Sam's drawing and my posing became a nightly occurrence. I’m still heartened by the trust I found in that room — Michael reclaiming his place on the couch; Sam filling page after page, his forehead crinkled, his teeth pinning his bottom lip; the three of them voting down my Enya CD; our long discussions over who on our floor was most likely to steal our bong. In spite of my nudity, life continued.

Once I got comfortable, I posed sitting cross-legged, my hands in my hair. I lay on my side, my head propped on my fist. I stood with my back to the wall, snow-angeled. Every evening, I looked forward to coming home to my friends, shedding my clothes, and listening to music. Never since have I felt so unfettered.

And then it was May. We moved out of the dorms. One of us transferred to the other state school. The rest of us scattered to separate houses.

A couple of years ago, a tactless guest looked at a framed drawing on my wall — me from the waist up, my fingers interlaced behind my head—and said, “Nice drawing. So college-art-class.” Soon after, I took the picture down and stowed it away. But for thirteen years, I’d displayed it; it had graced the walls of at least ten apartments. During that time, the four of us had kept in touch to varying degrees. Two of us moved to remote locations. One of us became a staunch conservative. One of us entered a soul-crushing relationship that would swallow most of a decade. For a time, three of us turned on the fourth. Later, one of us discovered pain killers, constructing a life around the wish to feel nothing.

But that year, the year I was naked, I think that we were happy. I haven’t wanted to watch Titanic since — to see that the special effects look fake, that Jack’s love of Rose is overwrought. I still think of the Rose that Jack first saw — concealed by her high-society hat, shackled to the expectations of others.

Then he drew her, and she became free.

Diana Spechler is the author of the novels 'Who by Fire' and 'Skinny' (both Harper Perennial). Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, GQ, O Magazine, New York Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, Esquire, and elsewhere. She teaches writing in New York City and for Stanford University's Online Writer's Studio.

71 Comments / Post A Comment


Before I even read this article, I'm just gonna
leave this here.


@deepomega I'm going to pretend that isn't real.


@deepomega My friend just posted that on Facebook. I'm in shock.


@Bebe They are all trolling. All of them. Trolls.


@wharrgarbl: That makes me feel better.


@deepomega Reminds me of this.


All I could think was how accurately this essay portrays my own life, right down to the friend with a painkiller addiction, the friend with the consuming relationship, and the friends who smoke weed.
I'm not even a year out of college either.

sarah girl

This was so lovely, thank you. I also really liked that you described fitting in better with the guys without disparaging women - neither gender was superior to the other, you just meshed with one group better. Nicely done!


"I loved easily attainable acts of rebellion."
This is exactly why I got a tattoo of a penguin on my hip and my nipples pierced when I was 17.
I like this piece a lot.

Daisy Razor

This is absolutely lovely, so I feel a little bad that my first reaction upon reading that you lay on the couch was "College furniture + nudity = OH HONEY NO."

What can I say. My school once had a scabies outbreak.


@Daisy Razor But did Quelling become a thing?


@Daisy Razor Oh god, I was in the hospital once and the guy in the bed next to me (separated only by a curtain) had scabies, and the head doctor went into great detail explain what it was to the student doctors... I have an understandable paralytic fear of hospitals now.

fondue with cheddar

@bangs OMG DID I HAVE SCABIES. There was an outbreak among a bunch of friends who lived together and I successfully avoided it. Then I borrowed a skirt from one of them a few months later and somehow got them? Only I didn't make the connection. The doctor misdiagnosed it as hives and told me to change my detergent. I changed my detergent and body wash to gentle, unscented stuff and it only got worse. It was summertime, and the heat made it even worse. I went on a vacation in Florida for a few days where it was even hotter. My skin was red and bumpy and itchy but I didn't let it ruin my trip. I still wore shorts and sleeveless shirts, I still swam and soaked in the hot tub, I still had sex with my boyfriend, I still snuggled with my friend under a blanket when she came down with a cold (yes, on the Florida trip). By the time I came home it had gotten worse. I knew I shouldn't scratch but I couldn't not scratch. The itchiness was EVERYWHERE and it was so intense it bordered on pain. I spent as much time as possible at home in my underwear, sitting or lying down on the softest, least irritating blankets, trying not to touch anything, keeping my arms, legs, fingers, and toes spread apart. It was so horrible I would scream and cry in frustration several times a day. After a couple months of hell, I finally went to a dermatologist (I was poor and uninsured) and he immediately recognized it for what it was. The creams and steroids killed the scabies, but it took a long time for the microscopic carcasses (!) to work their way out of my skin. DON'T EVER GET SCABIES!


@jen325 Yipes! I am now 2x afraid.

fondue with cheddar

@bangs Just make sure you get it checked out right away if you get it. Here's a relatively not-gross picture of the rash (I had it pretty bad but not nearly as bad as some of the pictures online). It's weird that it's classified as an STD because that's not the only way to get it. However, because it IS classified as an STD...FOR THE LOVE OF GOD DO NOT DO A GOOGLE IMAGE SEARCH WITH SAFESEARCH OFF.


@jen325 I got scabies once from a hotel comforter (I KNOW I KNOW). This was in highschool and everyone told people I had an STD. I hadn't even kissed a boy at the time. :(


@jen325 Man, there was a girl who had scabies in the 5th grade, but no one else got them, which must be some kind of miracle due to desk proximity and 5th grader standards of hygiene.

fondue with cheddar

@beanie Oh, that must have been scarring at that age. A hotel comforter? EWEWEW. That's not very comforting.

@Megan Patterson@facebook That is astonishing.


I had someone sketch me (clothed) when I was in high school and it was awful. I looked terrible. Just because someone wears glasses doesn't mean you can ignore all other detail of their face...


This is so nice. It makes me very happy that the 'getting naked with guy friends' idea didn't end in disaster.

Related note: I was in 8th grade when Titanic came out, and my friends and I were your typical Leo-obsessed, see-it-in-theaters-four-times hormone bombs. I'm seriously curious to watch it now but that's so many hours of my life! Has anyone seen that movie in recent years? Is it as terrible as I suspect?



I confess that I love it a stupid amount and the only reason I didn't see it in 3D is because I am too broke to spend money on Titanic in 3D.

I think my overweening Titanic love is because I wasn't allowed to see it when it came out. So I came to it kinda late and never got over it, I guess.

But yeah, it is really not a good film.

Fig. 1 (formerly myfanwy)

@TheBelleWitch Fig 2 saw it last week at the IMAX. It is both as good as you remember and as cheesy as ever. He saw it after watching The Hunger Games and said, "In ten years, people will still be watching Titanic. The Hunger Games, not so much."

My opinion is that it is schlocky as hell, but this is not necessarily a Bad Thing.


@Fig. 1 (formerly myfanwy): As a kid, I had a book on big ship disasters - Andrea Doria, etc. - that told the Titanic story in excruciating detail. Since then I've never been able to deal with that story, and even the original hoopla surrounding the movie gave me nightmares.

(How am I going to deal when I go on this family cruise this summer? Urgh.


@TheBelleWitch I think the movie is great, and yes, it is really sincere in a way you could find cheesy, but the characters are supposed to be, what, 17 and 19. It is literally one of the biggest disasters of all time and the love story has to match the tone or it would shrink away. If you've ever felt swept along into something you weren't sure about doing, especially as a Lady, then it will probably still speak to you. And the thing is that even after 15 years, when I see Leonardo DiCaprio standing on those stairs in a tux, it makes my heart ache. No shame. Plus, Kate Winslet is one of the actresses I can never look away from. The two actors make it easy to believe all the things.

Fig. 1 (formerly myfanwy)

@Bittersweet Xanax? I also hear they have bars on cruise ships.

(sorry, don't have anything actually helpful to offer :( :( good luck?)

And I'll be damned if I ever thought I was going to say this, but the quality of acting in Titanic is a lot better than the blockbusters of recent years.

Lexa Lane

This essay kind of sums it up: http://deadspin.com/5898676/titanic-the-original-twilight. Though Titanic is so much better than Twilight. To this day, I think "You're so stupid, Rose!" is one of the most romantic lines in a movie EVER.


@Lexa Lane and @everyone. You've inspired me, I'm totally going to re-watch this movie with adult cynicism firmly buried under half a bottle of pinot.


@TheBelleWitch I just wanted to comment and say I LOVE YOUR NAME!


@QuiteAimable Yaaay, do you know about the Bell Witch? I love the Bell Witch and NO ONE EVER TALKS ABOUT THE BELL WITCH.


@TheBelleWitch YES! I grew up in Tennessee! (And still live here) The Bell Witch was our slumber party freak out story! Few people outside of the state seem to know about her.


@DH@twitter I wasn't allowed to see it either... and I was obsessed with the Titanic before the movie was even announced. I saw it a year later on VHS at a friend's house.


Even as a nevernude, this gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling inside!

Also, once I was posing (clothed) for a painter to try to make some extra cash, and I was so focused on trying not to move while posing that I guess I forgot to think about the expression on my face and the fact that my "neutral" expression apparently looks like an expression of utter misery. When I finally saw what he had painted, I looked as sour and dour as Whistler's Mother.


Kate Winslet in Titanic was my first encounter with onscreen nudity and I was shocked. How could she have done that?! (I was an extraordinarily prudish child.)

Fig. 1 (formerly myfanwy)

@Decca Haha I remember being 11 and hearing older kids talk about Wonderbras and one of the guys was pretending to wear one and commenting about how "silky-smooth" it was and I was SO grossed out.

In retrospect those guys knew nothing about bras.


@Decca My response was pretty bad. "Are those...are those real? Like, her real boobs? Is she wearing like, a fake body over hers? Can they even do that? Why would she let everyone see her? Naked!!!"

Dr. Allison Absinthe@twitter

@limnupon @Decca See but that's not as bad as the juicebox my (catholic) high school paid to come speak to us for a couple hours about "How does Kate Winslet's FATHER feel?!?!"


@Decca : My parents called her "Kate WinSLUT".

I love my psychotically prudish family.


I've never commented here before, but this piece really moved me and I think it is so excellent. Thank you for writing this. Oh, and HANG THAT PAINTING BACK UP!


@aeroaeroaero Yes. Painting must go back up!

Judith Slutler

@aeroaeroaero Yes, definitely.

Jenny Cox

"So college-art-class"? Jeez, what a jerk.


@jenny_ No fucking kidding. I was an art major and had (and still have) many art major friends who do better work in college than many professional artists ever do. Saving up my cash for their senior show next month because DAMN these kids are talented.


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher word. I did life-drawing all day Friday for three years, and I made some of my best drawings ever (probably it was fear of the tiny and infinitely sarcastic drawing professor).


I have always wanted to be an artist's model! But hip defect + displaced sacrum + staying in one position for more than a minute at a time = OW OW OW OW OW no sleeping tonight. Boo.


@sniffadee A displaced sacrum? That sounds extraordinarily painful, ow ow ow.


@The Everpresent Wordsnatcher Oh, did I say displaced? I meant misplaced. Don't know where the dang thing got to...

just kidding. Yeah, displaced. And my hips pop in and out of joint. So all my lower back and hip muscles are always, always angry (when I went to the physiotherapist last, she was like, "Well... I can't tell what's wrong because your muscles are too inflamed" and then we took six meeting getting the muscles to calm down enough that she could tell what was going on).


@sniffadee Ow. Ow ow. Ow.

fondue with cheddar

@sniffadee Hm...I wonder if I've got a displaced sacrum. Something pops in and out down there. I get pain but it's not constant, and the muscles are always tender in that area. What does it feel like? How bad is it? I hesitate to ask the doctor about things like this because I don't want to come off as a hypochondriac and risk him dismissing my concerns in the future.


@jen325 I... do not know. Possibly? Mine is all mixed up with my chronic hip stuff + chronically inflamed muscles + being a poor student who can't afford to go to the osteopath who actually helps, but. I basically have chronic achey pain and tension around my tailbone, and the knotty muscle above it is knottier in me than in other people. I will sometimes get really really sharp pain, like a needle, in one of the dimples in my lower back, and sometimes get stabby pains down my legs (but I think that's the hip stuff, 'cause it sometimes hits a nerve, literally, har har). Mostly I'm just super tense and achey from the muscles which are overcompensating, so my hip flexors (muscles that attach the top of your thigh to your hip), the muscles right at my waist, my quads, and my subscapular muscles (muscles under the shoulderblades)

I'm suggest going to a doctor and sayin "Yo, I have weird poppy sounds and pain", not "I think I have a displaced sacrum". In my experience, doctors respond well to symptoms, not so well to self-diagnoses (because they're not as helpful). And dude, being afraid of doctors being judgey is just a thing we collectively as a society need to get over. If your doctor is judging you for saying "I'm in pain, can you help me figure out what's wrong?" then your doctor should be punched in the face. I'm just sayin'.

fondue with cheddar

@sniffadee Wow, you basically described all my pain and tension (well, the lower torso/hip stuff at least). It never occurred to me that the subscapular muscles could be related to that! I'll definitely bring it up the next time I'm at the doc. Though really, I should probably see a chiropractor because I've got a vertebra out of alignment in my neck, too. Maybe they could take care of both. My boyfriend's mother is a chiro, but her technique doesn't really help me.

I'm not saying my doctor judges me, I just worry that he will. See, I've already come to him with self-diagnoses that ended up being ruled out by bloodwork. Also, I've mentioned things that are not normal and he hasn't really gone anywhere with it. Maybe I'm just going about it the wrong way. I do tend to read up about things to figure out what's wrong with me, and when something seems very likely I will bring it up. My thought is usually that naming my symptoms and hoping he would connect some of them together would be too much (because there are a lot), but you make a good point. Maybe I should just make a big ol' list of everything that doesn't seem right and let him figure it out.


@jen325 Oh man, I know. I am the worst google-self-diagnoser, I do it ALL THE TIME. What I've found is best is to just keep a list of symptoms and give them over-- it is their job to put symptoms together (I was IN AWE when I gave my doctor my "hypochondria list", which had like every symptom known to mankind on it, and she went, "Oh, looks like you have a food allergy" AND SHE WAS RIGHT!)

I like osteopaths, personally, because they deal with connective tissues-- not just bones. My osteopath linked my pelvic and hip pain with my horrible menstrual cramps, and started working on the big pelvic ligaments, and it was AMAZING. But chiropractors are also bomb.


@sniffadee One of my friends has been telling me to go see an osteopath for about a year now, to get my neck and shoulder sorted out - I have a compacted vertebrae in my neck that sort of throws everything else off, like I have this hypermobile section between my shoulderblades, that if anything presses on it I feel like I'm going to barf. Makes backrubs fun! Anyway, the point is, I was going to the physio and that helped but then I just had to go back all. the. time, even when I was doing my exercises for it and was super fit, and it sort of wasn't worth it after a certain point? But then I'm worried that I'm pinching a nerve or something and that would be bad, and also it hurts a bit.

SO, my question is, is the osteopath something that I will have to go back to every month, or can I get my neck sorted out, and then just sort of check in every now and then?

fondue with cheddar

@sniffadee That sounds like a good idea. I will definitely make a list of symptoms!

@Craftastrophies I wonder the same thing about chiropractors (and now osteopaths). I've also got a neck problem that affects a lot of other parts, and when it gets popped back into place I get temporary relief. But the muscles always pull it right back out again. I'm hoping it's the kind of treatment where you have to go often in the beginning and taper off, checking in now and then as you said.

That shoulderblade thing sounds awful.


@Craftastrophies @jen325 An osteopath is like a chiropractor or physiologist-- depending on what's going on, you may need to go back every week, twice a week, every two weeks, every month, or not at all. The goal is for the treatment to taper off-- like a chiro, it's an alignment thing.

When I went to the osteo, I saw her every two weeks, and a physiotherapist every two weeks, but I was in such bad shape I couldn't sleep, so.

fondue with cheddar

@sniffadee That's good to know, thanks! I'm glad it made a difference for you.


In college recall playing an epic game of strip pediddle (you know, where you call out the burned out headlights...) with one other woman and two guys. We all found it highly satisfying, to be totally naked with one another with no physically sexual implications. We were on a sports team together, and so were already close, but the intimacy and trust that being naked together required was really edifying.

And we only got one honk from a semi.

Oliver St. John Mollusc

I saw Titanic at my most bitter and prudish age (=17... high school was tough, y'all), so it didn't affect me the way it did my contemporaries. But THANK YOU for explaining succinctly and non-judgmentally what the difference was between me and all the girls on my hall in the freshman dorm: "occasion-specific outfits"! I still have not mastered this concept. I learned about dressing up when I moved to the east coast, but all the variations on casualwear still elude me (studying outfit vs. hangover outfit vs. actual pajamas???).


This just reminds me of how much I enjoy being naked.

Judith Slutler

@frigwiggin I'm going to skinny dip so much this summer, you don't even know!

Oliver St. John Mollusc

@Emmanuelle Cunt I totally want to go skinny dipping!


@quickdrawkiddo It is the greatest.


I sort of wish this had been a thing for me at some point in college. I'm still weirdly prudish despite desiring not to be so much. I hosted a swap at my place, and everyone else wandered around in their bras and undies and I'm all...wearing a full length camisole and capri leggings. Ugh.

Please to lend me some of your body confidence.

Also, gold star for not disparaging ladies while explaining dude-friendships. This is a thing I've been spending time with.


@SheWhoReadsInSkirts You should go to an all lady communal bath! For real. I am also sort of weirdly prudish but I found the communal bath to be an amazingly comfortable group nudity situation. All ages, all body types, all everything. I left feeling amazing about my body and, you know, sisterhood. Highly recommended (and if you're skittish, generally you can wear a bathing suit). Plus it's just a super relaxing experience and you smell AMAZING afterward.

sarah girl

@roadtrips YES YES YES! I went to an Asian-style spa a few weeks ago with some lady friends, and you have to be naked in the actual pool area (not the saunas/other areas). I stressed out over it so hardcore, and the initial clothes removal was terrifying, but it ended up totally fine and kind of liberating! It was also so fascinating to see the range of women's bodies there; people are so different, and yet all so beautiful in their own ways!

It made me feel so much better about my body, perceived flaws and all, and made me feel kinder toward other women in general. Win-win!


@roadtrips Yes! People look at me so weird when I tell them about going to public baths in Japan, and I try so hard to explain that it's a little weird at first but then suddenly it's not weird at all. You just look around and realize that nobody cares that you're naked and they're all just as naked as you and it's not A Thing in any way. And you DO walk away feeling better about your body because you've now seen normal bodies and realized that yours is perfectly normal and perfectly acceptable too.


I went skinny dipping with four guys in grad school at 2am in deepest, darkest, southern Illinois. I do recall wondering if it was the smartest idea I'd ever had, but I could NOT bring myself to chicken out. It was a blast, and I didn't end up raped or dead. My only regret was that as we ran dripping wet and bare-assed from the patrol boat that showed up, I lost my brass zippo. :-(


OMG you guys, I just remembered a whole thing that happened directly involving the Hairpin. I never saw Titanic AND I NEVER WILL. But anyway, I met a [very] recent ex's high school sweetheart at a Pin Up (?!?!?!?!) and she told me about how he drew pictures of her the way I guess it happens in this movie?

Lessons learned:
1. Continue not watching Titanic.
2. If you only know two people from a random suburb of the city you currently live in, don't ask the girl you just met if she knows them because maybe you will learn a lot you didn't know about someone who recently broke your heart.
(and if you're reading out there...hi, I think?)

Oliver St. John Mollusc

@sox Unnngggh, I just broke out in a sympathy cold sweat. I'm sure the HS sweetheart is very nice if she's a Pinner, but hearing ANYTHING romantic about your recent ex is the worst thing ever.


I loved everything about this piece.

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