Beauty and the Bench
one look at phi betta kappa, summa cum laude, soon-to-be lawyer vicki mccarty and you'll bring in a verdict of beautiful
I am well educated, I am a feminist and I don't act or sing, so what am I doing posing nude for Playboy? Well, I suppose that the reason is that posing nude for Playboy was just about the last thing I would ever do. Not that I ever thought that either nude women or Playboy was a suitable object for disdain; they just did not seem to be compatible images with the successful-female-attorney image that I had created for myself. That was my attitude for a long time -- in fact, right up to the moment when I decided to become a centerfold. I was a law student, I was politically active, I was a successful person who happened to be a woman. That is not to say that I adhered to the notion that women, to be successful, had to forget they were women, but my definition of success often required the severing of my sexual personality from my professional personality. Total separation was impossible and the two identities often invaded each other's territory, but I was a bit defensive about the possibility of suggestions that my professional gains rode on the coattails of a nice smile.
Even while growing up, I manifested the smart girl/pretty girl dichotomy in all sorts of schizophrenic ways. In elementary school, I sought the noble distinction of being the best reader and speller in my class; but after that laurel had been won, I was free to be the sugarplum fairy in the Christmas play and bask in the glory of pink slippers and sequins.
In high school, I devoted my energies to local and national politics and I was elected the school's first female student-body president. Even my endless campaigning for this and that was recessed, however, when I was chosen queen of the prom. By the time I got to college and law school, it was second nature for me to counter the rigors of academe with the pleasurable vanities of modeling.
I cannot even honestly say that I had overcome that dilemma when I introduced myself to Playboy in the summer of 1978. The search for the 25th-anniversary Playmate was being conducted in Los Angeles, and I had read about it in the Times. I was applying for an internship as a reporter with the Herald Examiner at the time, and that endeavor entailed writing unusual feature items. A firsthand story, à la George Plimpton, on what it was like to be a Playmate hopeful seemed to be just the story to secure my place with the paper, so I phoned Playboy and made an appointment for an interview. Ludicrous as it sounds in retrospect, it was a major decision for me to go through the interview looking, even acting, as though I were a serious contestant. It had been funny the night before, when my friends and I wondered whether or not I would be allowed to add inches to my vital statistics to equal my grade-point average; but things were unnervingly different when I was among strangers and clad in little more than a bathing suit and my Phi Beta Kappa key.
Oh, yes, I forgot to explain that I pinned the key, which had sat untouched in my jewelry box for two years, on the bottom of my bathing suit. I am not exactly certain why I did it, except, perhaps, that I found it subconsciously comforting to know that even if Playboy were not too impressed by me, I would still have an entire fraternity and a secret handshake on my side.
A few weeks later, when I had given up on the story for the Examiner, I received a call from Playboy, telling me that it was interested in taking more pictures of me for the magazine. I was having a dinner party at the time, and the news provided terrific dessert conversation, but I saw no further use in it. Still, it was great fun to hear that even a dedicated overachiever could be cheesecake if she wanted. It was the perfect librarian-takes-off-her-glasses-to-reveal-a-sexy-lady fantasy.
Well, turning down the magazine's offer was not as easy as I had thought it would be. I knew that appearing nude in a men's magazine might jeopardize my future in corporate law; it would certainly minimize my chances of being elected President; and it would subject me to suggestive remarks from some men, as well as political questions from some women.
Naturally, my answer was yes.
Perhaps that sounds too glib, and I should make it clear that the reaction of people whom I respected was of concern to me. After all, being a centerfold was, to some, tantamount to selling out to the chief exploiter of women. Ever since I was 17 years old, I had allied myself with dynamic and talented women who had that view, and I was reluctant to cast it aside in the name of a new thrill.
Yet, never having felt the detrimental effects of exploitation, the threats of it did not seem real enough to discourage me from trying something totally new. In fact, as time went on, it began to seem that my first experience with sexual stereotyping would be self-inflicted if I succumbed to the notion that being a liberated woman meant that I could not pose nude for Playboy.
Obviously, I eventually took my more characteristic route, which does not allow for much in the way of self-denial, and agreed to be in the magazine. There was no accompanying great revelation, really, just the conviction that I can be successful in all sorts of ways because I am a woman and women are at their best when they are not restricted by anything -- in particular, the notion that intelligent and liberated women cannot freely express their sexuality. The old attitude about being an accomplished this or that and "just happening to be a woman" is obsolete.
The tendency to suppress a woman's sexuality in order to try to fit into worlds that were previously inhabited only by men has contributed to the stereotype of feminists as humorless man-haters. And yet there is no reason why the women's movement should not be strong enough to allow whole and complete women to redefine those worlds.
So, while I never did get my undercover Playmate story published by the Herald Examiner, the summer proved successful, nonetheless. Not only was I invited to write an article for an international magazine but I also got to have a hand in the illustrations.
-- Vicki McCarty
Photography by Arny Freytag