Author: Éloïse Marseille
Publish Date: November 7, 2023
Publisher: Pow Pow Press
Catalog ID: ISBN: 978-2925114239
by Alison Kent
Everyone I know has at least one moment in their past where an initial exposure to sexuality, or sex, is marked by deep shame. (For me, it was, at age 8, seeing a film in Spanish where a couple were intimate; since this was in Franco’s Spain, the main character decides to keep the child instead of having an abortion. The scene itself was really innocuous in retrospect yet it left a deep mark.)
This is the premise that is the starting point for Éloïse Marseille’s memoir Naked: we share common experiences of shame about our bodies, our sexuality, our desires, even though the details are disparate, and we experience them in isolation. However much we might think we have shed Victorian taboos about sex, plenty still remain, and they are still damaging. With a brutally honest journey through her formative years and experiences, she comically and gently invites us to take a walk through our own pasts and confront our teenage-and-later sexual demons.
The early divorce of her parents and their subsequent remarriages leaves young Éloïse with plenty of baggage, written in cloud writing as she looks up at the sky: “daddy issues … anger issues … fear of abandonment … love doesn’t exist … must please [p. 21].” An early exposure at age 11, not unlike my own, to a sex scene in a film and her parents’ embarrassed silence about it feeds into her shame but she can’t stop drawing sex scenes. This is how she “masturbated.” “I would draw until the butterflies went away. … Then came the shame. ” A chance landing on a pornography site starts a vicious cycle of desire, release, shame — “I had a humiliating obsession and I drowned my shame in more porn. ”
Early teenage dances where boys would grind their hips against girls, to whom they were attracted, leads our young heroine to the realization that she’s terrified of penises. Her shame gets compounded by the fact that she, like most of her friends, is still a virgin at age 16, though none of them will admit it. She has also not yet reached menarche, and a visit to the doctor reveals a thyroid condition that has rendered her sterile. This adds to the shame (though she comes to accept it slowly over time).
A series of tentative, sad sexual misadventures follows, including one that leaves deep scars (she still gets triggered every time she sees a tall bearded man). Questioning herself, including whether she might be bisexual or gay, just leaves her with more questions. Her beautiful sister convinces her that she’s allowed to crave sex, and she has a Tinder date which produces a scare about STD’s. Once she’s in a real relationship at 22 with the first man who has ever really listened to her, another scare translates into a herpes diagnosis (cue more shame). But Éloïse discovers the condition is really common through talking with her friends. She eventually breaks up with Victor and comes to face her inner child (and finally embrace her), a step in her healing process.
The drawings in this book are simple and charming with a limited black-and-orange palette. (All the characters have orange noses which echo her drawings of penises, a cute touch.) The whole book feels like a hug, as if Marseille intuitively knows we all need one because we all have a sexual shame-filled past. In this sense we are invited to embrace our own inner children and our sexual selves.
Therapists (and sex therapists!) should read this book. In fact, any member of the medical profession whose work takes them into contact with adolescents, even though the focus might not be directly related to sexuality and reproduction, could benefit. Also, anyone who struggles with shameful episodes from their past around sex and isolation. In an accepting and loving way, Naked would also be a great introduction for anyone grappling with questions about their sexuality and whether or not they might be asexual.
There are a couple of places where the translation from the French—presumed by the author because there’s no other translator provided—seems a little off. For example, in English we have shame about something, not as written shame of it—but overall Naked works very well as a candid introduction to the trials and tribulations of being a sexual human being. That it’s written as a comic makes it all the more accessible to a wider audience and accentuates its authenticity. I’m not sure I’ve seen its equal in a depiction of adolescent shame.
Alison Kent is a graphic recorder and illustrator based in Davis, California, which she describes as a cross between Berkeley and North Dakota. She is a founding member of VEOLI (Visualizing End-of-Life Issues) and is working on a graphic memoir whose organizing principle is birds.