One woman’s path to body confidence

Photo by Artem Labunsky on Unsplash

It’s hard to imagine Nicole sheathed in latex. At just under 200 pounds, make-up free, with a big, friendly smile, she looks like the perfect suburban neighbor, the kind you’d trust with the keys to your house because you can rely on her to feed your cat when you’re away. Because her appearance is a world away from the slim, glossy-lipped women who populate YouTube when you type “Dominatrix” into the search engine, it’s hard to imagine her as the latex-clad, crop toting Domme she was for nearly ten of her thirty years.

But as she talks about her secret life in the world of BDSM (Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism)[1], her next-door neighbor ordinariness begins to fade. Her bow-shaped mouth moves with a mesmerizing Latin sensuality, framing her perfect teeth. Her voice is soothing, her words disarmingly candid. It doesn’t take long to realize that while Nicole is not Barbie doll pretty, she is beautiful — and she knows it. She exudes the relaxed confidence of a woman at home in her voluptuous body. But it wasn’t always so. Like many women, Nicole once hated her own body. For those who need help building self-acceptance, therapy is a common choice. Nicole began with therapy; then her path took a different turn.

Nicole and her brother grew up in Florida, in a city that didn’t exist just sixty years ago. Her hometown is a lush, subtropical place full of palm trees and manicured homes so perfect they might have been the set of Edward Scissorhands. Family Circle magazine once voted it one of the ten best cities in the United States for families. Nicole’s family fit right in. Although her grandparents arrived in the US almost penniless, her parents believed the key to the American Dream was hard work. For them, it paid off; her father is now a successful business owner, her mother a project manager.

Nicole’s parents were openly affectionate with each other. “At home, my father was always touching my mother,” she says. “In public, he was physical with her too, not grossly or anything, but he always made you aware that they were together.” They were demonstrative with the children too. As a result Nicole, who regards herself as a “hot-blooded Latin woman,” has always felt at ease with physical intimacy. As a child, she hugged and kissed friends quite naturally. Exploring her own body seemed just as natural. She began masturbating around age nine, found her first vibrator in a novelty shop at age twelve, and had sex for the first time at sixteen.

She also had unsupervised access to a computer. A smart girl who would go on to get a Masters in Psychology, it didn’t take her long to discover the world of online porn. So did her brother. When he got caught, their mother sat both children down for a conversation. “She told us not to expect sex to be what we see in pornography, and to not let our partners force us into any uncomfortable situation,” Nicole says. “But I’d already been exposed to porn for several years at that point, so I already knew what was real and what was fantastical.” At some point in late childhood, she got her hands on a copy of Anne Rice’s The Claiming of Sleeping Beauty, an erotic novel of slavery and dominance. The book introduced Nicole to an intriguing new area of sexuality.

Nicole’s parents were understanding about her precocious sexual awakening, but the family’s response to her growing body was more complex. “I got curves very early on,” she says referring to her weight. The pressure to eat came from her family. “Finishing your meal was a big deal. You had to eat your whole meal, and then you’d be told, ‘Oh, but you need to lose weight. You’re too heavy.’ They would say it just like that; ‘You’re fat. You gotta lose weight. You’re fat.’

When her parents divorced and her father quickly remarried, Nicole gained two very slim Anglo step-sisters. “I compared myself to them,” she says. “I wanted to be thin like them. They would eat like animals and never gain a pound. I could eat a French fry and gain twenty pounds.” Because of her weight, Nicole went through high school believing she was “inadequate.” Two weeks after graduation, she left home to study for an undergraduate degree in psychology. Throughout her freshman year in college, she oscillated between bulimia and anorexia. “That’s not a sustainable way to lose weight,” she says. “you gain it back ten times faster, which is how I got to be the heaviest I’ve ever been, 230 pounds.”

Nicole found a psychologist who prescribed Zoloft for her depression and referred her to a therapist. In therapy, she gained insights into why she felt so badly about her own body, a body that, at the same time, she enjoyed exploring. “Society pounds you down,” she says. “And you beat yourself up if you’re not thin enough, or smart enough, or pretty enough, or any of those things. I struggled with that.”

When Nicole visited home at the end of her freshman year, her eating disorder was under control and even though she weighed 230 pounds, she had begun to feel better about her body. Her family was delighted to see her, but her grandfather’s greeting seemed subdued; then he quietly left the house. When Nicole asked where he’d gone, she was told, “He’s in the car crying.” “Crying? Why?” she asked. “Because of your weight,” came the answer.

“I was stunned. I couldn’t believe it,” she says. “I went outside to talk to him.” The sight of him sitting in his car weeping because she was heavier than he’d ever seen her struck her as both “absolutely ridiculous and hilarious.” At that moment she realized that her grandfather who was a hypochondriac and who never had a weight problem in his life, adored her. He was upset because he feared for her health. It was a turning point for Nicole. She began to see her family’s attitude towards her body as one of concern rather than disapproval. She returned to college determined to get healthy. She took herself off Zoloft, and cured her migraines and depression by adopting a healthy, additive-free diet. The next step on the path to becoming the body-confident woman she is now took her into the covert world of BDSM.

“I began to explore my sexuality more, sleeping with multiple partners, and experiencing threesomes, and foursomes.” One of those partners whom she met online was an attorney. The first time the man came to her apartment, he made himself comfortable on her couch and ordered her to sit beside him. Nicole surprised herself by obeying. “He had a presence that was tangible,” she says. “It was an immediate attraction, an immediate dominant-submissive relationship.” They saw each other regularly for almost two years.

Feminists are often critical of the dominant-submissive (dom-sub) relationship. Therapists are too. Women, many contend, are coerced into being submissive by their dominant partner, whether that partner is their husband, someone they met at a BDSM event or if they are sex workers, their pimp, or john. Canadian feminist, Meghan Murphy, suggests that patriarchal society has conditioned some women into experiencing dominance by a man as a sexual turn on. Some say that even when the woman plays the dominant role — including in lesbian relationships — she is acting out male sexual fantasies.

Feminists are not alone in their concern. Sadism and Masochism are both listed as disorders in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, 5th Edition. Many therapists working with female clients who are submissives uncover a pattern of abuse, often stemming back to childhood. People who have been consistently abused can come to see abuse as love, or intimacy, which makes them vulnerable to abusive adult relationships. It’s impossible to say how many female — or male — submissives are submissive as a result of coercion or abuse, but Nicole is not one of them.

Nicole says she freely chose to play the role of submissive. Was her choice truly free, or was she unconsciously influenced by her own emotional baggage about her body? It’s not a big issue for her. “I am very dominant in life,” she says, “very outspoken, but I like being submissive too. And,” she adds with something bordering glee, “I explored all kinds of crazy things as a submissive that I never would have imagined if not for him.”

In the two years Nicole played a submissive role, she never felt unsafe. In BDSM, being submissive is not the same as being powerless. The popular image of dom-sub relationships is the dominant inflicts physical pain on the submissive. This is not always the case. The central dynamic is the enjoyment of the power difference between the dom and the sub.

“The submissive has a lot of power,” Nicole explains. “You set the rules and boundaries before any activity ever begins. There are soft limits and hard limits. Soft limits mean the dominant can push them a little bit. Hard limits means don’t even try.” Dom and sub agree on safe words the submissive can use to tell the dominant partner to keep doing what they’re doing, back off a little, or stop immediately. The green-yellow-red traffic light system is often used and it’s in the control of the sub. These are the rules of healthy BDSM relationships, the only kind of BDSM relationship in which Nicole has participated. When Nicole perceived her attorney had become emotionally controlling, she didn’t hesitate to end the liaison.

Having explored who she was as a submissive, Nicole returned to the internet, and the social networking site, FetLife — “like Facebook but run by kinksters…” She identifies as pansexual. “I fall in love with a person and their personality rather than their gender or biological parts.” On FetLife, which has nearly 9 million members, she met both male and female submissives. But because the women she met were a lot less submissive than the men, sessions with men gave her greater opportunity to explore dominance. For the next eight years, she played the part of Dominatrix, or Domme, with male submissives. In keeping with her new role, she began to call herself Mistress Nicole.

Nicole talks enthusiastically of games she played with her various submissive partners, like dressing up as a baseball player with black under her eyes wearing knee-high socks, a baseball cap, and assless panties. “That was fun little play.” She discovered she could get her dishes washed by submissives if she critiqued their dishwashing skills. For partners who enjoyed being critiqued, she made sure to pile up days of unwashed dishes before their visit. One partner liked to brush her shag carpet in one direction, then write her name in it by pushing the pile in the opposite direction in the shape of the letters Nicole. “That was a fun task for me to watch. And for him to do.”

But her attraction to the role of a Domme ran deeper than free housekeeping and adult games; for her it was therapeutic. Many of her partners were into adoration, and they adored Mistress Nicole. Some, particularly ones with a foot fetish, kissed her feet, sometimes for over an hour at a time. They worshiped her body. It turned them on. “I’d be sitting down so all my rolls would be fully exposed, and he would just grab them and massage them, and rub them. He loved every bit of fat on my body for what it was. I would frequently be wearing very tight clothing, or no clothing at all, or just assless panties and a bra. So, I had to appreciate my body. I had to be confident. That really enhanced my loving myself as I am.”

BDSM as a form of therapy is not as odd a concept as it might first appear. One study from the Netherlands shows that people engaged in BDSM are more extraverted, open to new experiences, more conscientious, and had a stronger sense of well-being. Dominants scored higher on these characteristics than submissives, but both scored higher than the control group who didn’t participate in BDSM activities.[2] The Light Dark Institute in California uses “transformational BDSM” techniques to help clients explore their darker impulses towards cruelty and violence as a path to self-acceptance.[3] BDSM practices can also lead to altered states of consciousness. When this happens during BDSM plays, dominant partners tend to enter the state of unselfconscious absorption in the activity, often called “flow.” Submissive partners have a sense of floating, of being fully present in the here and now, timelessness, peacefulness — characteristics often associated with mystical experiences.[4] Altered states of consciousness are often transformative.

Nicole also found BDSM empowering. Many Dommes do. Mistress Velvet[5], a Chicago based Dominatrix who is black, works only with white men. She requires her clients to read black, feminist literature as part of their sessions. Reba Maybury who goes by the name Mistress Rebecca, is a British based dominatrix, college professor, and artist who works only with right-leaning men with whom she discusses socialism.[6] Nicole didn’t try to change her partner’s political leanings. For her, empowerment began with her new partner vetting process. She used questionnaires, e-mails, and phone calls to get to know prospective partners before she permitted them to enter her home. Often, she met them in a public place and if she picked up even a hint of anger or instability, she rejected them. Her sense of empowerment also derived from enforcing boundaries in the relationships. She was willing to learn new things but some activities were off limit, period. She learned to urinate on partners who wanted that, but no matter how much the partner might want to be hurt in an area of the body that could lead to long-term injury — the kidneys, for example — Nicole would not do it. And if they wanted “poop play,” they had to look elsewhere for a partner.

Coming from poverty, Nicole is keenly aware of society’s gender-based power differential, much of it predicated on wealth. Many Dommes are. Both Mistress Velvet and Canadian based financial dominatrix, Yevgeniya went into the business for the money. In Yeveganiya’s case, seeing money rolling into her bank account as payment for nothing but her “disdain” was “absolutely exhilarating.” it was the first time she “felt absolute control over a situation in my entire life.” [7]

Nicole, who had a well-paid job as a case manager, never charged for her services. But she was aware that the majority of her clients were doctors, lawyers, company executives; all higher on the socio-economic ladder than she. These men, by virtue of their gender and wealth, wielded more power in the wider world than Nicole ever did. In one way, she served their needs. But in her mind, exercising domination within the BDSM session narrowed the power differential between her and wealthy men in her life outside the sessions.

One of Nicole’s most high-powered partners was a doctor, the head of a department in a large hospital. She remembers the first time he asked her to strap on a dildo and penetrate him from behind. “That was amazing,” she says, “one of the most incredible feelings I’ve ever had. The thrusting power…Just possessing that member, it’s powerful in itself.” Nicole enjoyed the sense of power various “games” with partners gave her, but none came close to the exhilaration of simulating male biology. “There’s definitely something to be said for having a penis,” she quips. The experience translated into a very real feeling of empowerment both within and outside the BDSM session. So, she doesn’t share feminists’ or therapists’ concerns about disempowering women. “Even when I was a submissive, I was in a position of power. I never felt like I was inferior. I felt powerful. I felt confident and sexual, and sexy, and beautiful.”

Dommes, including those who charge for their services, often come to care for their clients. Nicole was no exception. She benefited greatly from the sessions, and she wanted her partners to leave her home feeling as good about themselves as she did. So, she made sure every session ended with a period of aftercare, or what Nicole calls nurturing. “There’s a whole side of BDSM that involves nurturing the partner, and taking care of them, treating their wounds, and almost babying them afterward. It’s a huge part — coddling them, holding, hugging. That releases the oxytocin in the body, the warm fuzzies. Without the nurturing, you’re just having abuse, and what’s the point in that? I would hate to be abusive and then not be able to repair it.” She also felt good about being able to offer her clients a judgment-free place to explore aspects of themselves. Regardless of their status in society, these wealthy and powerful men felt they had to keep secret an essential aspect of their sexuality — their submissiveness.

Nicole engaged in the BDSM lifestyle for almost ten years, but throughout 2015, for no apparent reason, its appeal waned. She outgrew it in a sense and stopped seeing partners. Not long after that, she met the man who would become her husband, a man she describes as sexually “vanilla.” Although her husband knows about her past, he isn’t particularly curious about it. But, Nicole says, “He appreciates my body as it is. He never makes me feel like I need to lose weight.”

For Nicole, BDSM is an aspect of human sexuality, not a form of oppression or a sexual pathology. There is some evidence to back up her opinion: 64 percent of women fantasize about being submissive. So do 53 percent of men.[8] Given these numbers, could the dom-sub relationship be seen as a normal — if minority — sexual practice rather than an internalization of abusive patriarchy? Does it have to be an either-or proposition? Could it be both?

Nicole and her partners — both male and female — engaged in a particular form of sexual relationship by mutual consent. She was not coerced, and she did not coerce her partners. As a result, the relationships were mutually beneficial. But for women who are coerced into BDSM — sex workers driven into the life by poverty or a pimp, women forced into submissiveness by their spouses or partners — BDSM can be oppressive, misogynistic, and a fetishization of violence.

Nicole is now employed as a therapist. Therapists often work with vulnerable women and men for whom BDSM is not an appropriate path to self-acceptance. When Nicole entered the BDSM world, she was a troubled young woman. But she was also feisty and strong with a healthy ego and strong boundaries. For women like her who feel inclined towards BDSM, the practice, she says, is an excellent way to “explore a new side of their sexuality, or find a power within them that they couldn’t find before.” The experience certainly worked for her.

[1] Interpretation of the acronym vary but basically BDSM refers to Bondage, Domination, Sadism, Masochism

[2] Wismeijer, Andreas A.J. et al., Psychological Characteristics of BDSM Practitioners, The Journal of Sexual Medicine, Volume 10, Issue 8, 1943–1952

[3] Light Dark Institute, https://www.lightdarkinstitute.com/

[4] Sagarin Brad J., et al., Consensual BDSM Facilitates Role-Specific Altered States of Consciousness: A Preliminary Study, Psychology of Consciousness: Theory, Research, and Practice, Vol. 4, №1, 75–91, 2017. https://www.dropbox.com/s/3cr0ud5q3wuw7o7/Ambler%2C%20Lee%2C%20Klement%2C%20Loewald%2C%20Comber%2C%20Hanson%2C%20Cutler%2C%20Cutler%2C%20%26%20Sagarin%20%282017%29.pdf

[5] Duberman, Amanda, Meet the Dominatrix Who Requires The Men Who Hire Her to Read Black Feminist Theory, HuffPost, February 16, 2018. https://www.huffpost.com/entry/mistress-velvet_n_5a822b50e4b00ecc923d4eba?guccounter=1&guce_referrer=aHR0cHM6Ly93d3cuZ29vZ2xlLmNvbS8&guce_referrer_sig=AQAAADv5WZCmVuSPU4ST8AAYfcj-4G9UkXiHwoeUMEKncyqo6for83NTxiSUyPIPM1KJBX_jwbHJRWcORViDEG-jKll2MLXwmOwIRChOHZPm-270fTsAero4RgOh3cZIxVaclQCOtOnBWxAjr2uKN5s101SfCw-GQnLe61qInTHPcqup

[6] WITW staff, Dominatrix Specializes in Turning ‘White Right-Wing Men’ Into Socialists, Women in the World, November 30, 2018. https://womenintheworld.com/2018/11/30/dominatrix-specializes-in-turning-white-right-wing-men-into-socialists/

[7] Vatomsky, Sonya, Meet the Woman Teaching Financial Domination to the Masses, Rolling Stone, July 28, 2017. https://www.rollingstone.com/culture/culture-features/meet-the-woman-teaching-financial-domination-to-the-masses-203982/

[8] Joyal, Christian & Cossette, Amélie & Lapierre, Vanessa. (2015). What Exactly Is an Unusual Sexual Fantasy?. The Journal of Sexual Medicine. 12. 328–340. 10.1111/jsm.12734.