Boudoir and positive representation

I learned three things since having my own boudoir shoot:

1. Though it’s been almost five years since I was raped, I still haven’t taken time to be kind to my body and process how being a survivor affects me. This turned into:  

2. How to better connect with my clients, which led to the ultimate conclusion: 

3. That virtue signalling is a nauseating, but pervasive, trend in boudoir photography, and I really wanted to tear that fucking system down. 

Starting out by announcing that I’m a rape survivor is a huge pill to ask prospective clients to swallow, but I think it’s an important one. I struggled to keep myself together during my boudoir shoot. Being sensual was difficult, I felt like a fraud, and if I hadn’t dropped so much money on having my photos done, I would have opted out shortly after fully realizing what it was I had to do, ON TOP of having to do it in front of a camera. I felt sad and ashamed and ugly and traumatized all over again during my shoot, through no fault of my photographer, but I realized something: taking time to find out how and why we all suffer is an important part of the photographer/client relationship. While my photographer was gentle and patient with me, the undercurrent was one of pressure: I had already paid a lot of money for this, and I wouldn’t get a refund if I decided I couldn’t go through with the shoot once the payment cleared. As a result, I have mixed feelings about my shoot. I am both glad I went through with it, because it’s one of the most body positive things I’ve done since I was raped; but I am also a bit disillusioned by the experience, because I felt not-so-subtly forced to go through with it at the stroke of midnight, despite my day of desire to just go home. I had listed my motivations to my photographer; I wanted to use this as a healing vessel, I wanted to see myself as sexy and beautiful again, I wanted to not just feel like a woman, but to embrace my personal brand of femininity like I hadn’t in the years since my rape. 

It is not the fault of my photographer that I had a bad time...per se. The big picture truth is, I have my own inner turmoil to work through, and nothing she could have said or done would have bolstered my confidence, or made the experience any easier. I would have still cried in the bathroom while “changing”, stuffing tissues into and under my eyes so the tears wouldn’t ruin my expertly made up face. I would have still fought with myself to not just say “fuck this” and throw my money away so I could walk out the door and stop making myself feel scrutinized, objectified, and worth nothing more than the images my physical self helped create. No matter how reassuring my photographer was, she just wasn’t capable of engaging me the way I needed to be engaged in that moment as her client. Could I have dumped a bit of frustration at her and vocalized that she was kind of failing me as a photographer? Yes. Perhaps I should have, not so much as a demand she cater to my emotions, but more as a teachable moment for how to interact with future clients that may be working through trauma that they can’t just slap a bra on over and smile through as prettily as others can. 

Instead, I internalized, and I spent a lot of time thinking about how I could use that experience to help me better understand my clients. The boudoir experience has given me a far more broad appreciation for the photographer/client dynamic. Of the two of us, my husband was the more gracious of artists, giving thoughtful commentary to how our clients should think about their poses, and making sure to give them the praise they deserved, reinforcing that they were doing an excellent job, and they look amazing. I was a bit more straightforward in my style, asking our clients to straighten their backs, to suck in their tummies. In my head, I saw this as sound advice, as I was helping them achieve the best look for the photos they were trusting me to take for them. To my shame, I even tried to force a friend I shot to look at a photo on my camera so she could check her pose (despite her insistence that she didn’t want to see any un-edited versions), and I had the gall to be frustrated at HER for reacting negatively to my request. It was, in fact, my boudoir photographer who chastised me for this, and rightly so. While I was defensive in the moment, it only took seconds of reflection for me to understand what she was saying. Had she told me to suck in my tummy, even in a gentle voice, I would have crumbled under the weight of that implication. That I looked fat, that I wasn’t good enough, that my body was too messy and unattractive to be photographed as it was. It’s been over two years since my session, and I think about that revelation every single day. I can say with confidence that I have changed the way I speak to clients in no small measure. My demeanor is different, I am more deliberate and thoughtful in my requests to adjust a pose, I am more of a cheerleader. It’s changed the way I shoot, it’s changed my entire philosophy as a photographer. 

I no longer see myself as an architect with sole authority on what makes an image powerful, sensual, beautiful, or even good. When I earn the trust of a new client, I now see us as a team, curating something new, authentic, and ultimately empowering to both subject AND viewer. I cannot do that by just signing a contract, taking money, and agreeing to a date, though. I recognize that not all clients are created equal: some of us come with baggage that may make committing to this kind of shoot easy in theory, but nigh impossible in practice. My hope is to forge a connection with my clients, where the trust is not just that I will deliver images they’ll love forever, but that I also care about them as a human outside of their status as a paying client. If you have suffered abuse of any kind and want to use a boudoir shoot to reaffirm yourself as a survivor, let’s talk about where your difficulties and triggers may lie, and how we can approach them as a team. I don’t want to give platitudes about how strong and bad ass you are for doing this because woah, being a human with image hang ups is hard 4 real; I want to know how I can make this as positive an experience for a client with trauma or dysphoria or anything else, because our relationship is more than you pay me, I deliver to you, plus one skype call to talk about wardrobe, email email email, then we never speak again. This is not to say I ruminated on this and came to the conclusion that my clients and I should be besties 4eva! Because that’s a hard line to take, and unrealistic. There should still be a professional foundation to our relationship, but that does not have to mean that on the day of your shoot, I won’t be fully aware of your difficulties, and ready with a back up plan in case you just can’t go through with something. I wish I had been given a different experience during my shoot, so it’s what I now set out to deliver. 

While we’re talking about experience, I want to finish this photographer to client manifesto by saying that I am what people call “plus size”. Though I am tall at 5’9, and I am fairly muscular, I am a size 12 woman that weighs 180 pounds. I am not looked at favorably by photographers, or even society at large (pardon the pun). I’ve noticed that boudoir photographers are so guilty of this virtue signalling bullshit that sounds like this:

“Oh, the term plus size is so unfair to use, so for all you babes that have had to use that term, you’re going to be curvy from now on!”

Usually it’s an entire paragraph dedicated to how bigger women are gorgeous, too, and no less sexy because of their size, and they deserve their moments to shine, as well, and shouldn’t be afraid to be sexual just because they’re not a size 2, and that’s not a wrong mindset. I have ALSO seen things of this nature shoved in clumsily with missives about representation, and wanting to make sure they as photographers are empowering a group of people that haven’t historically had positive role models that embraced femininity and sensuality. I appreciate the sentiment, always rings so fucking HOLLOW, and here’s why: things like this are always always ALWAYS cited on a separate page of a boudoir site under words like “curvy” or “plus” or, more cringeworthy but actually real hyperlink on a boudoir site, “extra bountiful babes”. So, while the narrative of the photographer may be telling us as non-straight sized women that we are absolutely as good as our smaller, societally accepted counterparts, the way they frame the reality is by othering. The lip service is more insulting than the dismissal, but secret embrace, of terms like “plus size” and “curvy”. 

Why is this something that photographers think is acceptable? Would we find this kind of othering under the guise of representation cute and even appreciated if it were, say, based on the idea of race or ableness or queerness? I promise you that no photographer is going to have a page writing about how any given woman of color is just as sexy and beautiful as her white counterparts while having a page labeled SPECIFICALLY to call attention to their non-whiteness while claiming to be doing it for their feelings of self-worth. Would a page titled “handicapable HOTTIES” be something we’d want to see from boudoir photographers? Fuck no. You let your body of work be the representation, and you leave the labeling up to the client. 

What I’m trying to say is this: I want to be your photographer, AND I also want to relate to you on a human level (I have a psychology degree that backs up this claim). That requires an agreement from both you as a client, and me as a photographer, that we listen to each other, we be honest with each other, and we each approach your future shoot with eyes wide open to the reality of the difficulties it may bring. Will your boudoir shoot be fun? More than likely!! We’ll listen to music, we’ll chat, we’ll get you looking the way you feel best shows your personal brand of sexy, and before you know it, your shoot will be over and you’ll be sore from all the posing (it really is a workout!), and we’ll unwind together with a drink, or a chat, or even grabbing a bite to eat with each other. However, if you have baggage, and hang ups, I know how to be your biggest champion now. I don’t want to other you, I don’t want you to feel pressured to do something uncomfortable because you paid me and you are too financially invested to be true to your gut now. I want you to leave your experience thinking that you’re beautiful, you’re strong, and also that I am the best and only photographer for you and you just HAVE to recommend me to your friends, because of COURSE I want that (but it doesn’t make the other stuff any less true).

I really look forward to working with you, and creating something memorable and beautiful together.