Let’s be honest…about boudoir photography

I was in the gym this morning sweating out a week’s worth of bar food and bad habits (because I’m human.) I love to go to the local rec center, where I don’t feel I have to wear a full face of makeup and designer yoga pants with flashy letters across the bum to feel accepted.  I work out looking like early morning death, with lots of sweet little old ladies.  It’s great.

I found myself watching the few younger women who were there, particularly the ones who looked strong, thin, toned, and in the kind of shape most of us want to be in.  And I reminded myself, as I often have to, that not even those women have perfect bodies.  They don’t.  And if you told them they did, they’d laugh at you and tell you exactly what is wrong with them, and why they’re “fat” or “soft” or “awkward” or “droopy.”  Because that is what we women do.  We criticize ourselves to death and never truly believe a compliment.  I’m 5’8” and 115 pounds and I work hard to be in the best shape I can be, and I still walk around most days feeling chubby and flabby.  I’m just like nearly every woman on the planet, holding myself to an impossible ideal and struggling against feeling unattractive.  It’s insanity.

I worry, like every other mother out there, about my daughter, who has always tended toward being overweight and who would prefer to just be a couch potato most of the time.  At twelve, she’s finally started to understand that in order to be healthy and happy as an adult, she needs to stay active and eat healthfully.  But I worry about things like anorexia, peer pressure, teasing by girls who are shaped differently than she is.  I worry that her generation will be as obsessed as my generation is over numbers on a scale and imaginary or perceived body “flaws.”

I see constant posts and threads on Facebook and other social media along the lines of “real women have curves” and “all women are beautiful” and “beautiful women come in every shape and size.”  And we readily repeat this mantra, yet none of us seem to want to be the woman who is that shape or size.  We can appreciate that a certain curvy woman is truly beautiful, but those same curves viewed in the mirror are simply “fat.”

Where is this insanity coming from?

Well, we love to blame “the media.”  We rail on about ultra-thin models, magazine cover retouching, TV shows that only cast the genetically gifted, all of those things.  And yes, those do contribute, however that altered reality persists because the public pays for it.  So, yes, we also are nearly as quick to blame “society”––that of course being a code word for “everybody but me.”

It’s time to address this––particularly if you are a photographer like me.  And particularly if you are a female photographer (although men, this all applies to you as well.)

I started out photographing children, and then families, and gradually shifted toward adults.  I absolutely love photographing people of all ages, but lately I’ve been particularly drawn to photographing women.  I love it.  I love working with them, I love laughing and joking around with them, and I love the process of lighting, positioning, and styling the female form.  I love putting a woman so at ease during a session that she nearly falls asleep.  I love showing them photographs that make them tear up a little, and see themselves differently and more positively. As a film photographer, I’ve never developed much in the way of Photoshop skills, so I’ve always been forced to get it right in camera.  I’m extraordinarily grateful for that, more now so than ever.  Why?

Because the more I look around at this genre called “boudoir” these days, the more irritated I’m becoming.  The concept is wonderful: take an “average” woman, whatever that means, and make her feel beautiful and sexy, to celebrate her curves and uniqueness. That is a wonderful goal, and I think every woman should do it at least once in her life.  The trouble is, the industry on the whole is not helping women embrace their bodies; it’s teaching them that a Photoshopped, liquefied version of them is much more pleasing to the eye.  Got a little softness in your abdomen?  Don’t worry, poof, it’s gone.  Have hips?  Well, you shouldn’t have that much, we’ll subtract that.  Have a roll or two because you are a healthy woman who actually eats?  Well, not anymore.

We, as a whole, are not celebrating women.  We are celebrating our ability to fix them in a digital representation.

When we digitally alter a woman’s body in a significant way, we are telling her that she is not good enough as she is.  That walking around in her every day life, she has flaws that are objectionable to the eye.  And we’re feeding the disconnect that every woman has between how she thinks she looks, and what she sees in the mirror.  We’re teaching women not only to want to be digitally distorted into an impossible ideal, but to expect it.    Because seeing themselves photographs as they actually look is just too unpleasant.

Part of the problem is that photographers have become lazy.  It’s just easier to ‘fix it in post” than it is to actually flatter our subjects in camera.  Who needs careful, thoughtful, effective posing, lighting, and wardrobe when you can just use the liquefy tool?  While we’re at it, why even learn how to create flattering work on our own that really, truly conveys that woman’s personality, when you can just buy a posing guide and insert your latest subject (of course using Photoshop as instructed to fix the issues the original pose caused.)

Look, I am not anti-Photoshop, and I’m certainly not anti-digital.  I have the utmost respect for people who know how to do amazing things with either and/or both.  When I see an amazing photograph, I fully appreciate it and the work that went into it, regardless of the medium in which it was created.  And I have no problem cloning out a zit that would probably be gone tomorrow anyway.  I really don’t care if Photoshop is used to change colors, add crazy effects, remove objects, add backgrounds, anything like that.  I don’t even have a problem with minor adjustments when a neck wrinkle or a slight bump or lump here or there detracts.  But “fixing” a woman is wholly different.

And yes, I do realize that the old Hollywood retouching artists were certainly not above using that retouching machine to slim hips and nip waists, although the difficulty and tedium involved meant it was more minimal and certainly not on every image.  But it’s back to the old “just because you can do something doesn’t mean you should.”   By creating these heavily altered, body distorting “portraits,” we are creating “records” of someone who never existed.  We are perpetuating the myth that all women should be perfect.  We, female photographers, are bringing this on our own gender.  We applaud the Dove ads featuring average-sized women, while we Photoshop-melt off the pounds to make our clients artificially happy with themselves.

It’s time to hold ourselves accountable, on both sides of the camera.  Focus on lighting, posing, and styling a woman to look as good as she possibly can, without falsifying her.  Let’s make her look like she does on her best day, without going overboard with mind-bending fakery.  Let’s develop the eye and the skills to create something flattering and beautiful without trickery.  And when you find yourself on the other end of the lens, remember to apply that same philosophy to your own photographs. There is true beauty in imperfection.  Maybe if we start letting women look like themselves, we can all start seeing that we really are beautiful in every shape and size.  And maybe things will be a little bit healthier for our daughters.