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.


20 thoughts on “Let’s be honest…about boudoir photography

  1. Yes! … But watch how you’re saying things and don’t fall into the trap of only seeking empowerment for the medium and up ladies. It seems to come as a surprise to a lot of people that the waifs among us can and do have poor body image. I’m sorry to say that it took my finally managing to gain a little weight before I felt attractive, what with the huge amount of negativity I’ve experienced, and sadly a lot of it from people only seeking to improve their own self worth.

    • Sherri, I couldn’t agree more. I get genuinely angry when I constantly hear “real women have curves” because some “real women” just don’t. I’ve been called anorexic, I’ve had total strangers yell at me to “eat a cheeseburger,” and when I’ve expressed my own body image issues to friends in the past, I have gotten shushed and ridiculed because “I have nothing to complain about.” It’s just as unhealthy to criticize thin women as it is to criticize heavy women. It has become true reverse discrimination. If we are going to say, “All women, in all shapes and sizes, are beautiful”, then we really need to mean ALL of them.

      • Hear, hear! 100% in agreement. And I’ve had very similar experiences. Even now I’m an ‘ideal’ BMI of 21, I still get sass about being too skinny!

  2. I absolutely love this post. I am exactly as described and not proud of it, liking a post about women with curves then immediately criticizing my own and obsessing with the number on the scale. I will say as a photographer I would love to learn effective posing and train my eye to compose well so a woman will look at a photograph I take and feel beautiful. I admit I lack in this. And I have many times been faced with thinking an image and the woman in it are lovely only to find the subject thinking her arms look fat or all she can see is a belly roll and feeling I have failed to show her she is beautiful. I completely agree that post is not the place to be completely altering a body and most magazines are to the point where the people don’t even look human, not their faces, not their bodies, they look like animated characters and I don’t really understand why we accept this as something pretty and desirable. I want to see honest beauty and it takes plain honest hard earned skill to produce that and not post processing skill.

  3. After reading some of the comments above, which I hadn’t before I posted, I just thought about what a battleground women’s bodies are. All shapes and sizes. Thank you Sherri for reminding us that it’s all sizes that get attacked. So many of us are fighting our bodies and fighting others about our bodies. I feel those posts about woman with curves are attempting to swing the pendulum to a different beauty standard, which I get because most of us are plagued with feeling we’re not thin enough and are angry we’re not thin enough, and then turn that anger toward the thin, which isn’t fair at all, the real problem is the standard. Could the standard be about feeling good and healthy and content and even beautiful within our bodies regardless of what size we are?

  4. Amen. Thank you. You’ve just put into words something I’ve been trying to verbalize for a while now. I keep telling people I want to do “real portraits” of “real women” – that I want each person to feel valuable and lovely as is – and that I want to fight against what is fed to us as beauty in the media. Phew – you’ve gotten it all out for me clearly, simply and eloquently.

    When you spoke of your daughter I felt a huge desire to protect her and to lift her up. To lift all girls up. I was that girl – not necessarily inactive – but not the waif thin blonde hair, blue eyed girl. I grew up in a neighborhood where I was the only “non white” girl – I was Italian – and curvy – I was not overweight, just different, but did not know it. Comparing myself to all the stick thin girls in the area really did a number on my self esteem – and it shouldn’t have. I’m with you. We need to create a new standard of beauty. Raw. Real. As is.

  5. I just read Kristin’s post and I ditto her sentiments. It’s true that we all can struggle – no matter our shape or size – and we all deserve to feel worthy, beautiful, accepted and loved.

  6. Just to give a guy’s perspective, I agree with many of the points in this post and comments and particularly that women need to stop holding themselves up to a standard of beauty that has been developed over time which is quite frankly not beautiful at all. One of the issues I raise here, however, is that I disagree that we need to change the “standard” of what is beautiful. Beauty is in the eye of the beholder and by placing a “standard” of any kind, we are simply telling people what is beautiful and what is not. What we need to do is have no standard at all – I know, easier said than done.

    Also, I agree that over-shopping people needs to stop, simply because it doesn’t look good. But, in many instances, clients are coming to us, not to provide them with reality, but, instead, to provide them with a visualization of fantasy. For that reason, photoshopping can be very helpful. While effective posing, lighting, and wardrobe are things we should strive to master in every image we capture, we need to remember that those things are no less part of creating the fantasy as well – let’s face it, most people are not walking around on the street with perfect hair, makeup, and wardrobe while they are under perfect lighting and moving their body’s in the most flattering way. Posing, lighting, and wardrobe are essentially the original photoshop.

    When I photograph someone, guy or girl (yes us men are held to a standard as well), I try to find what I believe to be their essence and accentuate that. In many cases, that has more to do with their personality than their physical attributes. I try to keep my shopping to a minimum but find that it can be very helpful in creating that fantasy that they seek. If I succeed, and they are happy, then I have done my job.

    My point is, ladies, you truly are beautiful, but you are even more so when you show us who you really are.

    • Anthony, I agree with you. I am not an advocate in any way, shape, or form, of “changing the standard of what is beautiful.” Such words have never and will never come out of my mouth. There can be no standard. It would be like trying to define exactly which kind of flower is the perfect standard for all flowers. It can’t be done.

    • What Anthony said is 100% true. No one walks around with perfect light. Make up is fakery. Nor, by the way, do we live in hyper dramatic b&w world. You’re making subjective/artistic choices and exclusion the augment or alter reality. Picking on photoshop is hypocritical. While a sentimental notion, this is an intellectually shallow position.

      I admire your technique. But it is no more “authentic” than any other type of photography.

      • I’m not picking on Photoshop. I’m picking on the excessive use of photoshop. Big difference. What I object to is not software. What I object to is melting women to artificially make them into something they cannot look like in real life. I can pose myself very well and position myself well in relation to lighting in a bar, if I want. I can wear makeup in real life. Maybe real life is not in B&W, but is that designed to artificially flatter the subject? No, it isn’t. Melting a women into something she can’t look like in person perpetuates what we scream about in magazines. It’s not the tool, it’s the irresponsible overused of the tool.

        There’s nothing hypocritical there, but of course you are free to disagree. Just keep that in mind when Cosmopolitan turns their cover girls into airbrushed, impossibly thin and perfect digital people.

  7. Perfectly said. As a womens portrait artist I agree with you fully. To be honest I dont have a clue how to liquify and have no desire to learn how. I make it my mission to make every woman in front of my lens feel gorgeous and take time to do it right… in camera.Im also a mother of two young ladies. and I do hope they continue to love their bodies because they take care of them. I love your blogpost and will be sharing on my own page. THANK YOU for this.

  8. Hi Cheryl. Thanks so much for posting this. About a year ago, I shot a friend who is a little bit on the plus-size (her words, not mine). She is really beautiful and she’s a photographer too, so we were practicing posing and shooting. I thought the pictures turned out really beautifully and showed her fun and sweet personality. However, she said that I need to work on posing plus-size women. I never really understood – I thought I had done that, and I agree that every woman (plus size or not) should be posed in a flattering way. But I wondered what exactly she was wanting me to accomplish with the posing? I can’t make her perceived flaws disappear. Maybe I was just not as conscious of it as she was, because I think of her and how sweet, kind, and fun she is. I don’t think of her body size.

    It’s hard doing this – photographing women – because an image is 2 dimensional. The viewer can make suppositions about the subject and the subject cannot defend herself or himself. The viewer doesn’t KNOW the subject. It’s just… hard.

    • Gretchen, first off — it ain’t easy. And it does take practice. What looks great on one woman does nothing for another. And posing and lighting rely heavily on each other to work. One without the other is not nearly as effective. Without seeing the images, I don’t know whether she had a point or not (we photographers can sometimes see our work with blinders on, creating a potentially big gap between how we see the images and how the subject does.) But it does take practice, absolutely.

      That said, there will always be those women who are simply not capable of seeing themselves and accepting what they see. It’s sad but true, and that’s why I am such an advocate of sticking to our guns and not significantly altering the women we photograph. It will only happen over time, but we need to start now.

  9. For the last two years, I have been working on a project which involves women in their late 80s and early 90s and you know what? They are beautiful because they feel well into their skin, nothing to do with size, they keep smiling and have a great outlook on life, they completely amazed me!

  10. This is a fantastic post. Recently I’ve been struggling with this issue and the fact that I love shooting boudoir. I have been feeling kind of hypocritical lately about it. I’m concerned for my daughter’s growing up in this type of world, yet feel shooting boudoir feels like the opposite sometimes. Tell me there is a way for both worlds to co-exist!

  11. Awesome article!
    As a photographer I have a strict rule – no photoshop diets! I will remove a pimple or blemish in post process, but I refuse to make them anything but who they are. I know some photographers that have no problem with this and I think that they do their clients a huge disservice by not creating an image of them and creating a fantasy version.

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