“Adventure and empowerment” in boudoir photography? Not so much.”

Originally posted to Medium on 30 March 2016. 

A article recently printed in EdgeNorth suggests that “boudoir photography offers Yellowknife women adventure and empowerment.”

But there is something about the aesthetic of boudoir photography—nudes or semi-nudes professionally taken for personal use—that doesn’t sit right. That squicked me, as they say on the Internet. The article’s language presents a particular kind of womanhood—anxious, self-conscious, eager to be pretty, the giggly virgin caricature of a Harlequin romance (or, let’s be real, something very different: men’s pornography): “nervous butterflies,” “exposed and vulnerable,” “the joy that comes from a day of being pampered,” “a way to treat… oneself,” “silk, skin, and self-love,” “confident and giggling,” etc.

As the article would have it, boudoir photography seems to be about “‘taking time for yourself in this hectic life,’” but is it really for you? Or do you “‘want to do it for [your] husband’” or to “‘add some spice into [your] relationship?’” One of the photographers interviewed says of her clients, “They’re so proud. To be able to take all the noise away and just see themselves as the rest of the world sees them.’”

But how does “the rest of the world” see them—see us, see women? Do they see “‘the raw beauty of a woman?’” And if they do, what is this “‘raw beauty?’” Boudoir photography is presented, here, as something special, singular, and private — “‘it’s all about my one client,” says one interviewed photographer, while another local photographer’s website promises confidentiality — but it isn’t, not at all. In the same breath, the interviewed photographer adds, “[it’s about] what we — the rest of the world — see as their beauty.”

Again, the “rest of the world.”

And if it were really about self-love that took all the noise away, why would we care what the rest of the world saw as our beauty, or at least, if we still cared (it’s hard not to), why would we go to such concerted efforts to bend ourselves to it?

The website mentioned above also states, “I like to get it right in camera, which means that I will spend the time to pose you to flatter your body type, yet make you look natural. You will be uncomfortable, you might ache for a few days afterwards, but it’s SO worth it.”

That is, it will hurt to contort your body into uncomfortable positions and lingerie, but the camera will conceal your discomfort. It will be “SO worth it.” No pain will show, your face made up, your hair styled, your body strapped into lingerie you bought just for this photoshoot, leaving only your “‘raw beauty.’”

The article goes on to highlight women clients who are are “at pivotal points of change in their lives, whether those be changing bodies or relationships or views of self—Women who want “‘an extra confidence boost after a separation or divorce,” or after having a baby, or for their husbands.

That is, women on whom beauty tyranny has begun to turn the screws a little tighter. Women feeling the pinch. Women getting that patriarchal boot right to the face.

It is not a matter of whether or not we feel beautiful, whether or not our “‘raw beauty’” shines through, not really. It’s about sexual objectification in a world in which even the thinnest, whitest, youngest girls are not thin, white, or young enough.

It’s about fuckability. We know this. We have all felt this. It can be as abstract as the constant barrage of photoshopped advertisements or as intimate as the insults of a family member. (One of mine referred to me, humourlessly and without affection, as a “woolly mammoth” because I don’t shave anymore. Ouch, right?)

But we fight this by rejecting the binary of fuckability/unfuckability, when we feel strong enough to bear that burden—not by paying for the privilege of being reminded that “the rest of the world” sees us as sex objects and that, for an afternoon at least, we can be hot enough to join the club.

It feels good, of course, to not fight the binary. Everybody likes to feel beautiful (whatever beautiful is wherever we are) and to be recognized as beautiful, because to be beautiful is to be rewarded for it. We like it when we look nice, when we try hard and it pays off, when we receive compliments in person or online. Of course we do; it feels good — And it has tangible results that cannot be denied. When you are thin and/or white and/or pretty, juries of your peers are more likely to believe you, people are more likely to think you “competent and smart,” and you’re likely to make more money in your lifetime, etc. But these are side-effects resulting from and compounded by our racist, sexist, and misogynist, body-hating practices, not from any value or virtue inherent to prettiness or personal empowerment. It has nothing to do with power poses or how good it might make one feel to put a gift-wrapped, glossy picture of their ass under the Christmas tree. (“For Christmas this year,” reads the image just linked to, “give her a little piece of herself”—as though anything so wonderful as everything you are—hairy, spotty, scarred, decidedly not beautiful!—could be lopped off and given as an object. And if the boudoir shoot is being given to a woman, is it even a “choice?”)

In an interview at Feminist Current, Lindsay Kite says of her organization, Beauty Redefined,

“[This is] really kind of the gist of our whole message. [It] is that, if we’re more than bodies to be viewed, we need to prove that in the ways that we value ourselves, in the way that we live our lives, and recognize that self-objectification — and really, the obsession with what our bodies look like inside our own minds — is the thing that’s really hurting us. It’s the thing that’s causing the body shame. A lot of these people try to fight against beauty ideals and that’s why they share images of marginalized women’s bodies in an attempt to say, “This doesn’t fit the ideal but I still think it looks good and you should, too.” But that still is further just posing these women’s bodies for consumption by other people, reinforcing that idea that we are there to be consumed and that’s where we can gain our value.

It’s definitely a complicated issue. Another one of the bits of pushback we got was the whole idea of, “Okay you don’t think it’s empowering for women to share their lingerie photo shoots online, but what if they think it’s empowering?” And to that I say: We’re not trying to tell anyone that we have all the answers or you’ve got to do this, and this is the only thing that will work. But what we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.

Feeling good does not magically become good politics. We don’t always have to practice good politics, because that’s exhausting, if not impossible, but we have to be honest enough to try to say when we’re not.

I recognize the importance of pushing back against beauty standards, as well as the way that so many different women have used photography, self and otherwise, to force expansions in who and what we are told is “beautiful.” At the same time, though, I repeat Kite’s words: “What we do know is that we need to be very critical of what we’ve been told is empowering.” We, personally, need to be critical in our own lives, and since I’m being sold boudoir photography, that’s what I’m doing. Where do boudoir poses come from? Why is that what’s “beautiful?” Are we really trying to beautiful—and what do we mean by “beautiful”?—for ourselves? Is it really that, “YOU are beautiful NOW. NOW it’s time for YOU”? Or are we all just clamouring to run on the hamster-wheel for a culture that hates us anyway? Don’t we do that enough already? These are not rhetorical questions, but instead questions—for me, so far—without answers.

Pretty feels good because we get noticed, admired, praised. Because we feel more desirable and less lonely, even if briefly. Because we chose it, being free human beings with independent will, etc. We chose it, whatever it is, boudoir pics and nudes, labiaplasty, hours and hours and dollars and dollars on makeup, Spanx, whatever. (I use make-up, I strap into Spanx, I don’t wear tank-tops because I don’t like my shoulders, I take selfies—I do it too, okay?)

Says one of the interviewed photographers, “‘Sometimes our own brains can pervert our sense of reality, of who we are, and we can forget about our strengths.” That’s certainly true—But she follows with this, that “it’s powerful to be reminded about the beauty the rest of the world sees in us.” Again, the “rest of the world,” which does not see beauty so much as compliance (or non-compliance).

The owner of a Yellowknife-based studio writes,

In our small town many of the people I photograph are very familiar faces, and given the intimate nature of the art we create together- and the fact that they are used as gifts as well! — I am unable to share many of the images- but am so thankful to travel this journey with each of you!

I am also conscious of “our small town,” its familiar faces, our friends and acquaintances and friends of friends. I am conscious of the importance of local business, local journalism, and women entrepreneurs and journalists. I am conscious that no harm is meant and that the boudoir photographers interviewed for EdgeNorth feel strongly for their clients, that they cry at the intimate and sisterly privilege and responsibility of supporting another woman when she is vulnerable, of making her “feel independent and beautiful for the first time in a long time.

But as Kite says in the same interview,

“Lots of people have become really aware of the hot topic that is “positive body image” because people recognize it’s a huge issue. Girls and women really do hate their bodies and there’s no arguing that. But they’re trying to fix this problem in generally one way: They typically will say, in so many words, “Girls, women, you are so beautiful just the way you are. If only you understood just how pretty you are, you would have all the confidence in the world. Now get out there and have girl power.” And we [Lexie and I] try to flip the script on this because we know that boys and men have self-esteem issues, too. They have confidence issues. And when people try to fix girls’ and women’s confidence issues — not just their body issues — by telling them they’re beautiful and they’re actually prettier than they think they are, that just serves to further reinforce the idea that your body is the most important thing about you, and that your looks define who you are. So girls and women get this message from multiple angles, even from people who are really well-meaning.”

The hamster wheel. It’s such a struggle.

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