Portrait and Boudoir Photography without Toxic Beauty Ideals: An Underpinning

A Caucasian woman in her 30s who wears plus size clothing twirls on a lake shore in bright, golden evening light. She's wearing a flowing dress with transparent panels that float around her as she moves, and is an excellent example of confidence and positive body image. Lighting: natural light, high key, high contrast, sunset, silhouette Environment: lake, shore, outdoors, mountains, nature, wilderness, water Mood: confident, happy, positive, dreamy, joyful Themes: fitness, exercise, health at every size, joyful movement, positive body image, body confidence, body positive Ethnicities, genders and abilities of note: Caucasian Location: Olympic Mountains, Washington State, Pacific Northwest, United States

Every time I’m asked to do a photography or posing or selfie workshop these days, I’m so conflicted. The very underpinnings, the very bones, of modern portrait and boudoir photography — even the “body positive” variety — are based on a lie: that the most beautiful body is the one that most closely meets arbitrary current beauty standards.

Everything we do as photographers perpetuates it. Lighting? Designed to make skin appear smoother. Posing? Designed to make bodies appear as thin as possible. Retouching? Designed to “fix flaws” and force bodies into line by brute force. Minimize the body by any means necessary. Shrink. Disappear.

How can I be responsible for perpetuating this? I don’t believe that bodies have flaws. How can I hold workshops in which I tell people that they need to tilt their heads one way or move their hips another to be worthy of appearing in a photo? To appear thin enough to be seen?

I do still believe that there’s value in teaching people how to enter the walled city of acceptability, even if just for a day. But it’s the value of teaching self-defense to women who walk dark streets. It’s the value of teaching a left hook to a bullied child.

It’s the value of ensuring that her head is tilted in a way that elongates her jawline and her hands are folded on her arms with just the right blend of strength and approachability to get her that much closer to the C-level. It’s the value of recommending that my boudoir clients work with a makeup artist so that when they see their finished photographs, their own images align enough for minds steeped in decades of diet culture to still be able to see the beauty in their own bodies.

It’s the value of survival, not of joy.

Remember Glamour Shots? We laugh at the women in those photos now and imply that they were so silly for thinking the feather boas and big hair were a good look. But that was the container of the times, as wasp waists and bustles were before that. Right now, dewy, sharply-focused eyes with the rest of the body falling away into blur is the Official Boudoir Container of the Pros, and a decade from now it’ll be something else. It’s not a coincidence that trends change so rapidly; a moving target is oh so lucrative.

Photography should be about delight, not about perpetuating a fear of ugliness. Finding the beauty in every body means embracing the body as it exists, not forcing it into some arbitrary container. I want to tear down the walled city of acceptability, not just use my talent to usher a few people who can afford it inside for a day.

Temporary acceptability is good; permanent acceptability because all bodies are seen is worthy is better.

In my work with body-positive portrait and boudoir photography clients, I compromise: I use just enough posing tricks and skin retouching to bring them inside the gate of that walled city, so that they can learn to see their current bodies without being overwhelmed by shame or fear. And when a client is ready, I’m delighted to capture their images without any of that and just let them be themselves. Those sessions are the most satisfying work I do.

In an ideal world, we could all exist in our bodies — and be able to see images of those bodies — without shame or prejudice. If I’m going to pass on photography techniques, I want to pass on the ones that spark joy instead and let the toxic ones fall by the wayside as they should.

I’m pondering a new kind of workshop, where we study some of the concepts of photography — not to blindly follow them, but to break them apart, to use them as tools when needed and otherwise let them go. Where we then celebrate our bodies as they exist just in that moment, in an environment of play and freedom and gratitude, and capture that moment of joy.

And when we look at those photos later, we use them to appreciate the bodies that we do have and learn to see and respect and love them.

Are you with me?