I’ve so enjoyed sharing some of my favorite bloggers’ photos this week, but what was it like when I finally saw MY photos?
OH MY GOD Y’ALL, I WAS NOT PREPARED.
Let’s back up for a sec. Caryn was amazing, first of all. She’s warm and funny and positive and creative and enthusiastic and an absolute pro. We’ve been friends for a while, and I loved my headshots she took for my press kit a while back, so when she suggested doing some boudoir sessions I knew I’d feel confident and comfortable shooting with her.
But just because it’s comfortable and fun the day-of doesn’t mean that all of my thoughts and issues and emotions and hangups just magically went away, either.
[TW: Discussion of body image]
Here’s the thing: I find it really, really hard to look at photos of myself, and I always have. I’ve talked about my not-so-great relationship with my body before, in reference to pole-dancing and in reference to bikinis and in reference to ballet dancing. Photos usually make me cringe and peek at them through my fingers, scared of what I’ll see. When I look at the big picture of things, I feel like an asshole for even having body image issues: I’m healthy and able-bodied and my gender identity matches the gender I was assigned at birth and my body generally doesn’t attract comment or criticism as I go about my everyday life, apart from the catcalls and annoyances lots of women are subject to. So, what, boohoo, I have big boobs and I’m carrying extra pounds? Suck it up, Sweets.
Still, when I saw my photos for the first time, it was with a sick, sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach. I didn’t see the pretty colors, or my awesome lingerie, or how well Caryn had captured the looks I’d wanted. I saw a fold of skin where I thought there “shouldn’t” be one. I saw arms and thighs that looked “too big” to me. I saw cheeks that were fuller and a waist that was thicker than I thought I wanted. I saw skin that wasn’t perfectly magically clear and hair that wasn’t as shiny and bouncy as I wanted (note: I first saw the photos before they were retouched, which I’ll talk about it in a sec). I felt a little like my worst fears had been realized: there wasn’t enough makeup or natural light or awesome lingerie in the world that would make me look “good” or “acceptable.”
So, first of all, there’s obviously some body dysmorphia going on there, as well as maybe some unreasonable expectations. I acted like if I didn’t walk out of a boudoir shoot magically looking like, say, Ashley Graham, then I must look like, say, Gollum. It was an either-or thing. Because that’s totally reasonable.
Secondly, I should have learned this from every acting-headshot-session I’d ever had, but it is pretty much a sure thing that you will look like a goof in 50% or more of your unedited photos. This is why some photographers won’t allow you to see all of the session’s photos, and instead will curate a much smaller group of proofs for your review. A hand will be strangely close to the camera and look disproportionately gigantic, you’ll laugh genuinely and one eye will crinkle up more than the other, you’ll discover that your pouty/sultry/sexy face does not look the way you think it looks (note: it actually looks cranky/sleepy), or everything will be absolutely perfect, except you’ll have a giant smear of lipstick on your face. I KNOW that this is the case, and yet every time I get a bunch of proofs back I decide to be DISTRAUGHT that not every single picture is an A+.
Also, there’s SUCH a big difference between seeing raw images and seeing a final, edited proof. I will never say that retouching and Photoshop are Evil. Obviously there are extremes, like the time Ralph Lauren made their model’s waist smaller than her head, or when perfectly lovely bodies and skin colors and faces are manipulated past the point of recognition or reality. Those extremes are terrible and deserve all the indignation, scorn, and rejection they receive. But just like makeup, retouching can help a photo show us what we actually “see”, rather than what the lens happened to capture. When we see someone in real life, we don’t register every slight change in skin tone or every stray wisp of hair. In photos, however, equal weight is given to the large details as well as the tiny, so some subtle retouching can help “correct” the image to match our real-life perception of the object. [Also, for fuck's sake, it's a boudoir shoot, not a photo-documentary. It's about fulfilling a fantasy, and if your fantasy involves erasing the zit that decided to pop up with a vengeance the day of the shoot, then who has the right to judge you?]
So I got my photos, told Caryn they were beautiful, and vowed never to show them to anyone. And then two weeks later I went back and looked at them again, and whether time heals all mental wounds, or my self-perception filters had re-calibrated themselves, or I’d womanned up and gotten a grip, I’m not sure, but I felt better about them. It’s like I’d been scared that the camera was mercilessly revealing all of my “flaws” to the world, when in fact it was just like “oh, okay, that’s me in my underwear. Cool.” I would have felt so much WORSE if someone had taken them and “corrected” them to give me a flat stomach and bigger eyes and a longer neck and erased my dimples– like, what, am I not good enough for these pictures just the way I am? I’m only worthy of a nice picture if I look like someone else entirely? Eff that.
Part of why I decided to share the pictures now, after a year and a half of keeping my face off the blog, is precisely BECAUSE I had some mixed feelings about them. How can I sit here behind my computer screen and say “all bodies are beautiful”, if I couldn’t be a body-positive warrior for myself? If I couldn’t admit that I was scared to reveal myself? How dishonest would I be, if I hid the fact that sometimes it’s hard to practice self-love?
Even if my pictures had shown someone with a flat stomach and smaller boobs and large eyes and no wrinkles or dimples wherever, that particular someone would have been no more (or less) deserving of beautiful, sexy images than I am, or than any of us are. One of my biggest struggles with my body has been working to love it no matter the number on the scale or the size on the tag. It’s fine to want to change your body, to set goals for yourself, to embark on new routines or lifestyle choices, but if you can only say “my body will be worthy of love” instead of “my body is worthy of love right now, and will be tomorrow too”, then what kind of self-love is that?
ALSO (omg, I swear I’m almost done navel-gazing), it occurs to me that maybe looking at yourself with love takes practice. My sister, mother, and I spent time over the summer clearing out the attic, and we found boxes of photos from when my sister and I were little all the way through college. Photos that made me weirdly sad, they were SO CUTE and from so long ago. Photos that made me laugh, because sometimes children are awesome (there’s this one of my sister and me “baking” around age 5 or 6, and you guys there is SO MUCH FLOUR on everything). And then there were the photos that made my heart ache, because I remember that when I saw them shortly after they were taken, I felt ashamed of and horrified by my appearance. I look at those photos now, after years have passed, and I can’t believe I treated that girl with such unkindness, such scorn, such derision. I can’t believe I treated that happy, healthy, smart, passionate girl like she was worthless, because she didn’t live up to self-imposed standards of impossible physical perfection.
I share all my mixed emotions about the experience not to try to scare anyone away from doing it (far from it: more pretty pictures for everyone!), but to try to come to grips with the idea that it’s okay if you don’t fall in love with your pictures right away. There’s a narrative that any type of makeover or photoshoot will IMMEDIATELY reveal a beauty that the subject never knew was there, and that from the moment she sees her “new” self she will live happily ever after. That might happen, sure, but if it doesn’t? If seeing your pictures is hard, or just one small step on your journey towards self-love? That’s okay too. But I think from here on out I’m going to try to imagine what my future self might say to me, once time has passed and the pictures faded from her memory. If she were to look at them again in five, or ten, or thirty years, how could she look at them with anything other than compassion and love?
A huge thanks to all the lovely lingerie bloggers and photographers who shared their work this week. In case you missed them, check out Part I, Part II, and Part III. An especially huge thanks to Caryn, for being such a great artist and friend.
More about Caryn: