YOU BETTER WERK
How Boudoir Photos Are Redefining Sexy
Cancer patients. Sexual assault victims. Body-shaming sufferers. Boudoir photography is not your everyday version of ‘sexy.’
I try not to do research for a story in my underwear while I’m a little buzzed, but to learn more about boudoir photography I made a rare exception. But first, a history lesson.
You have probably heard of boudoir photography before. It is, after all, nearly a century old—a testament to the timelessness of the 1920s erotic aesthetic, and proof that a good smoky eye will never go out of style. The grandfather of boudoir photography, Albert Arthur Allen, photographed California women in the nude all through the 1920s, spending much of that decade, as David Bowman writes, locked in litigation for violating the anti-obscenity Comstock Laws.
Photographer Marisa Leigh notes that the boudoir genre has been through several evolutions from the romantic ’20s to the pin-up ’40s to the au naturale ’70s. As long as cameras and women have coexisted, the former have been used to capture the latter in intimate bedroom settings. In recent years, boudoir photos have become popular presents for a bride to give to her groom on their wedding day—a service that wedding photographers provided long before the general public was aware of it.
But now, boudoir photography is quickly expanding outside of the newlywed tradition. I spoke with several boudoir photographers from around the country who attributed the rising popularity of their craft to a single obvious factor: social media.
“In all honesty, I blame the Internet and specifically Pinterest,” Sarah Witherington, who runs OWN: A Boudoir Studio in Atlanta, told me. “So many of my clients come in to see me with a story about how they never knew something like this existed until they were browsing around Pinterest looking for gift ideas.”
Rhiannon, who runs Alloria Winter Photography in San Francisco, attributed her own boom in business to “the growing popularity of visual social media like Instagram and Snapchat.”
“Everyone wants to feel like a model or a celebrity,” she said. “I create that for my clients.”
There is no reliable way to chart the growth of the industry as a whole but, if Google search trends are any indication, heightened interest in boudoir photography is, indeed, synchronous with the rise of Instagram and the resulting democratization of high fashion. In a world awash with grainy selfies, a boudoir photograph is the ultimate statement of personal style.
Many boudoir photographers themselves followed a natural trajectory from more traditional work into their client’s bedrooms. Rhiannon previously did wedding photography for 10 years and switched to boudoir after her brides began requesting it more and more frequently. She says her new work gives her more one-on-time with clients instead of having “200 people pulling me in any direction” at a wedding.
Cherie Steinberg of The Boudoir Café, which does shoots in Beverly Hills, Las Vegas, and San Francisco, said, “We did all kinds of photography, mainly wedding and fashion, and those two elements made it easy for us [to do boudoir]. But the truth is we always did boudoir, our entire career. It just didn’t have this name attached to it and not as many girls thought they could or should do it.”
Boudoir photography: It’s not just for brides anymore.
Each photographer had stories about how diverse their clientele has now become. Steinberg once did what she calls an “emergency boudoir shoot” for a plus-size woman in a healing group who was challenged to overcome her biggest fear within 24 hours. That fear? Being naked in front of someone. The shoot, Steinberg says, left her client a “changed person.”
Witherington’s most memorable clients have been women seeking to overcome personal traumas through her work. One client was a victim of sexual assault who wanted to “take back her sexuality.” Another client asked for a shoot because she was discouraged by years of unsuccessful fertility treatments.
“She told me later that I had helped to bring back her sense of femininity and gave her a reason to feel beautiful again,” Witherington said.
Rhiannon couldn’t even name all of the myriad ways in which her clients have come to choose boudoir: “The reasons are endless: divorce, marriage, cancer victims about to lose their hair or their breasts, breakups, self-confidence—the list goes on.”
Unique stories like these are quickly becoming the rule rather than the exception to the bridal trend. When I first called Miami photographer Erika Nelly, for example, she told me that a woman with three children had just emailed her, asking for a shoot so she could recapture some lost confidence.
“Every woman has beauty and they need to embrace that,” Erika told me. “Curvy women, tall women, short women, women of all shapes and sizes—I think every woman is beautiful.”
Erika described her process to me—how she sees her trade as a way to empower women, and how she tries to tailor her images to each client’s personality. Most women, she says, are skittish at the thought of stripping in front of a stranger so she consults with them in advance and provides wine on the day of the shoot to soothe their nerves. By the time she’s done, she promises, they don’t want to stop.
“There’s something about the boudoir that makes you feel so free,” she said. “Everybody should try it.”
And so, with a little encouragement from my editor, I did.
Erika spoke with me beforehand, asking about my and my partner’s favorite features of myself. Like so many women, the list of things I don’t like about myself—awkward proportions, scars, cellulite, a big nose—is much longer than its inverse. I had a hard time naming positives, but I did anyway, and then immediately began dreading our shoot.
In fact, I tried to get out of it by telling Erika that my only pair of high heels was in storage. No luck. She and I wore the same shoe size so she had me covered. Yippee.
I showed up at Erika’s Miami studio on a Wednesday morning terrified, totally unadorned, and in desperate need of the glass of white wine she poured for me. While we talked, local makeup artist Zunia Mua began doing things to my hair and face that I can only describe as sorcery. I’ve had my hair and makeup professionally done before, but never like this: bouncy curls, painted-on lips, and enough eye shadow to last a goth a month.
Between the alcohol and the false lashes, my eyelids started to feel heavy but a side effect of that sleepiness was a much-needed sense of calm.
But when it came time for me to undress, I suddenly decided there had not been nearly enough small talk. That’s when Erika took over, setting up the studio and making it clear that there would be no turning back. I put on the only presentable lingerie I owned, took a quick peek in the dressing room mirror, and was blindsided by some unexpected self-confidence. I wished that I had a personal stylist and two free hours every morning.
Before I could further scrutinize myself, I clip-clopped into the studio in Erika’s heels to find an ornate cushioned sofa already set up for our shoot.
Posing for Erika required a degree of physical exertion not usually demanded of a stay-at-home writer. It also required a surprising amount of concentration. Forget about rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time. However I was positioned, I had to simultaneously suck in my stomach, pop out my butt, push out my chest, pin my shoulders back, tilt my head toward the camera, and turn up my chin.
On top of all that, Erika’s repeated insistence that I smile—or, as she put it, “Tits and teeth!”—felt gratuitously cruel, but it was for the greater good.
So I persevered, following her instructions to the letter. All told, I hadn’t contorted my body into such awkward positions since testing Cosmopolitan’s lesbian sex tips in these pages last year but, this time around, there was an actual purpose to the pain. Every few minutes, Erika stopped to show me an image on the preview screen, presumably so I would quit complaining and accept the method to her madness.
“See why I did that?” she would ask.
I could see why. It was as if she had performed a magic trick.
I was struggling to hold up my head, my calves were sore from the weight of the heels, and I was sweating from the hot studio lights. But viewed through Erika’s lens, I looked natural, languorously strewn on the couch as if I had been asleep and only just woken up to greet her. The angles that felt so awkward to me looked artful and effortless to her. The camera can be a cruel mistress, I learned, but if you surrender to her vision, she will reward you.
The studio itself was filled with enough vintage paraphernalia to put Zooey Deschanel to shame: a rotary phone, a beach ball in retro colors, and countless other trinkets. When I suggested to Erika that I pose with a whip I had brought from home, she produced her own, superior whip because of course she already had one.
That’s when I relaxed, surrendered to the whimsy of the situation, and let Erika’s prediction come true: Like all of her nervous clients, I turned a corner and I didn’t want to stop. Partway through the shoot, Erika started calling out, “You’re beautiful. You’re gorgeous.” And a funny thing happened. I believed her.
To believe that for even a moment, to be able to hear another woman’s compliment without instinctively deflecting it—that feeling was worth all of the fear I felt in advance.
As a feminist, I’m often torn between critiquing unattainable standards of beauty and resisting a culture that diminishes the value of femininity. When pressed to choose, I care more about the second cause. Looking back, I can recognize the artifice involved in the shoot, of course. I was wearing what felt like 10 pounds of makeup and my hair was curled into a shape that I could never replicate at home. But femininity has personal meanings, too, not just social ones, and there is no better place to explore them than the boudoir.
It’s a cliché to make a claim like this but, no matter how many times women do the same, it never seems to sink in: The shoot was for me first, for my own curiosity and edification. It was only incidentally for my partner, and it was definitely not for the creepy or insulting comments that this article will inevitably inspire.
Boudoir photography isn’t about reaching for a high bar of beauty set by advertising, nor is it merely some vain invention of the Instagram generation. At its best, it’s a womanly takeover of a form that is usually reserved for certain bodies and not others. Red lips, airbrushed skin, and sexy poses are not the exclusive province of supermodels, nor should they be.
Boudoir photography may have become popular on the wings of social media, but it seems to endure because it takes that impossibly high bar and puts it within the reach of all women. Even this weird, lanky journalist.