We all know the answer by heart. It’s about empowerment. It’s about helping women in all walks of life feel sexy again. We exist to counteract the many voices in our culture that practice slut-shaming, that tell women it’s not ok to be sensual, sexual beings, at home in their bodies. It’s even right there in our tag lines and ad campaigns: Celebrate your sexy! Give him a gift that will knock his socks off! We’re empowered, and we’re on a mission. There’s only one small problem:
We’re a bunch of liars.
Mea culpa, my friends. I’m pointing this finger directly at myself, but I’m not alone. My work is beautiful, it’s classy, it’s glamorous and sophisticated and yes, maybe a little flirty. But it’s also safe. It’s well within the boundaries of “socially acceptable”. We tell women it’s time to celebrate their sensuality, to feel confident in their body, to be sultry and seductive and sexy. But we don’t deliver.
How did this happen? How did we get so lost?
Part of it may be a genuine desire to help our clients feel safe and comfortable. It’s a natural desire to want their experience with us to be positive, and stepping outside one’s comfort zone carries with it a certain amount of fear and, of course, discomfort. But our clients come to us because they want that experience. They want to be challenged. They’re asking us to help them push through their fear and confront it, not continue to avoid it. That may mean confronting our own fears and insecurities, but that’s our job. It’s our responsibility. If we help them play it safe, we’ve failed them.
Part of it may also be a laudable protectiveness of our industry. We’ve become so concerned with separating ourselves from pornographers, or worse, “creepy guys with cameras”, that we’ve edged too far the other way. As a result we can sometimes feel threatened when someone’s work seems to “cheapen” the heart of boudoir. We fight so hard to help the outside world understand and appreciate the value of the artwork we create that we respond with a knee-jerk negative reaction to anything we fear may undermine that hard work. We can become the very voice we claim to hate. We slut-shame. We’re guilty. We’re the problem.
And unfortunately, it’s getting worse.
This shift toward the “safe” and “comfortable” is a cycle, one that is fed into by a wide array of factors. Many of us got into this industry because we ourselves experience the insecurities our clients feel. We know what it is to be uncomfortable with our own sexuality, or afraid to express it. That can make it more challenging for us to help a client face those same fears. And when we look around us for inspiration or encouragement, we often find ourselves adrift in a sea of safe, pretty, glamorous photos that feed into our worry. Are we going too far? Are we the weird ones? No one else seems to be pushing these boundaries, there must be something wrong with us. Boudoir should be sexy, but not too sexy. Message received. The cycle continues.
So what’s the solution?
It’s time to start asking ourselves the hard questions. It’s time to start questioning our knee-jerk reactions, and examining things that we take for granted. It’s time to start pushing our boundaries. There’s nothing wrong with beautiful, glamorous, flirty photography in the boudoir industry. But do we create those images because it’s what our clients truly want? Or are we playing it safe ourselves, and fencing our clients in with our own insecurities?
I’m guilty of playing it safe myself. And so I’m putting my money where my mouth is. I recently photographed a fellow boudoir photographer (Jen Trombly of Breathless Boudoir) and expressed to her my desire to push my own boundaries to create work that was truly sensual, not just pretty. Tastefully erotic, as Jen so artfully phrased it. And together we created this image, one of which I’m very proud. Is every one of my clients seeking this type of expression? Of course not. But for the ones who are, I’m challenging myself to no longer hold them back.
Since then, I’ve been doing my best to be mindful of how I coach and encourage clients to express their sensuality during sessions. I still have a long way to go, but I think I’m getting better. My clients seem to be having even more fun. Plus, as a pleasant surprise, my sales have gone up slightly!
And in order to better understand my clients’ experience, and to better face my insecurities from every angle, I also posed for Jen’s husband Max (also of Breathless Boudoir). I’ve been photographed before, but never like this. I pushed through my fear.
And you know what? It was damn sexy.