It’s harder than you might expect to sit on your knees, reach behind you, grab the heels of your stilettos, and pull up while simultaneously pushing your bottom out.
It’s so difficult, in fact, that after 10 seconds of trying, I topple over. I was warned before the photo shoot that boudoir is a lot like sexy yoga, but this is the first pose that has really defeated me.
“I told you it’s hard,” laughs photographer Sally Magharius, patiently waiting as I attempt to untangle myself.
I can only imagine how bizarre the scene must look: two women in a rented apartment on Beatty Street, one in black skinny jeans and a black T-shirt with a matching black mask, the other in a lingerie set and glitter pumps giggling uncontrollably in 30-degree weather in the middle of a pandemic. A passing observer might assume it’s the world’s weirdest soft-core shoot, but at its heart this experience is actually hard, important work—a journey of radical self-acceptance and female empowerment.
Boudoir is perhaps one of the most misunderstood genres of artistic photography, often misconstrued as a gift created to please someone else, a husband perhaps. But I’m here as a gift to myself, to reclaim my body and rebuild my confidence. It’s not about being naked (although some people can find that powerful); it’s a moment of intimate portraiture, captured in pyjamas, sweaters, lingerie, or nude, to reinvigorate the subject’s connection to their own body and help them rediscover their beauty for themselves.
I filled out the boudoir model call sheet on a particularly low day in the middle of the pandemic. The stress of COVID and extended time spent indoors had pushed my already changing body over the edge, and overnight (it seemed to me), I woke up with angry red stretch marks covering my breasts, thighs, and bottom.
Suddenly, I had this secret shame that I felt I had to hide and cover up in the increasingly hot weather. I felt locked inside my body and deeply uncomfortable with how I looked naked. It’s a common feeling among women, and one that I was already familiar with, but the level of self-loathing, and the control that these scars suddenly seemed to have over me, was new and disturbing.
It was after a stressful evening at my parents’ house, where I kept placing couch cushions over my thighs and stomach so no one would ask me about my weight gain, that I found Sally’s post seeking models for her next boudoir photo shoot. In a rare moment of profound self-love, I clicked the link and filled out the form.
“Boudoir can be a form of photo therapy,” Sally tells me after our shoot. “Everyone loves seeing professional photos of themselves, but there is something specifically about boudoir. They might say, ‘I hate my arms or stomach but I love them in that photo’—and they’re never covered; it’s always when they’re on display.”
Sally considers her photography style “feminist boudoir,” a subgenre that celebrates all types of female bodies and removes the male gaze. She loves watching women fall in love with their own features for the first time and makes a point of emphasizing the body “as is” in her work. “I don’t hide features,” she says.
The experience isn’t necessarily for everyone. The politics of baring it all can be fraught, and body positivity is often unappreciated or, worse, shamed. Before I met Sally, I found some solace following body-positive people on Instagram, but in many cases the movement is commodified, heteronormative, whitewashed, and ableist, and many well-known influencers actually benefit from thin privilege, though they pretend otherwise. Boudoir photography, in contrast, is increasingly making room for racialized, fat, queer, and disabled bodies to heal and appreciate the art inherent in their own forms, with studios like Toni Black Magic and Teri Hofford paving the way.
Which is why I threw myself into the most vulnerable space I could find and mustered the courage to walk into Sally’s studio for the shoot that would reintroduce me to myself.
By outfit number three, I’ve relaxed into the shoot’s rhythm; soon I can’t remember why I hated my body or its new stretch marks. Somehow, the context of this photo shoot has given me a sense of control that I couldn’t find outside the studio’s walls—a new appreciation of my own body’s unique art.
“Can we do a close-up of the marks on my thighs?” I ask.