This past year, I have learned more about myself and the work I do than I ever have in the years before.
One of the fun perks of being a makeup artist for boudoir is doing promotional photos. I really love doing photo shoots with the photographers I am working with, so I can show clients what is possible. I think of myself as a pretty-but-accessible person. It is easy to see the difference between what I look like in real life and what I look like in professional photos, and be put at ease by the fact that you don't have to be perfect or have a perfect body to enjoy the experience.
The beauty and photography industries have undeniable shadow aspects; they are notoriously misogynistic, sizeist, ageist, racist, classist. It is perpetually breaking us down and telling us there is something wrong with us, then selling our empowerment back to us with the promise that if we buy something or give some part of ourselves away to others, we will be worthy.
This is especially true for people who work INSIDE OF these industries, because our appearance is what keeps us employed and makes us money. In most industries, the more experience you have, the more respected and qualified you are perceived to be. But everyone gets older and everyone's body changes, including ours. And when our appearance deviates from the ideal in any way, we are at risk of losing the work to which we have dedicated our lives. This creates a hyperawareness within most of us. We are always looking for the thing that we need to change or fix to be marketable, or the thing that threatens to take it away.
So why the hell am I in this industry? The answer has changed over the years, sometimes without me being fully aware. But despite all of the manipulation and pressure within it, I have never doubted its ability to change lives and help people to embrace themselves without apology.
Recently, Nisa Fiin Boudoir (who I have had fun working with many times over the last couple of years!) contacted me with an idea. She said she wanted to have a boudoir mini session marathon called "New Year, Know You," a wordplay on the often-recited "New Year, New Me" resolution that people impose on themselves (a toxic notion that we need to change in order to be happy). Nisa wanted to have a stripped-down, natural version of boudoir that enables women to see themselves as beautiful in an everyday sense. I thought this was amazing, and it reminded me of something I had forgotten!
When I met Nisa two years prior, I felt like I was in a really confident place. I felt so at ease during the promotional shoot we did, and I loved the photos when I got them back. Because I didn't know Nisa very well back then and wasn't super-familiar with her work at the time, I looked at her portfolio afterward and noticed a contrast between the photos we did together and her typical style and body of work. The women in the photos looked amazing, but even as a makeup artist I wasn't paying particular attention their hair or makeup. They just looked very relaxed and beautiful. I thought about wanting to do a shoot like that some day, and then immediately told myself I couldn't.
(the first shoot that Nisa and I did together two years ago!)
It was in this moment that I realized that my confidence wasn't in how I looked, but how I could make myself look.
I am very confident in my hair, makeup and wardrobing skills. I was confident in my interior decorating and we had done the photo shoot at my house. But I did not feel pretty without these things. When I looked at these photos of these other women, I realized that a lot of the things I did were to keep the viewer at a distance. They were things I used in order to keep people from seeing me. And these other women- I could see them.
When Nisa told me about "New Year, Know You," I had already been experimenting with these aesthetic things I had been clinging to for so long. I stopped doing my makeup and hair every day, took off my acrylic nails, started wearing looser clothing, just to see how it felt. I spent several months exploring the uncomfortable feeling of being in my own skin and asking myself what I do because I want to do it and what I do because I am afraid of how I'll feel, be treated or be seen if I don't. At this time I really can't say for sure what I will adopt back into my routine and what I will let go of permanently. But I did ask Nisa to take some photos of me because I wanted to intimately know what this "New Year, Know You" experience would be like.
As you read the next couple of paragraphs, you may be thinking, "what the fuck?" because I while I am promoting this event and strongly believe this experience to be valuable, I am being brutally honest about my personal experience with this process. We are conditioned to be presented with idealized accounts of what experiences are like, by the service providers to make money off of them. I think what keeps a lot of women from entering into the experience of a boudoir session is fear. While I want women to be able to face that fear and overcome it, I will say that it manifests itself in different ways, and fear will not ruin the experience. In the 10 years I have been doing hair and makeup for boudoir, I have never had a client come back and say that the experience was negative.
I did my hair and makeup the way I have been doing it on any regular day. Usually I have wardrobe pieces picked out, but this time I did not (that was a big thing for me- I got a sense of security from
dressing to cover the parts of me that I don't like). I am moving soon, so I wanted to get some photos in my house with a vintage sofa I was particularly attached to (it has been used for many photo shoots if you look back at my past work).
(two years later... no winged liner, no cool lingerie, no Marcel wave hair... this felt so scary)
Nisa is a great friend and a professional so logically, I had no insecurities about being judged or being treated unkindly. I know in my head that the person who was treating me unkindly during the shoot was myself. But emotionally, I can still fall into a state of hyperaware mind-reading. I think that that is true of most women. Not only are we our own worst critic, we criticize ourselves way more than we would criticize anyone else. As a result, we often think that people are thinking about us what WE are thinking about us. It is a mind fuck to be a woman, in countless ways, but one of those ways is attributing our inner voice to the unspoken thoughts of others.
The great thing is that during a boudoir shoot, you get direction and inspiration from the photographer, but you are leading and running the show. I didn't want to show my stomach, so we didn't. I still didn't want certain parts of my body shown. Nobody is going to force you to expose a part of yourself that you don't want to show, but if you want to try it out and see how it feels to you, it is an excellent opportunity to challenge yourself. It might surprise you. Or it might be too scary to even consider. Both are okay. Neither are wrong. And as many times over the years as I have had every part of my body photographed, on this day, there were lots of things I felt too afraid to expose.
Sometimes I have been showed the back of the camera (where the raw image is displayed) by a photographer. I told Nisa to please not do this. I didn't want to see the photos until they were edited. Again, this is something I've never done before, with her or any other photographer, but she supportively honored that request. I didn't have to explain. I didn't have to apologize. I could just say "this is what I want; this is what I don't want." How often do women get to do that? Almost never.
(I have always been encouraged to force confidence but I am in love with the vulnerability in these!)
I stopped the shoot sooner than we scheduled to wrap it because I was anxious and just didn't feel good about my body. I buried myself in some baggy clothes and wound down. Again... this was something I had never felt compelled to do before, and that most people don't have the urge to do (most clients report basically wanting to LIVE naked after their session). I was not entirely surprised about how I felt, given all the reflection I've been putting into how I tie my appearance to my worth lately. I just noticed it.
Some time after, Nisa notified me that she was done with edits, and asked if I was ready to have them emailed to me. I chose the pace with which I saw these final edits and felt supported in that. When I opened them, I felt a wash of relief and surprise that I loved how I look in them.
Then, being the photographic industry person with body dysmorphia that I am... I began carefully scrutinizing and zooming in on the photos. Where did she edit my body to make it look better than it actually is? Was there evidence that I could see? It was then that I stopped and took a good, meaningful moment to recognize how shitty I was being to myself. My refusal to believe that the person in the photos could be me, because I thought that person was beautiful and I feel ugly, broken, used up, and past her prime. Over the last six months or so, I have been feeling what seems like every bad thing someone could think about themselves. To the point where I could not look at a beautiful photo of me and even accept that it was really me.
I love these photos for so many reasons. They are so much more meaningful to me than "hot pictures of myself." The experience challenged me to experiment with the way I am perceived on the outside, without all the things I have used to manufacture confidence (I do not say this to convey the message that the things I used to do are bad, or that anyone who does them is bad; I'm saying that they served me for a while and I am in the process of evaluating their role in my self-worth). Even though the experience was difficult for me, it was facing a fear and a set of deeply-engrained lies about myself that I am sick of fucking carrying around. And I didn't have to do it alone. Someone was there with me and on my side the whole time... and documenting that process. When I got the photos back I had to get real about my refusal to accept that I'm beautiful, and ask myself if I wanted to live my life that way or if I wanted to be kind to myself. I realized that I had choices about how to see myself, how to present myself and how to love myself that I have been ignoring because I have been trapped into believing the worst out of self-preservation and fear. I think these may be the most memorable and meaningful photos of my entire career. I will remember them always as an invitation to have a better relationship with myself.
The tagline for my business is "be truthful, be visible, be powerful," and just like all of us, I am learning how to do that too.
The "New Year, Know You" boudoir marathon is February 1st, 2020. If you or someone you care about would like to join us in this experience, email firstname.lastname@example.org to reserve your session time.