How do I avoid objectification in boudoir photography? | Velvet Thyme

How do I avoid objectification in boudoir photography?

As I walk (or often run!) behind my dog through Adelaide’s inner suburbs, I am surrounded by images from the street – posters, flyers and signage. A little chirp on my phone has me reining in my enthusiastic dog and quickly checking my messages – jumping online into a digital space. In both the physical and digital world I find myself constantly confronted by objectifying photographs of women, communicating problematic ideas about the way I should look and fit into society.

What is objectification?

The first definition of objectification in dictionart.com makes clear what I am encountering: “the act or an instance of treating a person as an object or thing: The objectification of women in the media teaches girls that all they have to offer is their body and face, and they should expend all their effort on physical appearance.”

So much of the way our media and culture treats images of women falls into this definition. So, you are probably thinking, how then do I try to avoid objectifying women in my boudoir photography? I have spent a lot of time thinking and reading about this, as the last thing I want to do is leave a legacy on society that perpetuates women as objects! 

I find that the first step in working to change this is to think and talk about it. I understand it’s a big conversation, but if it’s not something your photographer is thinking about, then question if they are right for you. Below are some of the devices I use to try and avoid depicting you as just a “body and face”.

Boudoir portrait with scarf
A photograph of a woman in a black dress with coloured stripes at the bottom. She is sitting and sipping from a white tea cup while she looks out the window.

1. Diversity: You do you

This is a welcoming space for all bodies. There’s no uniform here, you wear your hair, body hair, clothes, style, and choose an approach that works for you. If part of this includes professional hair + makeup, great – and if it doesn’t, great! These shoots are a creative space to explore what you want to explore – and the most amazing thing you can wear is your individuality.

I have spoken to clients who have been told by other photographers that they  “can’t make them look good” because of their body size or  being forced into makeup/hair & nails styles that subscribes to the photographers “beauty” standard. F**k that. I understand how incensed you will be at reading this – I certainly was, and still am when I think of it!!! 

Celebrating our differences contradicts a narrow idea of what is “beautiful” and helps other women to accept and appreciate themselves as they are.

2. Personality

This is a space where you let your flag fly! I encourage you to bring in things that help to describe who you are as a person and tap into your unique self. Adding personality and character, weakens this notion of just being just a “body and face”. 

Even without props, I love creating heartfelt and meaningful photography that helps to give insight into who you are. And let’s not forget that we are all multifaceted people and different things represent us on different days! Conveying personality in photographs, helps to humanise the images and avoid objectification. 

Lady with green hair wearing a hoodie

3. Perspectives

A shoot that focuses on just body parts, without direct camera gaze, can contribute to objectification (think boobs and butt focus with no sense of the rest of you).

Although I love to include details and compositions of all of the body (and yes boobs and butt are often included – there’s nothing wrong with that!). I always ensure that there is a variety of photos in the shoot that help to add context and a fuller sense of who you are.

Often included in my work is direct gaze and power perspectives to convey strength and autonomy. A direct gaze (aka looking into the camera) is not passive in a photograph – passivity strengthens objectification. Power perspectives involve photographing from a slightly lower angle – if you look you will see a lot of CEO’s using this device too! This is not to say that in every single photo my subjects are looking at the camera, rather I ensure that there are photos of this kind in your photo series.

I always photograph based on composition and discussions with you. I don’t hide “flaws” and look to work with you to change the negative ways in which we often see parts of our bodies.

4. Ownership

These shoots are a collaboration, where we work together to represent you. If you’ve contacted me because you want this shoot for your partner/s, you will always hear the response that you should do this for yourself. By taking the experience for yourself, you move away from the idea that it’s about someone else which gives you power and ownership of the experience. This enables you to have an experience where you are fully free to explore what makes you feel good. 

Being in control and gaining confidence through your photos will create photography, as a side perk, that is incredibly appealing to the people who care about you – trust me.

5. Editing

This is a representation of you, as you are – this means that I don’t use warp tools and hyper airbrushing. I don’t think there is anything to be gained by narrowed waists, exaggerated busts and other digital body modifications. A client once put this beautifully “what is the point of getting a photoshoot that is about body acceptance, if it’s not a representation of my actual body!” – YES. A modified body and face perpetuates objectification as you are being literally warped to a beauty standard.

These days the only body modification edits I do will involve removing unintentional things, which may include: a tattoo that is being removed, clothing lines on skin, smoothing clothing, tweaking hair position, or maybe a bruise/mozzie bite if you choose. These things are always done in discussion with you if it’s something that you want.

Art nude portrait surrounded and adored with chocolate freckles (an Adelaide staple treat!).

6. Experience

Your experience matters. From our first email interaction, the forms I provide, your involvement and permission every step of the way. I work with you to ensure that this is a collaboration and you feel in control over what is produced. Through your shoot, I will work with and guide you while always encouraging you to be yourself. 

So why does all this matter so much?

Most of the media that surrounds us in our life are images of women that are objectifying. Films/magazine and ads that don’t include female objectification are actually a rarity. So many modern depictions of women still tow this line that women are simply ‘decorative’ and there purely as a male prop, in a male driven narrative. 

Feeling confident isn’t just about a “beautiful” body and face, its about who you are as a person – the whole package. This is what I strive to represent. The devices I use help to convey that you are a stunning, unique and multifaceted whole person. There is no, one size fits all – particularly when it comes to feeling confident. I often have clients who say “err… boudoir isn’t really for me but your website seemed a bit different” – yes, you have come to the right place!

Thankfully narrow beauty standards are beginning to change. I by no means always get my photography right and it’s something that I continue to work on and review. Don’t forget that I am also influenced by all the media that is saturated with male gazey work. I believe though, that having these conversations and discussions around the photographs that we are creating, helps to ensure that we all evolve this. As a side note, this is a great article about the female gaze in photography.

I would love to hear your opinion, what other devices can we use to ensure that boudoir/nude photography empowers women. Many women seek out these shoots to try and undo the harmful narratives they have been fed about how their bodies “should” look.  As a way of healing and accepting their unique beauty and self, by seeing themselves from a new perspective – let’s all work on moving forward and not backwards in the work that we create. 

Challenge the visual narratives that have been fed to you, and decide how you want to be depicted.