Jenn Mclellan used to think her body was broken. She’d bought into the idea that, because of her size, she couldn’t be beautiful. She exists, she said, in a body that society finds unacceptable, and knowing this had a profound effect on her emotional relationship with her physical self.
Why Plus-Size Boudoir Shoots Are So Damned Liberating
“Then I got pregnant with my son and had a natural childbirth that changed everything,” says the 37-year-old Albuquerque-based writer, who blogs at Plus Sized Birth. “I realized the strength and beauty my body possesses. There was no turning back!”
Even with her newfound confidence and the peace that came with having learned to love and accept her body as it is, McLellan was hesitant to accept an invitation to participate in a boudoir shoot with a group of moms, knowing she’d be the biggest person there. Would she be accepted?
“Turns out, stripping down and letting go was one of the best decisions of my life! These women not only accepted me, they cheered me on,” McLellan recalls. “They helped me dive deeper into my body love journey.”
It's All about Body Love
Body love is exactly what it’s all about, says photography studio owner and freelance writer, Rachel Cavanaugh, who jokes that her job is a actually 20% photographer and 80%therapist. Women of every race, every age and every size, she says, have hangups about how they look. What is interesting, she says, is the silent permission plus-size women seem to be asking of her prior to their shoots. Almost every plus-size client emails or calls ahead of time to let her know, almost in apologetic warning, that they are, in fact, plus-size, obese, or overweight.
Ciredit: OWN a Boudoir Studio
“Anytime you’re getting naked in front of stranger, it’s incredibly intimidating,” says Cavanaugh, owner and operator of the Portland, Oregon-based Satin Studios. “I have yet to meet a single woman who comes into the studio, drops everything, and is totally comfortable. Everybody is nervous.”
Cavanaugh helps her clients ease into the photo shoots with champagne and snacks. Half her clients, she says, bring a friend. Her lead photographer, who handles most of the sessions, also asks every one to share with her what they love about their bodies and what their favorite body parts are, and then focuses each shoot with her clients’ answers in mind
“They sip their champagne and giggle,” Cavanaugh says. “And then we ease into it.”
Life Changing for Everyone Involved
Cavanaugh says that by going slow and allowing the client to become comfortable with the process, the final images capture the beauty of self-empowerment as it naturally unfolds for each woman. It’s a powerful thing for the staff to witness.
“When women get naked in front of you after revealing all of their hangups…,” says Cavanaugh, trailing off with obvious awe in her voice. “It has really changed my entire relationship with my own body.”
The transformative photography sessions typically start with clients in full lingerie, with both top and bottom on. From here, the session can move into a few directions, depending on the form of nudity with which the client is comfortable. Most often, says Cavanaugh, boudoir clients request what she refers to as “suggestive nudity” during which the client is naked with with either props like cowboy hats, footballs and guitars strategically placed in a way that emphasizes the subject's nudity without actually showing any “private areas.” However, nothing is set in stone. Cavanaugh and her lead photographer make it a practice to never push people into more than they feel comfortable exposing.
“I’ve had older women come in and actually keep their clothes on,” she says. “My mother and her best friend did a session like this … in cocktail dresses with their bra straps showing.”
It's All about the Experience
No matter how much skin a boudoir client ends up showing in their photos, Cavanaugh said, the point is the experience itself, a thought echoed by 32-year-old Atlanta resident, Kenya, regarding her own boudoir session.
Credit: Melissa Mullins
“Honestly, it was one of the best experiences of my life … I tell everyone they should do it,” she says. “I saw more than beauty or sexuality in my images. I saw power and a woman owning everything about herself. I keep one of my favorite shots in a frame on my sink as a reminder.”
The photo shoot had been her goal, Kenya shares, before she turned 30. She devoted time to her body “where she wanted it to be,” devoting time at the gym, and losing close to 65 pounds.
“I wanted to celebrate my body,” says Kenya, noting she was single at the time. “I have never posed in just panties and a bra because I’ve always been self-conscious of my stomach. But when I came out of the bathroom in my lace panties and bra, with heels and perfect hair and makeup, you could not tell me I was not Beyonce. Everyone deserves this feeling.”
“People think plus-size women should hide their bodies and be ashamed of being overweight, as if they shouldn’t love themselves until they’re skinny,” continues Kenya, noting the accepted body type among the plus-size community is the hourglass. “I was still well over 200 pounds - 250, to be exact. It is perfectly fine to love yourself where you are and refuse to hide. We are sexy. More importantly, we only have one life.”
Pauline Campos is a freelance writer, author, and & artist living in the Twin Cities. Her work - often focusing on reported features, mental health, autism awareness, and raising a daughter that will never doubt the power of her own voice - has appeared on TIME, The Washington Post, Marie Claire, Good Housekeeping, and many others.