Are You Ready to Bare It All?
Why We Have an Authenticity Problem, and How We Can Solve It
In business, it’s synergy. In fashion, it’s body positivity. In wellness, it’s self-care. It’s Eat, Pray, Love and Live, Laugh, Love and Love the Skin You’re In. Regardless of the industry or the intended outcome, there is something to be said for those particular buzzwords and taglines that try to remind us of our unique humanity and encourage us to connect to others on a real, personal level. Their power comes from their ability to tap into your personal identity to get you to believe in something: a company mission, a product, a behavior, a practice, a leader.
And now there’s a new word out on the market: authenticity. We are obsessed with the idea of authenticity, of mindfulness, of “tapping into your inner power.” These days, authenticity is usually applied to a lifestyle meant to free you from a “fake” American culture, encouraging you to do everything the way you want to do. You know, authentically. Living authentically, speaking authentically, working authentically, selling authentically.
Authenticity is intended to prove the point that you are being true to yourself, that you’re seeing past the marketing gimmicks and conducting yourself in a way that comes from the heart. It’s a beautiful concept, and it’s completely broken.
The Problem of Positive Thinking
When we (the mainstream masses) talk about authenticity, it is almost always in the TED Talk, self-help context of tapping into your inner truth and empowering yourself to have more positive relationships in your daily life. In our next article, What is Authenticity?, we discuss some of the psychological background that links authenticity and positive thinking.
Well this sounds great. I mean, positive is inherently a good thing, isn’t it? If we’re all capable of being happy, then we just need to apply ourselves, right? Right??
Welcome to the drawback of positivity-based programs. Done professionally and with proper guidance, these programs are incredibly helpful, but when put in the hands of amateurs who are working from a limited knowledge set, there’s an increased risk of doing more harm than good, especially in communities that already suffer from negative images (whether societally imposed or internalized). Three specific ways in which I’ve seen Pop Authenticity fail are:
- Toxic Positivity
- “Take Me or Leave Me” Syndrome
- Need/Want Confusion
So let’s break it down.
This is the one you’ve probably heard before, used whenever you’re venting on social media and someone comes in with “LOOK ON THE BRIGHT SIDE!” type comments that make you want to strangle them for invalidating how you’re feeling. Toxic positivity is optimism taken to an extreme, at the cost of embracing the broad range of human emotion. According to Psychology Today, positivity becomes toxic when someone believes that “keeping positive, and keeping positive only, is the right way to live your life. It means only focusing on positive things and rejecting anything that may trigger negative emotions.”
We will discuss some of the specific issues with toxic positivity - such as how it affects body image, why it interrupts the coping and acceptance process, and its damaging effects on the POC, LGBTQ+, plus-size, and disabled communities - in further articles in this series. For now, however, it’s enough to know that we are complex creatures and attempting to put value judgments on an entire part of the emotional spectrum is unrealistic at best and emotionally traumatic at worst.
“Take Me or Leave Me” Syndrome
One of the most basic ways that we marginalize certain people is to tell them that they have to be smaller, quieter, more conforming in everyday life (anyone who has ever presented as female or been a racial minority or had a BMI over 25 are just some of the folks who will be intimately aware of this). We learn to push our feelings down and wear a mask that society finds to be acceptable and agreeable.
It’s no surprise, then, that the invitation to live more authentically and the cultural shift towards “living your truth” has led to a collective sigh of relief from people who have long bent themselves to a near breaking point. Unfortunately, the flip side is the increasingly common idea that once someone has uncovered what they consider their authentic self, any infringement, critique, or request for compromise is seen as a personal attack.
Because authenticity has been equated so strongly with goodness, it becomes harder to speak up against toxic or abusive behaviors, or to even bring up the topic of improvement. To these individuals (who are unsurprisingly, often already privileged and entitled), any potential conflict is headed off by “Well, this is who I am. Take it or leave it,” which stunts the ability for growth and only serves to widen the rifts between people.
The distinction between something one needs and something one wants is not at all intuitive, especially because we’re often not aware of it and thus don’t teach it. However, there are absolutely healthy and honestly life-changing ways of using curiosity-based, mindful practices to hone in on when something is a genuine need versus a want that you’ve been conditioned to believe is somehow essential to your being.
What we see more often, though, is the idea that anything that makes the good chemicals is fulfilling a need. We see this a lot when people talk about self-care. Symptoms of legitimate medical and mental conditions, such as depression and eating disorders, are masked with the excuse that “it’s what I need right now to get me through this.”
And yes, absolutely, sometimes you do need that extra hour (or two, or six) of sleep. And no, ice cream is not inherently bad and you shouldn’t feel guilty that you had a sundae for dinner because you were too upset to cook. But when things go farther, when you’re asleep more than you’re awake and you’re sick to your stomach because you haven’t eaten anything with a vitamin in it for a week, that is no longer fulfilling a need. And tragically, the idea that this is just “listening to your body” is actually causing it harm in the long run, sometimes irreversibly.
The Anatomy of Authenticity
So we’re in a bit of a conundrum now. How do we use the empowering aspects of authenticity to improve our lives, without falling into the traps that cause us to only examine ourselves halfway or create a different type of mask?
Well, it’s going to require a lot of unlearning and relearning. A good place to start is to look at ourselves holistically. There are multiple ways that our beliefs around who we are can reside internally and manifest externally:
- In our inner criticisms and evaluations
- Through the words that we use to describe ourselves
- In the way we carry and pose our bodies
- By changing our demeanor in different groups (AKA code-switching)
- Through our projected judgments on others
- Through our shared interests
- In how we dress and groom ourselves
- By our selfie angles and filters
- In the ways we treat people unlike us
- By soliciting (or explicitly not soliciting) validation from others
The process of gaining a healthy sense of the authentic self often motivates further improvements to outward behaviors and relationships with yourself and others. There are many ways to tackle habits head on, but true understanding and transformation of your core self has to start from within.
In order to change any outward behaviors in a lasting, satisfying way, we first have to wrestle with the inside voices that are driving them. When you examine the voices in your head and determine if they’re coming from within or from influences around you, you’ll start to notice that what you say and what is said to you can be very different things.
We’ll be digging deeper into this in A Practical Guide to Finding Your Inner Voice and sharing some techniques for differentiating the origins of the stories you tell yourself. Once you’ve had some experience with this practice, you can begin working on applying it to outward situations.
The main way we’re going to focus this inner voice is through body image. Most people have been taught to believe that beauty equals goodness, and that if you can’t fit your body into the traditional molds, then you have to learn to find other ways to consider yourself beautiful. But being beautiful doesn’t work for everyone.
In You Don’t Have to Love Your Body, we’re going to examine some of the myths around beauty and positive self image. We’ll talk about body neutrality vs body positivity, and why the you that you like doesn’t have to adhere to even your definition of cute, sexy, or beautiful. For now, though, it’s important to realize that taking an authentic look at yourself may not end up with you thinking you’re gorgeous, and that’s alright. The aim in this is not to depress you, but rather to give you a basis from which you can make choices about yourself, reclaiming your own voice in terms of how you define your body and the power that goes along with it.
What Does This Have to do With Boudoir?
As you’re reading this, you may be thinking “Alright, cool, but what is this doing on a blog about boudoir photography?” The answer is simple. Boudoir photography, adult modeling, nudity, and sexuality are all incredibly vulnerable ways to express yourself. You are given a minimal amount of clothing and props to obscure features that you are uncomfortable with, and the shots are much more likely to include parts of your body that you struggle with.
Many people ask for intimate shoots not because they have a cute little boudoir outfit they want to show off or to kill boredom on a random Saturday. Most clients are doing this because they are trying to slip out of their clothes and into their own skin.
But let’s be honest here. Modeling has been subjected to some of the worst stripping of authenticity (pun somewhat intended) that physical media has ever seen. High glam boudoir poses and camera angles can cause distorted images of how a person is expected to carry themselves. Airbrushing and tweaking have turned so much of photography into little more than digital paint by numbers, using a base image of a real person and distorting it into something that fits a still far too narrow definition of acceptable appearance.
The impact of this hyper-glamour on our mental wellbeing is very real. According to an article by Caitlin Flynn, our obsession with fixing up images has been linked to everything from depression and lowered self esteem to warped perceptions of how successful or valuable you are as a person. Some other negative effects of Photoshop culture and the arbitrary standards of acceptable appearance include:
- Increased incidences of Body Dysmorphic Disorder, especially among people who don’t feel that they’re plus-size in the “right” way
- More intense cases of Gender Dysphoria, triggered by rigid guidelines for masculinity, femininity, and androgyny
- New classifications of eating disorders, such as orthorexia
- An increase in postpartum depression due to baby weight not just “melting off”
- Whitewashing of POC models and celebrities, feeding the myth that dark skin is less attractive and undesirable
- Saviorship culture through the use of “happy, pretty” disabled models as diversity props
This creates a situation where you may not be able to find satisfaction as a photography client (and perhaps some of you have already experienced this). If your self-image is so bound up in the standards that have been set for you and not by you, then odds are good you’re going to fall into one of two traps: either you’ll need your photos edited so much that you create a false image that you can never live up to, or you’ll look at more natural shots and find yourself obsessing over your angles or rolls or lopsided grin or cellulite.
If you haven’t guessed by now, this blog series is going to focus on helping you get ready to be real in front of the camera. Maybe you don’t think you’re beautiful. Hell, maybe you don’t even want to be beautiful. That’s alright; the point of boudoir is to display the you that radiates from your skin. Showing up stripped down means really listening to who you are and what you want out of a session, regardless of what you believe you’re supposed to want.
In this series, we’re going to be discussing the following concepts:
- What is the Authentic Self?
- Who Hurt You? Examining Where Your Inner Criticisms Come From
- A Practical Guide to Finding Your Authentic Voice
- Owning the Thirst Trap: Internal vs External Validation
- You Don’t Have to Love Your Body
- Living Authentically From the Inside Out: Short, Medium, and Long Term Strategies
- What Does This Have to Do With Boudoir? Tying It All Together
Please use these articles as a starting point for reflection and to help begin dialogues around your self-image. They may be helpful topics to bring up with a mental health counselor, a trusted friend or loved one, and yes, your boudoir photographer.
Throughout this journey, I sincerely hope that you are able to think more deeply about who you are and how you want to present yourself. This may be uncomfortable, but it will be worth it. You deserve nothing less than your best, true self.