This is the third article in the series Baring It All: Living Authentically From the Inside Out. If you are new to this series, check out our introduction about authenticity and boudoir photography here

Content Note: While all of the articles in this series discuss issues around body image, self worth, dysphoria/dysmorphia, etc, this week will be focusing more directly on the causes of these problems, specifically racism, homophobia, transphobia, fatphobia, and other societal prejudices. Next week, we will discuss a more practical application of these principles, with a high level recap that won’t touch so much on potential triggers.

As the wise philosopher Michael Stipe once said: “Everybody hurts, sometimes.” We all get voices that tell us we’re not good enough, that we fucked up, that we are bad and should feel bad. But have you ever noticed that sometimes those voices just...don’t feel like you? Maybe you’re hearing the voice of a parent in your head, maybe the admonishment is accompanied by a flashback or memory. In some cases, you may even have a traumatic or triggered response.

One of the largest hurdles to living authentically is that criticism comes both internally and externally. Distinguishing between them can be incredibly difficult, and some responses are so automatic that you don’t even realize that they’re being influenced by an outside source. 

The tendency of these critiques to dig deep into our psyche and affect our views of ourselves is incredibly dangerous. The strain it puts on us is a big part of why more than 1 in 50 Americans deal with body dysmorphia and nearly 1 in 10 Americans develop eating disorders

Before we jump in, remember that if you are living with these or other disorders and traumas, you have a right to get help. Blogs can only go so far, and it may be worth seeking out therapy if your issues cause significant or ongoing impairment to your life. If you’ve had trouble finding a therapist in the past, services like Unmute or online counseling platforms may be able to help.

Muddying the Stream

When we spoke last week about the definition of authenticity, I brought up the image of a stream, able to change and be changed by its environment, but staying fundamentally the same. I also made a very brief mention to what happens when the waters of that stream get polluted or dammed up. It’s that muddying the stream that we’re going to explore today.

From the time we’re very young, we start picking up on the words and behaviors around us, even if we can’t describe or act on them. These early lessons form the basis of our principles and judgments in life. Sadly, what we’re taught isn’t always positive. 

Far too often, caretakers, peers, and community members inflict their own insecurities and biases onto children and adolescents, dictating the way they react to people and situations. There is a reason that bigotry is a learned trait; nobody is born with an innate hatred of other people’s identities. These prejudices are impressed upon a child by someone, almost always adults who harbor that bigotry and come from a community power structure that enables it. 

These problems can become even more entrenched when they’re personal. When we’re young, we seek attention and acceptance from our families (for your definition of family). Because of that, we learn to live within their guidelines of what is good, acceptable, pleasant, and attractive. Until (or unless) we expose ourselves to new communities and ways of thinking, we will stay within those confines and internalize them as our own beliefs. When left unchallenged for long enough, the pollution mixes with our stream and turns it into an unrecognizable mud puddle.

“I’m the Problem,” and Other Lies We Tell Ourselves

Apart from meeting others or learning through experiences about other ways of thinking, there is another way of bumping up against these ingrained beliefs. And that’s by living them. Let’s look at two examples here. These are amalgams of lived stories from myself or loved ones, and that many of you may have had similar experiences. 

CW: Transphobia, body shaming, misogyny/toxic masculinity, self-harm

Kay’s Story

Kay is a nineteen years old trans woman. She used to be depressed in high school because she didn’t look masculine and tough, and because she preferred cheerleading to playing sports. She was often taunted by her conservative friends and family over her “girly” habits, so she joined the football team in her senior year. She was actually pretty good at it, and she felt better about being more accepted, but she had a nagging sense that something was still wrong.

While at college, she learned about gender identity from her peers and social media. She started experimenting with new physical expressions, growing her hair long, wearing dresses, and painting her nails. Over the past semester, her college friends have helped her come to terms with her identity. They, and even some of her professors, happily call her Kay. She feels much better about living the way that feels right and she’s been very happy...until now. 

Holiday break is coming up, and Kay is going to have to go home to her family and act like she is still the “son” they expect. The night before break, she has an anxiety attack and questions her entire identity. She prays, begging God for answers as to why she was made wrong. She wonders if her friends were actually temptations to lure her into sin. She begins berating herself for “masquerading” as a woman and shaves her head so roughly that she cuts herself.

By the time she goes home, she convinces herself that she was in a “liberal trance” and decides not to go back to being Kay after the break. As soon as she’s home, however, the depression returns and she slumps harder than she ever has before. 

A naked brunette showers behind a glass door, the mist and droplets blurring and obscuring their image.

Jaime’s Story

Jaime is a thirty four year old personal trainer. She is notorious at her gym for being “the tough trainer,” and is the one that the elite athletes always seek out for help before a big competition. While she pushes her trainees to the brink, she has maintained that she would never force them to do something she wouldn’t do herself. 

Unfortunately, there isn’t much she wouldn’t do. She eats vegan, low-carb, and gluten-free, does fasts and cleanses every month, exercises for at least 2 hours a day, everyday, and doesn’t drink. She is also a perfectionist when it comes to hair, skin, teeth, and makeup. Even though she makes good money, most of it is spent maintaining her appearance. She considers her value as a trainer to be tied directly to how she looks. 

At a recent visit to her dietitian, she learns that she has multiple vitamin deficiencies and is at risk for osteoporosis and other diseases caused by malnourishment. Her caloric intake is also drastically low for someone her age. She is indignant because she knows she is living a healthy, admirable life, despite sometimes being dizzy or getting headaches, and storms out of the room. 

That night, she has a terrible dream. She is back in her old house with her abusive ex. He screams at her, calling her “a fat bitch” and blames the fact that she “let herself go” to justify why he was having an affair. As he does, his face morphs and he begins to look like her father. Jaime clings to him, begging him not to leave the family, but he walks out. Jaime is left alone, looking around to realize that she has become her mother and is trapped inside the house. 

In both of these illustrations, it is clear that something taken for granted was actually implanted by an outside force. Kay has been raised in a bubble that tells her that her natural proclivities and physical expressions are wrong and shameful. Jaime blames herself, at least in part, for her ex’s (and perhaps her father’s) infidelity. In both cases, these women have had to go to extreme measures to feel like they are worthy of acceptance from their communities. 

Additionally, each of our subjects has a conscious belief but a subconscious, conflicting reaction. In Kay’s situation, she has a mental breakdown when she is forced to live with an identity that isn’t right for her. For Jaime, she is haunted by nightmares of her trigger events. They both get defensive (against themselves and others), and put in significant effort to effectively hypnotize themselves into believing what they have been taught.  

It’s this idea of self-hypnosis that really strikes at the heart of authenticity. We often have a tendency to ignore our authentic feelings in favor of the ones that we know will make us appear more acceptable or valuable. We lie to ourselves, beating our true selves into submission so that they can be molded and modified. Over time, we commit these to lies, which can lead to obsessive-compulsive behaviors and toxic habits. However, as mentioned above, the grains of truth are still there to be uncovered, if you can just filter out the silt in the stream.

A dark portrait of someone with shaved head and arched back, clad only in a leather full-body harness

What Does This Have to Do With Boudoir?

As has probably been made apparent by now, the most pervasive and easily propagated form of criticism comes from physical appearance. Body shaming is a cultural pastime, and nobody is immune. Part of this has to do with the fact that American beauty standards are anything but standard; they seem to shift based on what wealthy and high class people look like at any given time. Beyond that, study after study has proven that more attractive people get better jobs, are less likely to be accused of a crime, and are assumed to have better personalities and IQs. 

This is magnified in people who society has not deemed “traditionally attractive.” Though norms are changing, marginalized populations still tend to be considered inherently less sexy or good-looking than their majority counterparts. If you’re POC, LGTBQ+, plus-sized, disabled, or if you have wrinkles, acne, vitiligo, or other such diverse features, it is likely that you’ve internalized cultural norms saying that your appearance is somehow substandard. 

But when we’re considering a boudoir shoot, an intimate photography session, we have to ask ourselves a few questions. Is it true what they say? Do I really feel that my body is any less worthy to be exhibited? Am I trying to mold myself to a society that values others above me? 

Over time, the hope is to be able to listen more to those subconscious voices, and let them speak more loudly than the ones coming at you rather than from you. Only then will you be able to look at your body with your own eyes. In time, you can use this perspective as a way to build true confidence, rather than self-loathing or insecurity masked by bravado. Remember, humility can be a good thing, but humiliation (especially self-inflicted), never is.