By Kelcie McKenney, Photos by Tayanna Harris
This story was originally published in The Pitch.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m naked in front of three strangers.
I’m changing into my first set of lingerie at Tayanna Harris’s Good Bodies photo studio for my first boudoir session. You know, that photo trend where you strip down to your knickers and pose seductively in an effort to feel good about yourself and your body.
“Oh, I love that,” Harris says as I’m draped over a chair, my legs kicked above me.
“Honestly, you look like this devious housewife who might kill her husband and get away with it,” says Katie Camlin, Harris’s photo assistant, who is showing off our shoot on social media today.
It was all I needed for a confidence boost: This faux-housewife was feeling herself.
In May, I wrote a story called “KC artists are being digitally erased: Instagram’s fight against female sexuality is hurting local models, photographers, and our own self-image.” I spoke with models, boudoir photographers, and mental health professionals about social media’s censorship of female bodies—and the empowerment that can come from seeing your body in the media.
Through talking with these womxn, I realized boudoir was something I needed to do for myself.
My relationship with my body has had its ups and downs. I grew up thin, and as a dancer, I became increasingly aware of my body: small, tight costumes; changing rooms with other girls; how and when your thighs should touch in certain positions. Thinness became synonymous with strength—and since I was already thin, I had passive feelings towards the undercurrent of fatphobia swelling within me.
I remember looking in the mirror during a dance class in high school. The girl next to me had a flat stomach with defined abs. I recall looking in the mirror at my own stomach, which was softer in shape, the word “fat” ringing in my head.
Over the years, my body changed. I outgrew my clothes from year-to-year and watched the number on the scale climb upwards, each new number calling out the word I’d heard when I looked in the mirror: “fat.” I developed a tick: I’d pinch my stomach whenever I thought about my weight gain, subconsciously measuring how my body had changed. Those 15, then 20, then 30 pounds were hardly noticeable to others, but loud to me.
Outwardly, I supported body positivity and self love in womxn around me, yet inwardly I ignored the thoughts I was directing at myself. Admitting I didn’t like my body meant I wasn’t “feminist enough,” wasn’t “supportive enough,” and I felt I wasn’t “fat enough” to have a place in the self love movement. After a body dysmorphia diagnosis last year, I had a rude awakening to the harm I had been doing to myself.
I spoke with a number of talented boudoir photographers during my reporting on that May story, and each had experienced a boudoir session of their own. Leah Emerick, a wedding and boudoir photographer, found forgiveness in her session.
“Through seeing those pictures and through seeing myself through my own lens, I started to realize I was ready to make peace with parts of me that I never thought I would,” Emerick says. “I started to forgive my body for not being six feet tall or a hundred pounds or whatever I thought that it should be. I started loving what it does for me, and then started respecting my body.”
When I interviewed Emerick, we did a practice session, to get a feel for what her boudoir clients experience. She rubbed lavender oil on my wrists, guided me through deep breaths to relax, and then hyped me up on how good I was looking—kindly ignoring my greasy hair and lax outfit I’d thrown on that day. She posed me for two shots, which she threw up on the screen at the end of our mini session—like she does for all her clients—so we could go through them together. Suddenly I didn’t see that greasy hair, I saw something relaxed, comfortable and, dare I say, beautiful. I had to do it again.
I decided to shoot with photographer Tayanna Harris. As a fellow bi womxn who focuses on body positivity in her boudoir business—her biz is literally called Good Bodies—it felt like the best fit for my self-love journey. Plus, we vibed hard in our interview. (We collectively said “fuck” 26 times as counted by the interview transcription—mostly about how fucking stupid fatphobia is.)
Before my session, I scheduled a consultation with Bella Fernandez, the model who first inspired my Instagram censorship story. Fernandez is a predominantly nude and lingerie-clad model, who offers modeling consultations for anyone before a boudoir session. In the pre-COVID world, she also offers to attend your session and wear lingerie alongside you to help boost your confidence as you’re trying out poses. That’s what we were planning before, you know, the world ended, or whatever.
But our virtual session was still rewarding.
Fernandez shared some tips: always point your feet during a session (it makes your legs look longer), remember to cut the tags out of your lingerie, and the best poses come from actually touching yourself. Those hands-in-your-hair shots look best when you actually do it. Stroke your arms, trail your fingers across your collarbone, caress your face.
“It just feels nice to just touch yourself, especially because everybody is so starved for touching right now,” Fernandez says. When you feel good, you’ll look good, and your photographer will capture the moment.
At the end of our hour-long consultation, I did a lingerie try-on. Fernandez helped me pick which outfits to wear—ultimately the ones I was most comfortable and confident in—and we practiced some poses.
“Seriously, one of the ways that I got to where I am with posing, I literally just sit in front of the mirror and pose,” Fernandez says. “Grab yourself a glass of wine, start feeling yourself, and get in front of the mirror.”
The night before my session I did have a glass of wine, but I chickened out and skipped the mirror part. Instead I spent my evening hacking through quarantine-length leg hair, exfoliating, and trying to hype myself up for a day full of near-nudity.
I walked into Harris’s studio the next morning with a pit in my stomach. I was nervous. What if my photos didn’t turn out? What if I hated the way I looked even more? But Harris didn’t give me the chance to worry the second we got started. She has a way of making you feel like she’s your best gal friend just gassing you up, who also happens to have a camera on her. Forget about the fact that you’re only in your underwear. Between photos in my first outfit—a one-piece teddy in black and white lace—she showed me the back of her camera, dropping comments like “Look at how cute your butt is!”
I felt good. And I was having fun. I wasn’t thinking about my body—how good or not good it would look—I was thinking about how strong and sultry I felt. I ran my fingers through my hair—like Fernandez recommended—and tousled my effortlessly teased curls by Maddee Stecker, who had also done my makeup and glued on the large, fake eyelashes I was now peering up from under. I felt sexy, and I felt sexy for me.
My second outfit was a teal, velvet, two piece set from Harris’s closet—another perk of shooting with Good Bodies. Harris has a wardrobe packed with over a hundred lingerie pieces ranging from size XS to 4X that anyone can wear during their shoot.
“I had somebody who came in, and she was like, to be honest, buying lingerie felt really daunting for me,” Harris says. “Could you just find something for me? And she just wore everything from the closet. She didn’t have to pay another dime for lingerie, and it worked out perfectly for her.”
Harris walked me through poses that made me feel confident. With my back arched as far as it could go and my booty stretched ridiculously high into the air, I probably could have laughed at myself, but instead I ran with it.
We finished the session with a few nude shots where I wrapped up in a white sheet on the lush bed in Harris’s studio. I felt a little insecure at first, considering I was cooch-out in front of someone I had seen in-person a grand total of three times, but it didn’t last long. Harris peppered me with compliments and started snapping pics; a Lady Gaga song played in the background. I forgot about my exposed vagina.
We wrapped the shoot up, and I put my clothes back on. I was tired, and my back was starting to hurt from all that arching. But on my drive home, I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I called my partner to tell him how much fun I’d had—too eager to wait the 10 minutes until I got home to share.
Later that day, Harris shared a few of the photos in her private Facebook group for Good Bodies clients and friends where members talk body positivity journeys and swap stories and selfies. A swarm of sweet gals dropped comments on my photos about how great they looked.
DAMN GIRL!!! 🔥🔥🔥
It’s so good. Those pointed toes are A+.
WURK!!!! 🔥🔥🔥🔥that velvet is LYFE!!
Fierce as hell! I adore these!! 💜💜
That smile on my face stretched even further.
A week later, Harris sent me the final photos. It took me a few hours before I worked up the courage to click the link in my inbox—those fears I harbored before my shoot were trying to creep back in, but I shoved ‘em back down.
I’m a little embarrassed to say I immediately started crying the second I saw the first photo. I felt like I was seeing myself for the first time. In these photos was a woman who looked comfortable, powerful, playful, and sexy. Suddenly my body wasn’t this thing that I pinched when I looked in the mirror; it was strong, holding me up in a way that radiated confidence. That woman looked so beautiful, and she was me.
Later that week I brought my experience to therapy, sharing that looking at those photos made me feel like a piece of art—not a woman who couldn’t measure up to the ridiculous standards I or society had put on myself. I wanted to look at myself like that every day. Not just that I was beautiful or confident or strong—because I’m a woman and womxn have multitudes—but like I was a piece of art. Expressive, flawed, independent, and purposeful.
So that’s what I’ve been working on. Some days I feel as powerful as I did in those pictures, and others not so much; but I’m trying. And I’m learning to love myself a little more everyday. One thing is for sure, I wouldn’t be where I am in my self love journey if it wasn’t for that session with Harris. So treat yourself—challenge yourself—to do a boudoir shoot at least once. Because babe, I think you’re a work of art, too, and you deserve to see that.
Kansas City body-inclusive boudoir photography
So here’s to female orgasms. Go get one—or give one—today.
Kelcie McKenney is a writer, editor, and artist who is passionate about feminism. She currently works as Strategy Director at The Pitch , where she writes and edits for Kansas City’s alternative magazine. You can find Kelcie on Instagram with #kcdaddy, where she talks about her three-legged cat Luna, thrift finds, and ways to overthrow the patriarchy.