When Bethany Tate, a Portland-based makeup artist and frequent collaborator, asked if we could team up to provide a boudoir session for her friend and local trans activist Emby Bourne, of course I said yes.

What is a boudoir session? It’s a photo session done in the nude, in lingerie, or a combination of both, focused on making you look and feel totally gorgeous and sexy. These photos are a memento to celebrate what makes you look and feel your best. They can be kept private, shared with a significant other — or blown up and hung over your mantel like the total badass that you are. Contrary to popular belief, boudoir sessions are not about conforming your body to whatever the mainstream beauty standard currently is. They’re all about celebrating you as you are right now.

As a professional photographer, I do a lot of boudoir sessions. My clients range from 20-somethings to elders, from shy to totally excited, from loving their bodies to being very anxious. I’ve heard every possible worry about every possible body part, expression, or outfit. What I love so much about these sessions is that, during the shoot, everyone becomes more comfortable. After seeing an image or two on the back of the camera, everyone, no matter their age or insecurities, realizes that yes, they too are totally beautiful and totally sexy. It’s so overwhelmingly, outspokenly body positive.

The day of our session, Bourne was, at first, quiet but friendly. Tate set up her makeup station and went to work. I tried to stay out of the way as they created a look that met Bourne’s desired aesthetic. When they both emerged, Bourne looked stunning in smoky eyes and a bold lip. I could tell she was already having a great time! By the time our session had ended, the studio was full of laughter and joy.

I talked with Bourne about her experience and why she thinks boudoir is a total blast!

Emby Bourne boudoir by Suma Jane Dark

Emby Bourne by Suma Jane Dark.

Suma Jane Dark: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What is your background?

Emby Bourne: I’m a trans woman, all too quickly approaching middle age, somewhat college educated and a military veteran. I’d say my background is what some would colloquially call “white trash.”

SJD: What informs your style?

EB: My style is most easily summed up as “things I find on the internet” mixed with “clothes I can afford from a thrift store.” About 90 percent of the time you can find me in a pair of jeans and a t-shirt, though.

SJD: Was this your first boudoir session?

EB: It was!

Emby Bourne boudoir by Suma Jane Dark

Emby Bourne by Suma Jane Dark.

SJD: What made you decide to try boudoir out?

EB: My boyfriend sent me a few pieces of lingerie, so, of course, you have to send the pics to your girlfriends, right? Bethany [Tate] saw them and said, “I have got to get you in front of a camera!” and that was basically it. 

SJD: What was it like? What was your favorite part?

EB: The entire experience was pretty amazing. I loved the personalized attention and the makeup. It felt good to have so much attention on me, people trying their best to make me look GOOD. Everything was about me that day. The experience made me feel like royalty and it was amazing!

Related: With Body Dysmorphic Disorder, I Have No Idea What I Look Like — But That’s OK

SJD: What were you nervous about?

EB: I’d say the one thing I was most nervous about was my face. The shape of my face and my facial hair give me a lot of anxiety and dysphoria as a trans woman. The shape and structure of my face hasn’t changed much since starting on hormones five years ago, and to me it just looks really masculine. I was afraid it would come out in the pictures. As it turns out, though, those pictures are AMAZING. I am so happy and amazed to look at the person in them and know that’s me.

Emby Bourne boudoir by Suma Jane Dark

Emby Bourne by Suma Jane Dark

SJD: What advice do you have for others who might be afraid to book a boudoir session for themselves?

EB: As a trans woman, I can understand how a boudoir shoot would trigger a lot of dysphoria for other trans women. In addition, I think I have a lot of uncertainties about my own body and looks that a lot of other people do. It’s super important to communicate your fears or desires to the people working to make you look good. Their definition of “good” may not match your own. I’ve seen a lot of Bethany’s [makeup] work and she does a lot of styles, so her asking me what style I liked to portray (hard rock, just a little bit trashy) was a huge step toward actually narrowing the style down to what I like. If I’d gotten those pictures taken with pinks and pastel colors on my face, I don’t think I’d be nearly as happy with them as I am. That’s super important when you’re getting your picture taken.

SJD: What does body positivity mean to you?

EB: Body positivity is a huge subject, but to me it’s an act of taking autonomy of your own body back from society. Unlearning what is “attractive” just because your culture says it is. Teaching people that their opinions of your body don’t matter to you. Teaching yourself that others’ opinions don’t matter to you.

SJD: How do you think the body positivity movement can better support and include trans people?

EB: Get racism and sexism out of the body positivity movement. For some reason, the whiter and more masculine you are, the more weight your opinions have. And the bad thing is that they don’t even have to be good or interesting. Listen to black trans women and the things that bother them. They have all the same issues that I have, plus racism.

Emby Bourne boudoir by Suma Jane Dark

Emby Bourne by Suma Jane Dark.

SJD: What advice would you give someone who doesn’t feel confident in their body?

EB: Oh geez. I wish I knew. I mean, it’s easy to say that everything that you think is wrong with your body is some arbitrary garbage that someone else has made up, but how do you get over it? I don’t know. I sure haven’t.

Thinking about booking a boudoir session?

If you’ve considered booking a boudoir session but are afraid to take the plunge, maybe it’s time to treat yourself to a glorious, body-positive experience. Finding the right photographer is important. Be sure to ask to see their portfolio and make sure that it reflects an inclusive variety of body types — specifically, body types similar to yours.

Ask them how they incorporate body positivity into their sessions and be sure to advocate for any concerns that you have to make certain it’s a good match. Communication should be easy, relaxed and inviting. You should never feel pressured or as if you will somehow be an exception as a client. Your own community is often the best place to seek out recommendations for photographers, but be sure that they have adequate boudoir experience, as it is a very specific type of photography that takes a good deal of time to master.

Finding a photographer you vibe with is really the hardest part. Once you’ve found someone you’re excited about working with, book with confidence. When the day comes, pack whatever outfits make you happiest, take a deep breath and get ready to look and feel amazing!

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