I’m standing behind a dressing divider in a hip, spacious Philadelphia loft. I’m about to change into black lingerie (and, eventually, a bright red bathing suit) to have my picture taken in front of two people I’d only just met half an hour earlier. My heart is racing beyond belief—but, much to my surprise, I’m not nervous or scared. I’m excited. I’m happy. I’m relaxed. I haven’t felt this way in months.
* * *
Let me back up. I’d recently endured a relationship with a narcissistic sociopath. That’s not a figure of speech; he was textbook. And when the relationship ended, I was left with an eroded sense of identity and self-esteem. I began to spiral into a deep depression: I didn’t like who I saw in the mirror anymore, because that person apparently wasn’t enough for him.
I was in counseling with a body-positive therapist, but I wanted to do even more to help build back my self-respect. During this time, a friend showed me photographer Cheyenne Gil’s website. Cheyenne and the women she works with comprise what she calls the Body Love Collective: a collection and celebration of women of all colors, shapes, and sizes. Some of them look like me; something I rarely see in media at all, let alone in a positive light. As I scrolled through photo after photo of stunning, diverse women on Cheyenne’s site, something in me clicked.
Indeed, Michelle Elman, a body confidence coach in London, says this type of photo shoot can be a meaningful part of the path to self-acceptance. “Boudoir photography gives you back the control and say over your own body. Capturing it proudly can be altering to a woman’s confidence,” she says. I sincerely hoped that would be the case for me.
When I first emailed Cheyenne, I told her that, despite not having the “ideal” body, I’d always had hope that a man would love me for who I am—and what I look like. And I thought I had that with someone, but in the end, my body and spirit was nothing more to him than a vessel for his needs. I wrote that I was slipping away from the person I knew, and I missed her and wanted her back—stronger and better than before.
Cheyenne—sweet, hilarious, insightful Cheyenne—replied: “I’m sure you already know this, but that dude is a dick. I’m sorry that he made you feel so terrible about yourself—but, girlfriend, I am so happy that you are working to get your sass back. I know that it isn’t easy, but taking it day by day and step by step is so good for you.”
I was floored. Here was someone I’d never met, seeing me for me through an email. I trusted her immediately and booked a session for three months later.
I got to have an experience that felt both out-of-body and the most in touch with my body I’ve ever been.
In the time between our last email correspondence and my scheduled moment in the spotlight, I went about the activities in my life that had been getting me through: I practiced yoga, I took cooking classes, I saw my therapist, I traveled. I did not crash diet or ramp up my exercise routine in an effort to look “better” for the shoot. After all, this would be capturing a moment in my life when, despite all my sadness, I was surviving. That was worth celebrating.
My shoot was on a crisp November morning, and I immediately got swept up in the beauty and comfort of Cheyenne’s loft space. Maybe it was the dreamy décor, the scented candles, or the fact that she was blasting Beyoncé on her stereo, but I would have moved in if she asked me to.
After getting a to-die-for smoky eye by makeup artist Anna Sky, it was go-time. For nearly an hour, I got to have an experience that felt both out-of-body and the most in touch with my body I’ve ever been. Cheyenne knew how to get my “best” angles, but she also wasn’t afraid to show my body, and neither was I. I felt like a movie star or a model…or better yet, me.
For months, I had been looking at my body as the cause of my problems: the thing to point to and say, “This is why he left.” But in that hour, that voice stopped. Instead, I heard Cheyenne’s encouragement (echoed by my own intuition) to enjoy the moment and to appreciate who I am, both inside and outside. It’s a radical act as a woman in the world to look at your body and say, “This is me. Maybe it’s not perfect, but here it is.” I’d never felt so empowered in my life.
Since the shoot, Cheyenne and I have become friends. We’ve bonded over our own struggles with self-esteem and our desire to keep being better not only to ourselves, but to women everywhere. She’s made it her life’s work to help other women love themselves and to stop the stigma of fat and big bodies. “I know that we all can feel worthy, empowered, beautiful, and sexy,” she says. “Those things aren’t just for the conventionally beautiful people of the world.”
“I know that we all can feel worthy, empowered, beautiful, and sexy. Those things aren’t just for the conventionally beautiful people of the world.” —Cheyenne Gil, photographer
Doing the emotional work necessary to come to that place of self-love (which I’m doing with the help of Cheyenne and my therapist) isn’t always easy, but it’s worth it. “[Accepting your body] can have an incredibly positive ripple effect in your life,” says Sarah Herstich, MSW, LCSW. “By taking care of your emotional health, you can live the life you’re dying to have by shifting to this place of, ‘This is where I am and these are my values.’”
I know that to be true from firsthand experience.
I walked out of my session with Cheyenne feeling like a new person. Not only did I feel sexy and strong, but I knew I could continue to look at myself the way Cheyenne did through her lens. That even on the days when my depression and anxiety were at their worst, I could remember how that moment felt. Yes, I’m more than my body—but my body is worth loving, too.
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