I did a boudoir photo shoot.
Right before my cancer diagnosis, I was 24 and I felt like I was in peak health. I was eating healthy foods and exercising multiple times a week - two things I never did before my 20s. I felt so good about myself when I looked in the mirror. I struggled with acne during the pandemic, but had finally gotten that under control just a couple months prior to the diagnosis. My skin was clear, my body was strong, and I was healthy. Basically, I felt amazing.
The cancer diagnosis was a massive punch in the gut. Aside from fearing for my life, I knew that the treatment was going to change my body. Permanently. It wasn’t just the menopause, the balding, the port scar - it was the major double amputation they call a bilateral mastectomy. When I began to research how to prepare for a double mastectomy surgery, I saw a lot of women who decided to have their body photographed pre-surgery. I reached out to a few young women who had been diagnosed with breast cancer in their 20s, and all of them told me to photograph my boobs before kissing them goodbye. They said I would want to remember what they looked like.
Some people will say that a double mastectomy/reconstruction is like a free boob job. In some ways, I want to treat it like that, because imagining it that way makes it all easier to do. But it's also not a free boob job, and it's not something I would do if I didn't have to. I don't want to say goodbye to sensation, to a natural feel, to my natural look. I don't want to say goodbye to the chance to breastfeed a baby. Doing this photo shoot was not just a way to feel more ownership with my body again - it was a way to honor and remember my natural body, a body I felt good inside.
At the time, I thought I would be doing surgery first, so I started urgently reaching out to boudoir photographers in the area. Obviously, now that I know what my treatment plan is, I know I won’t be doing surgery for another few months. But I’m still glad I started researching before I had begun any treatment. Currently, I’m 2 months out from my diagnosis on July 7, and even though I haven’t had my surgery yet, I have 2 scars, a port, and a head of thinning hair.
When I saw the photos on https://andrealiora.com/, I knew I wanted her to photograph me. Despite an incredibly busy schedule, she tried her hardest to squeeze me in. Andrea had all the compassion in the world for my situation, and even altered the boudoir process a little so she could be sensitive to my condition. Normally, there is a “reveal session” a few weeks after the photo shoot where you look at all of the pictures with Andrea and pick which ones you want for your album. Since we weren’t sure if I would have had the mastectomies then, Andrea let me skip the reveal session just in case it would have been triggering to see my old body right after surgery. Instead, she picked out the photos that ended up in my album.
Honestly, I never saw myself doing something like this. Growing up, I was pretty modest. I didn’t want to be seen naked in the gym locker room, I didn’t want anyone seeing me change in the cabin at camp. Cancer makes you try new things (I also got matching tattoos with a friend two days after my diagnosis). I also felt way less modest because a breast cancer diagnosis means a LOT of people are looking at and feeling your breasts. Even so, I was shocked at how comfortable I actually felt during the entire process. For a while I'd even forget that I was naked or that being naked was unusual. Even if you think you’d never want to do something like this - I would recommend trying it at least once! You’d be surprised at how good it’ll make you feel.
The Photo Shoot
I was never someone who really bought lingerie, so when I knew this was coming up, I quickly bought a bunch of crappy $10 lingerie on Romwe so that I might have something to work with. Alas, NONE of it was cute. It was all sized wrong (the measurements on their website are waaaay off), and it was visibly cheap. Not the kind of thing you want to wear in your fancy photo shoot of your body before it goes through permanent scarring changes. Right before the photo shoot, my friend and I ran to a Victoria’s Secret, bought a bunch of bras, and ran to the nearest bathroom to try them on (#pandemiclife). I ended up with one bra that I thought was gorgeous, returned the rest and decided I’d just go naked for my other outfit. (I decided not to put any of my naked photographs here just for the sake of my family reading this, lol).
I brought one of my best friends, Molly, into the studio for moral support, and got started with hair and makeup with Kim Baker. It immediately felt easy and comfortable with Kim, Andrea and Molly. Kim and Andrea were both new moms, so we talked about newborns, birth, breastfeeding (and why I shouldn’t get too down on myself that I won’t be able to 😉), and anything else we could think of. It felt so good to just shoot the shit with some talented, amazing women, and I just kept getting more excited for the actual shoot.
Once we started, Andrea knew exactly how to direct me (meaning, with very specific instructions since I had no idea what I was doing). Modeling is HARD. Holding some of those poses was an actual workout - how long can you hold a plank? That’s what modeling is like - it’s like holding a plank on and off for a few hours. Andrea knew how to work with me though; she knew how to pose me to get the best shots, and she never made me feel uncomfortable or awkward - even when I was butt ass naked! I never saw myself holding a conversation for a few hours, butt naked, with a photographer I just met, but I’m very happy I did. And I wouldn’t want to do it with anyone else!
Every photo made me feel sexy in a way that I just hadn’t since my diagnosis. It felt like the part of me that might admire my body for a second in the mirror before stepping in the shower could finally, truly come out and enjoy herself. And I'm so glad I let that part of me out before she went away. I’m sure she’ll be back, but right now, things are tougher. It’s not easy to feel sexy during chemotherapy, let’s just say that.
When all is done and I’ve had my mastectomies and my reconstruction (I don’t plan on just going flat, although I know some people do), I’m looking forward to doing another shoot. Maybe I’ll be even better next time because I’ll know what poses I like! A boudoir photo shoot is like therapy for body acceptance. It’s a place to own your body, own your sexuality, own every single part of yourself.
Whether you want a professional to do it, or you just want a friend to take some Polaroids, do it, and do it as often as you want. No one should make you feel ashamed for feeling good about yourself.