As soon as I found out I had breast cancer, I scrambled to book a boudoir photo shoot. Topless. Outdoors. With swords. What was I thinking?
I discovered a lump in my right breast in early June, and on August 4th found out it was cancer. Rather than being devastated by the news, my analytical mind went into overdrive in the first few days after my diagnosis, strategizing and planning my recovery. This included the creation of multiple lists, including people I wanted to tell, questions to ask my doctors, things I needed to take care of before surgery, and rituals or inner work I wanted to explore if I was going to lose one or both breasts.
At the very top of the last list was a boudoir photo shoot.
The boudoir photo business seems to be a booming niche portrait market. Ordinary women of all ages are choosing to get photographed in various stages of undress, either to give the photos as gifts to their partners, or to celebrate their bodies or their sexuality. If getting photographed half-naked sounds like a spectacularly bad idea, you might want to read this list of 14 reasons why you should do a boudoir photo shoot. (Full disclosure: it’s by a boudoir photographer.)
Sam and Natalie have written about their own experiences being photographed by Ruth Kivilahti of Ruthless Images, and seemed to find boudoir photography a very positive, body-affirming experience, so I connected with Ruth and arranged a photo shoot within a week of my breast cancer diagnosis.
I was very clear in my own mind about why I was doing this. I didn’t want or need a bunch of attractive, soft-focus, soft-porn photos of myself to share with a partner, or pump up my self-esteem. I simply wanted to document my body as it was, before I had surgery or any other treatment that would change it. I already suspected that I would be having a double mastectomy, and I wanted to have some photos of my whole breasts, just for myself, for posterity.
I’ve had a real love-hate relationship with my breasts my whole life, and most of the time have felt like my breasts had no purpose except to make other people feel good. I’ve shared a few intimate pictures of myself with lovers in the past, but I didn’t want my breast cancer photo shoot to be about the male gaze and desire. I also didn’t just want a bunch of amateur topless selfies taken with my phone, which is why I chose a professional photographer with experience doing boudoir work.
I wanted to celebrate my body’s natural strength, power and form, as seen through the eyes of a professional photographer.
I knew from the start that I somehow wanted to incorporate my love of aikido. This martial art makes me feel strong and powerful like a warrior, and I wanted to celebrate that, too. So I took my aikido uniform and wooden training weapons to Ruth’s studio.
I also wanted to incorporate the outdoors somehow, since hiking in nature is so important to me. I noticed that Ruth offered a beautiful, rural outdoor location for her photo shoots, and asked for that.
Ruth made the whole process very easy. She sent me a very helpful email ahead of time, with suggestions for preparations I should make before the shoot (like drinking lots of water and not wearing undergarments the day of), and items (like scarves and jewelry, which I would never have thought of) to bring along with me.
I was pretty open to whatever happened at the photo shoot. The most important thing for me was to get some photos of my naked breasts. What I wasn’t expecting was how life-affirming it would be, and how powerful I would feel during and after the shoot. I also wasn’t anticipating Ruth’s reaction to the shoot, which she shared in this Facebook post of one of the first photos from my shoot.
Last night I shot a warrior of a woman, a true bright light… I was contacted by a gal who has recently been diagnosed with breast cancer, she wanted to book in for an intimate photo shoot to celebrate her body before she has a double mastectomy… With my heart in my chest I sent her over some dates, we got her in as soon as possible and we began the planning process… I knew after our second or third email that this wouldn’t be a sad shoot… It was in essence a celebration… A celebration of who she was, and who she is and where she is going… A celebration of her breasts. She’s a true fighter.
Last night left me with feelings I just can’t describe… admiration, joy, inspiration, presence, humility, gratitude are just a few of them.
I’m very glad that I had these photographs taken. Ruth got some amazing shots, and I’ll treasure them as the last record of my body before surgery. I’m also seriously considering a follow-up shoot in the future, of my post-surgery body and my mastectomy scars. I can’t help but think that I’ll look and feel like an Amazon.
She stood in the storm and when the wind did not blow her away she adjusted her sails. ~ Elizabeth Edwards
This is the third of a three-part series on breast cancer, sports and body image.
Part 1: What martial arts taught me about fighting breast cancer
Part 2: Why I’m happy about getting my breasts cut off
You may also be interested in these blog posts by Michelle about her breast cancer experience:
- Loving my post-mastectomy body
- What martial arts is teaching me about fearing death
- Breast cancer is turning me into a man, and I’m kind of okay with that
- Exercise and chemotherapy
Michelle Lynne Goodfellow works in nonprofit and small business communications by day, and also enjoys writing, taking photographs, making art and doing aikido. You can find more of her work at michellelynnegoodfellow.com. Michelle has also written about her breast cancer journey on her blog, Kitchen Sink Wisdom.