Photo Credit: Samantha McGranahan, UNVEILED

“When was the last time you had professional photos taken of yourself that weren’t headshots?”

This was the question Samantha asked me as we neared the end of my boudoir photo shoot. That’s right, a boudoir photo shoot.

It took me a few minutes to answer the question.

“I don’t think I’ve ever been professionally photographed … other than for my wedding,” I responded.

Almost 20 years ago from the date of my boudoir photo session, I wore a white sleeveless gown, lacy veil, acrylic nails, professionally-applied make-up and hair styled. I posed for my wedding photos against the backdrop of the picturesque Pacific Ocean. The photo lens perfectly captured my 25-year-old self, eager to embark on the next chapter of my life, as a married woman with an entire lifetime of family and ideas of happiness in front of her.

I remember painstakingly selecting the wedding photographer, as those photos were the most important expense to me. The check to the photographer was costly, but it was an easy one to write. Because those photos memorialized moments and captured the day forever. And for many years, I flipped through the wedding album and looked at myself and the backdrop of promise and forever.

And now here I am, 45 years old, again posing for a photographer, only this time wearing far fewer items of clothing. My face is again made up and my hair styled. But now I wear no wedding ring. I’m divorced, raising a teenage daughter and squarely in midlife. And this time, when I wrote an expensive check to a photographer, it was not for a wedding, a husband or an anniversary gift. It was a gift to nobody but me.

It was when Samantha asked the question that I realized I’m reentering life. Only I’ve entered and claimed it in a very different way.

A boudoir photo shoot and stripping down to my undergarments in front of another person that I was not intimately involved with is not something I would have considered for myself at age 25. I wouldn’t have considered it at 30 or 40 … I wouldn’t have even considered it one year ago. But as I found myself in midlife, I started to reimagine so much of who I am.

Like many girls, I grew up extremely self conscious of myself. A svelte appearance was valued highly in my childhood home and I believed that losing weight was the secret to being loved; that boys only wanted to date a thin girl. I had no physical confidence in myself or my abilities. That image of myself as not physically desirable, let alone sexual, is one that I carried with me for more than four decades.

Not long ago, a friend, also a mother in midlife, shared some of her boudoir photos with me. I was struck by the beauty and elegance in the images, and how her essence was captured so perfectly on film. I could see the joy she had in that scene, and the grace and respect she gave her body that came through in the photos. She was not a supermodel and it wasn’t about a perfect shape or size. But I saw myself in her, and I wanted to look at myself and my body in photographs the same way. I wanted to say goodbye to the girl in the wedding photos at age 25. I wanted to embrace the woman I am today — a person who made a choice to change her life, both physically and mentally, in midlife. And that’s when I signed up for a boudoir photo shoot.

When I entered the Unveiled Studio for my photo session, the nerves in my mind started to make themselves known. Ironically, I was not nervous about undressing to nearly nothing in front of strangers, but instead how I would come across in the images. Not whether I looked large or small, or if the lingerie fit badly; but would those images be a true reflection of me. I didn’t want to walk away from my boudoir photo shoot with an album of Glamor Shots. I wanted to walk away with a visual representation of my true essence.

“What worries you the most?” Samantha asked.

It was my smile, I said; that I can only photograph well with an open-mouth smile. She had me close my eyes, exhale, turn my lips slightly up like a smirk, and then slowly open my eyes. And then, CLICK, the camera captured my face without an open-mouth, posed smile. Whether she cast a spell or sprinkled fairy dust when my eyes were closed, my fears disappeared instantly. When I saw the image, my face looked natural and real. And as I removed layers of clothing and posed on sofas and faux beds, I was completely at ease and felt the most natural I’ve ever felt in my life.

For my final outfit, I wore a black lacy piece of lingerie and stiletto heels. The garment left just enough exposed to tastefully suggest what was under the surface; not unlike how I’ve come to carry myself in life. When we began the shoot, Samantha asked which of my three outfits scared me the most; this was the one. She snapped a few shots as I arched my back off the floor, my neck against a grey sofa and the high heels firmly planted on the ground.

“Girl, you need to see yourself!” she said with a huge smile and she showed me two images on her camera.

What I saw stunned me and tears fell down my cheeks. I almost didn’t recognize the woman in the lens. But at the same time, I did. I felt joy mixed with sorrow; gratitude and sadness for the girl behind me and hope for the woman in front of me. For the first time in my life, I was standing in my body, looking at my body, not only without judgment, but with admiration. I didn’t see imperfections. I saw strength.

When I started the photo shoot, I was worried that I wouldn’t recognize the woman in the photographs. At the end, I thanked Samantha for giving her to me. “That’s all you, girl,” she replied.

The woman in the boudoir photos was me. But more than that, she’s the most “me” I’ve ever been in my life. I saw the essence of who I am now. Those feelings are not about sexuality, but about being comfortable with myself as a person, and embracing the 45-year-old woman who is now reentering her life as her true self.