The scent of the pink dahlias artfully arranged over my bare chest is faint but sweet. Loose rose petals and lily blooms are scattered in the water around me. Topless, half submerged in a bath, with a photographer shooting down at me from a bird's-eye view. I am vulnerable, broken, yet empowered all at once.
I've been intrigued by boudoir photography for years but have had a cognitive dissonance about being photographed wearing nothing but lacy lingerie. A conservative and religious childhood, I was taught from a young age women's bodies should be covered up, modesty and purity are her most important features - and shame on those who want to reveal their bodies to anyone but their spouse within the bonds of marriage. Later experiences left me thinking my body is for someone else's pleasure, not my own.
I haven't accepted my body for years, if at all. And right now, I'm struggling more than ever to embrace it.
Ten months ago I suffered a hip injury, ruling out most types of exercise. Even gentle walking for more than 15 minutes renders me couch-bound for the following hours in pain. Once an athlete and now inactive, it's unsurprising I've gained weight in the last 12 months. I'm unfit, I have chronic pain, I feel broken. When I move, each limb feels disconnected. I used to post fitness pictures on Instagram to the hashtag of #strongnotskinny. But in 2021, I'm neither strong nor skinny. So why on earth would I strip down for a photoshoot when my body feels so defective?
Boudoir photography used to have a more seedy reputation; sultry makeup, vampy lingerie, cheap costume jewellery and provocative poses designed to entice a lover. An image taken by men, for men to enjoy. But when I observe today's boudoir photographs, I see sensuality, softness, strength, inner confidence and ultimately self-love. There's an energy that suggests there is a story to be told; a moment of transformation and self-discovery. She is not just a body but a soul on a journey, and she's sharing a glimpse of her vulnerability and strength with you.
I catch up with my photographer friend Ainsley Duyvestyn-Smith for a wine at Karangahape Rd's Bar Celeste one Saturday evening. She is a boudoir photographer but prefers to describe it as empowerment portraits. I'm inspired by her beautiful work that celebrates bodies of all shapes, sizes and forms. She tells me her clients want these photoshoots for themselves, not for a partner and are always surprised to learn of their own beauty when they see the final images.
"For most of our lives, women are told that we are not pretty, skinny, young enough," she says.
"By doing a boudoir shoot, it feels like you're kind of giving the middle finger to those societal demands and saying actually, 'Look at how beautiful I am right now - I am enough.'"
Her first boudoir photoshoot gave her a powerful feeling of ownership over her own body. Faced with a world of images of cookie-cutter airbrushed models and fitness influencers, Ainsley refuses to photoshop bodies and faces, only ever adjusting colour and lighting, in her efforts to showcase "realness".
"We want to see people that look like us, with the dimples and the cellulite and the stretch marks and all the wobbly bits."
The idea of seeing my body and all its flaws in a new light is inspiring and terrifying. Will I be full of judgment and self-loathing at all my wobbly and lumpy bits? Will I be judged for showcasing a body that is not toned, tanned and wrinkle-free? Or will I see something beautiful?
I was 7 years old when I started to hate the look of my body. My older sisters complained about their "cankles" and "tummy shelf", bemoaning our supposed genetics. But we were slim kids.
My sisters read Girlfriend, Cosmopolitan and Fashion Quarterly magazines. All I knew was that I wasn't tall and skinny like the models but I could learn to eat and exercise like them if I followed the regimes in the magazines. The first thing I learnt about cellulite was that it was referred to as that "unsightly orange peel skin" in advertisements.
One day, after returning from playing tennis, my tiny slip-of-a-thing grandmother commented that I had "chunky legs". I don't think she meant it as insult, just an observation that I had solid legs. Mum tried to quickly cover up, saying, "They're strong tennis legs." So I quit tennis soon after.
Today, Instagram shows me a world of women and fitness influencers with perfectly round, peachy bottoms demonstrating their workouts, women with contoured faces who never smile with their teeth showing, lips puffed up with filler and heavy makeup transforming a person's entire facial appearance. Times have not changed. Are these what the expectations are of a woman in 2021? Do I need botox and fillers?
With the help of a fitting at Bendon's Newmarket store and a couple of hours trying on dozens of bras, I find a few beautiful items - gorgeous, comfortable - but still me.
A suite at the artsy Hotel DeBrett sets the scene for the shoot. I have my makeup done by Ardon England, who creates "self-love makeup" packages, teaching women to enhance their natural features rather than using makeup as a mask. He plays up my eyes, keeping the rest of my face neutral.
The time comes to get down to my undies and I'm full of excited, nervous energy. Ainsley directs me how to pose, where to put my hands, where to look, she's shooting left, right and centre and I feel like a celebrity on the red carpet. I'm worried about my arms looking flabby, my cellulite and tummy rolls ruining the look of the beautiful lingerie but I'm laughing every step of the way and having a ball.
When the photos arrive three days later, I'm scared to see the results and I wonder if I actually might cringe and hate it all. I wonder what will people think. Maybe colleagues will judge me, family members will be horrified, or strangers will have an opinion about a person they know nothing about. Well to hell with them - this is for me, not anyone else. I nervously open the folder.
I'm a little stunned. I look happy. Relaxed. I still look like me. I can see my imperfections, but I actually feel good. Part of me still wants to smooth out the lines and lumps but I look at the images and feel a sense of pride. There is beauty in them.
This is my body, right there and it's actually not too bad. It's womanly. It's mine, no one else's. I have autonomy over it and no one else gets to tell me how to look or how I should feel. As I flick through the images, I give a metaphorical middle finger to every person, magazine and advertisement who's ever suggested otherwise.
Photography by Ainsley DS at ainsleydsphotography.com