The photos that changed my view of myself

I sat propped up against the headboard with my legs crossed under me and stared at the blinking cursor. I kept rolling the question the form asked over and over in my mind: “What do you want to get out of your experience?” I felt silly for overthinking it, imagining that most women wrote something simple and true like, “to feel beautiful!” or “to spice up my relationship!” 

What was this for?, I asked myself. It wasn’t cheap, after all, and it was looking increasingly like I was going to need all of my resources to set up some kind of new home and new life. Nothing we were doing seemed to be working, after all. 

I gnawed on my bottom lip and looked over my shoulder at him laying next to me. He was laying on his side with his back to me, as he did most nights, the soft drone of his breathing punctuated every so often by a snort or slight moan. 

Did he find me beautiful, still, I wondered ever so briefly as I watched his shoulder rise and fall. But just as soon as my mind asked the question, another voice inside of me responded with a firmness that surprised me. I really don’t care, it said. 

As I sat with the thought, I wanted it to feel empowering, but I knew that  it didn’t. Instead, it felt hollow, like something I’d oriented myself toward for so long was now gone. 

I turned back to my laptop and pulled the elastic band off of my wrist to weave my hair into a ponytail. I could hear the static of the white noise machines coming from the kids’ rooms. My eyes shifted down to my chest, the V of my tee-shirt open to a patch of skin dotted with freckles. 

I started typing into the box where she’d asked what I wanted this to be about. I wrote: I want to turn myself on. 


When I showed up at the photographer’s house, she met me at the door with a smile I was sure was as bright as the bulbs in her cameras. “Are you ready!?” she asked excitedly, less of a question and more of an exclamation that we were about to have the best day. 

Chelsea ushered me into her home, which was set up to work as her living space and her studio. She’d mentioned a husband, and I found myself wondering what it was like for him to have his hall coat closet turned into a wardrobe of lingerie. The bathroom next to the closet smelled like roses and peonies and had two full length mirrors for ease of checking out all angles of one’s selections. 

I’d taken a large pile of options in and started shimmying my body into the fabric. As I pulled the straps up over my shoulder and adjusted the elastic around my hips, I scanned the curves of my body in the mirror. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d seen myself in lingerie. I’d gotten a boatload of it as gifts at my bachelorette party, and I remembered my girlfriends and I giggling as I opened each lacy piece in the sushi restaurant as the other diners looked on. But each of those I’d worn maybe once, and certainly not beyond my first year of marriage. Since then they’d stayed crammed in a navy plastic bin at the very top of my closet, high enough that I’d have to stand on a chair to reach them. 

I couldn’t say I loved the person staring back at me in this outfit, but I was pleased to realize she didn’t disgust me either. Her belly was softer and rounder than the last time she’d been in such clothing and her hips and legs looked like they were pulling down to reach the floor. But the boning of this lingerie gave her a shape she hadn’t seen in a while. She looked like a mom of four, standing on the brink of divorce, trying to get her groove back. 

Once I’d settled on a few different pieces to wear, I made my way to the kitchen and pushed myself up onto a stool in front of a woman who introduced herself as Kelly. She’d be doing my hair and makeup today, she said, and she just loved the lingerie I’d selected. “Ever done boudoir before?” she asked as she pulled out an airbrush makeup machine and it started whirring. 

“No,” I told her, and then stopped. “Well, sort of, actually. A photographer friend was trying to get into doing it back when I was about to get married, and so she took some pictures of me. Kind of a wedding gift thing.” I hadn’t thought about that little book in so many years, I realized, and I suddenly wondered where it had landed. A few of the images started to crystallize in my mind, and I remembered myself wearing the jersey of my husband’s favorite baseball team. I was sitting cross legged on the floor staring at the camera with a come hither look. I cringed now. 

“Fun!” she squealed. “Well, you’re going to have the best time today. Just know you’re in great hands and you’re going to look amazing.” 

Within an hour or so, I did think I looked pretty amazing. My eyes were smoky without being over the top and I’d changed into the first of my outfits for the day, a black one piece that criss-crossed in the back. Chelsea had assured me earlier that it would take some time to warm up, but that she would be my “hype woman” throughout. And that she was.  

We moved from room to room in her house-turned-boudoir studio, each with its own color palette and texture profile. First was a room upstairs where the light poured in over a wide leather couch that sat next to a soft wooly rug. Chelsea instructed me to stretch my body out along the couch and then point my toes to make my short frame look longer. “It’s going to feel awkward now,” she admitted, “but it makes you look phenomenal in photos.” 

As we started shooting and changing backgrounds, I learned that the posing tricks were endless. Chelsea showed me how to arch my back while laying down to create a curve I’d never realized was there in all those sexy photos of women online. She had my hips back when facing the camera to create more of an hourglass figure, and she seemed to use the light and shadows to soften my body. We played with angles, props, and facial expressions and soon I felt far from the frazzled and uncertain woman who had walked in her door a few hours before. 

To put it simply, I felt sexy. Chelsea was completely the hype woman she had promised to be, and I didn’t doubt for a moment that she found me stunning and sensual from behind her lens. She’d squeal in delight when she captured a great shot and I felt a true lightness in me from her adoration. No one but my husband had seen my body like this in far more than a decade. Not even me. 

By the time I had changed back into my clothes, which now felt especially dowdy, I realized that something in me had shifted in a way that felt real and lasting. I hadn’t even seen any of the images that had just been taken, but I felt more of a fire inside of me than I had in ages. I had turned myself back on. 


It felt like months before I got to see the photos, though it was really only a week or two later, sitting back in Chelsea’s living room. When she clicked on the first tiny icon to open the image, my breath stopped. “That’s me?” I asked incredulously. 

She laughed as she tucked her hair behind her ear. “That’s everyone’s first comment!” 

As she showed me the dozens of photos, my heart raced and my brain tried to make sense of how this sultry woman on the screen could be the same one sitting here in an out of season Old Navy sweater with dark circles under her eyes. My mind was trying to integrate these realities. She was beautiful and, frankly, hot. But she was also me. 

“A lot of people get teary when we go through their photos,” Chelsea told me. “It’s a powerful experience.” 

I wasn’t crying myself, but I certainly understood the urge. 

“And a lot of people tell me their sexy time heats up!” she said. I could imagine that too. 

As we worked to whittle down the photo collection to a number that would be printed in a little book for me to keep, I was struggling to let go of some of them, which in itself felt strange and self-indulgent. I wasn’t supposed to love photos of myself, I realized that I believed. I’m supposed to tolerate them at best. But here I was, sitting with this relative stranger, viewing my exposed sensual self and not wanting to let any of her go. 

I thought about whether to show the photos to the man who was each day becoming less and less my husband. I wondered if it could reignite something we’d lost, or might remind us both of that book I’d given him on our honeymoon all those years ago. But that same firm little voice inside me told me to, to hold closely this piece of myself for now. Looking back, I think I worried that however enthusiastic his response might be, it could never be enough. I wanted the enchantment I felt for this new self to stay safe. 


It was a couple years later when another photographer I loved posted a call in her Instagram stories for women with cool and messy houses to do a photoshoot. I had been seeing in her feed in the last year that she had transitioned from the birth photography she was known for to a new style that she hadn’t yet fully defined. It was still highly focused on women’s experiences, I could see, but less on the role of the mother. 

Just before the divorce was finalized, I’d moved into a midcentury house tucked in the sweetest little cul-de-sac. And it was nothing if not messy, so I responded to her story, despite feeling skeptical that this would work out. She lived hours away and I had a house full of kids most of the time, my own and my partner’s. 

But as we messaged each other, the logistics started falling into place in a way that doesn’t often happen for two women in different cities with a large brood of children among them. We would meet up on Saturday. 

We hugged when she arrived at my front door, and I made some stupid joke about having kept my house messy enough for her vision. My kids who were home barely looked up from their video games when she walked in the living room, and she set down her camera bag and purse. 

“Is this all yours?” she asked with eyes wide in admiration, taking in the light pouring in through the large windows. I felt a surge of energy in my chest, feeling grateful and proud that the divorce hadn’t broken me as I had feared it might. That I had this beautiful space to call mine. 

I thought about the nights in the last two years leading up to this one when I’d laid staring at the ceiling of my bedroom, trying to breath against the weight that was pushing down into my chest. I thought about how hard I’d cried last Christmas when I realized I had no decorations and couldn’t spare money to get any when so many new bills were due. I thought about the fear I’d faced and the anger and shame I’d spent the last year confronting in myself as I revisited the hardest parts of my marriage. 

“It’s all mine,” I smiled. 

After I showed her around, we sat down in my living room, me on the couch and her criss-cross on the floor. We talked for a while about life since the last time we’d seen each other, the mindfuckery of postpartum and dissolution of vows and everything in between. When the afternoon light had passed its peak, she looked at me and asked, “Are you ready?” 

I had told her that I was cool with underwear or even nudity, as long as nothing was posted online, and we started with me sitting in a pair of old jeans and a loose sports bra. She told me to have a seat on the coral armchair by my front window as she adjusted the settings on her camera. 

“Okay, now this is going to feel weird, but I want you to spread your legs and let them hang loose. Like sit like you are totally relaxed, wide open.” 

It certainly didn’t sound weird, but as soon as I let myself loosen into that position, I felt the weirdness she was warning me of. As my shoulders relaxed my core disengaged, a self-consciousness fell over me that I hadn’t been feeling just a moment before. I could feel the rolls of my belly on top of one another and my chest fall inward. My muscles were at ease, but my heart was racing, a juxtaposition that felt new and different.

Hannah started photographing, asking me to keep loosening into the poses. She was guiding me, but also watching what my body was naturally doing. When my hand would land on my thigh or my arm in a way that didn’t reveal ease, she would comment that my body didn’t seem to like that position. She’d asked me to adjust my hand or my arm or my foot in a way that felt more right, and as soon as I did I could feel the difference in my whole body. 

As her shutter clicked and clicked, I recognized how vastly different this was from any experience I’d had before, particularly being photographed. My face was neutral, sometimes serious, essentially the face I’d make while living most of my life. It wasn’t seductive. It didn’t convey sexuality or excitement or even friendliness. It was my face as it was when I wasn’t trying to engage it for anyone else. 

I took off more clothes and Hannah photographed me in various spots in the house, ones where the light came in most beautifully. But despite my body being the subject, it wasn’t the object. I wasn’t contorting it in ways to make it appear more conventionally feminine. I wasn’t going for slimmer or longer or less threatening. I’d like to say it was empowering, but before that it was disconcerting. It took time to adjust to this way of holding myself. I kept wanting to suck in my belly, to angle my hips, to cock my head. It wasn’t holding myself at all, I realized. It was just being in my body. I wasn’t used to this. 

I had spent the last several decades by this point working to tune into my body, and it surprised me how much effort it was taking to be in its most natural state, how strong the urge to make it smaller still was. But I was now being asked – no, given the chance – to occupy the space I was in, to fully inhabit this body and this house, the two homes that were mine. 

I got the photos in my inbox a week or so later. I had been thinking over that week about the conversation Hannah and I had had before she left that day, about how seeing them could be a tricky experience. This made sense to me. We’re not used to seeing ourselves, particularly our bodies, reflected in a way that’s outside of the male gaze. 

So when I got the email as I was rushing out of my office one night, I resisted my urge to consume them immediately. I waited five minutes until I was in my car. 

Taking them in reminded me of seeing my first-born child laid in my arms after birth so many years before. I felt this sense that I was supposed to be filled with wonderment at the beauty, but it wasn’t awe that I was feeling. I felt almost afraid of what I was looking at. Not judgment or disgust, which I could imagine some other women might feel, but more of a sense of intimidation. The woman staring back at me in these photos was unapologetic. She was self-possessed. She didn’t give a shit about how beautiful she was or wasn’t. She seemed to be saying to me, That’s not the fucking point. 

I looked at them again later that night and found myself still searching for the pretty. It was like my eyes were trained like dogs to try to sniff it out, and when they came up short, they weren’t sure what to make of it. 

I hemmed and hawed about whether to show them to my partner. As much as I felt absolutely comfortable in his presence, felt his appreciation of my body and spirit in my bones, there was something that felt unnerving about sharing these with him. I didn’t think I had felt a need to be traditionally pleasing to him, but here I was, nervous to have him see me reflected in a way that didn’t center beauty. 

I did let him look, and as perhaps I should have expected, he remarked on how very cool they were. I told him that I’d been trying to look at them as pure photography, to see them as art hanging on a gallery wall, to be able to take myself out of them in order to appreciate them more. 

And he said to me, because he’s him and he’s more than I could have ever asked for, “I think you need to put yourself back in the photos. I think you need to see yourself in them. Fully.” 

And so I did. I spent some more time with them. And over the course of a few days, I felt myself in them. There I was. 

Maybe every woman doesn’t need to have these experiences. But maybe every woman does. 

Embodying my femininity and sensuality gave me vitality. Embodying my body and rejecting the male gaze gave me power. 

What it’s left me thinking about is how we struggle to find our pleasure because we confuse it with pleasing. That’s the only form we’ve been taught to attend to. But if we can have experiences where we decenter the pleasing of others and center the pleasure of ourselves, our bodies learn a new way of being in the world.

Dr. Ashley Solomon is the founder of Galia Collaborative, an organization dedicated to helping women heal, thrive, and lead. She works with individuals, teams, and companies to empower women with modern mental healthcare and the tools they need to amplify their impact in a messy world.

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