As pandemic restrictions lifted, new clients overwhelmed boudoir photographers.
Some clients book the tasteful nude or seminude photos to feel better about pandemic weight gain.
Many say they're stripping down for photos as a form of empowerment or self-care.
When COVID-19 forced Americans into their homes, it catapulted an unlikely series of products and industries to success, from stationary bikes to sweatpants to video-conferencing software. Now, as pandemic restrictions lift and people flock to activities like travel and live shows, another industry is getting an unexpected boost: boudoir photography.
Photographers who specialize in tasteful nude and seminude photo sessions say that Americans are rushing to book them in record numbers. Inquiries are flooding photographers' inboxes; for the first time in their careers, many are booked solid several months out.
Sarah Witherington started her Atlanta-based company, Own Boudoir, in 2012. By 2014, she was photographing 150 women per year, and in 2019, she was booking shoots one to two months in advance. This year, she's booked eight months in advance, and her revenue is up 30%.
"I'm having to tell potential clients that we don't have availability until October," Witherington said.
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After a slow 2020, boudoir photographers rebounded in a big way
Based in Denver, Colorado, Tamara Murphy's company All Things Boudoir is a large-scale operation, employing photographers in over 50 US cities. Before the pandemic, the company averaged 400 appointments per month, but in March 2020, work came to a grinding halt. Clients canceled hundreds of scheduled shoots.
For months, the boudoir business came to a standstill, as virtual sessions proved to be technologically infeasible. But once in-person gatherings became safer and vaccines became available, interest surged. By the end of 2021, All Things Boudoir was booking nearly 1,900 appointments per month — almost quadruple Murphy's pre-pandemic average. She's had to hire more photographers to keep up with demand.
"People were at home for months, glued to their computers during lockdown," Murphy said. "They spent a lot of time dreaming about what they could be doing."
Women are using boudoir sessions to cope with pandemic stress and weight gain
Photographers describe boudoir photo shoots as relaxing, empowering experiences that leave many clients feeling confident, sexy and more in touch with their bodies. Typically, clients will spend several hours having their hair and makeup professionally done before a photography session that lasts for an hour or longer, including wardrobe changes. Some photographers will play music to help clients relax, intimately guiding them through different poses.
Photographers say they're seeing a few distinct reasons why clients are booking boudoir shoots. Some seek a self-esteem boost after a year of stress and inactivity that led to weight gain. Others simply want to feel alive again after living in sweatpants for years.
"I had one client who gained quarantine weight," said Ashley Benham, owner of Memphis-based Ashley Benham Photography. "She gave herself a pep talk and told herself she needs to celebrate her body, because this is the only one we get. I love getting to make women feel powerful, sexy, and confident, even when weight gain happens."
Photographers say that women, spread especially thin by the pandemic, just want a day to pamper themselves.
"Most of my clients haven't gotten to do anything for themselves in a while," Witherington said. "They're busy working, being partners and mothers. That's why the one-on-one time of a photo shoot is special."
The "carpe diem" attitude of surviving a pandemic plays a role, too. Benham says that the clients coming to her studio are seeing their lives in a different light than they did before the pandemic. "My clients are tackling their bucket list. The uncertainty of COVID-19 makes people want to take risks. They know they only live once."
Finally, there are larger cultural trends at play. Sexiness is having a moment as cutouts, miniskirts, and low-rise jeans fill runways and shelves. Steamy scenes in shows like "Bridgerton" and "Euphoria" have captured viewers' imaginations.
"Quarantine made us feel that we couldn't be sexy," Benham said. "Clients told me they bought sexy clothes online during lockdown and didn't have anywhere to wear them. Now everyone wants to go out and dress our best."
"People are depressed, have been alone and secluded for a long time," Murphy said. "They've been in their pajamas for a year. A lot of people want to get out and do something confidence-building that is also safe."
The 2022 wedding boom extends to bridal boudoir photos — but they're not just about gifts for partners
Historically, boudoir has been closely associated with marriage. Brides would often book a shoot as a wedding gift to their partners, and some photographers even offered discounted packages to clients who booked them for a pre-wedding boudoir shoot and to photograph their actual wedding.
With 2022 set to be the busiest year for the wedding industry since 1984, boudoir shoots are correspondingly on the rise.
"A lot of my clients come to me for boudoir sessions because they're getting married and want a present for their partner on their wedding day," Benham said.
Some photographers, though, say their female clients are increasingly less interested in booking a shoot as a gift for a partner, and instead seeking out the experience for themselves.
"When I started the business, I advertised it as a great gift for your partner," Murphy said. "Now it's almost always about a woman coming in to build her confidence, to see herself in a different way, with her hair and makeup all done up. It's nice to have the album to look back on when you're not feeling your best. It makes such a difference in so many women's lives."
Men and older women are flocking to get boudoir shoots done
While brides in their 20s and 30s remain an industry mainstay, photographers are seeing more interest than ever from women over 45. Benham recently did a "marathon shoot" with eight female coworkers in their late 40s and 50s, who decided a boudoir session was a bucket-list item.
Witherington has seen similar interest. "Instead of coming in for a milestone like a wedding, most are coming in for reasons like a 40th or 50th birthday, or because they lost a lot of weight, or got divorced, or just because. That's a big difference since pre-COVID."
Men are another group that's new to the boudoir scene. Over the past two years, Witherington said she's photographed about 15 men, compared to two or three per year prior to that.
"They are coming in for a similar reason — they want to look sexy," she said. "One guy found me because he saw a girl's images on Tinder and messaged her: 'Your photos are so good, who took them?' He'd just gotten out of the military and was proud of his body. It captured a certain time in his life. He ended up putting the photos I took on his own Tinder!"
Interest in boudoir reflects a changing culture
Boudoir photographers say that over the past decade, they've borne witness to a massive cultural shift. American society has become more accepting of racy — even kinky — photos, thanks to "50 Shades of Grey," the accessibility of online porn, and the growing popularity of OnlyFans.
"My clients aren't all posting on OnlyFans, but I do think that they feel more permission to appreciate their own sexuality than they have in the past," said Witherington.
Boudoir can be political, too. Photographers say clients have mentioned the #MeToo movement and the Women's March as catalysts driving them to book empowering boudoir shoots. Meanwhile, the body-positivity movement has made more people than ever feel like boudoir is for them.
"The visuals and narratives we're getting over the past few years have changed, and they're changing people's outlook on what is available to them, too," Witherington said, noting the recent shift even in Victoria's Secret ads. "Photos aren't just for a certain body type or person or life goal or age. They're for everybody."
"The pandemic and quarantine have been hard," Benham said. "But for me, there has been a silver lining; people want to celebrate themselves and treat themselves like never before. People are using this as self-care. You need to celebrate yourself."
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