Cheyenne Gil, a body positive boudoir photographer based in Philadelphia, is changing the way we think about boudoir photography. Cheyenne and I got to chat about starting up her boudoir practice and how it has changed her own life and the lives of her clients. I only met Cheyenne once before our interview but once we started talking it felt like we were old friends; she was immediately talkative and open to sharing intimate details about her life. She brings her bubbly personality and honesty to every photoshoot she does, allowing her to connect on a deeper level with her clients.
Historically boudoir photography has been focused on the male gaze, creating sexy images for a lover or partner but Cheyenne’s sessions are all about the women. Many of her clients are single and book a photoshoot with Cheyenne for themselves. The shoots give women of all sizes the opportunity to see their bodies in a new light and leave with a renewed sense of self-empowerment.
How did you first get into boudoir photography?
I was 20 or 21 at this point.
Body image has always been the thing that drove my artwork…when I was drawing and painting and then when I picked up a camera. I was always photographing women, not even really knowing what I was doing conceptually.
Boudoir was a thing but it was different… it was pearls and thongs and high heels…it was super sexualized. I did want to make a living out of photographing women but I didn’t want to do that and I didn’t want to do fashion photography either.
My mom and I were having a conversation and she was like, “why don’t you just make it your own? Instead of making it about sex and the male gaze just make it about the woman and her self.”
And I was like “Hell Yeah!”
So with that in mind, 5 minutes after that conversation, she was the first boudoir photoshoot I did. She just put on a bra and panties that she had and I photographed her. It was the most incredible thing ever.
If I can make my mom feel this way I want to make every woman feel this way.
My mom has struggled with body image and eating disorders her whole life so watching her transform as I was photographing her was unreal. She was giggling and laughing and playing with her hair and wasn’t even worried about looking in the mirror. She was totally feeling herself.
So once we were finished shooting I left the room for a minute and as I was walking back I caught her playing with her hair in the mirror and laughing and loving herself. That was the moment where I was like…this is what I want to do. If I can make my mom feel this way I want to make every woman feel this way.
For women who come to work with what do you think the most important part of the photoshoot is?
I think when it boils down to it, it is the same thing universally.
One, you are taking the time for yourself.
Two, we are connecting to our bodies which is not something we are taught to do or we take time to do.
Some women really want to get sexy during the shoot and other women just want to be comfy in their underwear and do more sweet type photos.
Everyone leaves feeling empowered. That is what it boils down to. It is empowering for them and for me. It is such an awesome experience.
What do you do as a photographer to make women comfortable and leave with that sense of empowerment?
I give all my energy to them. I make sure we feel like we are friends and often I become friends with my clients. Making sure they know it is a safe environment is the most important thing.
Do you have any tips that you use in sessions that women can take home with them to practice in their daily lives?
The photos are a big reminder when they are having a bad day or they are obsessing over food or working out. They become grounded when they pull out their images and can say this is me and I don’t have to freak out over my body.
While we are shooting we are talking we often end up talking about body image. It is something that we all go through so often alone. So just sharing stories and seeing that it also happens to someone else is healing in itself. Most of my clients now are people who have followed my instagram for a long time so there is a community and they feel comfortable enough to talk about personal things.
What is your favorite part of your photo practice?
All of it. Haha
The shooting is so much fun because I watch them change from being nervous to leaving feeling awesome and strong. Selfishly it makes me feel awesome.
The editing process, going through their images and reliving it. Knowing they are going to love their photos. My boyfriend always laughs at me because I’ll be editing and he will be watching tv or something and I will just be smiling because I am so stoked that the girl is going to love her photos.
How has your body positive boudoir practice shifted your own body image (if at all)?
I struggled really hard when I was a little girl and a teenager and it stopped me from living my life. It was literally a 24/7 reel of I’m not good enough, I’m not skinny enough, I’m not this, I’m not that.
By the time I started shooting boudoir I was already on the way up, I was going to therapy a lot. I used to talk to myself so terribly, calling myself names. I had a therapist tell me to start writing about what you love about yourself and at the time I hated everything about myself.
I started taking a lot of self portraits because I couldn’t find a lot of clients who would let me share images.
But I started writing about how I am an artist and in middle school I won friendlist and in high school I was on homecoming. I wrote about how I was friendly and I loved making other people feel good. I did that because I never wanted other people to feel the way I felt about myself.
Each day I would force myself to see a new thing about myself that I liked.
I was on my way to feeling much better when I started boudoir. I started taking a lot of self portraits because I couldn’t find a lot of clients who would let me share images. Through those self portraits I would write blog posts and I would share on instagram and people started to relate to that. It has definitely helped me, when I have those bad days I take a step back and look at the images I have taken of other women and those images inspire me so much.
What has been the most difficult aspect of running your own business? How were you able to overcome this?
The most difficult thing is social media. On top of that how much energy I give to my business. I love what I do and it is necessary for me to give that much energy but it also is physically, mentally and emotionally draining. I am the kind of person that my business is my life. I have one instagram that shares my business and my personal life and sometimes I just want to delete it all. But instagram has been such an incredible platform for me to be able to speak and to share other body positive figures in the world so it is also important.
I share my whole heart and soul but sometimes I feel like I want to crawl into a hole and go to sleep for a while.
Have you had any experiences running a business as a woman that you don’t feel you would have had as a man?
The only time is with people who don’t know me and just think I am a little girl with a camera. If I were a man and said I was a photographer people wouldn’t undervalue what I do. As a woman a lot of people just think it is a hobby.
In Philadelphia there is a such a strong band of female business owners that support each other that I haven’t felt it as much as some other women who own businesses. Men aren’t even an issue because we have so many powerful women.
How do you see your business transforming in the future/what’s on the horizon?
I am still really thinking about that question. I love what I do now. Everyone is asking whether I will take it on the road and I am not really interested in doing that. I just bought a house and just want to chill out and do my thing here. I don’t know really. I love facilitating events for women, which I have been doing. So more of that.
You recently started a couples & wedding photography business, Love You More Wedding Co with your boyfriend. Has photographing couples impacted the way you photograph boudoir?
Nope not at all. I am learning a lot from photographing couples and I guess it is allowing me to be less burnt out and have some variety. It allows my practice to not get repetitive.
All included photographs taken by Cheyenne Gil.