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Out of the Closet and Into the Boudoir

Boudoir photographers promise to make women feel sexy and empowered — often with help from Photoshop.

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Imagine stripping down to your underwear and paying someone thousands of dollars to take photos of you. No, this isn't a reverse form of Playboy, but it's what many women are doing as an apparent means of empowerment.

Called "boudoir" photography, these types of nude or semi-nude photo sessions have become enormously popular in the last several years, spawning many wedding and portrait photographers to shift gears. For several hundred to several thousand dollars, women dress up in sexy lingerie, with professional hair and makeup, and pose in bedroom settings (i.e., the "boudoir") in order to more closely resemble the bombshells that grace the pages of Playboy. And while some initially do so for the purposes of giving their boyfriends or husbands a risqué gift, photographers say, the experience ultimately ends up being a much more personal one.

"When they come, everything changes and it becomes about themselves," said Kamran Zohoori, whose Los Gatos-based company, Krazy Zexy, offers boudoir and other photo services. "It's not just creating sexy photos. It's creating you being more sexy."

Indeed, "empowerment" is a word that many of the photographers use when referring to the effects of the shoots. "They get to see how beautiful they are — no matter what body type," Zohoori said. "That helps them with their career, it helps them with their relationship. It helps them discover what they want." He added that it's not uncommon for his clients to enter into new relationships, file for divorce, or make a job change after their sessions.

But could being photographed in fancy underwear really do all that? And if so, why?

For many, it seems that the photos change their self-perception. "They never thought they'd look at themeselves and think they're that beautiful," said Jamaica Wexelman, who runs Inspiring Images Photography and Bombshell Boudoir out of Livermore. "We live in a visual world. So much of what we see in the media is Victoria's Secret and Frederick's of Hollywood. Women want to feel that they have that kind of a beauty — not just to their significant other but also to themselves, to feel that they're beautiful."

Of course, not all women look like Victoria's Secret models. And, in fact, neither do Victoria's Secret models. Thus, Photoshop is a major part of the game. "It's not just retouching, it's also about lighting and posing," said Wexelman. "I don't make you out to be someone else, but I think of how I'd want to be portrayed."

"I'm not changing a mother of three to a babydoll," said Zohoori about his Photoshopping strategy. "But if she has a stretch mark, I won't show it."

That kind of mentality runs counter to the philosophy of photographer Lone Morch, who started her business, Lolo's Boudoir, which is based in Sausalito, about a decade ago — before boudoir services became widely popular. While the Denmark native also touts the empowering nature of her sessions (in which women are often fully nude and shot in black-and-white film — without retouching), she tries to get women to express their own sense of sexuality, apart from the media standards of beauty and sexiness. As a result, her photos take on a more artistic — less catalog-y — vibe. "My only agenda with people is to create the space so I can help them break the stereotypes to create a new image that they can step into," she said. "There's this thing about being seen — there's this deep longing to be seen by gentle, curious, loving eyes."

Often, the experience — or just the thought of it — can be quite heavy. Morch recalled one woman, whose friend had encouraged her to try it, who wanted to back out because she said she was afraid she wouldn't like what she'd see. "Women are really afraid of seeing themselves," Morch lamented, adding that in Denmark, "there's no such hysteria around the body." "I remember we would go to the beach and my grandmother would be topless, my mother would be topless — it wasn't a problem," she recalled.

To get women in the right frame of mind before the session, Morch encourages her clients to read a workbook she created that contains journaling exercises such as writing letters to themselves and answering questions like "What, if anything, is powerful about your vagina?" She also now requires a deposit to ensure clients don't cancel at the last minute.

On the other end of the spectrum, some boudoir photographers sell women a complete fantasy. In addition to lingerie shoots, Alloria Winter Photography offers to transform clients into "a haunting version of Cinderella, a fallen Greek god, a bewitching Cleopatra, a sparkling mermaid, or a unicorn queen." "Parisian heiress" and "Beverly Hills diva" are also available. The sessions are called an "investment," and at a cost of up to $5,000, it certainly seems like it, although the returns are less tangible.

But Rhiannon Panopoulos, owner of the San Francisco-based studio, insists the experience is worth it: "What you gain is tenfold to what you spend," she said, adding that her clients — most of whom are nurses, doctors, lawyers, and tech executives — often report that the highly stylized and edited photos improve their relationships and make them feel better about themselves. One client used them for her online dating profile, which helped her snag a boyfriend. Panopoulos is now shooting their engagement photos.

"It's an ego boost," said Panopoulos, who was so inspired by her clients' positive response that she had boudoir photos taken of herself. "We live in a stressful day and age, it's very fast paced, and at the end of the day you can look at yourself and say, 'Yeah, I'm pretty.'"

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