The Problem of Women's Portraiture


 So I’ll go with what I know. (Write what you know, that’s what they say.) I know self-image and how it relates to women’s portraiture. When I started doing boudoir photography six years ago I found myself diving into these problems pretty quickly– it was unavoidable. And after evenings and days and weeks of feeling crushed by their weight, I am writing about them now.


What if I said to you, woman, who do you want to be?

Present-tense. Not future. Who do you want to be now? Because there is no neutral when it comes to existence. There is no “I am not being anything” (more often disguised as  “when I am [something]…”

There is passive being and there is active being. Passive being is ruled by fear ; Active being by confidence.

So, the question remains: Who do you want to be?

We answer readily when the answer speaks about who we are in relationship to others: I am a mom. I am a wife. I am a professional. I am a friend. I am a [job title]. I am a daughter. I am a girlfriend. I am a teammate.

But woman, who are you? What stirs your soul? How do you express yourself? What do you create? If you had no responsibility to anyone but yourself, who would you be and what you would you do? The problem does not lie in the people and institutions we serve and influence, but in our own choice to find our identity in the fact that we relate to them, and in doing so equate their success or failure to our own.


When I am a wife. When I lose 10 more pounds. When I buy these clothes. When the babies are grown. When I am ready for a better job. When I get in shape. When I am with a good guy. When I get through college. When I get older. When I was younger.

The whens destroy us. The whens wear us down. The whens eliminate the nows.


“I don’t want to look slutty,” she said, buttoning one additional tiny button at the top of her blouse.

“I don’t want to look like I’m trying too hard,” she said, removing her eye shadow and replacing it with a slightly lighter shade.

“I don’t want to look frumpy, “she said, replacing her over-sized shirt with a more fitted one.

“I don’t want to look  ______________________,” she said, making some tiny alteration in her appearance because she was far more concerned with how she didn’t want to be perceived than she was about expressing her own self.


Picture them now. The pointed toes and hourglass curves of the pastel 1950’s pinup calendars. The buttoned blouses and pleated skirts of the 1960s polaroid photos, full of yellow tupperware and dangling lamps and floral sofas. The faded glow, the puffed sleeves, and long trains of the 1980s wedding photos. The blurred edges, white stockings, and oversized glasses of the 1990s family portraits. And the girly magazine covers from all of those decades and more, with arched eyebrows, round lips, and shiny ballooned bosoms.

Have those pictures in your mind?

So then someone says, “You, woman, Be photographed. Not as a bride, not as a mother, not as a graduate, not as a product, and not “for” anyone but yourself. And suddenly what should sound awe-inspiring becomes uncomfortable and unattainable. And the images appear and the photographs we see of “women” on the newsstands and the mop commercials and the mall promotions appear in our minds, and we assign the “woman” an age, weight, income, man, and possession of self-assurance. And when our own criteria do not match up to “hers,” we hang our heads. Defeated.

My Aunt used to always run from the camera, whether it was a bonfire or a wedding or afternoon in the kitchen, and she would not complain–she would run, duck, hide. Last month she died in her sleep. She was 49. Her family ached for photographs of her, and only a few were to be found among the dozens of us who loved her. I scoured my own hard drives, clicking the right arrow and hoping for some kind of image of her. And then there it was: the lake, her swimming on her back, eyes to the sky and mouth laughing. No matter the temperature or time of day, she loved being in the water. She would laugh and beckon the rest of us to join her in the waves. I looked at the photograph and I heard her laugh.

She didn’t know I took that photo. I wish she had known, and I wish she had felt worthy of it.



Does this really need to be explained? Apparently. Because we are still climbing on and pulling at each other’s hair in pursuit of it. The problem with goals that are based on relative terms is that they cannot be met, and therefore always result in the would-be achiever to feel like a failure.

And what follows is the problem of the singular assumed standard, specifically when it comes to female appearance. Earlier today at the doctor’s office, I was told my long hair made me look thinner… and was I sure I hadn’t lost weight? Because the long hair made my face look SO thin! As if it should be assumed that I would want to do everything in my power to appear to take up as little physical space as possible. I could not find a “thank you,” in my stomach– only an uneasy acknowledgement and a sigh.

–Let’s pause.– Because you, female reader, might be wondering how this piece defends my passion for dressing up and photographing women.

The problem is that we do not believe we are worthy. Do you know what I wish? I wish I would stop meeting amazing, powerful women who hate themselves. (Remember: there is no neutral. If we don’t feel positive about ourselves, it means we feel negative.) I wish the number one compliment for little girls was not “pretty.” I wish pubescent girls didn’t get ostracized for being interested in things other than their appearance and “what people will think.” I wish female child celebrities did not become sex objects the moment they grew breasts. I wish women were not defined as extremes (especially by each other) – slut / prude, sexy / frumpy, shy / full of herself, too old / too young, too skinny / too fat.


And so, I will continue to photograph women, while embracing the problems and celebrating who we are. We will talk about their accomplishments, their children, their dreams. And at the end of the experience they will see themselves with new eyes… and I will smile at them as they complete this journey and embark on a new one. And we will reclaim the word “beauty” and ALL it truly encompasses. We will celebrate the aesthetic of our sex, because while it does not define us it is a breathtaking work of art.

And I will experience the highs and the lows and the joys and the sorrows of being woman, and I will be proud.


-Mitzi Starkweather

Learn more about my take on Women’s Portraiture here.