Questioning bridal boudoir
As a historian of the modern American wedding, I keep my ear to the ground when it comes to contemporary wedding trends. Anyone familiar with the world of weddings would attest that wedding photography has changed—and fairly dramatically—over the last several years. Gone are the days when a wedding photographer’s job consisted of arranging rows of attendants, setting up poses with the bride’s family and then the groom’s, and taking a few snaps of the toasts, the first dance, and the bouquet toss. There is artistry to today’s craft. Soft lighting. Silhouettes. Fantastic backgrounds. I like these things. The wedding album no longer holds photographs that look like the senior versions of the prom picture. Good for modern day brides and grooms, I say (and, of course, brides and brides and grooms and grooms).
This past December, I became aware of another trend in wedding photographs: bridal boudoir. Essentially, contemporary brides are taking advantage of the permissiveness of American wedding culture (which justifies a certain degree of narcissism) by posing seductively in a bedroom setting, clad in any given stage of undress. In defense of the trend, wedding photographer Amy Haberland urges brides to embrace the boudoir photo session. Over the course of her article, featured on the Huffington Post’s “Weddings” section, Haberland suggests that a boudoir photography session could be for any woman, but, ultimately, her primary focus is on the young bride-to-be. For these young women, boudoir photographs are a romantic gesture, a gift for their intended. At the same time, they are a gift for the women’s future selves—something to look back on once they move beyond the firm thighs and wrinkle-free stage of youth. They should embrace their beauty at the time of their engagements by dressing up in lingerie, posing seductively, and showing their “best sel[ves].”
Their mates and their fifty-year-old selves will be glad they did (Haberland 2011). The all-knowing wedding website, The Knot, agrees: if you’ve spent “time and money” on a pre-wedding “exercise and beauty routine,” you might as well take advantage of the results (Wood).
Media scholar Susan Douglas has documented how business and media linked obsession with and attainment of youth and beauty to women’s liberation. Allegedly playing to women’s “confidence and self-love,” advertisements of the 1980s (and now we can argue, well beyond the 1980s) linked women’s public achievements and personal value to physical perfection. Rather than fulfilling women’s individual desires, business and media indicated the steps women might take and the products they might buy to assure them of “male admiration and approval.” Strength, sophistication, and success were nothing if women failed to achieve the flawless physicality touted by the culture and so desired by men. And if a woman couldn’t be all things (a workplace dynamo and a pin-up fantasy), then what kind of woman was she really (Douglas 1994)?
The sample images provided with Haberland’s article only serve to enhance my fears about the boudoir trend and its false liberation. Is the lighting beautiful? Yes. Are the images stylish and modern? Indeed. But multiple photographs feature the women’s bodies from the neck down. Women’s legs, breasts, stomachs, and butts are highlighted. To some extent, the bodies could belong to any woman—not to the specific woman about to be wed. The personal, intimate connection attached to the sexual relationship is lost. Rather than enhancing the romantic tie between partners or serving as a mark of sexual agency, the images depersonalize the woman being photographed and make her only a body, not a beloved bride, future wife, or independent woman. While a version of the physical ideal may be upheld, boudoir photographs present a concept of marital intimacy that leaves something to be desired.
Kate Wood, “Wedding Photography: The Wedding Boudoir Photography Trend,” The Knot. Accessed April 5, 2012.
Susan J. Douglas, Where the Girls Are: Growing Up with Female Mass Media (New York: Random House, 1994), pp. 246-49, 262-63.
Karen Dunak is an assistant professor of history at Muskingum University, New Concord, OH, and author of As Long as We Both Shall Love: The White Wedding in Postwar America Find out more about Karen Dunak.