5 Tips to Bring Body Positivity Into Your Sessions with Suma Jane Dark
1. Work With Diverse Models
If you want clients of all shapes and sizes to feel confident working with you, they need to first see that you have an active interest in welcoming them into your studio. It is very intimidating for a plus-size client to reach out to a photographer, no matter how beautiful their work is, if the photographer’s entire portfolio consists of only one body type again and again. What’s more, working with models will help you to become more adept at working with larger bodies before offering your skills to paying clients. When a photographer isn’t comfortable working with people of size, believe me, it really shows, and the results can range from awkward to devastating.
If you yourself aren’t a part of the plus-size community, you might not know where to look to find plus-size models. Facebook is a great way to connect with new communities—look for local pages related to plus-size interests and ask their moderators if you can post that you’re looking for a few people of size for test shoots. Instagram is a great way to find influencers in your area. Influencers always need fresh content, and those with smaller accounts will often be interested in TFP work. The bonus when working with influencers, much like professional models, is that they generally know a lot about posing already and will have the confidence to give you feedback as you go.
And while we are on the subject of feedback—humble yourself and ask for it. Ask your models what their favorite photos are and why. Ask them which ones they like the least and why. You will learn more from this than you can imagine. Be gracious always.
2. Forget “Flattering” Poses
There are so many tutorials out there that will teach you all kinds of rules and tips for shooting larger clients. Forget about almost all of them. These rules and tips generally treat plus-size bodies as problems that we need to solve through our lighting and posing. This just isn’t so. People know what their bodies look like. Our job isn’t to disguise, but rather to celebrate our clients. Don’t hide tummies behind blankets, don’t shoot entire sessions from a ladder, don’t make nine out of ten photos closeups. Fat people are just like everyone else. We want to see our legs elongated. We want to see our necks looking elegant. We want detail shots of our hands. We want the same cool photos that everyone else gets.
Choose lighting that shows off our unique shapes. One of my biggest pet peeves in photographs of plus-size people is that the photographer has chosen to construct a body shape through lighting that clearly does not exist. The result is uncomfortable. See your subject as themselves. See their body as it is. Have them move and bend and stretch, and learn what beautiful lines and shapes the body before you can create. You don’t need to make an hourglass out of an apple.
Nobody has flaws, just insecurities. Let your client tell you what those are, and work accordingly. Be considerate of the person before you, and avoid projecting your own biases through what you choose to shoot or not shoot. Believe me, folks will notice what you’re avoiding shooting, and it doesn’t feel good.
3. Check Your Own Biases
Do you bristle when I use the word “fat”? We’re all brought up in a size-obsessed, body-negative culture. It’s hard to unlearn those lifelong messages about what is beautiful and what is not. But “fat” is not a bad word, it’s just a descriptor, and being fat doesn’t make anyone less beautiful. Does that statement sit uncomfortably for you? That’s OK. Growth isn’t comfortable, but it is necessary.
Beauty is a living thing—it is fluid, it is moving, it is always shifting and morphing, and it takes up residence in everyone. Our job as artists is to find the particular form it’s taken in the person before us and reflect it back to them. If you struggle to find beauty outside of what you’ve been brought up to believe is attractive, flood your social media with body positive influencers. Go on a deep dive into body positive theory on Google. Find some kickass podcasts.
Spend some time really examining and breaking apart what you believe about bodies and value. It is impossible to celebrate the beauty in another if you yourself cannot see it. If you don’t find larger bodies to be beautiful and valuable, you won’t be able to bring out the magic from your larger clients. Once you see all bodies as equally valid and lovely, everything else will naturally flow.
4. Keep It Positive
Check your websites and client magazines for any wording about “flaws,” “extra weight,” “problem areas,” and phrases of the sort. There’s just no need for any of that. Resist the urge to discuss dieting, weight loss, or anything that isn’t totally weight neutral in your studio. If a client brings it up, gently steer the conversation back to something more productive and positive. Without meaning to, these phrases and conversations can bring up feelings of shame for people of all sizes. Shame does not a great session make.
Anecdotally, my larger clients actually tend to be my most confident clients. They’re often excited, comfortable, and ready for anything. When your marketing materials or studio atmosphere take the attitude that we all de facto hate ourselves, it only undermines confidence in clients who are already feeling great. It also helps to normalize all kinds of toxic attitudes about beauty, which let’s be honest, are just real bummers. Let’s move beyond them!
5. Keep Accessibility in Mind
It’s very important in my studio that all of my furniture be able to support a variety of weights. My partner and I have made several adjustments to some of the antique pieces of my set to ensure that they are usable for everyone. Keep an eye on things like the width between the arms on chairs, the weight limit for couches, and the ease with which clients can move around your studio.
Likewise, give clients a heads up about stairs, whether or not there is air conditioning, and any other important factors about your space. Encourage your clients to be open about any adjustments they might need to help support them in different poses—these can be positioning pillows, helping to lift legs, etc. All bodies are unique and will have their own needs; you don’t have to anticipate everything. A little mindfulness goes a long way. If you aren’t sure if a client will be able to comfortably do a pose, just ask them. Encourage people to advocate for themselves, and don’t assume someone’s physical ability based just on their size. Like with everything else on this list, if you’re new to the world of body positivity, it’s OK—just stay open. Your whole world is about to get so much more beautiful, and your clients are going to be over the moon.