Flipping Our Perspective
Flipping Our Perspective
Boudoir Photographer Cheyenne Gil shares how her internal struggles became the catalyst for finding self-love and creating a successful business. Interview and photographs by Bri Morse.
Bri: You started your business when you were 15, but you started taking boudoir pictures when you were about 21. I know you have an artistic background, but can you share a little more about how you got into boudoir photography? Did you take self-portraits when you started?
Cheyenne: I went to art school, and my painting and drawings always focused on the female figure. Even when I was little I was constantly drawling fairies, mermaids, gypsies and so on. As I got older my mom modeled for me all the time, so I was painting and drawing my mom and also creating self-portraits. By the time I was in college I was really focused on body image and the relationship between mothers and daughters, specifically me and my own mom. I don't know if you've seen any pictures of my mom on my Instagram but she is a babe! And yet she struggled her whole life with body image issues. Of course, as a child growing up I thought my mom was the most beautiful thing in the whole world and she was my whole world! It broke my heart literally to watch her hate herself. I didn't understand it when I was a kid. As I was turning into a young woman I was bigger than her… I take after my dad. I mean I weighed more than her just as a fact of life. So in my mind I kept thinking well, if she thinks she's fat and she has to think that I'm fat because I am physically bigger than her. Mind you, she never told me I was fat, she always stressed that I was beautiful.
So when I was in school I was really exploring that while hating myself throughout my teenage and young adult life. Then I started getting more into photography, I always loved dressing my friends up and taking their pictures in an editorial style. I was trying to figure out a way to make a living from photographing women, but not being a commercial or fashion photographer. When I looked at boudoir photography I thought it was typically ugly and tacky, and I wanted to make it feel beautiful. So I asked my mom to pose for me to test things out. I watched her transform during that photo shoot, and it was the most unbelievable thing I've seen in my whole entire life still to this day. We had so much fun and I had no idea what I was doing (laughs). I was just posing her and we were cracking up and having a great time. When we finished shooting I ran to the bathroom, and as I was walking back through the hallway I peeked into her room. She was in front of the mirror laughing at herself and fluffing up her hair. And I started crying immediately and I was like, holy shit this is what I want to do! I thought, if I can make my mother feel this way, I want to help everyone feel this way.
And that's what did it for me. From that moment on I started figuring out ways to become a boudoir photographer and find my style while marketing it. I didn't want to do the whole “pearl necklace and the high heels with the thong” thing. To me it's not very real, it's not what I would enjoy shooting. That style feeds into something entirely different. I mean sometimes my work is about sex for some of my clients, but for the most part it's about finding you, being you, and accepting yourself.
Bri: So when you started shooting boudoir, you still were struggling with how you felt about yourself?
Bri: So how did that shift towards to the place you are at now?
Cheyenne: Well, when I was going into college I was on medication for depression and anxiety. I was feeling really down and I went to the doctor and he just put me on something. He didn't suggest therapy or anything other than medicating me. In reality it was just me being a teenager and I didn't have a chemical imbalance in my brain to warrant being on that [type of medication]. What I was taking made me gain 30 pounds in a month and a half. The medication also made me feel insane, it brought on vertigo… it made my hands shake. And this was all during my first semester of art school. After a while I started weaning off the medication, which also makes you go insane, by the way. I did lose a little bit of the weight but I was still struggling with that aspect of myself. I already felt like I was the “fat one” out of all my friends even though I really wasn't. I was just sick in my mind.
So anyway after I did that photo shoot I was feeling a little bit better about myself, but I still wasn’t in the best place emotionally. Honestly my journey started because I was figuring out ways to market. I thought, “if I'm asking these women to do this really vulnerable thing and love themselves, how my supposed to do that without actually feeling that way about myself?”
Bri: You would've been preaching it without practicing it?
Cheyenne: Yes! I thought I need to start changing the way I view myself and how I speak to myself. My whole life I've been someone who always compliments other people. My mom used to say when I was little I would tell someone “oh your knees are so cool,” or “your collarbone is so beautiful!” (laughs). I always found such beauty in people. I started to learn how to do that for myself. Don't get me wrong, I still struggle at times. But I figure out ways to combat that negative voice in my head that slowly pops up every now and then. But for the most part I have great days and I feel good about myself now.
There are all times where we look at each other and we think that the other is so beautiful, and we don't know what they are battling. Like maybe that person gained 40 pounds, and we still find them gorgeous but they feel horrible about themselves, you know? My work feels scary sometimes because it's a lot of responsibility. I’ve had clients who seem in really good spirits and they'll get to the studio and break down because they feel terrified to have their picture taken. And it's heartbreaking and terrifying for me to because I just want them to feel great. My hope is always that I will take their picture and they will see what I am seeing and not what they are feeling.
One positive thing I know is that there is this huge self-love movement that's happening right now and it is so rad! But for a long time it was just kind of assumed. Negative self-thoughts and low self-esteem are definitely passed down. I mean, my mother had a father who never told her she was beautiful or anything. Or he would just make negative comments about her body or what she was wearing etcetera. I definitely feel it is passed down from generation to generation.
Think about when someone complements you the first thing you do is say "oh no!" You dismiss it. If someone says your hair looks beautiful you say, “oh, it's a mess!” We deflect automatically because we are usually trained to do that. And I still do that sometimes, for example, if I'm really tired or not paying attention. Because it's a conscious effort to make myself say, “thank you.” It’s so ridiculous when you think of it. There are so many little tiny things that you can do to start reconditioning or reprogramming yourself. Especially if you have kids. Whether you have a son or a daughter, they need to know that their parents are confident. Your kids are looking at you and seeing the world through your perspective. When they realize that you are looking at yourself and seeing negative aspects, then they are going to get so confused and not understand. And then they are going to look at themselves, and think “oh God”... just like I did. I've heard that a billion times from my clients.
Bri: While you were talking I was thinking about a short excerpt I watched once, by Dr. Abraham Twerski. It was about how so many people are on anti-anxiety medication and antidepressants. To clarify, I'm not trying knocking these methods entirely, I think there are certainly times and cases where that is absolutely necessary. The analogy Dr. Abraham gave was about lobsters’ growth, he said,
“… being uncomfortable is the stimulus for a lobster’s growth [because it has to leave its shell and grow a new one]. If a lobster had a doctor to go to he would be given a Percocet or valium and then the lobster would never grow. If we use adversity properly we can grow through adversity.”
Basically he is saying the lobster has to leave its comfort zone of its shell and feel vulnerable to literally grow to get to the next step. I feel we all could benefit from look at stress and “undesirable traits” differently so we can see it as an opportunity and not as something to suppress.
Bri: Do you think we are born with certain attributes - physical and nonphysical- for a reason that may ultimately help us on our life journey? Even if at times those traits seem or feel "undesirable."
Cheyenne: I was just thinking about this! If I were a naturally thin person, I think that I wouldn’t have been able to have the same impact as I do being a naturally thick person. So yes, I think we are given what we are given and we have the power to do things that will help ourselves and others grow…be stronger…be better.
Bri: I feel overall our Western culture can be too focused on superficial aspects of ourselves. I personally believe whatever is on the inside is reflected on the outside, and that is the most important thing we all need to focus on. Do you feel the same?
Cheyenne: My view is everything is tied together. So for me personally I was a miserable college student because I was hating the way I looked and it was really hard for me to make friends because I was such a miserable person. Everything was negative, negative, negative. I did need to figure out that I was beautiful on the outside, but... all of these internal things about me go together hand-in-hand and reflect outward as well. It’s because I work hard, and because I have the ability to make people feel comfortable, my determination… when I acknowledge these qualities my business took off. I looked into myself and looked at myself, and realized I didn't have to hate myself. It was like I hated myself because that's what I thought was supposed to be happening.
Bri: I also feel that if people looked outside of themselves a little bit more and put things in perspective, they could accomplish so much more with their time and energy if they weren't so hung up on whatever it is. There are so many women who are so down on themselves and all they think is about what they should change about themselves and then "x, y, and z" will happen.
Cheyenne: That kind of thinking is exhausting! One thing hits home for a lot of people is when I say: “Imagine all the things you could do, and all the room you'd have in your brain, if you just stop thinking about your hangups for one day.” I know I used to think about my body literally twenty-four-seven.
For example, if I was about to sit down, I thought, I better grab a pillow to cover my belly because I feel like my rolls are showing and everyone is looking at my stomach. I would just start to feel hunched over… and then ok I’m going to get up, pull your shirt down right away so that you can cover your belly. And when you walk make sure that you don't walk too hard because you're going to jiggle... These are thoughts that went through my brain as a teenager. I came from a good family, I was not abused in any way, my parents are so loving. It’s not like I had people telling me, “Cheyenne you're fat and you need to lose weight…”
I had to teach myself it's OK to put your shoulders back… relax! And so you have some freaking rolls, so what? For me personally I always look at other people, and if they have those things I think they're beautiful. Some people think this way too, while others look at the rolls and think “I hope I don't look like that!” I had to realize that those people had nothing to do with me. If they wanted to look at me and feel that way, then oh well. It actually has zero to do with how I feel about myself.
I was recently at a yoga retreat in Morocco. I was photographing it but I was also participating. One day, we were sitting around in a circle doing little self-love exercises after on the yoga mat. One of the girls was being really being hard on herself. I was sitting there in a really tight yoga shirt and really tight yoga pants sitting on my butt Indian style, and my rolls were rolling (laughs)… that's what happens. I have some rolls and the other girl did too. And I asked, “When you look at me, are you looking right at my stomach?” and she said, “yes.” I said “it’s because you have an issue with yourself and you can't stop thinking about it.” I basically told her, I'm going to sit like this for the rest of my life because this is how my body is. If you're going to look at me and feel any type away about it, you have to look at yourself and ask why you feel that way. And let me clarify, neither of us was being mean or nasty, we were having a very constructive conversation. I could tell she was very uncomfortable in her own body and she was realizing that. I told her, “Most people aren’t looking at you that way. And if they are it's their own issue.” We’ve got to realize, we don't owe anyone anything about how they think our body looks.
While my natural sass still pops out when someone is being judgmental against me, it’s mostly because all I can think about is that if they’re this mean to me, I know they’re probably horrible to others as well. I feel a duty to defend those who aren’t as thick skinned as I am. And yes, it absolutely is a reflection of who they are and how they feel about themselves. Think about it - we have all had moments of “Oh, if I were her, I wouldn’t be wearing THAT.” Fine. You AREN’T her. Period. She will wear what she wants and you will wear what you want. The mere idea that you are even paying attention to her body and clothes shows that you’re worried about your own body and clothes, or some other issue you are insecure about. Does that make any sense?
Bri: I definitely think that our judgements of others, in all areas, are a direct reflection of how we view ourselves. I also feel like many of us can easily get stuck on superficial criticism, such as what someone looks like, how they're dressed, what they said… and I think, my God who cares? There are bigger things to talk about.
Cheyenne: Absolutely! On my Instagram posts, I try to reiterate that there is so much more to life than this shit! Ask yourself, what do you want to make your life?
Bri: What makes you feel alive and full of life, aside from the things you are passionate about in your photography business?
Cheyenne: I feel alive and full when my boyfriend helps me take my mind off the stresses of being a twenty six year old female small business owner - when he and I drop everything and drive down the shore for the night or when we go to the super market and spend an hour buying ingredients for dinner - and then going home and making that dinner. I’m a planner and he is so "go with the flow" and it’s so liberating to have him pull me along with him on an un-planned adventure.
Bri: You said you grew up drawing and we know you went to school for art. Is there a different feeling or expression between your photography and some of the other art forms you like such as drawing and painting?
Cheyenne: Yes, yes, yes. Photography is so different for me! Drawing is so much more about getting out my own emotions. I draw very large so my body is working - my entire body and soul are into it. Photography is a passion of mine and it brings me so much joy to capture others and their spirit, but drawing is my own personal outlet. My drawings are very expressive and often times, dark. Sometimes that emulates in my photography, but not always.
Bri: You also mention often in your Instagram posts things like, “We are made of magic.” Can you explain that a little more? I guess I'm looking for Cheyenne's cosmic view on earth and the universe.
Cheyenne: This question is so hard! When I say we’re made of magic, I guess I’m really thinking about how special it is to be here on earth. In a Universe that is so freaking vast that the human mind can’t even comprehend it, we are tiny, but we are here. And to me, that is very special.
When I was a teenager I didn't want to exist because I realized how tiny we are. I hated my body but I also hated who I was. Then through therapy, journaling, and evolving as an artist, I turned one hundred eighty degrees from how I used to think. “How small we are” became a reason why I thought we were really exceptional. I didn't grow up in a house where my parents pushed any religion on us. But my mom would always say "We are a miracle" and “Our earth is a miracle.” And I'd always think like, yeah, whatever… I mean I know there are probably other beings out there. It's funny that the very thought that made me want to kill myself actually made me want to live… I just flipped it. As a person who used to not want to exist, I think it’s very remarkable to realize that we are here for a reason.