How Modeling Lingerie Made Me Think About Feminism

by Hilary Phelan

Something I never imagined myself doing is modeling lingerie. It's probably because I am absolutely terrible at posing for photos. I feel fake and vain anytime someone points a camera at my face (which actually does not happen very often because I am usually the one snapping photos).

On occasion, though, if the sun is just right and I want to remember a particular moment, I’ll ask the mister to take a photo of me, cringing inside from the vanity of asking for a photograph of myself to be taken in the first place. This question almost always takes the form of, “Can you take a photo of Lu and me?” holding my son up beside me as some sort of Vanity Distraction Shield.

If ever I should want a snap, I blame the sun or my son for my wanting it. But why is it so hard to admit that I just want to have photos of myself? Isn’t it time that I feel proud of myself and my body? In pondering all of this, I ran across a blog post by Bustle's own body positive guru Marie Southard Ospina, who provided me with some answers:

"I think at a time when 'vanity' is still considered a deadly sin, taking a moment to appreciate and recognize your uniqueness becomes even more important. Reflecting on the things that make you you is an invaluable experience — it's part of growing up and accepting all those things you'd previously struggled with. It's part of evolving into someone truly body positive."

So as a challenge to myself (to try to take a step closer to unconditionally loving my body), I decided to travel to the wonderful La Fille d’O shop in Gent, Belgium and volunteer to model its beautiful lingerie. The first thing that sprung to my mind post-decision, however, was that I was going to have to "tackle" my hair growth situation from head to toe. We just got through winter, people; I know you know what I mean.

I had the genius idea of going to a salon and getting my first bikini wax, but then I read this article about "6 Things To Do Before You Get A Bikini Wax" and it basically scared the living daylights out of me. Taking into consideration that I am terribly sensitive to pain in general (I blame it on the red hair), I just couldn't face putting myself through that. Because, seriously, why do we subject ourselves to such agony? Why do we fantasize about Ryan Gosling's sexy, hairy legs and consider the same feature disgusting or dirty on women? How did society convince us that we cannot exist in our natural state, and why do we continue to accept that?

My thee-year-old son was very confused when he saw me shaving my legs for the first time this week. His questions were, in this order: "Does it hurt," "Why are you doing that," "How come you have to do that?" I laughed and told him, "Of course it doesn't hurt. I'm doing it to make my legs beautiful." And then I changed the subject, horrified at myself for teaching my son that legs have to be hairless to be beautiful. I couldn't answer his last question, because I don't know why I feel the need to conform to certain beauty norms and not others.

Luckily, there are some cool movements at the moment of badass ladies coloring their armpit hair. And how about this hairy armpit competition in China? La fille d’O also had some stunning lingerie photos featuring pubic hair on its Instagram account, until Instagram deleted them (boooo). The thing is, I have sincere admiration for people who disregard the social constraints and do whatever they want. And Murielle Scherre is one of those people.

Scherre launched her own lingerie brand La Fille d’O in 2003, creating comfortable and beautiful locally-handmade lingerie for all shapes and sizes. Since then, she has been encouraging her customers and fans to share photos of themselves wearing her designs, and she even published a book with a collection of amateur fan photography spanning 11 years. The book is appropriately titled L'amateur and in its description, it's said to be a book on how to become a:


These days, it is Instagram that has the pleasure of hosting the everyday customer model photos, and La Fille d’O even developed its own censoring app Obscura so you can edit your lingerie photos to cover up anything that would get them deleted from social media. That way Scherre enables the sharing of her customers' photos modeling her creations with a cheeky nod to the nipple police.

So off I went to the very wonderful and beautiful La Fille d’O store, where I had a date with Ruth, the shop and web manager, who had agreed to take some photos for me. And I was terrified — the negative thoughts were in overdrive and the one that was shouting the loudest was, "What if Ruth thinks I’m a vain, weird, annoying idiot?" All the other ladies in the shop photos looked super cool and interesting. And, well, I’m sure you can imagine the spiral of negativity that took hold of me at that moment. Turns out, though, Ruth is really friendly and lovely, and after the initial terror wore off, she made me feel completely at ease.

One of the (hundred-thousand) doubts that crossed my mind when considering this photo shoot was whether or not I was interested in acting or posing "sexy," as that seems to be expected in lingerie photography. Hell, not even just in lingerie photography. This is the case in most images of women in the media.

One of my aims in doing this shoot thus became to show that a woman's body is more than a sexual object.

Feminist extraordinaire Amanda Palmer says that feminism is about allowing women to do whatever they want with their lives and their bodies, without judging them for those choices. While I would never want to imply that women should hide their bodies away or be ashamed of them, I do want to add to the growing wave of women who are shaking off sexy, as it has been traditionally defined, and embracing beauty (as it is naturally).

We don't need to act sexy to be beautiful (although we should, of course, have the right to do so), so we should be able to pose for a lingerie shoot without feeling that we are putting our sexual side on display or being "indecent." Women's bodies are so much more than just sexy, after all.

It's nothing short of delightful that as I am writing this article, Anna Kendrick is making waves by refusing to strike a sexy pose for the poster of her new movie. This perfectly illustrates what I am trying to say: Fighting the idea that "sexy" is the most appropriate or attractive image for women.

It's quite possible that the "sexy" debate is the reason that some people get so bent out of shape about breastfeeding in public. IMO, breastfeeding is one of the most amazing, natural things the female body can do. It provides your baby with the nourishment it needs and builds an unbreakable bond between the two of you. For people to say that it is "inappropriate" to breastfeed in public means that they believe that breasts are primarily sexual, and belong only in the sexual fantasies of men.

As you can imagine, then, I am so happy with the Twitter trend #brelfie, which encourages mothers to post their breastfeeding selfies. We need to have those images in the public eye so that our kids can grow up knowing that breasts are far more than just sexy.

If you ask me, we need to take our bodies back from the industries that use sex to sell products. We need to show the world that the female form is strong, beautiful, and can do amazing things. "Sexy" should be on our own terms — a word we define as individuals in accordance to the people we are; not the people we are told we are.

In the end, I am impressed and proud of my photos from my visit to La Fille d’O. La Fille d’O does not do any photo manipulation on any of its pictures, so what you see here are my untouched, original images. I even managed to resist the urge to put a vintage filter on them — there was a special light in that room and I didn’t want to lose it.

Perhaps I will try to be more vain in the future. But right now I am just happy that I look strong in the photos and managed to hold my head up and believe in myself in that perfect moment. So millions and millions of thanks and hugs to Murielle, and to everyone involved in creating La Fille d’O. You are an inspiration to women everywhere.

Images: Hilary Phelan; La Fille d'O; Suit Supply; Giphy; Screenshot Kazam Tornado Video; Lafilledoboutique/Instagram