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All Bodies Are Good Bodies

By Kerry Manders

Teri Hofford is a photographer, author, speaker, coach, educator, activist, and self-love enthusiast. A self-described “hyphen person,” Teri talked to Kerry Manders about the value of openness, the benefits of interdisciplinarity, and necessity of purpose-driven work.

What do diversity” and “inclusivity” mean to you?

What a timely question: I was just working with a branding strategic consultant today and part of my homework is to do a “diversity and inclusion” statement for next week! For me, an open mind and an open heart are absolute necessities. We need compassion and the flexibility to change – our minds and our behaviours – upon learning new information. We also need self-compassion, trying not to get bogged down in shame or embarrassment about the things you thought were true but aren’t or aren’t anymore. We have to be willing to change our beliefs, and that’s not always easy. We can acknowledge beliefs and still move towards doing better.

Being open to different perspectives is necessary for growth in any capacity, whether you are one person or a small organization or an entire city. Another necessary thing is deep listening. Even though I like to talk, it’s important that I know when it’s time for me not to talk. I value curiosity above judgement because judgement solves nothing; curiosity gives us space to grow and to change in light of new stories.

How has your understanding of inclusivity shifted over time?

I’ve always been an empath. It started when I was growing up in a small-town community where our school had twelve kids and I was the biggest of those twelve. I was picked on from the time I was in grade six. Very quickly I knew what it meant to be different. I always had an openness – that’s a key word for me – to understanding why people behave the way they do. It doesn’t mean I have to accept it, but I can understand it.

When I first started my boudoir photography business it was with the sole purpose of showing bodies like mine. But that still meant white bodies. Within a year, I realized all sorts of different bodies desperately needed representing. I think that happens when you put your 20s behind you – you start to look beyond yourself to say there are things outside of me that also need attention. It wasn’t just about saving people “like me” anymore.

When it comes to my creative work – even looking at my Instagram – I’m always wondering if it’s all too cohesive, too similar. Is there anybody – any bodies – that I’m not featuring but could be? I’ve been able to foster a pretty good community around the idea that all bodies are good bodies. Still, I’m always looking to improve representation, because I come to the table with my own biases and blind spots. I need to be critical of my own practice and be open to feedback. My initial instinct when I receive criticism is to get defensive. But I’ve learned that when I feel defensive is exactly when I should be listening, because that’s my ego talking. I defend myself as a “good person,” but then I remind myself, “hey, they didn’t say I was a bad person.” So maybe I can adjust my business practices a little.

To really diversify is not to tokenize. It’s to pay models of all shapes and sizes – to invest in those bodies. Tokenization is a big problem in the photography industry in general and it avoids the real work of changing the industry. Change takes year-round work, not a special “different bodies” issue once a year.

You wear many hats: entrepreneur, educator, coach, photographer, writer. What are the benefits and challenges of interdisciplinarity?

Chase Jarvis of CreativeLive calls us interdisciplinary types “hyphen people.” It’s something I really struggled with until recently, to understand that I could do more than one thing. From the time we start school we’re asked, “what do you want to be when you grow up?” Meaning: what’s the one job you want to do for the rest of your life? The more I understand myself and my strengths – I’m a visionary, always moving, always executing – the more I understand that I can’t ever stay in just one realm because that’s not who I am. It boils down to purpose. Why would I limit myself to only one way of realizing that purpose? For me, that means waking up every day and trying to make somebody else’s life better than it was before they heard from me, saw me, or learned from me.

My intent in every realm is to empower. I share certain parts of myself and encourage others to do the same. We can share our stories and let people know that they aren’t alone. I showed my body to say, “look: fat people exist and we’re not just faceless bodies on the news contributing to the ‘obesity epidemic’ or whatever they call it now. No, I’m here being awesome and cool.”

Doing multiple things allows me to switch gears when necessary. When I find myself burning out from photography and from running a photography business, I can write more. Or I can offer a course. This year I started teaching writing workshops for photographers. My empowerment work goes beyond boudoir photography. I’m actually writing more than I’m taking photos right now: thanks, Covid lockdown!

What have you learned in the process of your self-portraiture? How has your practice in front of your own camera helped you in your work behind it?

There’s a big difference between doing self-portraits and having another photographer take portraits of you. Self-portraits are a kind of chickenshit way to get your photos out there, to be honest. When you photograph yourself, you’re in control of literally everything. I want to see what you look like when you give up that control.

One of the things I’ve learned from self-portraiture is to slow down. I have to look for the light differently, embody a different kind of patience, consider my body from all different angles. It gives me a lot more compassion towards bodies in general, and more understanding of what it’s like to hold a pose indefinitely. Sometimes I feel badly about what I make my clients go through!

With self-portraits, there is a certain safety, because I’m in control of the camera and I’m in control of who sees the photos. I can delete, delete, delete as I see fit. When I sit for another photographer, they’re in control, and I have to listen and be present with and for someone else. I have to manage my expectations appropriately and that is both personally rewarding and very helpful to my business as a photographer. When I go to someone’s else’s studio, I’m constantly assessing what I like, what don’t I like, what about this experience I want to bring to or avoid in my own practice. It’s good for me to be in the client’s shoes. I remember the first time I paid $5000 for a photoshoot. Even I hesitated at the price, and I know what photography’s worth! I was trying to come up with any excuse not to do it, in a way. Eventually I just had to bite the bullet and press “purchase” on that portrait session.

The best way to understand your business is to frequent other businesses in the same field. Find people who you think are better and smarter than you and learn from what they are doing.

How do you go about creating a safe space in your studio?

It’s very important for me to set expectations before clients even step foot in into my studio: here’s what I will take care of for you but here’s what you’re responsible for. I try to do in-person consultations before a session because I want clients to know exactly what they’re getting into before they pay me any money. I need them to trust me, and it’s my job to minimize anxieties.

When a client is in studio, I want them to have an amazing experience and my transference of energy really helps, I think. And I show as many bodies as I possibly can. People hiring me know that I’ve photographed people who look “like” them. Once they are in studio, I take full control. telling them exactly what to do. I give them access to a wardrobe that is fully inclusive. My furniture is accommodating. This is something that I want to say to any photographer reading this: have furniture that can accommodate larger bodies! As someone who is fatter, I can tell you that if go into a studio and see I see spindly little legs on the sofa, I won’t feel confident posing.

What sorts of language should we avoid when speaking about marginalized bodies?

I don’t know if there’s anything to avoid, aside from intentionally harmful things, unless an individual says, “do not say that.” I run a relatively inclusive Facebook group and we’re very open to hearing what people have to say and learning new information. What once was okay to say might not be anymore, and we need to talk about it. Language is always changing. If someone tells me that I said something that offends them, it’s my job to believe them and to rethink my language.

The word “fat” is fine when talking about my body. There is such a stigma around “fat,” such negative connotations, and the assumption that “fat” is something we must fix. I’d love to strip it of its negative connotations and to let it be one descriptor among others. I’d also like to get on an airplane and not get side eye from people who don’t want me to sit beside them. I’d like to go to a doctor and not have “lose weight” be the first solution offered to any problem under the sun. I’d like to post a picture of myself in my underwear eating pizza and not have people come at me in the comments. I’d like to go into a clothing store and find sizes that fit me. I’d like smaller people to stop saying “I feel fat” as an umbrella phrase for feeling like shit – whether they are bloated or uncomfortable or even having a bad hair day. What do you mean when you say, “I feel fat”? It usually has nothing to do with actually being fat. “I feel fat” is toxic. It’s an assumption that “fat” is necessarily uncomfortable and unattractive. I can tell you that I exist in a fat body and I’m not uncomfortable or unattractive most of the time.

Can you tell us about others whose work has inspired you?

Dr. Lindo Bacon has been amazing. They wrote a powerful book called Health at Every Size basically debunking all the bullshit studies and junk science of diet culture. They helped me undo certain beliefs that were pretty firmly ingrained by undoing my emotional attachment to them. And all beliefs carry emotional attachments. Dr. Bacon helped me believe that I could change anything – from the way I feel about money to the way I behave in relationships.

In terms of photography, I want to shout out my friend Boon Ong. He’s in Calgary and he does amazing portraits of people that are very meaningful and emotionally impactful. I made him do a workshop with me because I wanted to learn from him. He’s the complete opposite of me in terms of shooting style, but our mission is the same: to empower people and help them be seen. He said something once that I’ve never stopped thinking about. Photographers in the boudoir industry spend so much time trying to fit their clients into the “boudoir box.” Boon said that we need to start building the box around our clients, making sessions specific to them, to unlearn the ways we’ve been taught. That shifted something fundamental for me in my practice.

What advice can you give to Image Arts students as they’re set to graduate and launch their careers?

Be open and be flexible – that’s the best advice I can give. Also, set realistic expectations for yourself and what you want to accomplish. Because being an entrepreneur is not the same as being a photographer. Literally 98% of running a photography business is not photography itself. And it can be lonely. You have to manage your expectations and constantly reevaluate why you’re doing what you’re doing. You need confidence in your own mission, your own purpose, so that you don’t get distracted by what everyone else is doing.

What is one thing you wish you knew before you started out?

Probably someone told me this and I just didn’t want to hear it, but I’m going to pass this on: you have to figure out the cost of doing business and to budget for it. Not sexy, I know! It sounds like the most basic advice ever, but people skip this crucial step all the time. They decide to focus on the “passion” parts and to just “see what happens.” That’s not a good plan. In fact, it’s not a plan at all! You need to plan for the running of your business. Passion might be infinite, but money is finite. What are you going to spend it on? Are you charging appropriately for your services, your time, your expertise?

What does fear or doubt look like in your creative practice? How do you handle them?

My brain can disassociate from itself a little bit. This is where being forward thinking is beneficial. I’ll get an idea, and my body gets to work implementing it, and part of my brain is thinking “maybe this is a ridiculous idea.” But here’s the thing: my body is still doing the work. There’s a part of my body that trusts that I know what I’m doing, and it understands that my brain is going to take a hot minute to catch up. But it will catch up!

The other way I deal with doubt and fear is to look beyond myself at the bigger picture. If my purpose is greater than me, then my fear doesn’t matter. The fear of not doing anything is worse than the fear of trying something.