I recently read that there are people who maintain a healthy weight by eating what their body wants, without obsessively restricting, or giving themselves over to total abandon. This is a new concept to me, one I don't understand, but I am adamant to get to the bottom of. You may not have an eating disorder, but your eating may be disordered and you battle with your relationship with food. So many of us are being held hostage by our relationship with food, when I'm sure there's healing to be found. This thought process prompted me to do a series of photographs to highlight this issue. You are not alone. Whatever your weight or challenge with food is, there is someone out there who struggles with the same issues you do. These girls were incredibly brave to share their stories and pose for me. You are beautiful just as you are.
Thank you to every girl who took part in this photo series. You're all so special, I hope you've grown in that realisation over the course of this project.
Day 1 of 9: Meet Tanya
I've always had an issue with food. My mom was emotionally abusive, and it contributed to the problem. She would often call me 'fat child' or 'pig child'. When I look at those photos now, there was nothing wrong with my weight, but I developed a big complex around food. I remember my first binge eating episode in great detail. I was thirteen years old. I ate nine slices of bread and peanut butter in one sitting. That day was the beginning of a roller coaster phase of eating, and dieting; and eating, and dieting. It became a life force of its own. When I was a young adult, around twenty four, I found an mechanism to deal with my eating. At that stage, I didn't realise I had an eating disorder. I attended a seminar where they focused on Neuro-Linguistic Programming, hypnotherapy, and affirmations. I lost two dress sizes within three short months, without changing the way I ate. It was a temporary solution though, as I became involved in two abusive relationships, one after the other; and I lost all control. I couldn't stop eating. I would have rituals when I ate. I would surround myself with food, and I would eat the food while watching a certain program on tv, that kind of thing. Not even the diagnoses of post traumatic stress disorder, compulsive eating disorder, and depression changed anything for me. Change slowly came when I started posing for life drawings. I was completely naked in front of a room full of strangers. When I walked around and saw the different pictures they had drawn, the way they had depicted me, I saw that I was beautiful, I was art, and that was what started my emotional healing. I saw, through someone else's eyes, that I was beautiful. It's been a process, but I've learned to love myself. Learning to accept who you are is so important, that's where the healing starts. Being mindful is just as important, mindful of the way you eat, of your emotions, of the food around you. If you do binge, be mindful of that. I won't ever tell someone not to binge. I still do it, but when you do it, be aware and understand which emotions you're trying to block out. Taste the food, actually taste it. Compulsive eaters will generally just shove it in, because it's not really about the food. Losing weight has nothing to do with willpower. There's a correlation between eating disorders and obsessive compulsive behaviour, because of the need to control something, and this is the way we choose to do it.
Day 2 of 9: Meet Bronwyn
It started out with comparisons. I was always compared to my sister, who had the perfect figure and had no problem with her weight at all. If I look back at pictures of myself as a child, I realise I had no problems with my weight. In fact, for my body type, I was the perfect weight, but I would be given my sister's hand me downs. She was two sizes smaller than me, so her clothes wouldn't fit me. That communicated to me that there was something wrong with me. All her friends were her size, a size eight, and we'd have girl dress up days but none of their stuff would fit me. I was thin myself, but because I wasn't a size eight, they'd laugh and make fun of me. Despite the fact that I was skinny in my own right, my parents still compared me with my sister, saying “why can't you be like your sister?” In my mind, I was trying desperately to be her perfect size eight. I don't have that body type, how could I possibly try to attain that? Having a broken relationship with both my parents, and with no value being affirmed from either of them, I became this “messy” person. The only identity I had came from the positive reinforcement guys gave me. I got the reputation of being an ice queen, because I was so cold towards them. Years later, I'm finally at peace with my body weight. I know now that I'm an emotional eater. It wasn't as apparent then, but I used to set myself personal standards that were unattainable. I had terrible self talk. Getting quiet by doing centering prayer and counselling made me aware of how I was speaking to myself. Over time, my self talk improved, and now I love myself. Your body speaks back to you. We're three parts, soul, spirit, and body. My body will say 'You're giving me too much sugar'. If my mind is weak, it doesn't matter if my body says its had enough, because emotional pressure will lead my mind to overrule my body. When I'm in a good space, my body dictates what I eat. It's important for you to understand yourself, and have a point of reference. Spiritually, my point of reference is scripture. Psychologically, there are many books I've read and courses I've attended, as well as doing personality assessments etc. I bounce ideas off a dietician who will recommend changes where necessary. At the moment I'm emotionally strong, so the weight will just begin to drop off. It was a long journey to find peace.
Day 3 of 9: Meet Yolanda
I'm short and ever since I can remember, I've had a problem with my weight. I've never really been a sociable person and I struggle to get along with people, so food was a safe haven for me. I think it still is. I'm aware that I try to use food to fill an emotional void. I've lost weight before, but I never seem to be able to keep it off. Just after my child's birth, I'd had enough. I tried a low GI diet, combined with weight loss injections, and I lost nearly 20kg. I looked good for two years, but eventually gained it all back again. When I tried the combination of the diet and injections again, it just wasn't as effective. I was so despondent at that stage, I just gave up for a while. The next time I tried to lose weight, I went on a high protein diet, and lost even more weight than before. It went well for a while, until I quit smoking, and piled on the kilos again. It drives me crazy that I can go from one extreme to the other. I know it's a self image issue. Feeling like a complete fashion failure also doesn't help, it's a constant emotional roller coaster. People treat you differently when you're overweight, you can see the disapproval in their eyes, you're seen as someone with no willpower. I'm so tired of diets and having to eat a salad when I feel like having a slice of bread. At this stage I don't even want to look in the mirror; I'm done, I feel like there's nothing left to do. I don't have time for gym or exercise, and I hate being told what to do. Losing weight isn't that difficult, but I find it impossible to maintain. I feel like everything will fall into place when I reach my goal weight, and that's one of the reasons I'm so unhappy and put so much pressure on myself. I suspect there might be underlying issues that need to be addressed. I don't really want to find out though, because then I'd have to deal with that too. I'm at a crossroads, either I embrace the way I look, or I go on a diet again. I'm just so tired of the battle, I don't know if I can go through all of that again.
Day 4 of 9: Meet Kalene
I've never had a healthy relationship with food. I've always tried drastic measures to lose weight, like spending thousands on pills and potions. My goal was always to be underweight. Eventually I lost weight without the pills, but I realised I still wasn't happy. That's when I started looking at becoming healthy instead of just focusing on being skinny. I've always wanted to portray that perfect, model image, the image of being skinny despite having had kids. People look up to women like that. My current eating program is has become a way of life for me. A lot of people who know me think I'm obsessed, but it's just because I don't eat like everyone else. I know the calorie content of most foods. I try to indulge on healthy food, so I'll have 100g of almonds instead of the usual small portion. That, to me, is indulgence. I had a slice of cake for my birthday, and I spent two hours in the gym the next day, an hour more than I usually do. My body fat percentage is 13% at the moment, and I want to get it down to 11%. I tend to eat pretty much the same foods every day. I've been told that my body needs more calories, but every time I jump on the scale and I see I've gained a bit of weight, I train harder so that I can lose it again. I guess this isn't the norm for everyone, but I want to enter fitness competitions next year. I'm very fit, and I'm not exhausted because I don't eat enough, although I do miss carbs. I will have a carb binge day once or twice a week, but it will be good carbs like brown rice or a slice of bread. My husband is a little worried, he says your spine bone shouldn't be visible, but mine is. I just believe that it's the way I'm built. When I overeat, I will go into a blank space and be terribly depressed. After my daughter was born, I was chubby, and people would comment on my weight. I am determined that nobody will ever tell me I'm fat again. My daughter, who is five years old, often asks me why I eat so little. Her portions are bigger than mine. I'm trying to get balance and relax a little bit, perhaps take a day off gym. I've always been a bit of a rebel. I'm obsessed with fitness and clean eating because I don't want to look like my family who are all overweight. We had cake and desserts for my son's dedication and I binged that day. I felt so sick, my body isn't used to that kind of food. I was depressed for two days about allowing myself to eat like a normal person.
Day 5 of 9: Meet Louise
My relationship with my mother has always been rocky. I was sexually abused as a child, and she was in complete denial about it, even after I'd made her aware of it. It made me feel invisible. My home life didn't contribute to a healthy relationship with food. My parents forced me to finish everything on my plate. Eventually this habit gets instilled in you. The instability at home started me down a road of promiscuity; I'm sad to say the one night stands made me feel better temporarily. At that stage, I was still thin and looked beautiful. A fitness junkie, I exercised six days a week and had no issues with my weight. When I had my first child, I gained weight that I've never been able to lose. I swapped the emotional crutch of promiscuity for the emotional crutch of overeating. My mom and I were not on speaking terms, our relationship is still rocky today. When you're overweight, you're almost invisible. No one really gives you a second glance. When you lose the weight, men start noticing you again. I value my marriage, and being overweight has kept me from the temptation of straying. I am not prepared to jeopardise my marriage or my family. Being overweight is a safer, albeit unhealthy option. I am 40kg heavier now than when I met my husband. A man wants to feel good next to his partner, and it grieves me that I can't offer him that at the moment. At night, I'll pray desperately, asking God for the willpower to lose weight, but then I'll grab a chocolate for breakfast. I haven't even started thinking about loving myself. I always employ external means to make myself feel better, like dying my hair, having my nails done, etc. It's easier to deal with the external stuff than the internal stuff. The constant guilt is a huge mental thing. I can't begin to tell you how much money I spend on a monthly basis buying diet pills and potions. I bargain with myself. I'll diet, but I'll cheat, promising myself I'll skip dinner. My dad puts a lot of pressure on me to lose weight. He is relentless. He just can't leave me alone. The pressures of marriage and raising children are often overwhelming. I have a private stash of sweets in the room, it's so wonderful to eat when I'm alone. I still binge eat, sometimes I binge consistently. I know that you have to maintain a healthy lifestyle, but I've been unable to do that. I don't have time for exercise. It's a constant battle, I'm just so tired. I'm so desperate to lose weight.
Day 6 of 9: Meet Candice
My mom was always on diet pills, and I felt that my weight was a problem when I was a child. I was a tall girl, a little on the big side, and everyone around me was super skinny. I stole my mom's diet pills in primary school; she was my role model, it was normal for me. I always had deep seated insecurities about my weight. About 11 years ago, I wanted to get healthy, so I started losing weight and looking good. People took notice, it felt like an achievement for me. It becomes an obsession; the more weight you lose, the more you want to lose. You start thinking about any possible way to lose weight. This obsession consumes you and causes unhappiness. I was like that for a couple of years, very skinny and obsessed. People were worried about me, but I was defensive and it caused havoc in my relationships. After my second baby, I realised I was in trouble. I didn't want my children to grow up the way I grew up, I wanted them to have a happy mom. I was terribly thin, I would often just eat a grape for lunch. I restricted quantities and went without bread for a year. It was draining me of my joy. I wanted to enjoy my life, my family, and my kids. I had terrible guilt feelings whenever I ate anything I didn't consider acceptable. Being a extremist can be a good thing, but it can also be very bad. I felt in control, it was an achievement for me to be thin. I feel the change was a Godly intervention. I know the dangers that can trigger guilt. I eat in moderation now. If I feel like I want to have a chocolate or a burger, I'll have that without feeling guilty about it. I want to enjoy pizza with my kids, instead of forcing myself to eat a lettuce leaf. I think it's good to know where your limitations are. I am much happier now, and so thankful that all of that is behind me.
Day 7 of 9: Meet Lesego
When I was growing up there wasn't much food to go around. We weren't poor, but we also didn't have luxuries. We just had basics like bread and pap. Although we ate three meals a day there were never snacks or anything nice to nibble on. I think part of me got traumatised by that experience, so I vowed to myself that, once I started working and earning my own money, there would always be plenty of food in my fridge. I promised myself my fridge would be full of all the things I desired when growing up, like cake and milk for my coffee. I have a complex relationship with food, I see it as a comfort. I don't necessarily eat because I'm hungry, I eat because there's food available. I love food that is rich and creamy; smelling beautiful aromas of really great soul food makes me happy. If something is delicious, I can finish a big bowl of it without even registering that I'm full. It's only afterwards that I realise I'm stuffed. I don't think I register hunger and fullness. We only had a fully cooked meal on Sundays, with rice, vegetables and meat. If you were given a plate of food, you were forced to finish it. You were not allowed to say you're full, or you'd risk getting a hiding. So, from a very young age, I ate mountains of food. Eventually you get used to it. I've always been chubby, but fit. The kilo's piled up when I started earning my own money and was able to buy takeaways and go to restaurants. Before my kids were born, I stopped eating meat because I believed it would help me lose weight. I did lose weight, but I soon realised I'm not much of a vegetarian. I tried so many vegetable recipes, but vegetables will never be meat. Shortly after, I met my husband and had kids, resumed my old way of eating, and gained weight again. I think my weight is currently out of control. I stuff my children with food. They must never want for anything. If they're fat, I feel like I'm a good mom. I buy cake all the time. My husband is the healthy one, he'll give the kids fruit or take them to the park to go run, while leaving me at home eating a piece of cake. I know that my portion sizes are a problem and I eat until I feel sick. I'd like to be healthy. I have an auto immune disease and I don't want to put my body under more strain.
Day 8 of 9: Meet Zulé
Nine years old, I was already overweight and very uncomfortable with the way I looked. I once overheard my brother telling a friend that if I’d worn a red T-shirt, I’d look like a London bus. Right there I made a decision that I didn’t want to look like that anymore. My mom had her own body image issues, so I didn’t have healthy role models in this area. To me, the only sensible option was to stick my finger down my throat. It’s something I did consistently for two years. By the time I was 12, I was a healthy looking girl, with people commenting positively on my weight loss. It’s ridiculous, but when you’re a child, and everyone affirms you this way, you get the message that you're on the right track. I read about bulimia in magazines, and realised I had a problem. I can’t tell you how and when I stopped doing it, but I did stop eventually. Growing up quite independently, I formed my identity by looking to outside sources, people’s opinions mattered and shaped my thought process. I felt like I had to live up to an ideal to be seen as prized or valued. When I left home after high school for England, I started drinking quite a bit. That is how you make new friends. I was very active, but I had terrible eating habits, and drinking only contributed to it. Back in South Africa, around my 25th birthday, I joined a gym, hired a personal trainer, and started following a meal plan. I wrote everything down, I weighed all my food. Everything was perfectly planned, I never ate anything spontaneously. Food was prepared and labelled, to the point of anxiety provoking obsession. I was training for 3 hours a day with a body fat percentage of 12%. It’s my personality type, I always have to be the best at it, whatever “it” is. I always have to be addicted to something. I never felt good enough about myself, no matter how toned my body was. I was submerged in gym culture, I couldn’t talk about anything else but exercise and food. It’s embarrassing. There came a point when I had to go to the doctor for something unrelated, and she told me that I would never be able to have children if I carried on this way. I know I am meant to be a mother, so I decided to stop. It was very difficult scaling down the exercise, but I’d just met someone special, and that helped distract me a little. I missed exercising, and the discipline of being precise with my food, but it was great to go to a restaurant and order something off the menu and not take my own broccoli. Now, two years later, I have a healthy relationship with my body. I appreciate it much more for the wonderful vessel it is. I’m a lot happier with my body now than I was when I had toned arms and defined abs. Yes, sometimes I eat three pieces of cake when one would do, but the guilt doesn’t last very long, and it doesn’t happen very often. The empty plate in the photograph represents possibilities. You could put anything on that plate, like a healthy salad, which is enjoyable, or it can be a big piece of chocolate cake, and I’d feel okay about that too. Whatever that plate has on it, cake or salad, I would feel the same way about both. The wineglass represents alcohol that can be detrimental to the healthy, balanced lifestyle I’m trying to achieve now. For a very long time, my body was a tool that I had to keep nice and shiny. I don’t feel that way anymore. I feel that my body is the wrapping for a wonderful soul. Yes, I want a healthy body, but more importantly a mind and body that is in balance. Right now, I’m happier with my body than I’ve ever been.
Day 9 of 9: My own story
My dad passed away when I was nine years old. My mom remarried, and my teenage years where chaotic, to say the least. I don't even remember why I over ate, but everything else in my life was unbalanced, it stands to reason that this area would be too. By the time I was in matric, I was really overweight. My step dad spoke to me about it, and I was mortified. Looking back, I see that it was done in love, and it set the course for my first round of weight loss. I lost weight by eating a healthy, balanced diet, but my heart was still in turmoil. I would binge eat and be overcome by guilt; so much so, I decided to stick my finger down my throat one day after yet another binge eating session. It's amazing to see how God's grace preserved me, even then. My mom caught me when that happened and I was so embarrassed, it never happened again. Shortly after that, I got involved with someone who was emotionally and verbally abusive. It started off subtly, he would comment on my weight (at that stage I looked great and my weight was healthy). The hints increased to the point of him calling me fat all the time. I had no coping mechanisms, so I stopped eating. Already thin, I had no business losing weight, but I was obsessed with being what he wanted me to be. I believed that it would please him. Little did I know that nothing but the love of God can please an insecure soul. When you only eat one muffin a day, you believe that you're in control. You see everyone else as powerless and weak. It's terribly twisted, but the feeling of control it gave me overrode every little bit of common sense and every word of loving concern from friends. I was unable to control anything else in my life, and this gave me a measure of security, albeit false security. He finally left me for a petite little lady; and knowing I would never be petite, this devastated me. It's been 15 years, and I have never been able to achieve balance in my eating. I know that God is a healer, and when the scales finally fell off my eyes and I realised that I'm still unbalanced in this area, I reached out to Him. I believe that He is in the process of healing me, and showing me what true, godly balance looks like. I give God all the credit for giving me the vision of doing this photo series. I realise that the women who have shared their hearts with me are fragile, yet brave; and I believe God has a purpose with this project, and that there is healing available for every single one of us.
Till next time,