“OK, Jenn, turn your torso to face the sun. Tilt your head. OK. Smile. Too much. Walk across the sand. Naturally! Like you’re having the best time in the world.” I shifted the cups of my coral-colored bikini and followed the photographer’s directions, excited to be in Malibu for a swimwear shoot.
I flexed my tummy, twisted my torso towards the camera, and threw my head back in a laugh. I didn’t mind the growing horde of onlookers, who watched and stared as I publicly displayed the back rolls, stretch marks, skin folds, and belly of my 350-pound body.
I celebrated this achievement with a good friend of mine over coffee. Instead of congratulating me for beginning a modeling career at the fashionably advanced age of 36, she furrowed her brow and asked me, “Jenn, how did you dare? Weren’t you scared?”
The truth is, I used to be scared of how others viewed me. Petrified of judgments, I concealed my fat body in long pants and turtlenecks. Not anymore! Short shorts, sleeveless shirts, and even the occasional crop top are in the regular rotation. The transition from shielding to showing my body began with a single, life-changing choice: I decided my body was worthy.
It sounds simple, but the reality turned out to be a lot more complex. The road to empowerment is rockier than uttering a simple statement. Up until age 30, my life was divided into stages of worthiness based on my physical shape. It was characterized by yo-yo dieting and swinging between being loved and valued by my mother when I was thin and despised when I was fat. And by men as well. Slim Jenn dated. Fat Jenn endured ridicule and laughter. This even spilled over to my friendships. Confident slim Jenn made new friends. Shy fat Jenn stayed home.
The first person who lovingly opposed my fatphobia was my teacher in an acting class dedicated to developing the “physical voice.” In a class designed to give us full access to our bodies, my discomfort stood out. I slumped deliberately. I hid my chest behind my crossed arms. Paul pulled me aside after one particularly painful class, where I became, once again, the example of what not to do.
“When are you going to start living, Jenn?” he challenged me. “Now or 50 pounds from now? Come on. Get present! Live now!”
His outburst cracked the hard shell of my self-loathing. I had never realized before that my anger toward myself and my body had caused me to stop living. I’d refused to see old friends, fearing they’d laugh at my weight gain. I didn’t go to my 10-year high school reunion, afraid that people would comment that I had gotten fat. I turned down travel opportunities, days at the beach, dates ― all because I wanted to avoid the judgment that came, inevitably, with owning a fat body.
And… at what cost? Was it worth it? No, not even in the tiniest bit. I decided, then and there, that I was going to live a full life, in alignment with who I was, despite what I looked like and what others thought. That epiphany launched my journey, but the road to embodying self-love took years. Born and brought up in a fatphobic society, my belief system was not easily dismantled.
I began by studying bodies, looking at diverse ones both in photography and art, and questioning myself: What makes one body worthy and another not?
The more I studied, the more I found that my beliefs didn’t make sense. No bodies were inherently ugly. In fact, the closer I looked, the more marvelous they became. A close-up of a fat belly framed in light pink stretch marks reminded me of mother earth, plains cut by rivers. Back folds gently resting atop one another spoke to me of soft clouds. Skin splotches, wrinkles and scars intrigued me, beckoning me to get curious and wonder about their stories. The more I observed, the more I fell in love with the art that is intrinsic in all bodies.
Bodies don’t get to be represented in this loving light often enough. What would happen to the world if we taught ourselves to look at all bodies as inherently valuable? I decided to become the representation I sorely needed. I wanted to put my body out there to be seen, so bodies like mine would become visible ― even accepted and loved.
So, I taught myself how to model. I took a dance therapy class to learn the ebb and flow of my physicality. I became aware of how my body felt and what it looked like when I made different motions. The more I moved and studied my body, the more confident I became.
My first time on set was a Trade For Print (TFP) shoot in my backyard where a photographer and I exchanged time and talent in order to produce pictures that we could both use.
Even though the stakes were relatively low, insecurities and doubt filled my head. I don’t know what I’m doing, my brain muttered, they’re going to figure out you’re a giant phony. As my heart hammered against my chest, I remembered the old adage: Fake it till you make it. So, I did. I puffed out my chest, dug my barefoot into the damp soil and channeled power and confidence.
The photographer, pleased with the results, introduced me to another photographer for another TFP. With their support, I built my portfolio and skills. I began submitting myself to different companies and got rejected constantly, but sometimes I got hired.
A small makeup brand hired me as a featured face for the launch of a new line. An underwear company approached me to do a small social media campaign. I even flew to Paris to shoot an editorial with Volup2 Magazine. Tenacity and fearlessness propelled me forward. I introduced and thrust myself into different modeling because I wanted to portray empowerment for other women.
I developed a more robust vocabulary to describe my body ― instead of “beautiful” or “fat,” I used words like “strong,” “sensual,” “soft” and “commanding.” As my language developed, my relationship with my body changed and became multidimensional. Yes, I have “flabby” arms, but those arms are also silky and gentle.
So-called beauty, I found out, did not originate solely from my physical being. Sure, having traditionally praised features gives people an advantage in some arenas. But true beauty is a choice. The moment I chose to believe that “I am beautiful” and to view myself that way confidently, I embodied that belief. That belief taught me self-worth and love. It took over my being. I believe I am worthy, therefore I am.
Not everyone agrees with me. Fat bodies are still devalued by our society at large. I recently posted a photo of myself on social media clad only in my underwear, and received pretty intense backlash.
“Just another fat person who wants attention.”
“Good job promoting unhealthy habits.”
There are long, awkward pauses in conversation when I explain to some new acquaintances that yes, I do model. Even my father doesn’t fully understand why I display my fat body.
“Hey dad,” I retorted after he again pointed out my lack of weight-loss progress. “Your daughter is a bikini and lingerie model. My body is just fine, all right?”
The world might not be ready to see me and other fat people differently, but I know better. They’ll catch up eventually. As for me, I’ve chosen to live now.