Soft, Strong & Stretchy: Emma J

I spent much of my adolescent years on diets, eating measured portions of protein and snacking on rice cakes, forever waiting to lose my 'puppy fat'. I cried in many a specialised-bra fitting room, devastated by the slim and ugly choices available for my breast size. I was once told by my dance teacher to just “cut them off” after I complained that I couldn’t find bras to support me under my leotard.

For a period in 2013, when living on my own for the first time, I developed an obsessive exercise and food habit - limiting calories, gymming 5 days a week, almost never socialising. I became the thinnest I'd been since high school but looking back on that time, I have trouble distinguishing any significant events or meaningful interactions.

I disassociated from my life and was still unsatisfied with how my body looked - not thin enough, not strong enough. I lived in a constant state of purgatory.

Then, in late 2016, I moved to London to do my masters and this set me on a firm path towards body positivity and learning to celebrate my body and shape. Finally I was able to buy bras in my size, unencumbered by limited stock or having to resort to 'sister sizes' to make do.

Clothing labels ran bigger and I could finally buy clothes that weren't hideously shapeless (there is a common misconception that women above a size 16 want to dress like drab sacks of porridge).

I reinvigorated my love for food and cooking, immersed in the cultures and cuisines I could access outside my door and helped along by Ruby Tandoh’s Flavour: Eat What You Love. I also discovered an online body positivity movement, celebrating bodies of all forms and denouncing the dangerous rhetoric and perspectives of modern media and society.

I began a regular yoga practice to manage my mental health and felt pride that this 'big body' could, with enough work, manage the same postures and asanas as the lithe women in my class, bar maybe eagle arms. My new goal, after years of torment, was a body that was 'strong and stretchy', one I could embrace and take comfort in its softness.

At the same time, the world had been whipped into a fervour around Trump’s nomination and election and women were loudly claiming their space, challenging traditional patriarchal and misogynistic norms and values. I joined the Women's March in London in January 2017 and plastered my room with posters, postcards and quotes of and by strong women. I wrote my MSc thesis on women's empowerment in South Africa, surrounded myself with female friends and was lucky enough to work for female bosses.

The 'Me Too' movement brought issues of sexual harassment and assault into the forefront and encouraged those affected to speak out, even after years of silence. I grew enraged by a system that defines our worth by narrow-minded, outdated standards and sought out practices and habits to make my own. Part of this was embracing my body and loving it for what it was, and being able to recognise its own beauty, strength, and resilience and to find peace in my softness.

Back in SA, losing the range of sizes and freedom of movement I had in the UK was hard, but I'm slowly learning to adapt. I don't have the physical freedom and mobility I did in London, to walk alone at night or to use public transport after dark. I still can't buy bras in my size in SA and I struggle to find good looking clothes that fit. But I'm working at it, rebuilding my yoga practice after months away, wearing and buying clothes that I feel sexy and confident in, no matter how much cellulite is showing. This photoshoot is a big step in that process - literally putting myself out there and embracing all of me: soft, stretchy and strong.

I am forgiving my body for all the trauma I've put her through and pledging to treat her better and love her more. For I am the one I have been waiting for. I am the only one I have.

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