I became a bikini and lingerie model when I was at my peak weight

“OK, Jenn, twist your torso to face the sun. Tilt your head. OK. The smile. Too much. Walk on the sand. Naturally! Like you’re having the best time ever. I shifted the beanies of my coral-colored bikini and followed the photographer’s instructions, delighted to be in Malibu for a swimsuit photo shoot.

I flexed my stomach, 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 watched as I publicly flaunted 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 on starting a modeling career at the ripe old age of 36, she frowned and asked, “Jenn, how dare you? You weren’t afraid?

The truth is, I was afraid of how other people saw me. Petrified with judgment, I hid my big body in long pants and turtlenecks. Not anymore! Cropped shorts, sleeveless shirts, and even the occasional crop top are part of the regular rotation. The transition from protection to showcasing my body started with one life-changing choice: I decided my body was worth it.

It sounds simple, but the reality turned out to be much more complex. The road to empowerment is more difficult than uttering a simple statement. Until the age of 30, my life was divided into stages of dignity according to my physical form. It was characterized by yo-yo dieting and a swing between being loved and valued by my mother when I was thin and despised when I was fat. And by men too. Slim Jenn came out with it. Fat Jenn endured ridicule and laughter. It even affected my friendships. Slim and confident Jenn made new friends. Fat shy Jenn stayed home.

The first person who lovingly opposed my fatphobia was my teacher in an acting class dedicated to the development of the “physical voice”. In a class designed to give us full access to our bodies, my discomfort stood out. I deliberately collapsed. I hid my chest behind my crossed arms. Paul took me aside after a particularly difficult class, where I once again became the example of what not to do.

“When are you going to start living, Jenn?” he challenged me. “Now or 50 pounds from now?” Go on. Be present! live now!”

His outburst cracked the hard shell of my self-loathing. I had never realized before that my anger towards myself and my body had made me stop living. I had refused to see old friends, fearing they would laugh at my weight gain. I didn’t go to my 10-year-old high school reunion, fearing people would say I had gained weight. I turned down travel opportunities, beach days, dates — all because I wanted to avoid the judgment that inevitably came with having a fat body.

And… at what price? Was it worth it? No, not even at all. I decided, on the spot, that I was going to live a full life, in alignment with who I was, despite what I looked like and what others thought. This epiphany launched my journey, but the path to embodying self-love took years. Born and raised in a fatphobic society, my belief system was not easily dismantled.

I started by studying bodies, looking at diverse ones in both photography and art, and asking myself: What makes one body worthy and another not?

JThe more I studied, the more I found my beliefs to be meaningless. No body was inherently ugly. In fact, the closer I looked, the more wonderful they became. A close-up of a large belly framed in light pink stretch marks reminded me of mother earth, the plains cut by rivers. The back pleats resting softly on top of each other spoke to me of soft clouds. The skin spots, wrinkles and scars intrigued me, inviting me to become curious and wonder about their stories. The more I observed, the more I fell in love with the art that is intrinsic to all bodies.

Bodies are not represented often enough in this loving light. What would happen to the world if we learned to view all bodies as inherently valuable? I decided to become the representation that I needed so much. I wanted to show my body so that it would be seen, so that bodies like mine would become visible, even accepted and loved.

The author in Paris during an editorial shoot with Volup2 Magazine.

Velvet of Love for Volup2 Magazine

So I learned to model. I took a dance therapy class to learn the ebb and flow of my physique. I became aware of how my body felt and what it looked like when I did different movements. 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 traded time and talent in order to produce images that we could both use.

Even though the stakes were relatively low, insecurities and doubts filled my head. I don’t know what I’m doing my brain mumbled, they will understand that you are a giant impostor. As my heart pounded against my chest, I remembered the old adage: Fake it until you make it. So, I did. I puffed out my chest, pressed my bare feet into the wet ground, and channeled power and confidence.

The photographer, satisfied with the result, introduced me to another photographer for another TFP. With their support, I built my portfolio and my skills. I started submitting to different companies and was constantly rejected, but sometimes I got hired.

A small make-up brand hired me as its muse for the launch of a new line. An underwear company approached me to do a little social media campaign. I even flew to Paris to shoot an editorial with Volup2 Magazine. Tenacity and fearlessness propelled me forward. I showed up and got into different models because I wanted to represent the empowerment of other women.

I developed a more robust vocabulary to describe my body – instead of “beautiful” or “big”, I used words like “strong”, “sensual”, “soft” and “imposing”. As my language developed, my relationship with my body changed and became multi-dimensional. Yes, I have “flabby” arms, but those arms are also silky smooth.

The author during a shoot for Boudoir By Dani Jean.
The author during a shoot for Boudoir By Dani Jean.

Dani Jean for Boudoir By Dani Jean

The so-called beauty, I discovered, did not come solely from my physical being. Of course, having traditionally praised features gives people an edge in certain areas. But true beauty is a choice. The moment I chose to believe that “I am beautiful” and to see myself as such with confidence, I embodied that belief. This belief taught me self-esteem and love. It invaded my being. I believe I am worthy, therefore I am.

Not everyone agrees with me. Fats are still devalued by our society as a whole. I recently posted a photo of myself on social media, wearing only my underwear, and received quite an intense backlash.

“Just another fat person who wants attention.”

“Good job promoting unhealthy habits.”

There are long awkward pauses in the conversation when I explain to new acquaintances that yes, I do model. Even my dad doesn’t really understand why I flaunt my big body.

“Hey dad,” I shot back after he again pointed out my lack of weight loss progress. “Your daughter is a bikini and lingerie model. My body is fine, okay?

The world may not be ready to see me and other fat people differently, but I know better. They will eventually catch up. As for me, I have chosen to live now.

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