By JULIA KOZERSKI
“Big.” Not “fat,” not “obese,” “Big.” That was what they (my family, my friends, myself) called me. “Big.” Growing up, I was always the biggest kid in my class. My family is tall (I am 5’9”.) We have broad shoulders, large feet. My mom always said we were just genetically predisposed to be a “big” family.
That’s where it started. “Big.” My two younger sisters, my mother, my father and I lived in a home in Milwaukee, WI (a city in which I still reside today.) Both of my parents worked full-time and, for us, food was mainly a necessity. There wasn’t much focus on the enjoyment of meals, rather just eating to continue living. We consumed a lot of “family-style” frozen meals and they were limitless. Second and third helpings were regular. And, we drank soda (usually “diet.”) So, our already “big” family kept getting bigger.
When it came to high-school, I began to feel more self-conscious about my physique. Of course, I was still the “biggest” teenager in my class. I befriended the boys because they didn’t care what I looked like, they just wanted another teammate to play basketball. I didn’t have many female friends. I mean, at that age, I knew I would never be homecoming queen and I surely wasn’t going to be able to go clothing shopping with them.
So, I was a tom-boy. Then I entered high-school. The emphasis on appearance was overwhelming. Everyone was dating and trying out for cheerleading, while I resorted to skipping class and eating whatever was in sight or hiding out, processing film in the photography darkroom. It was during this time that I began becoming depressed and channeled my feelings and emotions into creative/artistic/visual explorations.
My junior year, after a couple of dates with others and a few boyfriends (who later turned out to be gay,) I met Tim. We attended the same high-school and worked together at a local non-profit. He was fun to be around and, while we were friends at first, later started dating. (I was 15 years old at the time and roughly 225 pounds. Not thin by any means, but that didn’t seem to bother Tim.)
The following years were turbulent. My parents began experiencing health problems, due to obesity-related issues, and I struggled to find my place in the world. After high-school graduation, Tim and I continued dating. He went on to college and I decided to enter the working world. Five years later, we were still dating, Tim had a steady job, but I was left feeling depressed. My weight only continued to balloon.
Finally, in 2007, I decided to quit my corporate job and entered college at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD,) in hopes of rekindling my passion for the arts. Within my first year, I already felt better about my future. I was able to wrestle with themes and ideas that have been plaguing me by producing creative works. In my Sophomore year, I declared myself a “photography major” and headed back into my safe place … the darkroom.
Two years later I was out of the darkroom and into the digital lab. The following year, I withdrew from school to care for my parents. Tim and I also married. Five months following our marriage, we found ourselves gorging on a plate of cookies. I jokingly said I’d step on the scale to see the damage the dessert had done. “338.” Three hundred and thirty eight pounds. (149 kilos) I was 25 years old.
Literally fearing for my life, I “dared” myself to lose weight. (I’d dieted before. My mom used to utilize diet bars and slim-fast shakes when I was younger. I’d try them but wake up the next day, realize that I wasn’t yet “skinny” and give up.) I knew this time had to be different.
In my mind, a model weighed 100 pounds. I was 3 people. How would I transform to this “big” (nay, “morbidly obese”) person into that of a model, to which all desired? I started simple. The next day I had my “official” weigh in, “338.” I snapped a photo as my “before.” Then, I went to my computer and searched “how to be healthy.” There I learned more about health and nutrition that I’d ever learned in my, then, 25 years on this earth. I proceeded to throw out all the junk food in my house. I decided that I would calorie count and cut out fast food and soda. For the following year, I followed my new healthy-living plan. I quickly learned that it wasn’t about dieting, it was about transforming my lifestyle. Through portion control, focus on nutrition, calorie counting and exercise, I lost 161.5 pounds. No fad diets, no magic pills, no surgery.
Keep in mind that I am an artist. I view the world a bit differently than most. Throughout the year that I underwent this transformation I photographed … everything! From the time I took that initial “before” picture, I photographed my progress. Besides monthly “official” weigh-in/measurement photos, I also photographed myself in dressing-rooms and nude. Yes, you read that correctly, “nude.”
(Text continues after the galleries)
“Changing Room” by Julia Kozerski:
“Half” by Julia Kozerski (some images NSFW):
...or for Worse
(You can see more of Julia’s images on her website here)
I was living a dual life. I could live a fantasy by trying on new clothes and celebrating my “success” with friends and family who saw me. But on the other side, as the pounds dropped, so did my skin. I developed stretchmarks. It became clear to me that I would never be that “model” that I’d hoped. While people would praise me for my victory, I was secretly suffering – not understanding the reality of what I’d done to myself, under my clothes. It was a struggle, more so mentally and emotionally than physically.
While this personal transformation was unfolding, I was attending my Junior year in college. Being that it was an art-based institution, we were free to explore ourselves. In one class, we were challenged to develop our own self-directed project. We could photograph whatever we wanted. It was at this time that I began sharing my nude images. My classmates and professors were intrigued, they pushed me to continue my explorations and, by the time I graduated one and a half years later, I had produced three separate self-portrait photographic series, “Half,” “Changing Room” and “Tag.”
All of the photographs were taken as a way to document my experience and I was inspired by the questions I asked myself internally; “Who/what am I?” “What have I done?” “How does this affect my relationships with others/my marriage?” “What does this mean, in comparison to other bodies/people?” “How do I feel?”
I have been incredibly lucky to have had the opportunity to share my visual works with the public. The responses I have gotten (although mixed) have overwhelmingly been supportive, not necessarily with regard to my personal experience, but that my images have become icons. The photographs transcend gender, race, religion, age and experience. They don’t solely address weight-loss, but also universal themes of life and death, self-image and media, beauty and identity. My work is about the core of humanity. Breaking the boundaries of topics often thought of as “private,” “taboo” or “embarrassing,” the open and honest conversations and dialogue that has formed from those viewing my work has been one of the most rewarding parts of my experience.
In creating and viewing these images, I have learned to better love myself. I can only help that they will help their viewers do the same.
Julia Kozerski is an artist and photographer based out of Milwaukee, WI, having received her BFA from the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design (MIAD.) You can see more of Julia’s incredible photos on her website.