Because we’re all beautiful.
By Javacia Harris Bowser
Social media may have saved Mary-Berkley Gaines’s life. About four years ago, she was at low point in her life.
“I wasn’t in college anymore and was trying to decide what I wanted to do next,” she says. “I didn’t feel confident with my body because I gained a lot of weight in college. I also was depressed.”
Then one day she was on Instagram and stumbled upon the account of plus-size model Tess Holliday (formerly known as Tess Munster). “I saw someone who was a true plus-size woman like me—not a size 12, but an actual size 22 woman,” Gaines says. “Seeing her doing photo shoots and being really fierce and owning all of it and not being apologetic at all about her body—that was when I knew this was something I wanted to be a part of.”
Gaines knew she wanted to be a part of the body positive movement, which encourages the acceptance of all bodies, regardless of shape, size, color, ability, etc. “Everyone is worthy of love, success, and respect no matter who they are and what they look like,” Gaines says when asked to explain what the body positive movement is all about. She soon began reading the body positive blog The Militant Baker by Jes Baker and the body positive magazine VOLUP2, which was created by plus-size supermodel Velvet d’Amour. “This idea that there is no right or wrong way to have a body—that way of thinking changed my life,” Gaines says. “It saved my life, to be honest. I was in a downward spiral of depression and I wasn’t being nice to myself. And finding that started to get me to the point where I wanted to be nice to myself. I noticed I was exercising more and eating better and starting to work toward solving my anxiety and depression problems instead of just covering them up.”
Today Gaines is the founder of the Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham Project, the Magic City’s own body positive movement. As the website, BeautifulBodiesofBham.com, explains, the goal of the project is “to inspire people to see themselves and others in a new way.” By sharing personal stories and intimate photographs that celebrate bodies of all shapes, sizes, and colors, Gaines hopes that the site, which launched in November 2015, will be a safe place for people to get the support and education they need to foster better self-esteem and improved body image.
Gaines realized her body positive journey was about more than her own self-esteem when she started a fashion blog in 2014. Her fashion blog helped her land a spread in VOLUP2 magazine, the very publication that helped spark her confidence, but one of her fondest memories of her fashion blogging days was an email she received from a father whose plus-size daughter was able to find a prom dress she loved thanks to a post Gaines wrote on fashionable formal wear. “I started realizing this is bigger than myself,” Gaines says. “I think I’m reaching out to people who haven’t ever seen somebody my size be unapologetically fashionable and owning who they are and celebrating themselves.” Two weeks after receiving that email, she and a group of friends had the first photo shoot for Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham.
Helping adolescent girls with their body image and self-esteem is a priority for Gaines. “Another reason I started this is because I have a 12-year-old sister,” Gaines says. “This is the age when my eating disorders started. If I was upset or stressed, sometimes I would overeat or sometimes I wouldn’t eat at all.” Gaines says plus-size women with eating disorders rarely get the help they need because when they lose weight, people simply celebrate and encourage the weight loss, even if it’s unhealthy weight loss. “We’re supposed to starve ourselves,” she says seems to be the attitude of many. “In high school, I lost 30 pounds in a month and I was eating 400 or 500 calories a day. People were praising me, all the guys were trying to talk to me, people wanted to hang out with me. That really depressed me, as I thought this is how it has to be to gain respect.”
But thanks to the body positive movement, Gaines knows it doesn’t have to be this way and she hopes the Beautiful Bodies of Birmingham Project will help others have that realization, too. Gaines and her team have plans for the project to move beyond the blog. In the future, they hope to host a body positive fashion show and partner with local yoga instructors to offer free body positive yoga classes to underserved communities in Birmingham. “This is definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever done because I’m putting myself out there,” Gaines says. “I’m choosing to be the face of something that a lot of people mock and make fun of, but I’m willing to take all that heat because I know that the payoff is going to be saving people and helping people feel good about themselves.”