Julia Berit made waves on social media when she posted a series of nude photos recreating Hilary Duff's recent spread for Women's Health. And what started as a passion project in her individual journey of body acceptance became something much bigger within the community.
The plus-size model and body-positive content creator tells Yahoo Life that she's been a big fan of Duff's from childhood and was in awe when the actress appeared on the publication's cover baring her body. But she immediately wondered what it would look like for somebody with her body type to appear the same way.
"I never saw somebody who looked like me in an editorial like that. And my first thought was, I wonder what it would look like," Berit explains. "I wanted to know what that would feel like for myself, being a bigger person who's never felt represented. I mean, while [Duff] looks incredible, we've seen a lot of women look like that on the covers of things in swimsuits or lingerie or naked. And while it was still really powerful, it felt like there was a big lacking there that I wanted to create."
Berit reached out to friends of hers to help with styling and shooting and rented a space that would serve as the perfect backdrop. Even with just a few people on set, she says that the experience was "terrifying" at first. "I had never shot nude before," she explains.
Duff herself said that the original shoot was "scary" when she posted about her cover on social media. "I knew doing this would terrify me and I was right," she wrote on May 10. "Thank you for capturing a moment in time where I felt both completely vulnerable but powerful."
Berit echoes similar statements after doing the stripped-down shoot herself.
"I felt really good and really powerful," she says. Still, she wasn't certain that she'd love how the photos turned out and ended up pleasantly surprised.
"I got them and was like, 'Oh, wait, no, this is insane, this is great.' And I just immediately had a lot of feelings about it. So I started journaling about it," she says. "That's a practice I do every day, in general, so I just spent like an hour writing about my feelings about it."
The words written in her journal served as inspiration for her caption, which perfectly captured the message Berit wanted to convey about women's bodies and embracing them as they come.
"There is no 'before and after' or comparison happening here, just the celebration of different bodies being EXACTLY as they are!" she wrote on Instagram. "We as women have been trained by the media to pick apart our flaws and be on an endless search for ways to 'fix' our bodies. to mold them into something they may have never meant to be in the first place. But what if we EMBRACED those differences instead of trying to mold them into all being the same!"
Berit tells Yahoo Life that while she's "done a lot of work to release expectations of what my body should be and what it should look like" she couldn't help but have a moment of comparison when preparing to post the side-by-sides. But the beauty of the post was to challenge those intrusive thoughts. "I really had to stop myself and be like, 'You're not gonna look like Hillary. That's not what you look like. And that's completely OK.' I had to remove the insecurity from the thought process."
But when she shared the photos and was met with an outpouring of support from women who were in awe of having their bodies represented, she saw that her insecurities became the things that onlookers connected most with.
"They had never seen someone who looked like them, like their body shape. I don't have the really crazy hourglass body, I gain weight in my stomach first and that's completely OK. And I have a bigger chest, I don't have the crazy hips. Those were all things I was really insecure about at one point, so seeing all these reactions, people saying that my body looks like theirs and it was making them cry, looking at the images and feeling beautiful, was the most insane experience," she says. "I never expected to be that form of representation for people and getting to be that is just mind-blowing to me."
She continues, "I felt very connected to people in a different way. I mean, I talk to people online all the time, but people directly relating and having this emotional experience, I was having changed my perspective of how I see myself, how I feel online. It just really had a major impact on how I think."
Even her reaction to any negative response to the photos was different than before. "I typically feel defensive of myself, but for the first time, I felt more defensive of the people who were commenting saying that they looked like me. I didn't want them to see the bad comments, because they could relate to that being said about them as well," she explains.
But when the very platform that Berit posted the photos to ended up removing the slideshow for "adult sexual solicitation," she felt defeated and challenged as a plus-size woman.
"It is incredibly discouraging. I mean, it is a constant battle as a curvy person to show up as you are online, but then to have not only people feeling that they have the opportunity to attack you and say horrible things but also have the platform feel like it's almost attacking you sometimes is a really complicated feeling," she says. "It was definitely the [rawest] thing I've ever put online and to have it go away in the blink of an eye, as I was trying to read comments was, I mean, I was heartbroken."
Instagram didn't immediately respond to Yahoo Life's request for comment. Berit's post, however, appeared back on her page on Wednesday after she submitted it for review.
Despite being able to share her photos and message with her own community, the most validating part of the experience was having her pictures reposted by Women's Health.
"It was so validating of my own experience," Berit says. "I'm the heaviest I've ever been right now, so to have images of me featured where I'm naked on Women's Health and that being seen as also what a healthy woman can look like...it's incredibly hopeful to me of what the future can look like, for how women are treated when it comes to their bodies and health."
And while Berit says that one photoshoot likely won't create too much change, it's likely to plant a seed.
"A healthy body can look like this too," she says.
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