Saturday, March 17, 2012

My Project, My Story

My name is Nicole O'Neil and I am a photographer based in Charlestown, Massachusetts. I have decided to start a new project for a cause that is near and dear to me.  The project is a Female Self Esteem Campaign. It will be a series of photos of girls and women of all ages, sizes, shapes, ethnicities, etc that will debut at a photo show i'll have in June. The response has been amazing. In less than a week, it has gone from a little idea to something I believe will reach more than this one square mile of Charlestown. As a photographer, I hear a lot of people pointing out things they don't like about themselves. I have clients whose children I photograph who don't want to get in pictures because they "need to lose weight" or "don't look good in pictures". It amazes me every time I photograph a  beautiful person, that person looks at a picture and picks out one or two things that they don't like about their appearance. It may be the way their teeth or nose looks. I, too, do not like to be in front of the camera, so I get it. However, this is not the way any of us should feel. We should see ourselves in a positive way and not pick out and critique the small imperfections.

 I realized when people started asking me about promoting this project, that I would have to discuss why this topic is so important to me. I would have to share "my story".
Anyone who knows me knows that I am an open book. I can talk about anything I've been through in life with no problem. I've worked very hard to deal with anything negative that happened in life, move on from it, and learn how to manage my own energy. So, yes, I can talk about anything to anyone...well, almost. The way I’ve felt about myself is the one issue I only discuss with a select few. However, now, I know I must share it with all of you. So, here goes.
I have had a negative view of myself for most of my life. I am now about to turn 32 and over the past few years, have started learning how to be happy with who I am.  I was a little overweight once I reached 4th grade and always felt bad about it. I was NOT treated poorly because of it or made fun of, but inside, I beat myself up. I don't exactly remember where that came from. Like I said, I wasn't someone who was tormented because of my weight. It's just the way I felt.
As a teen, I had major eating issues. I would take diet pills and hide them. I remember my mother finding them one time and being extremely upset. I promised to never take them again, but I did at times. I would also go weeks at a time eating only salad and maybe a granola bar here and there. I would barely eat. Even still, I never got really skinny, which would bother me even more. Instead of realizing that my body type was not that of a tiny girl, I would get more aggravated. I would then go back to eating more food and gain weight. I went back and forth over and over again, never being happy. And, every time I gained weight, it would be a little bit more than the last time. I would wear clothes that were big on me to "hide" and would NEVER wear just a bathing suit. I always needed shorts and/or a shirt when at a pool or beach, no matter if it was just family or friends. It wasn't until I looked back at photos in my mid twenties that I finally realized that even at my biggest weight in high school, I looked totally healthy and fine.

It wasn't just my weight that I felt badly about growing up. I never felt like I really belonged or that I was good enough, whether it is with friends, groups I was a part of, or even my own family at times. By the time I was in high school, I would keep a wall up so I never really stayed 100% connected to any one group of friends. I would convince myself that I wasn't good enough to be part of the group or that they didn't want me to be. It was 10+ years later that I realized how this was all in my own head. In general, I never thought I was good enough for anyone or anything. I didn't realize I belonged right where I was.
I continued to have these issues through my twenties. My weight would fluctuate and I'd go from being in great shape to being overweight again. I went through a lot of things that caused stress, which did not help. I did not have the tools to deal with stress and make sure it did not affect my health. However, I was always looking for something. I knew there was a key to being happy and moving on from the negative times in my past, but I couldn't figure it out. I finally found it in a class I took taught by a friend. It involved meditation and "forgiving" the past. It changed my life. I felt more at ease and happier. I started to gain more confidence in social situations, in my abilities at my job, and overall in life.
No matter how much I felt better socially and about my abilities, I still struggled with how I felt about myself physically. I was working on it for the past few years and went back and forth between being happy with myself and hating myself. Then, last fall, after a very personally difficult 2 years, I reached the highest weight I had ever been. Life got extremely busy and I had no time to sleep more than 5 hours a night let alone work out. I ate on the go or would skip meals and I was too busy to even notice. That is, until things slowed down.
I woke up one day the week life slowed down and decided I needed to deal with this one issue that was keeping me from being 100% happy. I made time to work out 5 days a week and decided I needed to go back to eating healthy, quality food and not to skip meals. In a few months, I have lost 2 pant sizes, but it is not the weight loss that I keep track of. I never even step on a scale. I always felt that it was more harmful for me to do so. The numbers would terrify me and make me feel worse. What I pay attention to is the way I feel about myself and how my clothes fit. I feel strong and healthy and that is the most important thing. I have no goal of being a size 4 because I have never in my life been a size 4. I only want to be healthy and feel good. I do still struggle daily with this issue and know many others who do as well, but I feel better than I have in my entire life. I use a few techniques that help me love myself the way I am that I will share below.
The following are ways I help myself. 
1. Mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined in Psychology Today, as "a state of active, open attention on the present. When you're mindful, you observe your thoughts and feelings from a distance, without judging them good or bad. Instead of letting your life pass you by, mindfulness means living in the moment and awakening to experience." I try to remain present and pay attention to my thoughts including positive and negative thoughts. When I have a negative thought about myself, I acknowledge it, without getting mad for thinking it.
2. Meditation and Affirmations. This may sound silly to people, but I use meditation and positive affirmations. I find something about myself that I do love and say it either to myself or out loud. I had a difficult time doing this at first, but it is amazing how much it helps. Everyone has things they can pick out about themselves that they don't like. I have seen this first hand as a photographer. People are constantly critiquing their photos and picking them apart. It could be the way their teeth look, the belief that their nose is too big, or even that they hate the way their forehead looks. Don't focus on those things. Put your focus on features you do like and slowly change the way you feel about the ones you don't like. 
3. Live Healthy. There are people who are stick thin but cannot even walk up stairs without getting winded, so do not think you need to be a size 0 to be healthy. If you eat well, surround yourself with happy and positive people, and do some sort of workout at least 3 times a week, you can be healthy. Start easy with simple lifestyle changes. I took the plunge because it's in my personality to do so. I immediately started drinking spinach smoothies and eliminating all white flour, most dairy, and many other things from my diet. I drink mostly green tea and water now and tons of fruits and veggies. Many people cannot do this as suddenly, so start where you can. And NEVER get mad at yourself for slip-ups. Just forgive it and move on to the next day. I, personally never weigh myself. I go by how I feel and how my clothes fit. I only know my weight loss due to using my sister's Wii Fit, which tracks your BMI and weight loss without having to see actual weight.
4. "Spring Clean" your Life. Get rid of negativity and drama in your life. These things and people drain you of your energy and cause stress. I either eliminated or reduced my time with negative people and began to spend a lot more time with positive and happy people in my life. It was huge. I even cleaned out other things in my life. I was lucky to have moved so I was able to clean out my "stuff" in the process. All of this together was freeing. It was like starting off as a new person.
5. Realize. Realize that there is no such thing as perfect. Seriously. There is NO such thing as perfect. "Imperfections" are what make everyone unique. Realize you are amazing no matter what you look like. Take a look at your life and make a choice about how you want it to be. If you are overweight, don't make a choice to lose weight for the sake of losing weight. Instead, focus on things like wanting more energy, completing a goal like running a 5K, or simply feeling strong and healthy. Realize your full potential. You can feel good about yourself whether you are a size 4 or a size 14. Realize that everyone's body is different. A size four may be fine for one person, but completely unhealthy for another person. On the other end of it, do not feel bad if you feel you are "too thin". If you are, find healthy ways to gain weight and muscle. 
6. Read Positive. I follow different blogs and websites that focus on positivity. One I read daily is Positively Positive. There are writers of all ages who post blog on topics such as feeling good about yourself and how to do it in simple lifestyle changes. They are always helpful. Find a website or blog that works for you and that is relatable. Whatever you read, it should be wording you understand and use. When you read it, you should feel good about the topic or techniques.
I have wanted to do a project like this for a while but it finally came together in my head on how I wanted to make it happen. I hope that my own story and that of others who are participating will help females of all ages be more comfortable with who they are. This is an important issue that needs to be addressed. Girls and women should not hate themselves. I did for so long and realize now how detrimental that is to overall health and happiness. We need to love ourselves for everything we are and if we don't like something, we need to make changes without beating ourselves up. We need to teach this to young girls who are growing up in society that puts more emphasis on being skinny than being strong, smart, and beautiful as you are. 

I hope you all will join me in this campaign. I will be taking photos of girls and women of all ages throughout April and the photos will debut at a photo show I will have the first weekend in June. I am looking for people to participate and have a photo taken (you must also give written permission for the photo to be used). The cost of printing all of the photos and posters will be large so I am also looking for sponsors. Please contact me at if you are interested.
So, that is my story and what I do now to accept who I am. As I said, I still struggle daily, but I never lose sight of what I'm working toward: Complete acceptance and happiness with myself. 
This campaign is near and dear to my heart. I look forward to sharing stories of the many participants and helping girls and women reach happiness with themselves.

Follow my Facebook page and this blog to keep updated on this campaign.


  1. what do i have to do to be involved in this

    1. If you want to be in the photos, I will add you to the email list I am sending details to this week. I will be doing 2 or 3 dates in April and everyone will be able to sign up for a time on those dates. :) I'm sure I will have additional things that I will need help with as well once this gets going.

  2. Hi Nicole, I would love to be a part of this if you are still interested! Thanks!

  3. Definitely Caroline. If you can just email me, that would be great so I can add you to the list.