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A revealing journey as a woman reduces weight by half

By Madison Park, CNN
March 23, 2012 -- Updated 1406 GMT (2206 HKT)
Julia Kozerski's photo is called
Julia Kozerski's photo is called "Vestige" from her series "Half."
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Julia Kozerski, 27, has been overweight throughout her life
  • Kozerski started dieting in 2009 and chronicled her journey through photographs
  • The photos share struggles "with food, obsession, self-control and self-image"

(CNN) -- When Julia Kozerski saw a camera, she would duck and dodge out of the way. She'd hide behind other people or offer to take the picture to avoid being photographed.

"It was an embarrassment, somebody having that photograph," she said, who at her heaviest weighed 338 pounds. "They told the truth. It haunts you."

But when Kozerski got married in 2009, she had to face the camera for obvious reasons, as every bride does.

"I hadn't taken a photo in 10 years," she said.

When she saw her wedding pictures, Kozerski said, "I didn't see that happiness. I saw someone scared of the camera -- that wasn't me."

Her inhibitions about being photographed are upended in her self-portraits chronicling her weight-loss, called "Half."

See Kozerski's self-portraits

In a society where perfection and Photoshop are givens, Kozerski disrobes and photographs herself just the way she is -- no makeup, no clothes, no hairstyles, no computer tricks to nip and tuck.

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In the series, a somber Kozerski faces a mirror, a scale in another scene, and a refrigerator stocked with food -- "They serve as reflections of my experience and address and explore my physically and emotionally painful, private struggles with food, obsession, self-control, and self-image," the photography student at the Milwaukee Institute of Art & Design wrote on her website.

She came from a family with a history of weight problems and grew up on fast food. The family made halfhearted attempts to lose weight and tried Slim Fast shakes and Weight Watchers, but these efforts fizzled.

"I don't think we knew the steps to take, we had never been introduced to diets or proper food," she said.

At school, she never felt like she fit in and began shopping at plus-size stores during middle school.

By the time Kozerski got married, her body mass index was 49.9 -- a BMI over 30 is considered obese. When she saw her wedding photos, that was the last straw. She woke up one day and told herself, "I'm done being sad."

She started a weight-loss blog and used a free online calorie counter. She kicked the habits of eating out and drinking soda, and picked up more fruits and vegetables. Her exercises started with small steps -- walking her dog every day, taking stairs instead of the elevator and parking far away from the store.

As she shed weight, Kozerski chose her project for her photography class. She started with close-up shots of her back, her abdomen. These were faceless photographs that she brought to class.

"It was shocking in a way that provoked conversation," Kozerski said.

"This is a story people relate to and talk about. I was just being as honest as I can. It becomes less about my experience and more about this greater story."

Everyone has something to hide that he or she is embarrassed about, Kozerski said. And here she was showing body parts that women tried to hide. She gradually started showing her face in the photographs.

Her husband, family and friends wanted to know why she'd put revealing images of herself into the public sphere. About her husband, Kozerski said, "He began to understand the emotions, although I couldn't verbalize them. He realized it's more universal."

Her photos show her in distraught, hopeless and difficult moments. There are tears in her eyes.

"It's an internal struggle, this whole thing -- it just bottled up. I couldn't express myself, even through the photos," Kozerski said. She called certain photos of her naked body "casing" or "ruins."

The way Kozerski presented her journey is "revealing in every way," said body image expert Robyn Silverman.

Society has a definitive view of what it means to be fat. People associate the word "thin" with positive words like popular, sexy, and controlled. With the word "fat," they associate traits like laziness, ugliness, lack of control in a way that "the term fat is no longer a descriptor of weight and size, but an assessment of character," Silverman said.

The words Kozerski uses to describe her body -- like "ruins" -- still serve as "a reminder of the feeling of worthlessness, not being good enough" and how she and others who are overweight or obese struggle with these character labels, said Silverman, author of "Good Girls Don't Get Fat."

Kozerski had the classic grass-is-greener mentality that everything would be fine after she lost weight.

"It's not related to a number or a size, or where you shop -- I thought it was about that," she said. "I've realized it's about who you are. If you're confident and healthy, that's where you want to be and that's where you need to be as a person."

She lost 160 pounds -- essentially the weight of another person. She has maintained her weight for a year. It doesn't take an army of nutritionists, personal trainers or experts to get healthier, Kozerski said.

"I'm just a 27-year-old, Midwestern wife and fulltime college student. By definition, I am the 'Average Jane,' I just realized that I was unhappy about myself and about my health and made simple changes to my lifestyle by eating better and moving more.

"Before I was horrified of imperfections, now I see the imperfections as battle scars. I'm proud of what I've gone through and what I've done now."

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