As I chatted away, cutting my client’s hair, I found myself forcing a smile – my job was to make people look beautiful, yet on the inside I felt anything but. There’s no avoiding mirrors when you work in a hair salon. But knowing I was at least 4st heavier than I wanted to be, I’d perfected the art of keeping my eyes away from my reflection and focusing purely on my clients.
My smiles and lively banter hid an aching back and knees that were crying out to sit down. Although my schooldays, when I’d represented Cornwall in cross-country running, didn’t seem so far away, thinking back to my fit, energetic younger self made me want to weep. Now, here I was, doing my dream job in the beauty industry, but feeling uncomfortable and exhausted, and hiding my figure beneath a shapeless, size-18 top. And while I was passionate about helping others to look and feel wonderful, my own confidence was at an all-time low.
I was known as ‘the bubbly one’ by friends and colleagues – and while I was always ready with a self-deprecating quip about my weight, I was rarely laughing inside. I hadn’t always felt this way. During my running days, I’d never thought twice about what I was eating. I’d grown up on Mum’s traditional family dinners, such as pie and mash or roasts with suet pudding, and had been brought up to finish everything on my plate. Then, at college, I dropped sport in favour of hanging out with my friends and going out at weekends, and my weight began to rise. On top of Mum’s big dinners, I was drinking alcopops, eating late-night kebabs and snacking on pasties – an occupational hazard when you live in Cornwall!
I didn’t realise it at the time, but I was becoming a bit of a comfort-eater, too – chips, biscuits and those pasties were always at their most appealing when I felt down.
At 19, I fell in love with my brother’s friend Adam, a mechanic with cute dimples and the kindest nature. After moving in with him, I set myself up as a mobile hairdresser and beautician. Stopping to have proper meals on the road seemed like a bother, so I grazed on crisps, sandwiches, chocolate and packets of biscuits in my car. In the evening, I put chicken nuggets or a curry ready meal in the oven, or we’d get a takeaway.
As I got bigger, I’d be the first to mention my weight, making fun of myself with lots of exaggeration. ‘Look at this,’ I’d say, pointing at my tummy. ‘More rolls than a bakery.’ I think I believed if I got in first with the hurtful comments, no one else had a chance of teasing me. Meanwhile, my self-esteem got lower and lower. If anyone paid me a compliment, I didn’t believe a word of it, countering with, ‘Yeah, but check out my chins’. I know now that I was bullying and body-shaming myself, and while others laughed at my humour, it was fuelling my hidden unhappiness. And feeling miserable about the way I looked only made me want to comfort myself with more food. It was the ultimate vicious circle.
Adam was loving and supportive, and never commented on my weight, even though I’d goad him to join in my self-criticism. Dressing to go out in the evening, I’d strap on a huge belt to hold in my tummy, then ask, ‘Do I look big?’. He’d say no, then I’d push him again – ‘You can be honest’. He’d respond with, ‘I am. And I love you however you look’. His love for me remained as strong as ever, but I’d become very insecure.
When I was 22, I fell pregnant and my joy at becoming a mum was mixed with worries as I continued to get bigger.
Because I was above the healthy weight for my height, I was closely monitored for diabetes, and one day at a check-up, the midwife taking my blood pressure had to fit an extension onto the sleeve. I burned with humiliation as she strapped it around my upper arm. After my beautiful daughter, Roxanne, was born, I continued to gain weight. My focus was on looking after her and I relied on snacks to keep me going. By the time she was 18 months old, I weighed around 17st 7lbs. While I knew other mums took their babies swimming, for me, the idea of being seen in a swimsuit was terrifying.
When Roxanne was four, my sister-in-law and I opened our own salon, Belle’s Boutique. I wasn’t feeling at all like a ‘belle’ in myself, but fulfilling that long-held dream spurred me to start making other changes. I was tired of feeling unhappy about my size and determined to lose weight before trying for another baby. I’d tried countless diets, but any weight I’d lost crept back on again. So this time I decided to join Slimming World. Food Optimising sounded healthy and sustainable, and the more I learnt about it, the more I liked it.
I started cooking from scratch and, rather than relying on the supermarket and chip shop at lunchtime, I took a pasta salad to work, with lots of Free Food snacks like fresh fruit and carrot sticks. And we’d make slimming-friendly versions of our favourite burgers and hot dogs. Then, just as the scales began to move, I found out I was pregnant. Slimming World works with the Royal College of Midwives to support mums-to-be and new mums, so with my midwife’s support and my Consultant Kelly’s advice, I kept Food Optimising, with an additional Healthy Extra choice to support me and my growing baby.
This pregnancy, there was no diabetes risk, no extra-large blood pressure sleeve and Ronnie-May was born at a healthy 7lbs 10½oz.
Jenna and her family in her salon, bottom left Jenna and Roxanne
As a working mum of two on a weight loss mission, I set about planning all my meals in advance to help me stay on track. Some recipes became firm family favourites, such as lean steak with home-made Slimming World chips, grilled vine tomatoes, mushrooms and peas. I also kept a few Slimming World frozen meals and sauces in the freezer for when time was tighter than usual.
Inspired to add exercise into the mix, I joined a gym and tried out different classes, building up my fitness slowly following Slimming World’s Body Magic activity programme. There were many times I’d wail, ‘I hate the gym’, but as I began to see the results, I started to really enjoy going to circuits and kettlebell classes. Soon, Food Optimising and exercising regularly had become second nature, and with the support of Kelly and friends at group, the pounds were coming off.
Seeing my target weight of 10st 7lbs finally flash up on the scales was the best feeling in the world. I couldn’t stop myself from yelling, ‘I’ve done it!’. And as the other members hugged me and celebrated with me, I knew they, more than anyone else, knew just how much it meant.
Friends and clients kept telling me I looked ‘fantastic’, but although I was getting a little braver in my fashion choices, I still thought they were just being kind to me. Then, two years after reaching target, I was getting ready for a night out with the girls. I put on a skirt and matching crop top I’d recently bought, wondering if I could pull it off. Afterwards, one of my friends sent me a picture she’d taken of me on her phone. Stunned, I looked at the slim woman with the toned midriff and couldn’t quite believe it was me. That’s when it dawned on me that I’d been feeling like a fraud ever since I’d got to target – as if the old Jenna, unhappy in her skin, was the real me.
Now I could finally see that I’d left her behind, and this slim, healthy person was Jenna now, inside and out. After that, it truly sank in and I began to enjoy my new shape much more.
Now I run my own Slimming World group and I’m passionate about spreading the message, because I have complete trust and belief in the plan. Every time I welcome a new member into my group, I get goosebumps, because I know how brave they’re being to take that first step and I’ll never forget how it feels inside.
When Adam used to go on about getting a puppy, I would hold up my left hand and joke: ‘Put a ring on it first.’ Then, one Christmas Day, Roxanne and Ronnie-May walked in with two glasses of Champagne and said: ‘Daddy wants to ask you something.’ Adam went down on one knee and produced a ring. ‘I was never going to say no,’ I told him, bursting into tears. Of course, I then had to fulfil my side of the bargain and months later, an adorable black Labrador puppy called Ace had joined the family. With two kids, a dog and a thriving business, my days have never been busier, but free from aches and pains, and feeling light on my feet, I no longer feel uncomfortable about working in the beauty industry.
I joined Roxanne, now eight, on a fun run recently, which involved running three miles across fields. As we pelted along next to each other, mud splattering our legs, I felt unbelievably proud of her – and, yes, I was proud of myself, too!