Last year, a picture of Shantell Bennett went viral after a cruel troll told her to 'stick to a one piece' instead of wearing the bikini in the photo. What he didn't know is that she was on a weight loss journey, and one that has changed her life forever. Here, as part of our #loveyourbody series, Shantell explains how she hit rock bottom, and fought her way back up...
Looking down at the photo in my hands, reality hit me hard. I saw myself in a beautiful coastal location, holding my adorable, now 2-year-old son Charlie. He looked at me with such love and pride in his eyes - but when I looked at myself, I only saw a sad, lonely person who had shut everyone out.
Admittedly, I'd had a difficult start to life - as a ward of the state, my childhood was torn apart by abuse and neglect. I was put into foster care on my 7th birthday, but my placements often broke down. At times I was homeless, forced to live out of bags on friend's couches and eventually ended up living in refuges. It was the loneliest time of my life - I never had stable relationships with anyone.
Fast forward to when the picture was taken and I'd met the most amazing man, he'd given me an amazing life full of love and family, who accept me just like their own. I was beyond blessed to call them mine. Things had changed, but still I wasn't truly happy.
The picture that started it all!
I had faced severe depression and anxiety, which led to me being a ‘bigger girl' for most of my adult life, but in the last few years I had really piled the weight on. I would yo-yo diet constantly, but then I fell pregnant and like many expectant mums, I used it as an excuse to eat whatever I wanted. When I gave birth I was 155kg (24 stone 4lbs).
6 weeks after my son Charlie was born we learnt that he was born bilaterally profoundly deaf (completely deaf in both ears) - a massive, devastating shock. We were told that hearing aide would not be strong enough and that cochlear implants might be an option, but there was no certainty.
Charlie and I before his operation
At 6 months old Charlie was, thankfully, implanted successfully (and is now hearing and talking amazingly), but for a very long time we never knew if he would ever hear us tell him we loved him. It absolutely killed us as parents.
I held a lot of anger and resentment - a ‘why us?!' attitude. Being a first-time mum is hard enough let alone with the added stress of multiple appointments, tests, operations etc. As well as Charlie's hearing diagnosis, as much as I loved being a mum, I missed having an identity and didn't want to just be ‘mum'. I was on leave from my job and university where I was (and am currently) studying nursing.
To get by the long days and sleep deprivation of new motherhood, I ate. I wasn't being physically active, and food became my comfort. The more weight I gained, the less I cared. I had my fiancé John who loved me unconditionally, and of course my beautiful baby. I would tell myself I was happy how I was, but despite the excuses I knew deep down it was a lie.
Eventually I plucked up the courage to weigh myself, something I dreaded - and to my horror the scales at home said ERROR. I was too heavy for them to even register. I went to the scales at the shops and there I saw on a printed ticket. 164kg (25st 11lbs). I was absolutely mortified. How had I let myself get to this point? I need to be around for my son and set a good example for him and his future - it was time to change. I tried the all of the usual fad diets - shakes, pills, detoxes - but none of them worked. I joined the gym and got a personal trainer but my secret eating habits were stopping any weight loss, and I felt more and more defeated. I cried myself to sleep every night, sinking even deeper into depression.
I made the hard decision to see a bariatric surgeon.
I was referred to an amazing surgeon, Oliver Florica, and I walked out of that appointment feeling like maybe there was hope for me after all. I decided to go ahead with a relatively new procedure called banded plication, which reduces the volume of the stomach with stitches, reducing the need for frequent adjustments and lowering the risk factor, while maintaining an intact digestive tract and avoiding nutritional deficiency associated with other forms of surgery.
The picture on the left is the first day pre-op, the right is one month post-op
It sounds extreme, but it felt like my last chance at avoiding death before 50. If it didn't work nothing would, so I promised myself I would shed blood, sweat and tears for this.
I quickly learnt weight loss surgery was not the easy answer - I still would need to put so much work into changing old habits. The hardest part was the pre-operative shake diet that you have to drink before surgery to reduce the amount of fat around the liver - having 3 shakes a day and only water challenged me physically and mentally. I cried multiple times a day and had to constantly stop myself eating. I even tipped water over food to make sure I didn't give in.
This was my 'final feast' (plus a huge meal from McDonalds) the night before my pre-op diet started. I binged until I couldn't move
Going from eating huge amounts of food to not being able to eat anything was scary. I knew I would never eat the same after this, that my relationship with food would be completely different, but during that pre-op stage I realized the true extent of my addiction to food, and began to understand the lifelong commitment I was making.
Food is inescapable - you need it to survive, it's advertised everywhere, present every day. Unlike other addictions, you can't just go cold turkey - you will forever be faced with a choice to give in to your demons or fight them. But I chose to fight.
In April 2015 I had surgery, a relatively quick keyhole procedure that left me in hospital overnight. For the next six weeks, I had to slowly teach my body to eat again - 2 weeks of liquids (soups, smoothies, yoghurts), 2 weeks of purees (thicker soups, fruits etc), 2 weeks of soft foods (mash, vegetables, thicker gravy casseroles), and then finally, normal solids. I followed my diet plan very closely, and made the decision to completely cut out bread, rice, pasta, pastry and soft drinks from my diet, which I have kept up to this day.
The smaller portions I eat nowadays!
After 8 weeks, I started exercising, and found many amazing activities that I enjoyed, like personal training, bootcamps, aerial acrobatics, aqua classes, and Zumba. I made many friends on the same path as me and I found myself reaching out to people who had had the same surgery to ask questions. There were not many people sharing their experience - it's still such a taboo, which is ironic because so is being obese, but when these obese people actually have the guts to change their lives they are ridiculed for take ‘the easy way out'. You can't win!
I therefore decided to document my own journey - the extreme lows and amazing highs, weight loss and gain, new small clothes and loose skin - I would share it all, fearlessly and truthfully. I set up a Facebook page, choosing the name Beauty and the Band after my favourite Disney movie. It was so motivating and really inspired me to get out there and push my comfort zone even further because I knew I was encouraging others to do the same.
One of the many progress pictures I've posted to my page
As the number of people following my page grew, I knew that hate would be inevitable. An oversharer by nature, I wanted this to be all or nothing project, sharing photos of myself in full glam with heels and a gorgeous dress with spanx, but also of me in in gym clothes, in my undies with the fat overhanging showing real progress even from unflattering angles.
Before long a ‘hater' came along and posted a comment on one of my bikini photos. I was so excited because I fit into a pineapple bikini and thought I looked amazing - my confidence was so high. When a man told me to ‘stick to a one piece', my page blew up with support for me. The Daily Mail picked up the story, it went viral, and soon lots of articles were being written about me.
A man told me to 'stick to a one piece' - but I felt amazing
Whilst I was embarrassed by this man's hurtful words at first, I was thrilled there were so many kind people out there too. I had so many messages of how I had inspired others to embrace their bodies. That was absolutely amazing to me, that I a girl who used to cry herself to sleep and refuse to look at herself naked was here as a proud woman sharing a bikini photo with the world at 120kg (18st 12lb) and inspiring others.
There are still times when it's bloody hard. I miss eating large portions and being able to just binge like I used to. Despite all of my best attempts to stop it, I've got loose skin that I am very self-conscious about, and know it will be a long time before we can pay for the removal. I am constantly judged by others, especially on my decision to have surgery, but I don't regret it at all. I am fitter, healthier and happier then I have been in years. In 9 months I have lost 70kg and have dramatically increased my life expectancy.
My inspiration and hero - my son Charlie
My BMI has gone from 57 to 33. I have been able to cross my legs, have my engagement ring resized, run around and be an active part of my son's life, wear clothes six dress sizes smaller - but perhaps my biggest accomplishment thus far is having created a page were positive, like-minded people from all over the world encourage and motivate not only myself, but each other daily.
All I ever wanted was to inspire and encourage others on their own journeys, and I think I can happily say I do that now.
What is gastric plication?
Gastric plication surgery is a restrictive procedure which reduces the patient's stomach size by around 75% by making large folds in the stomach’s lining. It is a relatively new surgery, but short term studies suggest the results are comparable with older, more established proceedures.
In the UK, weight loss surgery is only available to those who have a body mass index (BMI) of 40 or over, or those who have a BMI of 35 or above with another serious health condition that could be improved through weight loss, such as type 2 diabetes or high blood pressure. The NHS advises that is always advisable to lose weight through a calorie-controlled diet and increased exercise before considering weight loss surgery. For more information about your options, contact your doctor.