Melanie Jeske, better known by her moniker Melodie Michelberger, has the kind of body people like to talk about – for better or for worse. After a lifetime’s struggle to feel comfortable in her skin, she talks about her choice to enter the body conversation and change the tone. Today, she is owning her body.
We meet with the PR and communications editor just shy of her 41st birthday in her characterful Hamburg home. It’s significant timing. With her body positive work she is out to break the cycle common in so many women’s lives – the decades-long struggle with the outward self. Having worked in the industry and experienced first-hand the media’s reluctance to accurately represent different body types, she is putting her own exuberant, proudly fuller figure out in the open, belly out and smiling wide. With her body and her voice, she hopes to demystify the media’s message that we are beautiful only when youthful, taut-skinned and lean. And yet, for all the public showing, and speak of, her figure, what she most desires is something far more radical – that we stop talking about body types all together. Instead appreciate these vessels that take us through life. Enjoy them.
To begin, how would you describe your body?
I feel like a ripe fruit: juicy, full, a few dents here and there, but beautiful and…right. In a few months I’ll be 41. I feel much more mature and feel much better about my body the way it is now. I’ve always been rather round and I used to fight against this with all my strength – starved myself, exercised excessively – but today I feel just right in my fuller body, which of course has something to do with the fact that I’m not 25 anymore. I wish at 25 I would have felt as self confident as I do today.
You mentioned you were always ‘round’, as you say. What was your relationship with your body like as a child and as a teenager?
I was always the chubby one, always. I used to be teased a lot, even by my family members, who would say things like, ‘You’ve got an arse like a packing horse.’ I always felt uncomfortable, but even so, I always loved wearing wide flouncy skirts and colourful dresses the most, despite always being told that these wouldn’t suit my figure. For my whole childhood and throughout puberty I fought to be thin. At 15, I developed an eating disorder, I starved myself down to 43 kilos. Then at 16, I moved to Detroit as part of an exchange program and this was my salvation. My host parents noticed pretty quickly that I was eating badly and I was also skipping school, so they gave me the ultimatum: Either you eat normally or you fly back home. For me that was liberation: Finally eating again!
"I feel like a ripe fruit: juicy, full, a few dents here and there, but beautiful and...right."
Did this change of mindset have a lasting impact?
This exchange year saved me, in so many ways. I started playing sport, I was a cheerleader, I danced – my body awareness changed completely. After I came back to Germany, I was back at the same weight as when I’d left, but I felt good and most of all, I felt strong! In my German school I was always the one who couldn’t do anything in sport. In the USA it was completely different. I could choose which sport I wanted to do and for once was even one of the best. For 16 years I’d thought that was completely not sporty and then in the US I learned how to do flick flacks.
Based on this experience from your youth, what do you wishes for younger women now?
I wish for a kind of invisible web that links us all that shares out empowerment and self confidence. This web has to be us women, particularly older women. We have to lead the change that helped us through. I never had female role models who were happy with their bodies, who stood in front of the mirror and said, ‘Yes that’s me and I love what I see!’ My mother, aunties, cousins, all the women I grew up with had body issues and it was always about losing weight. It was the ongoing theme of my childhood and adolescence. Terrible! It’s so important have role models.
You mentioned a change in yourself over time. What’s your relationship with your body today?
It took years until I could accept my body. It’s really only now that I feel good and feel beautiful in my body, when I’m at my most ‘imperfect’ and at my heaviest weight.
"It’s really only now that I feel good and feel beautiful in my body, when I’m at my most ‘imperfect’ and at my heaviest weight."
This brings us to your work in the body positive movement. When did you realise, ‘This is something I have to do’?
For me it’s somehow the logical consequence of years of self-doubt and body shame, years of working in different areas of the fashion industry and the realisation that fashion simply isn’t made for women. Fashion and the media instil this feeling of inadequacy into women. How can you as a woman ever reach your full potential when you’re unhappy in your body? The whole system is sick. It’s a system that tells women that they are not beautiful – that they will only be beautiful when they buy this, that and the other. What would happen when all the magazines in the world stopped circulating all this bullshit? This is what I was exposed to and this is what I have taken an active stance towards.
"The whole system is sick. It’s a system that tells women that they are not beautiful ... What would happen when all the magazines in the world stopped circulating all this bullshit?"
Do you sometimes think to yourself, ‘Come on, what kind of world are we living in? How is this all still even an topic?’
Yes, always! It’s completely absurd that in 2017 we’re still having to speak about body positivity, that only just now ‘plus size’ models are on the covers of magazines and everyone is talking about films like Embrace. I find it shocking how many of my female friends even with so-called ‘perfect figures’ wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to post a picture of themselves in a bikini or even let themselves be seen in a bikini at all. I’ve had enough of only seeing young, retouched women with ‘perfect perfect figures’. I used to wish for the kind of body positive movement that we have today.
Beyond your body, you’re also using your words to combat body shame. Can you tell us about this?
I find it bizarre that we have this widespread loss of words when it comes to describing any type of body that isn’t the much talked about ‘perfect figure’. Most people even find it even difficult to describe their own body, many feel ashamed and can’t find the right words, they whisper it, or paraphrase the way they describe their body to avoid using the word ‘fat’. Words like ‘big’ or ‘fat’ have mainly negative connotations and therefore I think it’s important to reclaim these words exactly and use them at face value. I always notice the horrified looks I’m given when I – very naturally – say, ‘I have a big belly’’. The first reaction is almost always, ‘No, that’s not true at all,’ as if others have to apologise for my figure or neutralise something. But it’s nonsense. I see myself in the mirror and I know how I look. I just wish for a more relaxed approach to living in our own bodies. The more people who free themselves of unrealistic beauty ideals and rethink their ideas about what the perfect body is – the better.
"Words like ‘big’ or ‘fat’ have mainly negative connotations and therefore I think it’s important to reclaim these words exactly and use them at face value."
What’s been the feedback you’ve received since taking this public stance?
Well, the feedback we received for the bikini photos we shot with PHYLYDA, the body positive bikini label, was absolutely amazing. If we managed through this, to encourage just one woman to proudly show off her belly in a bikini, then I’m happy! I do think it’s disappointing that it’s still only ever this ‘show of courage’ when as a bigger woman you have your photo taken in a bikini. I wish this were normal and that in the future we’ll see women will all kinds of figures on billboards.
Personally, what is it like to be using your body to make a statement? Does it always feel empowering or does it become irritating at times?
Yes, it can definitely be a bit disconcerting at times. Most of all, when strangers comment on my body – even if it’s positive a comment it’s still some kind of judgement. It’s irritating when people say ‘I think you’re pretty though’ or ‘You’re actually are a really beautiful woman’ – this ‘though’’ and ‘actually’ are just annoying. Why do bodies always need to be commented on? I actually don’t want to have to put myself out there and say “I’m beautiful how I am, look at me”, because the aim should be: Stop fixating on your body so much. Be at ease with your appearance. But, if what I do can make people feel a little freer then I’m happy that my body can be a kind of catalyst!
"If what I do can make people feel a little freer then I’m happy that my body can be a kind of catalyst!"
To sum it up, for you, what does it mean to feel comfortable in your own body?
For me it means being in my body, most of all. For years I lived as if my body wasn’t really a part of me, as if my body didn’t belong to me at all. I now trust my body and don’t see it anymore as just a shell. Feeling comfortable for me also means not hiding anything, not sucking in my stomach or covering it up. I thank my body daily that it’s taken me through life so well. In the morning, right after waking up, when I’m still in bed and the body is soft and warm – that’s when I feel best.
“Feeling comfortable for me also means not hiding anything, not sucking in my stomach or covering it up. I thank my body daily that it’s taken me through life so well.“
P.S. What Melanie has to say about sleeping on the muun:
I only turned over my old mattress once in 10 years. It was so heavy that you needed more than two people to try to do so. And yet the salespeople from the mattress store told me I should do this regularly. What I love about Mattressmuun mattress is that besides the wonderful different firmnesses I can also flip it and change the combinations as much as I want to. And, all on my own. A couple of weeks ago I flipped it over to the cooler side on top. Super easy and perfect for summer. Before I had the Mattressmuun mattress I had severe lower back pain that at times I could barely get out of bed – I’m thrilled to say this pain has gone away completely.