Originally published in Balanced Life magazine
I’ve been stalking Marciel Hopkins’ Instagram feed for more than two weeks by the time I meet her in person, on a sunny Monday in the Mother City. At first this was simply part of the pre-interview research process. Later, it was for a daily mood lift – her posts are filled with bright colours, big smiles and enough body-positive encouragement to sink a ship of insecurities. This is a woman who has walked both sides of the ‘ideal body’ line, and she reports back with honesty and authenticity.
Tall and naturally curvy, Marciel entered the Miss South Africa competition nearly four years ago during her honours degree in psychology at Stellenbosch University. ‘2015 will always stand out as a year of change and challenges, but I believe you should challenge yourself every now and again,’ she says.
Entering the pageant had been suggested to her by a former finalist, who had observed Marciel during an event she hosted in her capacity as Primarius of her Stellies res. ‘It was so far out of my frame of reference, I almost couldn’t respond,’ she says. ‘The only thing I could think to say was, “I don’t have the right body.” I had always wanted to be a model, but by high school you start comparing your body to those in magazines, and realising that yours is never going to be that small.’
Nonetheless, with only four months until the first round of the competition, and without any pageant experience whatsoever, Marciel thought, ‘I have nothing to lose except maybe weight.’ She committed herself to an extreme eating and fitness plan, dropping 14 kg, a few cup sizes and her period along the way.
‘It was train, work, sleep, repeat. I would sometimes get up and do back-to-back spin classes before lectures. I had been super extroverted – my dad’s a winemaker, and I come from a food and wine background – but everything had to switch. I became more introverted, because it was the only way I could cope. I experienced too much anxiety in social situations because I was so obsessed with this healthy-eating thing.
‘I say “healthy” eating, but it was really just eating very clean. In the morning I’d come back from gym and have a shake. At 11 am, I’d have carrots, broccoli or cauliflower; usually raw because I wanted texture. For lunch I might have two boiled eggs with blueberries. At night I’d have a can of tuna or more greens. I would weigh myself every week, and if I had picked up as much as 100g, I would start cutting out protein and replace it with more vegetables.’
In the midst of all this, Marciel went on a long-planned family holiday to Europe where, with regionals looming, she tried to stick to her routine as much as possible. ‘I remember arriving in London one night. It was still dark, and I didn’t know the city at all. I woke up the next morning and I didn’t know where I was, but I found the closest park and I ran 15km in laps before doing my squats and lunges.’
People have often asked Marciel if she thinks she was suffering from an eating disorder at this time. ‘I would say it was definitely dysfunctional in terms of the obsessiveness of it. I definitely wasn’t holistically healthy. But on the other hand, an eating disorder usually goes hand in hand with a distorted view of yourself, and thinking you’re fat when you’re not. Whereas I had to be very realistic, almost very critical, and think, “I can see I’ve lost weight, but I’m still not there yet.”’
Still, she has no regrets about this stage of her journey. ‘I wouldn’t take back the experience. It shaped me in so many ways into who I am today. I walked a 360º journey because of it, in terms of body acceptance. I think people often experience it the other way, by losing weight. But for me, it was about going back again.’
By March the following year, with the pageant over and her honours complete, Marciel found herself at an uncharacteristic loose end. ‘I didn’t win. I wasn’t devastated about that. But I was struggling in terms of thinking, “What now?”’
She was also coming to terms with her figure morphing back to its natural, more curvy self. ‘I always describe it as my body starting to fight back,’ she says. ‘I like to think of the body like a rubber ball – it’s happy at its natural size, and then you put it under pressure and it changes. But eventually it starts pushing back. My weight-loss wasn’t maintainable. Once the pressure was released, my body went back to where it wanted to be, to where it was happy.’
Despite knowing that her body was becoming healthier and happier, Marciel struggled with some unpleasant emotions during the process. ‘I had a lot of guilt, a lot of shame, a perception that people might judge me for becoming lazy. Everyone who had been supporting me on my Miss South Africa journey – what did I have to offer them now? I considered deleting myself off social media. But then I realised I couldn’t be the only one struggling with this, and maybe I had a responsibility to the people who were still backing me. So I started sharing, slowly but surely, what I was going through. It was a very honest, vulnerable space. I was testing the waters, and the positive response completely overwhelmed me.’
And no wonder. While all bodies are beautiful and we should be as hesitant to condemn skinny ones as to criticise larger ones, there’s no doubt that the curvier version of Marciel practically glows with vitality compared with her pageant self. Before long, she was making her childhood modelling dreams come true, signing with an agency in Cape Town and heading to Europe to shoot.
‘It was crazy! My first ever modelling job was a big denim campaign in Germany. But. of course, it wasn’t a quick fix,’ she says. ‘It wasn’t like, now I’m going to Germany I suddenly accept myself. There was still a lot of awkwardness, a lot of insecurity. But I’ll never forget that campaign. I was feeling insecure, and I put on the jeans, and the client was so happy – she said, “Oooh! Your bum keeps the pants up!”’
It’s been two years since then, and Marciel is in demand as a model in South Africa and internationally. She has also since qualified as a life coach, and says a lot of her clients gravitate towards her for help with body acceptance and self-esteem, among other issues. I ask her if she can give BL readers a crash course…
‘You can become very philosophical when talking about body positivity, but I’m quite a practical person,’ says Marciel. She believes we need to be more vigilant about the messages we consume about bodies in general.
‘Start with a social media clean-up. We so quickly forget that we have ownership of what we choose to follow. It needs to be a very deliberate decision. I had to almost reprogram my social media, because everything was about losing weight. Now I try to focus on travel, food and other positive things. I’m even selective in terms of which other models I follow, because it can become competitive so quickly. It’s very difficult if you’re having an off-week or you haven’t booked anything, and you see all these other girls working. You start to think, “What’s wrong with me?” But maybe that shoot is from six months ago. You never know. It’s all a make-believe platform, really.’
Another practical step, she says, is to be selective about the kind of people you surround yourself with. ‘Other people greatly influence how we think and feel about ourselves. If you’re around people who are judgemental about other people’s bodies, or are judgemental about themselves, it’s going to rub off on you. Don’t tolerate that sort of space.’
While you’re at it, check in with the messages you may be sending out to your own loved ones. ’So often I get moms asking me, “How do I help my daughter?” And I always put it back in their court, because often it’s the mom who is constantly on a diet, or super-judgemental about herself. How do you expect your daughter to look at herself with self-loving eyes if you communicate on a daily basis how unhappy you are with your body? Because those are then the eyes she will start seeing herself with.’
Marciel says that one of the most important things to remember about self-acceptance is that it’s not ‘an overnight thing’ but a long and often difficult road. ‘It’s not always easy. Not every day is the same. It’s something I still decide every day. I choose to accept myself. I choose to walk in the truth that I don’t have to look a certain way to be accepted.’
There is some pretty heated debate online around labels like ‘plus size’ and ‘curve’ being added to ‘model’, and whether we should differentiate between body types at all. With her typical pragmatism, Marciel lets the noise wash over her.
‘In the beginning, I may have felt a bit insecure. Often in London you shoot back-to-back in a studio, and your rail says “plus-size” and the other girl just has a normal rail. But the more you step into body acceptance, things like this bother you less. For me, it’s a reflection of the limiting beliefs of the people who want to put body sizes in boxes, people who still clearly have a journey to walk with this. Because bodies are just bodies. I don’t feel like we should categorise them, but if that makes it easier for someone to understand it all, it’s cool.
‘It’s a tricky industry though, because I also sometimes get feedback like “Oh but you’re not even that big.” You can’t always live up to expectations. There are people who will want you smaller, and there are people who will want you bigger. I’ve found it’s best just to stay authentic. I’m not changing for anyone. I often say that our bodies aren’t clay. I can’t mould myself to be something that you expect of me. I am what I am.’