Jenny Marshall remembers her father driving her out on the family farm for “a chat” when she was 13. When they reached the old water well he said the following words, “you’ve got too much condition on you”.
He was of course referring to Jenny’s size, roughly 140 kilograms at the time. “Condition” was how he spoke about his horses, “too much” meant overweight and unable to perform.
While he had called her a “bloody big fat lump” in public before, these words hit especially hard.
The youngest of four children on the family property at Coonalpyn, 143 kilometres south-east of Adelaide, Jenny found herself in a vicious cycle of emotional eating and feeling guilt, shame and complete worthlessness.
The pattern continued into adulthood where severe depression and worsening health issues plagued her life into her 30s. Then everything changed.
A special friend, who Jenny refers to as Fee, broke down in tears and told her she wanted Jenny to be alive.
“So I started to walk.”
In the 20 years since, Jenny has trekked around the world, lost 100 kilograms, written a book, and — most importantly — developed a new and profound love for herself and others.
“I’ve done more than I’ve ever expected in my life,” Jenny said.
“Walking has been incredible. I tend to walk out my frustrations, or my hurt, and I experience this love afresh. I find clarity between my heart and my mind.
Growing up with shame
Jenny says while growing up her mother would often “berate” her for being overweight but she also showed glimpses of love — through food.
“Their marriage wasn’t happy … mum basically ate and ate and she didn’t stop,” Jenny said.
She says after a tough day at school her mother, who was relieved to have her children home after a day alone on the farm, would have an assortment of chips, lollies and cakes on offer.
Later Jenny saw food as the “mediating factor between them”, her role to be fed and comfort her mother’s pain.
If home was hard, school wasn’t much better. Jenny recalls one teacher she adored calling her a “big gorilla” in front of the whole class.
“I had very few friends as a kid. I felt like no-one liked me,” Jenny said.
“You don’t think anybody else likes you when you don’t like yourself. That’s how you see the whole world.”
Along with the emotional and verbal abuse, Jenny was sexually abused at a young age, memories she only recalled in adulthood.
The signs of her abuse went unrecognised, even dismissed, at home.
Jenny says doesn’t blame her transition from a sensitive child to someone who shuts out affection entirely on her parents.
“Really my parents were survivors of their own abuse.”
On a journey of self-discovery
Fee got right behind Jenny’s decision to walk.
“[She] wanted to encourage me and she bought a Gore-Tex jacket for me, which breathes, and walking sticks,” Jenny said.
Starting a walking regime at 250 kilograms was far from easy. Her joints ached, her stomach hurt and she had dark rings around her wrists, elbows and neck.
She soon discovered, the more she walked and the better she ate, the better she felt.
“You can actually re-frame your brain.
“When I was a kid I did nothing but eat and eat but you get to a place all of a sudden where you don’t want it [anymore].
She’s also been dropped by helicopter into the wilderness in New Zealand, hiked mountains and waded through creeks.
She enjoys the restorative quality of walking.
“If I walk I get to see things, I’ve got my man now.”
Her man being Dreamy, an ex-racing greyhound she adopted three years ago.
“I didn’t know who I was, I thought I was who my family said, a ‘lazy, selfish whining child’.
“When you’re happy and there’s hope in you, people are attracted to you.”
Wanting to encourage others
The pinnacle of Jenny’s healing was writing her book, Death by Chocolate Cake, and becoming a qualified Functional Certified Health Coach to help others struggling with obesity.
The secret to success for her hasn’t been diets or an exercise regime — it was experiencing love.
First, from her friend Fee, and then realising a love for herself.
Jenny says when Fee told her she was intelligent, deep, caring and sensitive, she had never seen herself in that way.
“It mattered, I mattered,” she said.