“I Just Didn’t Love Myself”

At 27 years old Nehanda Nyanda was 20 kilos overweight, depressed and wishing she could turn her skin white. Stephanie Mee spoke to her about how she turned the corner. Photo: Joshua A. Madison.

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“The reality for me is that the most beautiful people are the ones that have the greatest self-worth and confidence. They have an inner light that shines, and they brighten up places when they go there. And in the real world, those are the people that are really magnetic”, says model, entrepreneur and artist Nehanda Nyanda Rusere.

And she should know. This is a woman who walks into a room and people take notice. And it’s not just because of her striking good looks or the fact that she’s most likely dressed from head to toe in vibrant, brightly hued ensemble.

It’s all about what’s radiating out from the inside. This is a woman who is comfortable in her own skin, self-assured, and positively beaming good vibes. But it took a lot of hard work and determination for Nehanda to get to this point.

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Born and raised in Zimbabwe, Nehanda studied in South Africa before moving to Melbourne to complete her studies. After graduation she stayed in Australia and worked in IT for a prominent NGO. On the surface everything seemed normal – she had a good job, a boyfriend and a decent social life. However, below the surface it was a whole different story.

She says: “I was 27 and I was 20 kilos overweight and really depressed. I couldn’t sleep, and I had very low self-worth. In Australia at that time there were very few African people and it was the kind of society that wasn’t very inclusive of other races. Not that they were overly racist or anything like that. It was more the way the media was and how the Aboriginal people were treated. And that chipped away at my self worth.

“Over time I just found that I didn’t love myself. In fact, I was hoping I would seriously turn into a white person. It was like lighter was better. And I was looking at how Africa was changing, and how there was brainwashing there as well to believe that lighter is better too. Even here in Indonesia it’s all about bleaching skin. It’s the same disease for black people all over the world.”

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Nehanda tried to conform to society’s definition of beauty, but she still didn’t feel validated. She put up with emotional and psychological abuse from her boyfriend because she didn’t feel that she deserved better, and she was drinking and partying in an attempt to numb herself. She says: “By the end of that I was in such a bad place that I felt like I’d rather be dead than continue on that way.”

Change was imperative, and Nehanda started by moving out of the space she shared with her boyfriend and onto a friend’s couch. She began to focus on what wasn’t working in her life and became very aware of body image and self-love.

“I had tried losing weight before,” she says, “but I realized that unless you believe you’re good enough, your body will just hold on to the way that it looks because it’s your thoughts that are toxic. It’s also your environment that can be toxic, which is why I had to change some of my friends as well.”

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Nehanda realized that IT wasn’t fulfilling her, so she quit her job and began to do community work speaking about mental health and cultural identity in communities with Sudanese refugee boys and girls. She also started reconnecting with her cultural and ancestral heritage and rediscovering herself as an artist, dancer and model.

Yet even though Nehanda was creating positive changes in her life, she still came across doubts and opposition. She says: “I remember going home (to Zimbabwe) two years ago and I had my hair natural in an afro, and I remember people saying to me, ‘Oh you’re too African now.’ I’m like, ‘What does that even mean?’

“We’ve actually forgotten who we are, and I think this stems from colonialism. With most indigenous cultures there has been an aggressive push to lose their culture and lose their essence. When you do that, you create really great slaves of the system because people who don’t know who they are will accept anything. If you take away the roots of a person, they’re easier to manipulate.”

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Despite opposition from others, Nehanda stayed true to herself. “As my self worth grew, my ability to create a life that had elements of things that I loved started to
grow. And that’s what brought me to Bali.”

Prior to coming to Bali, Nehanda had discovered photographic storytelling, which aims to capture the soul of a person rather than just their external beauty. She decided she wanted to create a project where different photographers, stylists and designers could come together and photograph women of all different shapes, sizes and ages. She put an ad out on Ubud Connect, and the response was overwhelming.

She says: “I was contacted by hundreds of women, some pregnant, some overweight, some with scars, all writing to me saying they had always wanted to do a photo shoot where they could capture their true beauty. There were also tons of artists who wanted to be on board. Shortly after I arrived, I met Gaelyn Larrick, a stylist, makeup artist and former model, and we clicked right away.”

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Nehanda and Gaelyn collaborated on a few projects where they photographed groups of women from all different walks of life, and they discovered that besides being a unique art project, the gatherings were also powerfully healing. Many women came away from the experience feeling lighter after tackling their body issues and clearing negative belief systems. Many felt more empowered, and almost all felt a real sense of sisterhood with the other women.

The photo shoots were such a transformative experience that Nehanda and Gaelyn decided to create Inner Essence Embodied and offer Storytelling Photographic Ceremonies that incorporate energy healing, art and photography to help women cultivate their inner beauty power, and self-expression.

“Bali really took things to the next level for me. I felt like I had done a certain amount of work on myself, but I hadn’t really been giving back, and so Bali allowed me to create my own business where I could help people and do what I loved.

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“Aside from Inner Essence, my mission is to continue spreading the word of body image and self-worth, especially in the modelling industry. I hope that I can bring to the world the idea that what you believe about yourself may not necessarily be true. You don’t have to be or live a certain way if it’s not serving you. You can be yourself and you can be beautiful in your own unique way. The more you love yourself, the more you get what you deserve and what you’re worth, and your life gets better in every single way.”

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