'After slimming down from a size 16, I felt like a supermodel...now I'm happy to be seen in my underwear'
Larne woman Colleen Clarke knew something had to give when she ballooned to 15 stone in weight. Here, she tells Lee Henry how she felt so confident after shedding six stone she decided to do a saucy boudoir photographic shoot
For 27-year-old Colleen Clarke, the moment that changed everything came while working as a waitress in the New Lotus Flower restaurant in her native Larne.
Diminutive by nature, over the years she had slowly been putting on weight through a combination of unhealthy eating and lack of exercise. At 5ft 5in, she was at her biggest - size 16 and 15 stone in weight - when the mortifying moment occurred.
"It was the weekend," recalls Colleen.
"I was at work and had squeezed myself into a size 14 pair of trousers. I had to bend over to pick something up and the trousers ripped at the behind. I had been told a few times prior that I needed to do something about my weight, but I just shrugged it off or got angry.
"No one likes to be told that they're gaining weight. But the trousers episode was the final straw. It clicked that I really needed to do something about my lifestyle."
Although classmates had dubbed Colleen 'thunder thighs' at school, looking back she realises she "wasn't actually that big, kids can just be cruel".
It was during her final year of studying for a degree in computing at the Ulster University's Coleraine campus, however, that she began piling on the pounds.
Similar to many students, Colleen was stressed at the prospect of failing her degree. So she was cramming in meals between study and, as a consequence, eating the wrong types of food.
"I sometimes came home late in the evenings, having worked all day on my dissertation, not feeling like cooking and ordering a takeaway pizza, eating what I could and then saving the rest to eat the next day," she says.
"No wonder I kept going up in dress size."
The trousers episode took place at the end of her final year and thereafter she was determined to make a change.
Colleen tried virtually everything, from slimming tablets to Zumba classes, with varying degrees of success.
"I discovered slimming aid tablets at a health shop, but they didn't do a thing," she says.
"I tried a shake diet for a month, which involved drinking two shakes a day in place of breakfast and lunch, with a small dinner as my sole meal during the day, but that just brought on constant headaches, dizzy spells and put me in a bad mood.
"Needless to say, I knocked that on the head after a couple of weeks.
"I did lose weight with Zumba, although it got to a point where I plateaued. That's when I joined Slimming World."
Dubbed the weight loss class 'with the big heart', Slimming World, founded by English woman Margaret Miles-Bradwell, advocates a healthy-eating and fitness regime with a focus on group support. Colleen signed up for a class in Larne, before moving to Belfast, and experienced immediate results.
"With Slimming World, you can have any amount of what they call free foods, including pasta, rice and potatoes, which is ideal if you are a carb lover like me," she says. "When I first started, I found it hard to believe that you could lose weight by eating foods like that, but believe me, you can.
"There are times when it can be frustrating, if you step onto the scales and have gained weight or stayed the same, but if you genuinely stick to the plan, you do lose weight.
"When you walk into a group, you see all different shapes and sizes, men and women, older and young members. Some in their teens, some who want to lose a lot of weight, some with just half a stone to lose and target members (who have achieved their weight loss) like myself. We all attend because we all have the same end goal, to lose weight and feel better about ourselves."
Colleen only has good things to say about Slimming World, but like all members of the organisation, at times her motivation dropped.
Searching around for inspiration, for an added incentive to help her reach her end goal of shedding six stone in total, she settled on an unusual alternative: boudoir photography.
The prospect of posing for saucy photographs dressed only in lingerie, she admits, is not for everyone, but in her case it worked a treat.
"I had been toying with the idea for a while," she says. "I wanted to mark the achievement of making my target weight by doing something memorable, and when I saw that Belfast-based studio X-Perience Boudoir Photography were doing deals on one of their packages, I thought what better way of celebrating a newly slim body than by capturing it through photography.
"So I bit the bullet and bought a voucher. I was roughly a stone away from my target weight at the time, and it gave me a spur, something to focus on, when I was having a bad week. I would remind myself about it or I would take the voucher out and read it.
"It stayed in my drawer for a year until I made my target weight."
While Colleen kept news of her upcoming photo shoot under wraps, refraining from telling her parents Corina (50) and James (57), for example, through fear that she may not reach her goal, her boyfriend Gerry Mulholland (34) was in on the secret from the off.
He was, Colleen adds, one of her biggest supporters throughout her entire weight lose campaign.
"Gerry works in the same IT company that I do and also plays in a heavy metal band. He knew everything leading up to getting the shoot done and even helped me pick out some outfits that he thought would look good on me," she says.
"Before the shoot, I tried each outfit on at home and he gave his opinion on them, helping me to decide on what to bring on the day. Even though he would always tell me he thought I was beautiful even if I was wearing a bin liner, he saw it as a great way of rewarding myself for all the hard work I had done."
Having reached her coveted goal, Colleen looked forward to the shoot with experienced boudoir photographer Trazanne McCready.
She felt confident and prepared, having dropped from a size 16 to a size 8-10, six stone lighter than she had been after graduating from university. On the day, however, she remembers leaving the house "a bundle of nerves", and almost talked herself out of keeping her appointment altogether.
"Who wouldn't be nervous at the prospect of getting photographed in your underwear?" she laughs. "But I knew that if I didn't go through with it then, I never would, and I'm so glad I built up the courage to do it. It was an amazing experience from start to finish. I came out of the shoot feeling like a supermodel. I have never felt so confident, especially whilst wearing high heels, nor have I ever felt so sexy and empowered as I did when I was in front of the camera posing."
Trazanne played a huge part in putting Colleen at ease before and during the session, inquiring about the reasons behind her decision to indulge in a boudoir shoot, advising on what clothes and make-up to wear, and casually directing her to ensure she went home with a whole range of expertly crafted compositions.
One week later, Colleen was invited back to X-Perience for a private viewing of her portraits.
"I was so worried," she admits. "I had a million thoughts going through my head.
"What if Trazanne didn't get any nice photos of me? What if I'm blinking in every picture? What if I end up not liking any of the shots? But I needn't have worried. I had never seen my body look like that before.
"I had never really thought of myself as being a slim woman until then."
So thrilled was she with the ends results, Colleen shared a few of her favourite images with friends and family on social media, and even let her parents flick through her album.
Her father, she recalls, didn't recognise her at all, while her mother became her "number one cheerleader". "I was nervous about showing the pictures to my mum in case she thought they were in bad taste, but she was very proud of me. My mum is so supportive of anything I decide to do," she says.
These days, she keeps her boudoir album close at hand, should the temptation to overeat arise again. It works as a handy deterrent as well as an essential confidence booster when she needs a pick-me-up.
Colleen believes that she may well have reached her weight lose goal regardless, but advises other women in need of motivation to consider boudoir as a means of staying focused.
"People ask if taking part in a boudoir shoot has affected my sex life, but the honest answer is no, it hasn't. I didn't slim down to have the shoot done as a gift for my other half," she says.
"I did it for myself and to celebrate my own achievement. I don't regret it for a second."