Learning to love “what makes you, you”

Jess in the dining room of her Northcote home. Photo Haniya Djafar Khodja.
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Haniya Djafar Khodja talks to Jessica Kyoko Sanders about the inspiration for her book, ‘Love Your Body'.

The sound of women laughing carries through the breeze of the sunny spring morning accompanied with a gentle hum of traffic from the nearby Northcote High Street. Underneath a large leafed oak tree in the backyard lies Jessica Kyoko Sanders and her close friend Katja Kollecker. Beside them rest two dogs, Ruby a black Kelpie who holds a permanent white toothed grin, and Rose, a chihuahua cross jack Russell lying at Jess’s feet.

Katja hears the gate close and runs inside to grab a copy of Jess’s newly published book Love Your Body. Upon her return she flips to her favorite page, her pride oozing from her smile.

“Your body is incredible, that is true, but you are so much more than your body. You are smart, curious, passionate, fierce, kind and courageous. These are just some of the many things that make you, you.”

The book was inspired by Jess coming to terms with her own struggles with body image and witnessing friends struggle with eating disorders, leading her to explore what body positive content was out there. “I found books with cartoon white women and barbie figures aimed at 13-year-olds, and that was it.” Love Your Body is a guide for girls aged 5 and up on how to love your body for what it can do.

After living in Japan for the first two years of Jess’s life, the origin of “Kyoko”, her parents bought 30 acres of land in Macclesfield, Victoria. Jess pushes her glasses up the bridge of her nose, “It was always overalls and riding boots, I’ve never worn a princess dress in my life. My mum was progressive in that she gave me and my sisters a completely non-gendered childhood, I’m grateful for that.”

The sun filters through the leaves and dapples her face as she reminisces.

At 26 Jess is 6ft and used to cringe at any talk of her height. Katja leans in close to Jess; “That’s what inspired me when I met you! The story about when you went travelling and how after climbing a mountain you realized that your legs did that for you, they were no longer something that made you taller but stronger, I’ll never forget that.”

Katja is 23 and moved to Melbourne from Berlin two years ago, she met Jess when applying for a job in Carlton and they became close instantly. “Jess made me feel loved very quickly, she has a power to make you want to learn and grow better.” Now they share the same job in a different dainty pub in North Fitzroy where Jess pours the occasional pint to subsidize her writing.

Author Jessica Kyoko Sanders with close friend Katja. Photo Haniya Djafar Khodja.

Jess has a master’s in social work and worked at a refuge for Aboriginal women and children for a year in 2018. She brushes her sandy blonde hair off her forehead as she recalls a family with a young daughter. “She was four, very small and desperate for affection. Her brother was violent towards their mum and it was just the three of them. What I remember most about her was what she said one afternoon. We were colouring and she was shading a princess yellow, I suggested the colour of her own skin, which was a rich brown, she said ‘No my skin looks like poo’. At four, this girl had already internalized racist thoughts on her own appearance.”

With this experience kept close Jess began creating Love Your Body. Delicate watercolours of young girls who have stretch marks, body hair, vary in size and race by local artist, Carol Rossetti, decorate the pages and dance around the words. Jess receives emails from parents who appreciate her unique message. “I had a mum email me that when her daughter shows signs of self-deprecating, they sit down and read the book. One afternoon she said she remembered why her body was beautiful. It’s the best feeling ever. Another woman said her son picks it up and wants it read to him before bed. Kids can believe and trust in this book because it’s true.”

Her passion for this message has taken her around Victoria in past months. “You are attempting to help these young people unlearn what they have been taught their whole lives, and what they understand about their bodies. That won’t happen in one session but getting to put the message out there of Love Your Body is already assisting in changes.” At a talk in Echuca in August, a young girl raised her hand to tell Jess that she had always seen herself as “obese”, nearly in tears she goes on to say how Jess’s book helped her learn to love herself.

Jess’s high school experience was spent mostly in the arts department with photography. Realising boys divided girls into two categories, those who received attention and those who didn’t, Jess felt it important to explore other parts of herself. “It was a saving grace. Girls are taught to find all their self-worth in their body and when I felt that wasn’t an option for me, I decided to nurture other parts of myself.”

With a new book on self-care to hit the shelves in November from publisher Five Mile and the plans for a boy- centred Love Your Body, Jess is by no means slowing down. She pours everyone a final cup of tea and welcomes in the afternoon on her verandah, wrapping a woolen knit around her shoulders as the sun drifts behind her picketed fence.