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Ardren DeBerry ...Ms. Plus Tennessee..This could you!
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Anner J. Echols has over 20 years of experience working in the fashion, beauty and entertainment industry. She has a passion for empowering, motivating and enhancing the self-esteem of young teens and women -- especially those who are full-figured.
"There is too much emphasis in today's society on outward appearance," Echols said. "With the industry putting the spotlight on the average size and skinnier girls in entertainment, and media focusing on their looks and their beauty, heavier teens and women find it difficult to accept and feel good about themselves or think it is impossible to live out their dreams."
Echols is the founder, CEO and executive producer of Swept Away Fashions and AJE Productions. She also produces "Dreamland: Where Dreams are Made Real," a TV show that airs at 9 p.m. Fridays on Comcast Channel 17.
"Dreamland focuses on making dreams real, primarily for plus-size women and teens," said Echols, who conducts workshops, holds conferences and professionally trains women and teens to showcase their talents. "Considering yourself as unacceptable is often accompanied by low self-esteem. This low self-esteem can be manifested through eating disorders, negative behaviors, drugs, alcohol, gangs or promiscuity, which leads to unwanted pregnancies and various compromised lifestyles in order to fit in."
Echols was recently chosen as one of nine judges to serve at the Cities of America National Pageant in Orlando. The event, designed to interview teens and young women from all over the United States and select a winner, was held Dec. 10-17 at the Omni Rosen Center Hotel in Orlando.
"I was honored to serve on the judges' panel for the largest teen pageant in the nation," said Echols. "Like AJE Productions, the pageant fosters self-esteem in young women and teens offering them an opportunity to shine. This was a once in a lifetime experience for me and all who attended. I was pleased to support such an amazing organization."
For information on Swept Away Fashions or AJE Productions, call 650-4955 or visit ajedreamland.com.
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Ardren DeBerry, dressed in towering heels and a neckline down to there, worked her curves with confidence last week as a local photographer snapped her in many poses.
DeBerry, a statuesque 6-foot-3, is a freelance plus-size model and beauty queen who was shooting outdoors in East Memphis for her portfolio. In 2007, she was named Ms. Tennessee Plus America.
But only a few years ago, modeling and pageants would have been unthinkable for her. DeBerry, 33, of Whitehaven tells of a childhood wounded by verbal and sexual abuse and an adult life beset by depression, low self-esteem and weight gain.
Though not so extreme, some of her experience mirrors that of Precious, an abused, illiterate, 350-pound teenage girl depicted in the just-released film of the same name. While child sexual abuse has been much discussed, less well known is an apparent link between abuse and obesity.
In "Precious: Based on the Novel 'Push' by Sapphire," the independent film directed by Lee Daniels, Precious suffers the calamities of being molested by her mother and her father, who impregnates her twice. While that aspect of the film, which opened here Friday, may seem far-fetched, the depiction of her as seriously obese is not.
A study involving 4,391 women in Kentucky, published last year by the online journal of The Family Violence Prevention Fund, found that sexual abuse, whether experienced as an adult or child, was associated with a 32 percent increase in obesity.
A 19-year study of 84 sexually abused women published in 2007 in Psychiatric News found that 42 percent of the abused group became obese while 28 percent of a never-abused comparison group did so.
Binge eating is gradually gaining acceptance as a true disorder, said Dr. Teri McCann, a psychologist and clinical director of eating disorders at the Transformation Center in Cordova.
"Certainly not every instance is related to trauma," she said. "But lots of times it's a way to feed a hungry heart."
The phrase is a reference to a book she recommends: Geneen Roth's "Feeding the Hungry Heart" (Plume, $10.20), in which eating serves some as a means of feeling both nurtured and numbed.
"You do something that gets you so involved in what you're doing, you don't reflect on the outside world," said McCann.
Like most women observed in the 19-year study, DeBerry's weight problem did not emerge until she was an adult. Eventually, she reached 325 pounds.
"I think a lot of it was due to depression," said DeBerry, who works as a tax adviser as well as a medical clerical assistant and is a single mother of three. "I felt so alone. I never sought help for what had happened to me. In my family, you shut those things down."
She made few friends and was angry all the time, she said: "Food gave me comfort."
DeBerry's mother had her when she was 13. Between the ages of about 2 to 5, DeBerry lived with her parents in Texas and later in Memphis. She described a home life at that time disrupted by drug and alcohol addiction and domestic and sexual abuse.
Around the ages of 4 and 5, DeBerry said she was inappropriately touched and fondled by two relatives outside the immediate family: a man who came into her bedroom at night and a woman who sometimes served as her daytime baby sitter.
"It was traumatic, and I remember it," said DeBerry.
Sometime in her fifth year, her family moved back to Memphis, and she lived a more stable life with her grandmother from age 9 to about 19.
DeBerry's mother, Linda Wilson, now living in Detroit, said in those years she was addicted to drugs and alcohol and her home life was in turmoil.
"I kind of remember having a conversation (about the relative who babysat) but not quite comprehending what she was saying," said Wilson. "A lot of things I put out of my mind and blacked it out back then."
But she said of her daughter, "She's got a good memory. Ardren don't forget nothing. ... If Ardren said things happened to her, it happened to her."
She called her daughter "a good mother and a very good person."
Efforts to reach DeBerry's father were not successful.
DeBerry graduated from Manassas High and made a life for herself. But in 2001, her sister died at age 24. In 2005, after her grandmother died, DeBerry spiraled into depression and didn't return to work for a month. Eventually she realized she had her children to live for. She got professional counseling and returned to work.
Tall and attractive, she began to check out modeling, and in 2006 found Anner Echols, founder of AJE Productions, who produces local fashion shows that include plus-size models. Echols also teaches poise and grooming classes, and DeBerry joined one for plus-sized women.
"She was real quiet at first," said Echols. "Her feelings were easily hurt."
She wore almost no makeup. Yet she found support there and soon became one of Echols' best students. She modeled in fashion shows and in local stores for plus-sized women.
"I loved it," she said.
She began regular gym visits and got her weight down to 250 pounds, dropping from size 24 to size 18.
She appeared on Echols' TV show "Dreamland: Where Dreams are Made Real," on Comcast Channel 17, where she spoke about self-esteem problems faced by full-figured women.
"Getting it out, talking about it, helped me feel a little better," she said.
She took the Ms. Tennessee Plus title and later won third place in her age group in the Ms. Plus America pageant in Dallas.
"Some things you never get over," said DeBerry, who still gets counseling. "But that's life. Maybe telling my story will help somebody else."
In the film, Precious finds hope and a chance for self-expression in an alternative school program. DeBerry, who read the novel and was touched by it, has found an outlet on the runway.
She hopes the photos she posed for recently will further her career, perhaps as a model in Los Angeles or New York. Whether that happens or not, her focus is on the future.
-- Barbara Bradley: 529-2370, commercial Appeal
Spotlight on Ms. Adrian Deberry, a Full and Fabulous Model
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