Several years ago, Tatiana Gulenkina had her first brush with an eating disorder, when a classmate abruptly left school. Everyone had thought the girl was "just a skinny teenager." It was only after she left that they discovered she had been battling depression and anorexia nervosa. Soon after, a close friend of Gulenkina's admitted she too was struggling with eating — austerely dieting all week and then going on weekend food benders. Those experiences left a lasting impression.
Today, the Washington, D.C., photographer, now 26, is confronting these issues the best way she knows how — with a camera. The resulting project, Picture Perfect, highlights women's twisted relationship with food.
"People don't always realize anorexia and bulimia are classified as mental disorders," Gulenkina says. "We all experience dichotomy between physical and non-physical parts of ourselves, but for some, it's impossible to live with this gap. I wanted to show what the dark side of this striving for perfection looks like."
Originally, Gulenkina sought out patients in disordered eating treatment centers who were willing to have their portraits taken. But "these young women were so concerned with their appearances, to the point of hurting themselves, that photographing the way they looked felt as though it would perpetuate the cycle," she says.
So the photographer turned the story each girl had shared into a still life. Each image represents a specific girl and the compositions speak to her personal struggle.
"Emily, for example, was obsessed with wearing heavy makeup all the time," she says. "That's where the fake eyelashes came from. And to reduce her weight, she'd put parsley, which she hated, on everything."
Other images signify the tricks the girls told Gulenkina they used to keep their caloric intake low, such as consuming airy substances like lettuce or celery. For those compositions, the photographer stuffed fruits with cotton balls.
Gulenkina strove to create messy — even grotesque — images, because she says the goal was to upend society's outlook on beauty.
"Anything that has to do with weight is often labeled as vanity," she says. "Look at Instagram, and you see thousands of pictures tagged with #thinspiration or #thighgap. Those conjour up images of glamorous fashion models, rather than the girls next door who are struggling with psychological issues."
In her interviews, Gulenkina always asked, "Why do you do this?" And her subjects almost always responded, "I just want to be perfect."
There was a mental fear, manifesting physically, over the idea that these women weren't measuring up to the ideals with which they had been presented.
"So many judge [these diseases], but the girls' pain is very real," Gulenkina says. "So many are still uncomfortable with this topic, that what's often overlooked is the suffering."
**To see more of Gulenkina's work, visit her website**