Empathy. Compassion. Connection. These qualities have driven me for as long as I can remember. In early elementary school I went to several schools for children with special needs due to my Cerebral Palsy and Spina Bifida. Most of my classmates were worse off than I was, I felt bad for them. A boy in my class couldn’t use one of his hands – so I tried to break mine. The girl that sat across from me on the school bus was slightly overweight and constantly bullied for how big her thighs were. I wanted to step into her shoes, so I gained weight, as a six year old. Seeing these things broke my heart – and I write this and it sounds crazy now – but I just didn’t want these kids to feel alone. We already had enough stacked against us with our disabilities. We were already different and didn’t fit the ideals of beauty as human beings – as children.
What does that teach a child about the world? How does it affect the adults they become?
We as people shape and define ourselves by the way other people make us feel, especially in women. There is one instance in my life that, to this day, I am convinced changed the way I perceived my body forever. I was in the fourth grade. At this point I was blessed enough to be mainstreamed into a regular school setting. I lived in a town in Arizona on the Colorado River with a population of 1,500 people. Everyone knew each other. I was the only kid with a disability in our school and everyone wanted to be my friend. I still fought a battle though. My parents were physically and emotionally abusive and neglectful my entire life. Despite the fact that everyone away from home seemed to love me, my self-esteem was in the below negative nonexistent category. School was my escape – until it wasn’t anymore.
On my tenth birthday, my teacher sent me away to the library for an hour to study and when I was summoned back to class – the room was decorated with balloons and decor from The Little Mermaid. My mother was sitting at the table at the back of the room with a cake, candles lit, my classmates jumped all around me screaming with glee when I entered the room. My mother planned a surprise party for me – probably the first (and one of the only) nice things she’s done for me in my life. After the party as things were getting cleaned up, she put a piece of cake in my lunchbox. Soon after, it was lunchtime and after eating the healthy contents of my lunch I started to eat that piece of cake. Two bites into it, the lunch lady walked over and took it away from me. Remember what I said about this being a small town? This lady was the lunch lady, bus driver and school nurse. She called me “fat” and felt she was qualified and validated to tell me that I wasn’t allowed to have cake in my lunch. There was no rule against this in any school handbook. When I tried to tell her it was my birthday, she told me she “didn’t want to see anything happen” to me and proceeded to toss the cake in the trash. In the days following, she’d monitor my lunch and take things away from me that she felt I shouldn’t be eating. Those actions are the ones that were the catalyst to me learning to “eat my feelings” – I wasn’t a big girl then. I even ate pretty healthy. It’s twenty years later now, and still every time I look at food I hear her voice ringing in my head telling me I’m fat, and the scarred ten year old inside of me just wants to eat everything. What little self-image optimism I had was stolen from me that day. Then I’d go home and someone would emotionally tear me apart, telling me I was worthless and they wished I was dead and then hit me for things out of my control. Never again did I feel like a valued and beautiful girl or even worthy to be living this life.
I’ve never been one to feel sorry for myself for my disabilities — sure, every now and then there’s a bad day and I wish I was “normal” — but what defines normal? No, I’d feel bad about myself because being in my own skin was eating me alive. I felt bad about myself because as much as I loved the people in my life, I didn’t have the love I so desperately needed at home. I missed out on feelings, on how to handle emotion, on what it meant to be a human being. And I had no one to teach me all of the wonderful things it meant to be a woman. I’d sit in my room and look through magazines and long to be as beautiful as the flawless people that graced their covers. To attack someone like Ashley Judd for her “puffy face” is ridiculous. I am so proud of her for fighting back with the media. She was not fighting only for herself, she is fighting for those girls that are like I was – the ones uncomfortable in their own skin, thinking people like her are of the most beautiful in the world. To show them that they are beautiful the way that they are. Thank you, Ashley, for making this “acceptable” to be discussed.
I am long past childhood and that insecure young girl that I was. Here’s something I’ve learned as an adult: Your environment influences everything that you are. Growing up confined, scared and imprisoned strips you of your dignity and you get caught up in self-destructive behavior that belittles how you feel about yourself as a person. You resent everyone around you that doesn’t seem to be struggling. You long for just one person who can hear you screaming and will try to understand. The toxic ramifications affect the world around you. Everything negative links together – pressure on vanity, intolerance, bullying – it all stems from someone somewhere down the line not feeling like they’re good enough. Who has the right to make someone feel that way? You have to be your own change. You have to fight for yourself. I did.
In shifts I move with my own universe. My disability isn’t going to go away, but I walk whenever I get the chance – just to move because it makes me feel good about myself. The consequences of the behavior and things I felt as a child have affected me for the rest of my life. I am not a skinny girl. Sometimes it is hard, I would give anything to be able to go to the gym and workout in place of the person next to me in public complaining because they have to workout or hate doing it. You all know someone like that – count that blessing. Some of us would love to be in your shoes and we wouldn’t complain about it for a second. I’ve been a vegetarian for nearly four years and I’m doing what I can to make healthier food choices. And even though food still intimidates me, my body thanks me for it every day. I’ve also broken away from the people who abused me, and God placed me in the care of a family that I made in my heart. People that love me for who I am. They don’t care that I have a disability, or that I’m not perfect physically or emotionally – whatever that definition of perfect may be. These people only love me and only want me to be happy. Such a drastic atmosphere change turned my whole world upside down. Through such a positive and uplifting environment, I’ve learned the invaluable lesson of self-love.
Self-love is the key. Own what makes you different – because it’s what makes you who you are. This is a truth. You have one body, care for it, be proud of it and don’t let any sort of outside influence get in the way of what makes you comfortable. You want to workout? Do it. You want to eat a cupcake? Do it. Love you God? Praise Him. Are you gay? Love who you love. You are only as much a victim to your fate as you make yourself out to be. You have to be your own hero. No one can save you but yourself. You have to want to live and breathe – and experience the real beauty found in all of the little things that are happening all around us in this moment. Beauty isn’t found on the cover of a magazine – real life doesn’t come with an airbrush tool. And that’s key too – we only have this life. You don’t get a second chance. Don’t let your society dictate who you should be – be the person who is awake in the depths of your soul. Let that person into the sunlight – it’s warm and inviting. You’ll never be alone again because you’ll always have a friend in yourself. Just be. It’s all we have and we do the best we can with it.
Look in the mirror and say: “I’m beautiful.”
(You can read Ashley Judd’s essay here. Keep talking.)