Thursday, May 14, 2015
The memory is still as clear as if it happened yesterday. I can feel the painful sting that filled my heart. It started in my chest and moved up my throat to where it hurt too badly to speak or even breathe. I can still feel the burning sensation of tears welling in my eyes as I tried to prevent myself from crying. I remember the music that was playing in the background, I remember the outfit I was wearing, I remember the outfit she was wearing, I remember the color of the carpet we stood on, and I remember how dim the lights were set.
I was 18 years old, speaking to a woman who I had looked up to all my life. I bent over backwards to help her. Any time she had a request, I ran to meet it. She was the woman I hoped to become, and thus I did everything I could to please her.
But all that changed in an instant, with 5 little words.
The only time in all my years of knowing her and serving her, I had a need that I needed her help with. It was nothing majorly hard to do. I just needed a recommendation letter for a scholarship I was applying for. She told me no and told me all the reasons why she did not want to. None of them bothered me, until the end.
"You need to be more self motivated. You need to be more outgoing. You need to be funnier." All criticisms which I could take.
"If only you were prettier."
I was already a world traveler. I was known throughout the community for my countless hours of community service in many different aspects. I was a leader in several organizations on national levels. I had traveled all around talking to crowds of 500+. I was the girl who had in one year lost 50lbs. I was the girl who in one year had changed my gpa from a horrendous 1.5 to a 3.6. I was a success in every use of the word. I was the girl who went from sneaking out at night to get high, to traveling the world as a missionary. Yet those 5 little words ripped me apart and left me feeling worthless.
All my life I tormented myself with how much better my life could be, "If only I were prettier."
I think every woman and girl secretly feels that way, at least at some point in their life. So much of a woman's self-worth depends on the level of their beauty. All my life I have felt fat and ugly, and all my life I have struggled with feelings of insecurity and worthlessness.
In fact, I was so dependent on my physical appearance, that when some one else told me I wasn't pretty enough, I never spoke to her again. A lot could be said about how unhealthy that relationship was and that it was best for me to quit associating with her, but that is not what I want to focus on today.
Today I share this painful memory, to share what I have learned since that day.
I can remember at a mere 5 years old, sitting on the counter in the bathroom, slapping my face repeatedly because I was mad at myself for being so ugly. I always told myself no one wanted to be my friend because I was ugly. I missed out on fun events because I thought no one wanted the ugly chick there.
Nothing changed in my mentality, until one day in Uganda, Africa in 2013. I met an 86 year old woman who had lived nearly twice as long as the average life expectancy in that nation. We had gone hut to hut praying with people. When we got to hers, I noticed there were many people in and around the home. Children of all ages surrounded her. You could clearly tell that she was loved. The children clung on to her, and were constantly bidding for her attention. She had many beautiful decorations all given to her as gifts out of love. But as we began speaking, she instructed everyone but the American visitors to leave so she could speak to us alone.
As the area cleared, she began to weep. She told us that she was crippled with depression. She had gone all her life feeling worthless and unlovable. I was in shock, this woman who was surrounded with love and respect, felt unlovable. As she continued we found out she had felt ugly since she was a young girl and told by her mother that she would never be pretty enough for a man to love her.
4 different men had asked to marry her in her years of living, and yet she never married. She had never given birth, and yet countless people referred to her as mama. All of the villagers provided all her needs because she was their most beloved member. Children traveled daily from 3 surrounding villages just to spend time with her. And yet she still fought the same demons as I, blinded to the love all around her because she was haunted by the thought of how she could be prettier. She turned the men away, insisting they deserved better than her, she urged the villagers to stop supporting her because she felt she was a burden to them, she loved on all of the children only in hopes that they would feel more loved than she did at their age.
This encounter began to rock my understanding of beauty. Beauty and love are two very different things and yet dependent on each other. Beauty is love, love is beauty. And beauty is in the eye of the beholder.
This woman was so kind, caring, and loving, that people were drawn to her and adored her for her beautiful character and spirit. But she hated herself so much that she misunderstood all of their loving gestures. She could not see her own beauty, and therefore she could not see love.
There's a photo that I used to see and absolutely hated. It was me, sitting at a table eating with my extended family. I hated how fat I looked, and that it was a picture of a fat kid eating. I hated the expression on my face. I hated the color of my hair. I hated how messy my hair looked. I was looking at the older women in my family feeling so inferior and wishing I could be as pretty as them. But what I never noticed, was that on the other side of me, was my little cousin mimicking me. While I was looking at them wanting to be like them, he was smiling looking at me, trying to copy me.
The picture was metaphoric to me. Women so often are caught up in what we wish we were, that we are blind to what we already are. We want to be someones role model, and yet we fail to recognize when we are.
I can remember the women in my life complaining about how ugly they were, and how unlovable it made them. They never said those things about me, but appearance became my definition of beauty and love because of the way they defined it with their selves. It's something I hope to do differently when I have daughters. I want to teach them to see the value and beauty they have, by their character and by how much love they have. And it doesn't start with me teaching them that about themselves, it starts with me believing it about myself.
So I end by asking you, what is beautiful about you?