I’m all about transformations. I’m awe struck when I see a home that was once a shack looking like a perfect farmhouse (all hail, Joanna Gaines), an incredible weight loss story that rivals The Biggest Loser, a drug addict who is now sober, or the battered and beaten who have overcome and claimed victory. We read these stories, see these results, and we can’t help but feel happy and inspired for the ones who are living on the other side of the often times painful journey.
For some reason, it’s so easy to be happy for them, but to convince myself that it’s not for me.
Typing that makes me feel and sound ridiculous.
Until I was 9, I never struggled with body image. What I wore and how I wore it was totally based on what I thought was fun and whatever others thought had absolutely no bearing on whether or not I chose what I chose.
In fourth grade, we started reading a book about a girl with an eating disorder. The book talked about how thin she became and how sick and unhealthy she was due to her disorder. A boy in my class raised his hand and asked the teacher, “Does Rachel throw up her food, too?” I remember being a little girl and wondering why he thought I was like the girl in the book. I remembered our conversations about the book – how sickly and thin. It was at that time when I started examining myself in the mirror everyday and first began comparing my body to other girls in my class. I was 9.
It didn’t stop there. As I grew taller in stature, struggled with acne, crooked teeth, and bushy eyebrows, I also had a general lack of knowledge on how to dress, fix my hair, or apply makeup. I know this all seems like normal middle school struggles that so many of us can relate to, but I wish it wasn’t “normal” to feel ugly. Words hurt, and I can vividly remember so many of those words.
“I would rather be overweight than to look like you.”
“Why do you even bother to wear a bra? You don’t have anything to fill it out with anyway.”
“Have you ever heard of a thing called tweezers?”
“You have no curves.”
“You’re not as pretty as _______________.”
“You’re too pale.”
“You’re too skinny.”
“You look sick.”
“You have bird legs.”
“Are those pimples, or chicken pox on your forehead?”
I’m lucky that I had some really good friends, a great church, and very loving parents, but even all of that couldn’t protect me from the hurtful words I endured. Girls who were my friends as a child all of a sudden would not speak to me in the hallways anymore. They were popular, and I wasn’t. I knew in my heart, even at a young age, that popularity wasn’t everything, so I wasn’t willing to sacrifice my morals for a chance at being recognized by a cute boy or a popular girl. In some ways, I was really strong. But sometimes, I would get off the bus after school, walk to the side lot beside my house, sit in the grass and cry.
Middle school was hard. At the same time I was getting remarks on my poor looks, I can also remember being in a 7th grade social studies class when a boy first grabbed me inappropriately and laughed. I remember being upset about it and embarrassed. I didn’t tell on him. I should have, but I didn’t. Someone said, “That’s just what guys do.” I was 12.
9th grade came and so did highschool. I was embarrassed to ever wear shorts because I knew I’d get made fun of for my bird legs. I had braces that year, and even though I was missing a canine tooth behind those braces, I was ready to go to high school since that meant getting out of middle school. I didn’t get asked to any dances that year. Almost all (if not all) of my friends did. I stayed home and watched TV while my friends experienced that first dance without me. I was 14.
Something happened over the summer of my 9th grade year. I got my braces off, and I gained a little weight. I got better at applying the makeup and I started to look a little more like a growing woman instead of an overgrown kid. When I went back to school for the fall, a boy told me on the first day of school that he had to look twice to realize it was me.
For a while, I felt like most of the comments I received were based on my looks. How I’d gotten prettier, or how I’d “blossomed.” I was introduced to a beautiful tool called a hair straightener and I’d learned that there were other lipstick colors other than “rust.” As far as appearances go, life was better. I remember after dating Micah for a few months, we were going through a box of my old things and we found my freshman badge from high school. He saw it and said, “Who is this person, and why do you have her badge?” I said, “Read the name.” He couldn’t believe it was me. I looked totally different. I’d put a picture of that below, but I’m pretty sure I burned that thing years ago.
I had a serious high school boyfriend, but it didn’t keep boys from making comments about my body. Some of those comments were meant to be flattering, but they were often inappropriate. Some were still rude.
“You have the hairiest arms I have ever seen.”
“Your hair is in a pony tail. You must be on your period because you obviously didn’t feel like trying today.”
I was 16.
In college, I was told by strangers frequently that I looked just like Jennifer Aniston. Going from 8th grade Rachel to Rachel from Friends was quite the transition. I spent a lot of time visiting the tanning bed and I never left my dorm room without applying eye liner. I got comments on my looks frequently.
I’m going to remove my veil now and tell you that this boost in encouragement from those around me also turned into a boost in my ego. I began to focus too much on my looks and I liked the attention I received around my physical transformation.
Then, something weird happened. I went back home over the holidays and saw a family member I didn’t see regularly. This person put her arm around my waist and pinched my side saying, “I can’t believe you, out of all people, have put on some weight since going away to college. You used to be so skinny.”
Used to be? Do I look bad?
I watched a video of me teaching shortly after for my student teaching assignment and all I could focus on was my mid-section.
Guys, I was 5’8″ and weighed 112 pounds. In other words, I was tiny. So tiny. I pretended to be confident. I’d take selfies with friends, I’d spend so much time trying on outfits and putting on makeup and I’d still compare myself to the girls across the hall from me in the dorms – never feeling like I was measuring up. I was super insecure and pretended not to be. I was 19.
Time went on. I got married. During my first year of teaching, I gained 20 pounds. I was extremely stressed with my new job. I was down on myself a lot and the extra 20 pounds of weight was on top of about an extra 20 pounds of stress. It was my first year of marriage too. That was hard. Neither of us were perfect. We were 21.
A few years later, I had my first child. During pregnancy, everyone told me how cute I looked pregnant. Confidence boost again. I felt good about how I looked when I sported that baby bump.
Then, she was born. My cute bump turned into what looked like a deflated balloon and the comments shifted from, “You are so cute with that bump,” to, “‘She spits up a lot. Do you think it’s because you are eating too much dairy? You should probably cut back.” I was often met with questions on my parenting and the choices I had made about my “birth plan,” choices I had made regarding schedules or routines for my new baby, and a huge dose of hormones that left me feeling inadequate and small. I was 25.
In the meantime, I got better and went on to have 2 more children. After my third child was born, I went back to work and was also pumping a ton of breastmilk. He was sick with a rare viral disease and I was a stressed out, working mom with a lot of insecurities. I was struggling in several areas of my life. I lost so much weight from nursing and getting too busy to pay attention to the food I was not eating. I went down to 109 pounds at 5’8″.
“Are you ok? You are so thin it worries me.”
“Are you depressed? You look so frail.”
After I quit nursing, I started putting some of the weight back on and I started eating healthier and working out. I was doing much better and getting much healthier. My little boy was on the mend and so was I. I was 31.
I began really feeling led to offer myself as a surrogate for my sister in law. As we went through that process, I began a lot of hormones in order to prepare my body for IVF. In a matter of 5 months, I gained 15 pounds. The pregnancy took and I gained another 30. But this time, I didn’t care.
I looked at my body in a completely different way. My body was carrying the life of another so that someone else could have a baby to call her own. I watched my body change and I did it as an act of service for a child that wasn’t mine and for a sweet couple who would have otherwise not had an opportunity to hear the pitter-patter of tiny little feet in their home. All of a sudden, my body wasn’t mine and what I was doing wasn’t for me. As uncomfortable as it was to grow and swell, I was finally comfortable with this body I had. I received a ton of encouragement about my body, but in a completely different way.
“What you are doing is amazing.”
“I’m so inspired by what you are doing for your sister in law and brother in law.”
I began to think that I’ve been viewing my body wrong all along. Do I look at my daughters and make statements about how their bodies look? Or do I make statements about how what they are doing with their bodies inspires and amazes me?
I want to be amazed at what my body can do – whether that is carrying my own child, carrying the child of another, doing a pull up, or hiking to the top of a mountain. Our bodies are described as our “temple.” What am I putting in that temple and how am I using it?
I’ve never been “athletic.” I was told that I wasn’t by my middle school PE teacher and I believed it. I was one of the last ones picked in the lineup in gym class and I wasn’t the “sports type.” For this reason, I never tried out for a team, got anxious anytime I was given the opportunity to play physical games of any kind, and so forth. I wasn’t made to be an athlete, but I was made to be healthy and to try my best. I’m working on being stronger and I’m not letting an old definition of me get in the way this time.
I had never been a surrogate, either. When I decided to do it, I came up against some opposition from a few people, but I knew God was calling me to do this and I trusted that he would not only get me through it, but that He’d bless me through it. My body did something amazing. I wasn’t made to be a surrogate, but I was made to serve others and to use my body for good.
Here’s the honest truth. I’m inspired and empowered by my recent journey to believe that I can overcome the barriers. I don’t have to label myself with the comments I received about my body and athletic abilities in the past. I can do anything. I’m going to stop comparing myself to the other women out there and I’m going to start comparing where I am today to where I was yesterday. Am I doing what I can to be healthy? Am I pushing myself physically to become stronger?
This whole physical transformation that so many of us long for will not fulfill us until the physical transformation brings about a spiritual transformation.
I’m making baby steps. I’m writing this to tell you about my issues and letting you know how not perfect I am. I’m going to the grocery store with no makeup on and my hair pulled up in a pony tail – not caring whether or not it looks like I “tried” today. I’m letting my daughters see my imperfections and I’m paying more attention to the words I’m using to affirm them, trying to focus much more on the hard work and effort they put into a task rather than the way they look.
I’m still struggling too. I tell my husband that I’m sorry I don’t look like I did when he married me 10 years ago, when he reminds me that my body has done some pretty amazing and admirable things these past 10 years. I analyze my figure and change my clothes when I think a part of me is emphasized that shouldn’t be or when I’m afraid what other people will think. I’ve got to stop sucking it in and start living it out – being comfortable in the body I’m in.
I’m a work in progress, and my body image is a hundred times better than what it was, but I’ve still got work to do. I’ve seen 26 year olds who have had tummy tucks, implants, Botox, and lip injections and they look beautiful and happy. I see these women and say things to myself like, “A lot of women do it these days… I wonder how much this procedure would cost…” I compare myself to these women. Ultimately, I know that for me, going through a procedure to alter my appearance won’t fulfill me or ultimately bring me joy. I know how much I admire those who aren’t afraid to age gracefully. My Mamaw had the softest hands I had ever felt. She used those hands to knead the dough for the rolls she made for anyone who wanted to join her at her table. She used those hands to work on her farm to help provide for her family. She used those hands to hold my sweaty little face and tell me she loved me. She had the most beautiful hands I’d ever seen, sun spots, wrinkles, and all. I loved those hands.
So, here’s my plea to all of you who might be reading this. What do you value in a person? We cannot stop the aging process. With time, our bodies will age, but our character can continue to grow. Let’s start looking at our bodies differently. Let’s be inspired to challenge ourselves physically and be empowered to use our bodies for good. Let’s worry less about the bathing suit and focus more on the fun we can have when we jump into the pool with our kids. Let’s stop comparing ourselves to the bodies we see on social media and let’s love the skin we are in. Let’s focus on health instead of skinny and strong instead of clothing sizes. Let’s take care of our bodies so that we can be healthy and live life to the fullest, but let’s not allow our appearances to determine our contentment. Let’s stop commenting so much on people’s looks and start commenting more on their hard work and character. What’s more beautiful… well applied makeup and perfectly curled hair? Or, the friend who is picking up your groceries when everyone in your house is sick? I love makeup, and I love doing fun things with my hair, but a heart for service will always trump the latest fashion trends.
As I become older, I’m becoming stronger. So here’s my transformation. It might look backwards to some of you, but this transformation feels so good, and I’m still transforming. Here’s 32.