Raise your hand if your mother has, proudly displayed on her living room wall, one of those most humbling of memory-keepers: the circular ring of school photos from grade 1-12.
Anyone? Anyone raising just two fingers in the Katniss salute right now? (I am!)
Now, maybe if you were fortunate enough to have navigated both the social awkwardness of junior high AND the fashion trends of your formative decades without creating tragic photographic evidence, these wall hangings were not a source of embarrassment to you. Let me just put it out there right now that I did NEITHER well. That 80s perm? Even my bangs, girl! Braces for four years? Check that one, and I will raise you neon elastic bands to decorate the brackets! Fashion sense? I rocked puff-painted Kmart shirts on a consistent basis and wore my D.A.R.E. shirt to my first day of junior high “so the druggies would know not to bother me.” (Sigh…)
I have a guess that you are thinking right now that I am just being hard on myself, and “we all go through an awkward phase” has crossed your mind. Well, the first summer I met my now husband he came to my house (my mother positioned my “wall of shame” lining the entrance stairs) and on our next date LITERALLY called me an Ugly Duckling. And tried to make it a compliment. (Yes, I still married him… he did have good intentions, just not a gift for compliments…)
Let me pause right here and now and say that this is not a “poor me” story, nor is it about to become a feel good, “at least she became a swan” kind of memoir. Because one of the deepest blessings of getting closer to my 40s than 30s has been the ability to look back through my life and see not the surface but the deeper realities shaping who I was and am. And what I have seen as I plumb the depths of my younger self is something far more serious than a tragic fashion sense.
You see, I have come to believe that our minds and our bodies work together to protect us in mysterious ways that our conscious selves are not aware of. And I believe that this instinct is so strong that it even has the power to override our conscious mind, sometimes keeping us from the things we want most because at some level we have learned (whether rightly or wrongly) that it is not safe.
I was sexually abused when I was 3 years old. Too young to have any idea what was going on, but old enough to take away from the experience that it was somehow my fault. Old enough to feel shame about my body, shame that turned to loathing. When puberty started, I honestly thought I was becoming deformed as a punishment for who I was and the evil I was trying to hide inside of me. (It was not until I read about female genital mutilation that I realized for the very first time that what was happening to my body was normal and healthy even.)
And as I grew up, everything around me seemed to echo the same despairing message: “you can only be loved if you are beautiful, but being beautiful isn’t safe because if you are beautiful you will receive more of the disgusting, shameful notice that you already brought on yourself.” So there was this war within myself – a deep hatred of my body for NOT being beautiful enough, but also profound fear of any beauty that did try to express itself within me.
Do I think that my story is unique? Oh how I wish it were! But my work advocating for victims of abuse has opened my eyes to how very many of my sisters have a similar story. For me, my internal war nearly cost me my life as I battled anorexia for over a decade. And though I believe that war has been won, it is the kind of struggle that you never really stop having to fight. And I know that I am not alone in that battle, either.
This world has such a strange message for women. Between the assumption that we all exist in a state of perpetual competition, the complicated hierarchies we create in our minds categorizing who is most beautiful, most successful, most popular, etc. – and how to move up those ranks – the elaborate masks we create to hide behind, and the gnawing fear that the truth about how insufficient we are will be found out… honestly, it is a wonder any of us manage healthy female friendships at all. But there is one thing that I know for certain. If we were to speak love, support, and truth into one another’s lives in precisely those places we ourselves are most vulnerable, instead of secretly comparing and competing and viewing another’s beauty and success as a threat, we would have the power to effect deep healing. Because it is not until we can both love ourselves and feel safe being our full, authentic self around others that our internal wars can end and we can embrace and even celebrate the beauty that is inside us. And on the outside of us.
I think the message behind the Ugly Duckling story needs a closer look. So often it is understood to be saying that true beauty is within us all along, we just need to give ourselves time to grow into it. But I believe we can only see the beauty within ourselves when others who are not threatened by that beauty – because they are so centered in their own uniquely beautiful identity – teach us to see it. The Ugly Duckling saw in the swans a beauty that made his heart ache with longing to be part of it. That is the true beauty of the swans, and of anything truly Beautiful. That it draws out the beauty of others. Imagine what a beautiful world we women could create if we could step into our true identities as uniquely created beautiful swans. If we could welcome the Ugly Ducklings to our pond and teach them how to see the beauty of their own reflection in the waters.
That is my heart for this space, a place to look into the water together and speak the truth that we are ALL beautiful swans. Because, dear friends, no matter where you are at in your journey you are beautiful. And it is SAFE to be so here.