At 5 feet eight inches, I tower over my students who are three and four years old and half my size. I have to sit or kneel to get on their level, but I love hearing the funny things they say like the little girl who, after noticing a blueberry roll on the floor and her classmate eat it, made the situation acceptable by saying, “I have a five-second rule!”
Even at this young age, children have well-developed personalities, miniature versions of who they are and hints of who they always will be. Each one is distinctive and during the month of May “uniqueness” is what we study. Through stories, songs and art projects they learn that the combination of their voice, head-shape, nose, temperament, laugh and every other aspect of them, distinguishes them from any other. Following the Joy School curriculum, I teach them to value themselves and help them notice their talents. Most kids this age don’t need convincing that they are special because they seem to believe it innately and are full of confident “look-at-what-I-can-do!” moments. Self-love is a lesson for them to store away for later, but sadly, one that many of them will forget, just like I did. This past spring it struck me like a flying bean bag that if my tiny students are each unique and worthy of cherishing, then so is their teacher. Even though I had a mostly healthy self-regard, I resolved to no longer allow myself or anyone else make me feel bad about me. I decided to embrace and celebrate my individuality.
Something that makes me unique or “peculiar” (in good ways, I think) is the fact that I am an active LDS woman. However, there was a time when I felt badly about that label. I was twenty-five and in a crisis of my faith. Even though I had a strong upbringing in the church, I wasn’t sure of my testimony. Mostly I was afraid of being put into a box or being defined by a stereotype of what a Mormon woman is. I mentioned this to my mom and my aunt. My aunt said, “Look at cousin Carly*! She doesn’t fit any Jell-O mold!” My mom added, “How about our friend Shauna*? She backpacks for fun!” True to their humble characters, my mom and aunt didn’t offer themselves as blaze-your-own-trail Mormon women, but that’s who they are. My mom is eighty-four and continues to be a community leader and throw a football to anyone who will throw it back. My aunt was a Young Women’s President at the age of seventy-one. Both have a gift for loving people and bringing strangers together for food and conversation, just like their mom did with service men and women in Seattle during WWII. As I pondered and prayed about this dilemma of my faith, it was their examples, along with both male and female Sunday School and Seminary teachers, and my Savior’s perfect example, that helped me make my decision to stay with the religion I loved. I had an epiphany that I can be a faithful Mormon woman AND just about anything else: a drummer in a hobby band, a small business owner, a runner, a stay at home mom, a community activist. I embraced this uniqueness and have seen the blessings flow. My family and I have benefited from the peace that comes from having Gospel priorities and the Spirit in my life.
While knowing firmly that I was a daughter of God, accepting the uniqueness of my physical appearance was another huge hurdle. In my limited experience, I felt women born with what is considered “classic beauty” did not have the same struggles that I had of accepting oneself. Frequently they are told how pretty they are, while the rest of us are silently struggling. Many of us not born with “classic beauty” constantly try to avoid comparisons while also trying to recognize and delight in our own beautiful characteristics.
Media plays a large role in tearing down the self-worth of women because let’s face it – beauty sells! Most women selected to be news anchors, models, and actresses have been handed richly favored DNA. I might think that their lives are enviable, but they aren’t. Though different, my life is just as rewarding. “Regular women” may have to dig a little deeper and work a little harder to develop traits such as humor, kindness, and dignity; we can’t just get by on our looks. That’s how I felt anyway. When I decided to forget the media’s indoctrination of beauty standards and embrace ME for exactly who I am and how I look, I chose to swap jealousy for gratitude for the attributes that came with my DNA: my voice, head-shape, nose, freckles, and height. I chose to turn negative thoughts into positive ones. For example, instead of “my middle is squishy” I think, “my middle is tightening up because I’m watching my calories and working in extra cardio.” I now choose to make the best of all of ME and take care of what I have control over regarding my appearance. I choose to believe that what is different is what makes me significant.
Acknowledgement of talents is another source of satisfaction. What skills come naturally to me? What do I spend hours doing? What have I worked hard to achieve? These are my talents and bring me great joy! My talents are amazing, and always works-in-progress because they can always be improved! At the end of the Uniqueness Unit, my students do a talent show. Imagine being over-joyed because you can walk backward, do a dance, toss a ball, stand on your head, play harmonica with your twin brother or draw a jellyfish in front of all of your friends. Each of us has talents that can keep joy and creativity alive in us and bless the lives of others. I’ve discovered the purpose of accepting our faith, talents, and even our looks are so we can lift others. When we feel good about ourselves, we can help others feel their own divinity.
When loving ourselves is a habit, there is simply no room for self-loathing or negative thoughts and we are able to freely love others. There is little damage done if someone is critical or unkind because self–worth is like Wonder Women’s golden cuffs; it deflects external criticism and negativity. I have learned that for some, a healthy self-confidence may not come naturally – and so it must be fought for. A healthy love of self is paramount to a productive, loving and meaningful life. I’m so grateful for my journey because it has brought me not just peace of mind, but a true appreciation for who I am…at the core. And that core is really good.