For many of us, there is not just one event or experience that shapes our views. There are probably multiple memories, both far and recent, that have shaped or continue to shape the way we move through the world.
In my personal journey, I have encountered (and still encounter!) people who wish to use their words and behaviors to harm and to minimize my love for myself, and for the life I wish to create for myself. These encounters have made me cry, quit things I loved, feel deep self-hate, hide from the world and even question why I was around at all.
Middle School Chorus
In middle school I was in chorus class. I had always loved singing and enjoyed being in the class immensely. An opportunity came up to audition for a solo part in a recital. I was nervous, but felt excited by the possibility of doing something that brought me joy. This idea of joy quickly faded, though, when the teacher called my name and it became apparent that the murmurs and giggles in the crowded class were directed at me. Words like “fat” and “ugly” were being used in tones just loud enough to hear. None of the students who auditioned before me were met with that laughter and cruelty. My voice started to tremble as I sang. I couldn’t breathe. I didn’t sing the way I knew I could sing. I finished the song and went to the bathroom and cried. I didn’t sing in front of anyone again for 15 years.
High School Anatomy
In high school I loved science and anatomy. I was interested and engaged and looking forward to taking an AP anatomy class. The first day I took a seat up front. Before class even started, a girl behind me tapped me on my shoulder. I turned around, thinking maybe I’d know the person. She was a stranger, and she asked me why I was wearing the shirt I was wearing. I told her I liked it, and she said “Well, you probably shouldn’t wear that again. All anyone can see back here are your fat rolls.”
The whole table laughed. I didn’t like anatomy class after that. In fact, I hated school. I searched for validation from people who only cared to decrease my self-worth even more than I already had myself. I spent more days than I can remember being on diets, taking unsafe pills, feeling hideous and being sad that the only compliment I felt I ever received was if a person thought I had lost weight.
These are only two examples of the many experiences I could share, just as I am sure you could share so many, as well. What these experiences have in common for me, though, are that they removed joy from my life. I let the events and the people in those events take away things that were meaningful for me. I didn’t have the strength for a very long time to reclaim that joy. And I certainly didn’t know how to reclaim the ability to know that I was of value. Period.
But things have changed for me. I know I have value. I know I have worth. I know I am beautiful; and I know you are, too. I’m recording my first album with my band, Rachel and the JellyCats. In October, I will celebrate 13 years of marriage with someone who respects and loves me. I will graduate with a master’s degree in counseling in December. I dance, I teach, I model, I create, I live. I will continue to grow into my authentic and true self this year, and next year, and the next year, until there are no more years left.
It’s certainly easy enough for me to tell you that I accomplished these things. But the real importance lies in the how I did them. And I know you can make a list of your own soon. It won’t always be easy. But it will always be worth it. Because you, my beautiful, are worth it!
It can be a hard process to think back on things that people have said or done to hurt us physically, mentally or emotionally. Sometimes people hurt us in all the ways a person can be hurt. Sometimes there are reasons for the hurt (a fight, a broken relationship), sometimes there are no reasons at all (a stranger calling out my cellulite at the water park). Reasons are not what will set us free.
Reclaiming the experience will, though. What happened to you? How did you feel? What was your reaction? How did life change for you? The other person doesn’t matter here. The reasons don’t matter here. You matter here. Own the experience. Sit with the emotion of it. Feel the sadness or the anger or the pain or the hurt or the anguish. Yell if you want. Cry if you want. Allow for the time and space you need to process what has happened to you. You are in charge here. You are in charge now. You own this experience. It is yours.
Once we own something, we are free to do with it as we please — even throw it away. What matters here is that we free ourselves from the awful feelings that went along with this experience. For me, a few key things helped immensely. But you have to be completely honest with yourself.
- Do you even remember (or know) this person’s name?
- If not, do you honestly believe this person still thinks about you, or has thought about you at any time since the incident?
- If you still know this person, what role does this hurtful person truly play in your life?
- How much have you given up in your life as a result of this experience?
- How much do you think the other person has given up as a result of this experience?
- Do you want what you have given up back?
I knew for a fact those people in chorus or anatomy class never thought about me again. They played no role in my life and never would in the future. But I let these people dictate my present self and my future self. Why? To what purpose? To what end? What was I achieving in this arrangement? If you are always giving less than you are getting, the relationship has no value. Throw it away.
Your experiences, positive and negative, have made you the caring, loving, worthy and valuable person you are today. Each trial that brings heartache and sadness is as important as each moment of love and wonder. Without each piece of the puzzle, no matter how smooth or how craggy, you wouldn’t be you. And right now, you are magical. You are daring. You are unique. You are worthy. That stranger telling me he has never seen a fat belly dancer has made me as much of who I am as a friend telling me she’s glad I am in her life. All of these things are a transmission of energy, energy from someone to you. Energy you can use to live life on your terms.
Start small or start huge. But start. Harness that energy you’ve been gifted. I started using that energy to say yes. I started taking singing lessons. I took stand-up comedy classes. I went to writing workshops. When I couldn’t afford a class or a workshop, I watched videos online about dancing, making costumes or hosting shows. One of my biggest steps was going back to school. I knew the worst thing that would happen is that I would feel like a failure. But I already felt like that, so what difference would it make? I said yes. I didn’t fail.
I got a chance to sing in public again. I said yes. I didn’t fail.
I got a chance to dance in public. I said yes. I didn’t fail.
I got a chance to emcee a show. I said yes. I didn’t fail.
Maybe your chance is to wear a dress that’s been in the back of your closet.
Maybe your chance is to attend a seminar.
Maybe your chance is to write about your life and experiences.
Maybe your chance is to wear bright lipstick for the first time ever.
It doesn’t matter what the chance is. What matters is that you say yes to it. The more you say yes to yourself and your needs the more you will understand your value.
Words and actions will continue to be powerful tools of either love or shame, from our own being or from others. It is not possible to control all that we experience, and it simply isn’t necessary. We have reached this place because of what we have endured, and this endurance has shaped us into the people we are right now. And right now, you are just right.
Reclaim. Unchain. Reframe. Kick Ass. And repeat.
Rachel is an award-winning dancer, performer, singer, model and cosplayer from Norfolk, Virginia. She is the owner of Hipnotic World Fitness Center in Chesapeake, the only burlesque and belly dance-focused studio in the Hampton Roads area. At the studio she is an instructor in belly dance and burlesque and leads body-kindness and specialty workshops throughout the year (www.hipnoticbellydancing.com)
Along with the studio, Rachel is the manager of The Feral Showgirls, a traveling production company featuring performers of all types, from burlesque and boylesque to belly dance and beyond. The Feral Showgirls work to be a visual representation of inclusivity, representation and all the fun (www.feralshowgirls.com).
Rachel is also the lead singer/songwriter of the award-winning band Rachel and the JellyCats, an eight-piece band bringing vintage style into the modern world (www.rachelandthejellycats.
Finally, Rachel is a graduate student in mental health counseling, currently completing her internship with a local agency. Rachel hopes to develop a holistic counseling practice that incorporates body kindness, dance, performance and confidence-building to assist clients in reclaiming love for their bodies and minds.