I had reached my lowest point when I uttered the question that you are never EVER supposed to ask. I cringe even writing it now. I saw a group of women, chatting enthusiastically in a circle, and asked my boyfriend at the time, “do you think I’m prettier than them?”
I know, I know, it was a terrible thing to do. Comparison between women – not cool, right? I know that now, but 20-year-old Laura was a different person, and she did shit like this.
I could see the panic rush across his face. Finally, he said, “I don’t want to answer because I don’t want to hurt your feelings.”
I felt as if someone had punched me in the stomach – hard. Without even realizing it, he had given his answer. And that, my friends, is the problem with asking the mirror on the wall, “who is the fairest of them all?” Sometimes, the mirror doesn’t give you the answer you want, and you wished you’d never asked.
Many years and experiences had led to this moment of not feeling good enough, of feeling “less than” other women, and of not being confident in myself. I didn’t grow up in a body positive environment. Weight loss was not only encouraged, but celebrated. Bodies were covered up. However, one of my first childhood memories of insecurity came from a surprising source. It wasn’t a backhanded compliment from my aunt at our family Christmas, or a playground insult from the 5th grade bully. It came from the movie, The Princess Diaries.
I can see your brows raise like, “wait…what? The happy Disney movie with Julie Andrews?” Yep, that’s the one (and don’t get me wrong, I still love the movie.) But, while watching it, it was the very first time that I realized that my looks resembled the “before” picture, not the “after.” I had curly hair. I had glasses. In movies, this combination cues the makeover montage, and the girl magically becomes “pretty” with smooth blown-out hair and contact lenses. Don’t get me wrong – it didn’t shatter my world — but it started this little bitty seed of insecurity and self-doubt that would continue to grow.
As a teen, I was chasing one thing after another. I thought: “If I start straightening my hair, I’ll feel pretty. If I whiten my teeth, I’ll feel pretty. If I become a cheerleader, I’ll finally be pretty.” Spoiler alert: it didn’t matter what I did, I never felt beautiful or good enough. Also, I had major depression, which only added to the equation. Depression is a good liar. It can infiltrate your thoughts and entrap you in it’s snare. It can get ugly – and it did.
In college, I joined Men’s football (which is a long story for a different day.) What started as a dream ended as a very public failure and left me with crippling anxiety and self-doubt. In addition, the gender roles that had been so defined throughout my traditional upbringing felt shattered. I felt like I had lost my “feminine” side. So, you ask, what do you do when you don’t feel feminine? I did my nails. I tanned. I bleached my hair. I spent hundreds of dollars on extensions.
For a short time, this worked for me. I felt like I was finally getting somewhere with my confidence. However, this didn’t last. One night, I was walking to my car on my college campus. I had thrown on a fleece zip-up and my boots, as there was still a chill in the Duluth air. During the walk, I passed a girl I used to know from high school. She didn’t notice me – or so I thought. An hour later, I was scrolling twitter and realized she had tweeted about me. It went something along the lines of: “camouflage sweatshirt, UGG boots, fake blonde hair, and shitty extensions? LOL confusing.” Granted, was it the most wonderful outfit in the world? Nah. Did it still hurt to be made fun of? Yes. One thousand times yes. My response to her online criticism was to stuff the camouflage sweatshirt to the back of my closet, but I kept going with the extensions – and after about a year and a half of this, I had lost most of my hair.
I will never forget the expression of my hairdresser as she fussed with the choppy chunks of hair that I had left. Broken strands of my own curls lay discarded on the floor around me, entangled in a sea of extensions. I couldn’t bear to look in the mirror at my reflection, so I stared down at my lap, utterly defeated. She asked if I wanted to put in a new set of extensions in order to cover up the hair loss, and I shook my head through tears. At this rate, I knew that I would be soon be bald. I left the salon feeling more broken than ever before.
The battle moved from my hair to the rest of my body rapidly. At 22, I bought my first box of HydroxyCut Max (for women, which didn’t change anything but the price). I had gained 40 lbs post college and was still trying to fit into my old stereotypes and skinny jeans. The little red pills made my hands tremble and my body shake. It was a horrid time, but I couldn’t quit. I wanted so badly to be pretty.
I booked my first Duluth Boudoir session at the age of 25. I was shocked at how comfortable I felt around these three strangers. I felt so pretty in the studio, all dolled up like a queen. But when I got home that night, I started bawling. My emotion caught me off guard – I mean, it had been such an AMAZING day, so why were my tears flowing so freely? Why was my chest heaving with ugly sobs? After reflection, I realized how absolutely exhausted I was after years and years of battle. I was so tired of hating my body; I was so tired of treating it like the enemy. It was on that day that I called a truce.
I’m not going to lie to you: I am still not head-over-heels in love my body. I know that’s not the best thing to admit, but it’s true. I’m working towards neutrality. When you spend so long hating the way you look, it’s hard to break down your walls and start fresh. I started by taking baby steps. I watch the way I talk to myself, as well as the way that I talk about others. I invest in myself through therapy and yoga, and I can feel myself getting stronger mentally and physically. I’m on medication for my anxiety and panic disorder, and I’m ok with that. If I’m on them forever, I’ve accepted that it’s worth it to me.
Being a part of this project was both difficult and rewarding. After Emily had taken my pictures, I confided in her that I was nervous about seeing my photos. I felt so good in my own skin during the session, but I was scared that once I saw my images, I would feel differently. I was afraid that I would return to my habit of picking my image apart and fixating on my flaws – but Emily helped me realize that the pictures that make us uncomfortable (hello, stomach photos) are often the ones we need to look at the most on the road to acceptance. I need to stop looking away from the parts of me that so desperately need my love. Every roll, every wrinkle (where the HECK did those come from?), and every scar is part of what makes me, me. My body has been on quite the journey so far, and after all it has been through, I’m ready to give it some love.