Let the record show that this was not my idea. It makes me uncomfortable. But when my sister told me her idea for us to do testimonial posts, I realized that this is something that I actually need to do. For myself. For my daughter. For you.

There are reasons that I feel strongly about what makes a person beautiful, and one of those is that I have spent a decent portion of my years waist-deep in things that don’t….  

“Look how pretty and slim she is getting!” She was not talking about me.

I was an awkward 12 years old, with newly fastened braces, and really hadn’t given too much thought to my physique, or the way that my sister and I were slowly drifting apart in similarity of appearance.

In the three seconds it took for those words to be uttered (directly in my presence), my whole perspective changed. I began to question my own beauty and self-worth, all because ONE person said ONE thing that may or may not have meant that they thought my sister was prettier than me. And so was born the first lie I told myself: I NEED to be better than I am.

A couple months later, a strange string of triggering events brought me to the single day on which I vowed that I was going to cut down the amount of food I ate. I started at half. I would wake up earlier than the rest of my family so that nobody would notice as I threw away half-full containers of yogurt or half-eaten Quaker Oats breakfast bars. And, sure enough, the pounds started withering away.

Eventually I decided that dropping to a quarter of my original consumption patterns was more preferable. That meant eating one fourth of a granola bar for breakfast, or four Ritz cracker sandwiches for lunch, and calling those full meals. Honestly (and kind of stupidly), even I was amazed at how well my plan worked as I glided under 100 pounds.

This pattern continued for about 9 months. So many times my family members would ask me about my weight loss, but I would play it off as “natural changes in my body as I matured and slimmed down.” I’d lie, and lie, and lie. But they weren’t stupid.

December 3, 2005. I was thirteen years old and it was my turn to open the tiny window on the Advent calendar. As I peeled the edge back, my mom peered around her bedroom doorway and asked me to come talk to her when I had a minute. I told her I’d be right there, and then proceeded to drink 4 glasses full of water because I knew exactly what was going on. She was going to have me weigh myself. And I knew I wasn’t going to fool her this time. I walked into her bathroom and stepped onto the scale, right there in front of her. 5’ 2” and 83 pounds (I can actually feel my throat knotting up as I type that).

The following months were filled with antidepressants and therapy sessions. The guilt of lying to my family and friends for so long had completely overwhelmed my senses, and I didn’t know how to function on a day to day basis. I’d be in the grocery store with my mom and sister and I’d just be staring off, mind spinning, completely out of touch and disgusted with myself. And in a wildly sickening way, I still craved that emptiness that resulted from starving myself, because by then I had actually convinced myself that hunger was a good thing. That it was enjoyable, pleasurable even, to fall asleep hungry because it meant I would wake up thin.

I think it was summer of 2006 when I finally had a kind of breakthrough moment. We had just returned home from Bible camp and I had a tearful conversation with God in which I resolved to give up, to give him control of my struggles, and I asked him to give me the strength to get better. And for a long time He and I did just that. The only problem with the scenario, however, was that in that moment, that beautiful, innocent moment, I was on a mountaintop, and mountaintops don’t last forever.

Throughout high school, my sister and I were both very involved in our local youth group and that was great, because it kept the fire in our hearts burning strong. Yet, the faith that I had was the kind that comes from taking everything your leaders say at face value, believing what they said and taught simply because they were the grown ups and they knew better than me. I never took time to question them or discern any kind of truth for myself. So when college rolled around and I found myself in a new place surrounded by new people, I was completely naive to many of the “darknesses” of the world. When I found myself in a valley, I just didn’t know how to deal.

By the end of my freshman year of college, I had once again begun starving myself, though not to the same extent as before. Fortunately, this time around I had the presence of mind to come clean about it with my RA and fellow wingmates. Through the support of my sister and some other strong women around me, I let go of my insecurities once more. And life was pretty blissful for a time. Heather introduced me to Patrick (aka the “best husband in the entire world/universe/multiverse etc….I watch too much TV). He was sooooooooooooo cool. And I couldn’t believe he actually liked me. He saw what I couldn’t though, which was that I WAS beautiful, and he stuck with me through the tough times, because, believe it or not, my struggles with insecurity and a lack of self-worth were far from over.

I wouldn’t say that I exactly struggled with anorexia beyond this point, but regardless, the decisions I continued to make were not spiritually, emotionally, mentally, or physically healthy. I desperately wanted to learn what it meant to take care of my body and be healthy, but I was still using my appearance as the ultimate marker for that healthfulness. A lack of accountability and my “good intentions” found me at about 100 pounds in the latter half of my junior year, as I became obsessed with working out and keeping my meals as low in calories as I could possibly manage (while still being able to somewhat reasonably call them meals). I vividly remember the headaches I would get from climbing up the stairs to my apartment. Don’t think I didn’t know it was because my body was suffering severe calorie deficits. I knew it, but I chose to ignore it and pretend I was still on a path of learning and this was just part of the process. Maybe I am too thin, but that’s okay, we all make mistakes, and I like the way I look, so whatever. I WOULD LITERALLY TELL MYSELF THAT.

Any of you who know me personally , I really don’t want you to be sitting here thinking, “Oh, you know, I think I remember that. I could tell she was looking thinner than usual and now it totally makes sense.” That’s not why I’m telling you this. I’m sharing this because this is my story and it too, despite the icky-ness, is part of what makes me beautiful.

Here’s where things get a little gritty. Every time I struggled with my weight and obsessed over either eating less or working out more, the people that love me most would confront me. They’d tell me how worried they were and how unhealthy it was and how frightened they were by the way I looked and how they just wanted to see me making better choices. That’s great, and their intentions were right and good, but looking back I can tell you, from the deepest and sincerest places of my heart, that what I needed to hear the most was that I was beautiful, that I was okay, and that no matter what...I was loved. That I wasn’t a disappointment in any way.

Please do not think that I harbor any resentment toward anyone for their words, words that were meant to be encouraging and life-giving. I don’t. I really do appreciate the concern that was shown because those moments, too, molded me into the person I am today and that makes me inextricably proud. But at the same time, the immediate result of those types of things being were said was that I felt an even greater need to be better than I was. I had disappointed someone who cared about me and I needed to do something to make it better. There’s something wrong with me. That’s the message that I heard, and in retrospect I wasn’t in a place to be able to take that message with a grain of salt. I lacked the maturity and wisdom and psychological stability. I do think that if someone had simply told me, “You’re beautiful. No ifs, ands, or buts,” that I would have believed it. And maybe, just maybe, it would have given me back a shred of the self-worth I had lost before.

But here’s where it gets really sad. Every time I chose to devote my time to being thinner, fitter, prettier, I alienated my sister. And I made her question her own self-worth, and I’m not sure that I will ever fully forgive myself for that. I know now that my behavior planted seeds in her mind and that throughout my struggles with the desire to be someone else, I had unintentionally sent the message that I didn’t think she was beautiful. She even asked me about it once, when we were on our family’s ranch in Lincoln, “What about me? Do you think I’m not beautiful?” I was completely heartbroken because ALL I ever wanted was to be beautiful like her. But instead, I had just hurt her and had ripped a hole in the relationship between us - one that had, for most of our life at that point, been enviably strong.

I hadn’t been there for her when she needed me most. When she faced her own struggles with eating disorders. When the men in her life took great lengths to destroy her self-worth. When all she needed was for someone, anyone, to tell her how incredibly beautiful she was, and still is. And while this ENTIRE story plays a huge role in who I eventually became, someone that I can honestly say I’m proud of, it’s these parts that I just wish I could crumple up and throw down the garbage disposal. I hate them. But God worked in so many wondrous and mysterious ways and brought the two of us closer than we had ever been. She is my prime confidant, one of the only people in my life that I know will listen to the deepest aches of my heart with nothing but love and encouragement to counter. And I really hope (and pray) that she feels the same about me.

Four months after marrying Patrick, I wound up pregnant (go us!) and found myself facing an interesting dilemma. Here was a girl terrified to gain weight, in a situation that necessitated it. Not to mention, I wasn’t really all that happy with the weight I was at to begin with.

I had to completely change my perspective on my appearance. It wasn’t about me anymore, it was about making sure that the life inside me was being nourished by what I was putting into my body. I couldn’t worry about how I looked anymore because that wasn’t the priority. Plus, it would have been pointless. After all, the pregnant body does as the pregnant body needs/wants…

When I found out I was having a girl, this was an additional game changer. I could picture the amazing life that we would have with this beautiful baby girl, but I knew I was going to have to find a way to teach her what it meant to be beautiful and healthy in a way that I never really grasped for myself. I never want her to have to feel the way that I did or believe the lies that I so fervently crammed into my own brain, but how was I going to do that?

Let me tell you what I have done in the past. I have religiously counted calories consumed, and calories expended. I have weighed myself daily. I have given up breads, and sweets, and avoided fats like the plague. I have counted macronutrients. I have used meal replacement bars and meal replacement shakes. And sure, those things made me feel good for a short while, but the truth is that they also never did A SINGLE THING to further my relationship with God or with anyone else.

Something happened a while back, although I can’t say that I can pinpoint when exactly. But I will tell you this: I do not weigh myself everyday anymore. I literally did that for over 10 years, every day. As odd as it may seem, however, a few months ago I realized how stupid it all was. First of all, do I really want my children to see me as the mother who hops on the scale as part of her morning routine so she can spend some quality time criticizing herself for not being at the exact weight that she wants? H-E-double-hockey-sticks NO! Second, I’ve got better things to do with my mornings, like take care of and spend time playing with my beautiful, bright 15-month-old daughter. Thirdly, doing so just leaves the door open for me to fall into the same pattern of shame and self-hurting. Lastly, I just don’t want to know. That number has absolutely NO bearing on who I am or who God made me to be, so I don’t really want to know about it. Please, please, please, please, please! Hear that last statement. In so many ways, focusing on that number made me a person I neither wanted to be nor was designed to be, and prevented me from embracing who I AM. If you struggle with this, please feel free to contact me personally and we can have a really great chat about it, I promise ;).

So this is what I am going to do. I am going to focus on feeding myself and my family meals prepared with whole foods and using traditional food preparation methods, because these are the things that nourish our bodies. I’m going to feed my and my family’s soul with the Word of God so that we may better learn and understand the value that he has placed on us as individuals and humanity as a whole. I am going to teach my children that a little fresh air and exercise go a long way in maintaining way more than just physical health. I am going to CHOOSE to see myself as beautiful, day in and day out, and make darn sure that every member of my family is certain of their own beauty. And gosh darn it, I am going to fall short sometimes. I am going to make mistakes. But I am not going to lose sight of the beauty in and around me because that is where I find my purpose and that is where I find the ability to share and receive the love that God has for me.

I mentioned before how I came to question my own value and beauty. I don’t want anyone to think that I blame the person who made the comment about my sister for anything that followed. I was young, and immature, and had not the presence of mind to see that what I was doing was attributing a certain belief to that individual, the belief that they saw me as less. I know now that that was wrong, and I gave the circumstance way too much power. I have no authority to decide what anyone thinks or to make assumptions about that. I am responsible for my thoughts only. The ONLY certainty I can and should have in regard to what ANYONE thinks about me and my value, is what GOD has revealed about me through His Word and the people he has placed in my life to show me His Truth.  

-Chelsea Johnson