You ARE Beautiful The Way You Are

“You’re beautiful just the way you are!”

Kimmie and Keats
Kimmie Meissner and her dog, Keats

What a disgusting, overused cliché. I loathe the way it rolls off peoples tongues so easily – too easily – as if the very words are weaving some perfumed heart around my face with a green check mark by it. Congratulations, your personal weirdness has alerted fellow humans in the general vicinity that you need to be swaddled with the token perfumed heart. I have such a strong dislike to these clichés that I sometimes spend time ruminating on why they are still used. Amid one of these sessions, a very vivid and admittedly strong life event, presented itself to me. My youngest older brother, Luke, reassuring me of a mole on my face, and without saying explicitly, telling me that I was beautiful just the way I was. And with this memory came a flurrying of warmth and happiness and confidence. Everything that aged, general saying should do.

Kimmie and Luke 3
Kimmie and her brother, Luke

Now, before I delve any further into my childhood story and the impact it had on my life, I must first explain why I chose to write about Luke. You see, I’ve had an extraordinary life thus far and there are, quite frankly, a multitude of people and events that have shaped my life. I struggled for months deciding who has impacted me in such a significant way that I wanted to put the story into ink. This I know for certain; everyone who came to mind is somebody I am extremely grateful for. You all surfaced in my brain holding a film of memories that I hold close, as well as different pieces of what makes me this unique and beautifully flawed human that I am. I’m not sure exactly what it was about Luke that stood out the most however. Perhaps it’s the fact that he is a soon to be father and I’m so incredibly happy thinking about how great he will be at this new role, or maybe it’s because I’ve recently reminded my figure skating students to embrace their individual quirks in a hope to build the fragile confidence of teenagers. Whatever it may be, Luke unknowingly helped me to embrace and love something that I formerly hated.

Kimmie alone
Bubbly days with the barely existent mole.

Growing up I was an energetic and bubbly kid, not lacking any drop of self-confidence, until I hit middle school. Even now at 26, just thinking back to my middle school years makes me cringe. Let’s be real though, we probably all do. You wander the halls with braces, blooming pimples, and a rearranging body. How do any of us even walk away? On one of those glorious, middle school mornings I experienced my first ounce of conscious self-doubt. For some reason in my science class we were filling out sheets about what we believed were positives and negatives about ourselves. One section discussed moles, birth marks, and other variations of the sort. All my life I’ve had a small mole on my lip, but on this day that mole was about as big my entire face. I immediately lifted a hand over my mouth to cover this hideous marking. I mean, why me? Why was this thing – this disgusting distraction right under my own nose – not somewhere less noticeable? I began thinking that people probably always talked about that mole and that most likely they didn’t even notice the rest of my face because it was all your eyes could focus on. I grew to hate it. I grew to think it should be hidden and I should feel embarrassed by it.

Around this time, Botox and different surgical procedures were prevalent in the news. I was so excited. This was it! I could get the mole removed and my face would be normal like everyone else. I started to throw in jabs at my mole through jests and jokes, but never let on that I was one hundred percent serious. A classic trait of mine is to use self deprecating humor to distract from what is bothering me, so I truly feel bad for my family and friends who have no choice but to navigate this minefield. This is why I turn to writing or dance and art to decipher and express what I really feel. It comes more natural than hearing the harsh sound of truth said out loud. Almost like when you quickly switch the lights on in a dark room. Everything is too bright, the pulsing as your eyes adjust too loud. Nevertheless, my family soon began to note the sudden shift in confidence that I had when it came to the tiny mole residing on my lip. After working hard with constant reasons why I should get it removed, though she was against it, I somehow managed to convince my mom to take me to the dermatologist to discuss what could be done.

Kimmie and Luke 1There I was in horrifying embarrassment as the dermatologist laughed. She couldn’t believe I’d want to remove a mole so small, so unassuming. “It adds character”, she joked. Needless to say, she didn’t find any reason to remove the mole and really didn’t understand why I would go through the process. Walking out dejectedly, I began to imagine what life would be like when I started dating (insert auditory gulp of a middle schooler). When we arrived back home, I slumped on the couch with tears wetting the edges of my eyes and blurring the book I clutched pretending to read. I could hear my brother Luke asking my mom what had happened and I dutifully ignored the attempts he made to talk with me. Hearing the “you’re like Cindy Crawford” comments as one hears with headphones on; muffled and muted. One wobbly tear escaped and drew a salty path down my cheek, wetting the page I had opened. Just like that, I lost it. “I hate it! I hate everything about this mole! It makes me look ugly!” A heavy silence, interrupted only by my prominent sniffling, followed. “Well, I like it. I think you are beautiful.” Luke’s voice sounded steady through the unequal air. With that, he got up from the kitchen table and walked upstairs to his room.

Kimmie and Luke 2This is a moment that changed my life. It was the first moment I felt truly comfortable with myself and really began to embrace any ‘flaw.’ I was happy to be me, to be in the skin I was growing up in, and I began to notice the unique features everyone has. These details made a person enthralling, and still does all these years later. What Luke taught me that day was the foundation for everything my body image is built upon. Middle school is a trying time for everyone, and young girls/boys are faced with a society that will encourage them to change. It will tell them they are too heavy, too skinny, too ugly, too pretty, etc, and these constantly changing ideals will not stop once middle school ends either. It will escalate. And if someone does not have a foundation strong enough to withstand every subliminal, frontal, and unexpected attack it will be a devastating hit. I was lucky enough to grow up in a family that loved me and encouraged me to be who I am. I was lucky enough to have a brother step in when my confidence broke and remind me that I was beautiful, mole and all.

So maybe I don’t dislike the saying, “you’re beautiful the way you are” in itself. Maybe I loathe the fact that someone has to be told and reminded of the power and beauty they hold. Because every creature, every windblown hair, and every colorful mind is more than beautiful. It is exquisite, it is beyond words. It is what every writer, poet, artist, and musician have been trying to replicate. It is an essence. And it is a privilege to have these ‘flaws’, and I am thankful for all of mine.

Kimmie skatingDespite her barely existent mole, Kimmie Meissner went on to become a World and US Champion Figure Skater and represented the United States in the 2006 Olympics at the age of 16, the youngest US athlete at those games. She was the second women to land the triple axle in 2005 and is currently the last United States woman to win the World Championship.  In the ten years since she has continued to skate professionally while graduating from college. She currently leads skating seminars and coaches young skaters as well as working at Johns Hopkins Hospital in physical therapy. She is also taking prerequisites to become a Physician’s Assistant. The mole is “still there” but is still barely visible.

Don’t Let Their Beliefs Hold You Down

Like many women, my mom has been the biggest influence in shaping me to be who I am today. However, I can trace back a defining moment in my life to one particular piece of advice she gave me during a pivotal time of my childhood.

Nicole Mom and Ty
Emme Sherry with her grandson, Tyson.

I have two older brothers with one being just 18 months older so naturally I wanted to do everything that he was doing. When he would play baseball I would tag along and the boys let me play but really I was more of the person who would fetch their bat or a ball that went out of bounds. He would say, “You’re too little to do that or you’re not allowed to play on that team yet, or you’re a girl you need to play softball not baseball.”

Because I kept being told that I could not do something I was determined to not only do everything he did but set my goals to do it better. I learned how to ride a bike quicker than he did and I excelled in sports faster as well. I didn’t fully understand the little league aspect of it all and girls having to play softball. After all, up to that year boys and girls played on the same t-ball team but then the next season the boys move on and play baseball and the girls have to wait another full year until the girls’ softball league begins for them.

Nicole's parents

Fortunately, my dad didn’t want me to sit out a year so he somehow finagled a way to get me in the boy’s league when I was 8 years old. In hindsight, playing in the boy’s league made me even more determined. I remember having the grit about me to tell myself that I can beat these boys, that I was better than them, that I could compete just as well as they did.

It became clear that other parents had more of an issue with a girl on the boy’s team than my peers did. I never knew there was a gender situation until that year. I could not understand why the adults in the stands and friends on opposing teams were now mean to me and laughing at and taunting me.

I finally confided in my mom and she replied, “Nicole, some people are always going to find a way to hold you down by words or by actions. Just know that you can do anything a boy can do and sometimes you will do it better.” And in my life, that single sentence became the foundation for my future career and life path.

Because of my mom’s encouragement, I went on to study agriculture, more specifically Turfgrass management, a clearly male dominant field. Throughout my years I have come across most of the same mentalities of people as those parents in the stands or the boys in my neighborhood. I heard, “you can’t do that, that’s a job for a man or maybe you should try another line of work because you’re too pretty to do that job. Or how about you work with flowers or landscaping.”

But with my mom’s words always in my mind, I stayed the course of my passion and am now currently one of ten women with the title of head groundskeeper and one of only two women with the title in Major League Baseball. And I owe all of that to my mom.

Nicole and Ty Nicole Sherry McFadyen has been the Head Groundskeeper for the Baltimore Orioles for 10 years. She graduated from the University of Delaware with a degree in Agriculture. Before the Orioles she worked as Head Groundskeeper for the Trenton Thunder. She lives in Baltimore with her husband Dan and their son Tyson.

Thank you is never enough

karen and amanda

Time is a funny thing. Looking forward six years seems crazy – I’ll be almost 27 which seems like foreign territory to me right now. But looking back six years I remember clearly. One day I came home from school to find my mom waiting for me, and then hugging me as I read an email that my friend Amanda Post had passed away. I was only close with Amanda for about two years, but in that time, I think she changed my life more than any other single person besides my parents.

Amanda opened up a whole new world for me when she introduced me to camp. All throughout my treatment, I refused to go even though the nurses encouraged me every year. Amanda insisted I go with her and I had a blast. I couldn’t believe what I’d been missing! It was hard to go back without her, but I know that’s what she would have wanted and now I’m involved as staff in three cancer-related camps.

I’ve had so much fun, both as a camper and as staff, and every year I thank Amanda for leading me to such great people and I will keep going back to give the other kids the same great experience we had. Amanda (and everyone else at camp) helped me see that I was not alone in my fight and that beating cancer was something to be proud of, not something to hide. We would email each other comparing medications and side effects, something I couldn’t do with any of my other friends. She was great at pointing out random perks of treatment, like not having to shave and getting to eat anything, that I had ignored. She made the best of everything, decorating her hospital room, getting a pink Christmas tree when she couldn’t have a real one, and anything else she could think of. She made friends with the other patients and nurses, while I used to hide from everyone. Treatment is yucky, but she made it as fun as possible.

Six years ago, I was shocked. It seemed unreal and impossible. I had been reading her mom’s updates and I knew she had some complications after her transplant but I wasn’t familiar enough with GvHD at the time to really understand how serious it was. I knew she was a fighter and I never doubted that she would get through it all. This email came out of nowhere and I was devastated. I spent the rest of the afternoon reminiscing – crying, laughing and everything in between – with some of my close friends who were also friends with Amanda.

I remember sitting in US History the next day, a small cluster of orange shirts (the leukemia color) on one side of the room. We had gone to middle school with Amanda but many of our classmates had not so they didn’t know what had happened. Our history class was listening to songs related to whatever time period we were covering. They were fine until one was about people dying, and that was just too much to take. A few of us walked out and spent the rest of the period crying in the bathroom.

Most of us, myself included, had lost relatives before, but we had never lost a friend, someone our own age. We had never thought about all of the things someone wouldn’t get the chance to do – learn to drive, go to prom, graduate, go to college, start a family. It was an eye-opening experience to realize how fragile life is, not just when you’re old but even at age 15. That’s a lesson I know I will never forget.

There really aren’t words to describe how thankful I am that I was friends with Amanda for those two years. My positive attitude has gotten me so much further in life than my old attitude would have. Embracing my experiences rather than being ashamed of everything has opened up some great opportunities and I’ve met some of my best friends at camp. I’m so lucky that Amanda dragged me into this whole new world and I know I’m not the only one whose life was changed for the better by Amanda in her 15 years. “In the end, it’s not the years in your life that count. It’s the life in your years.”

Karen Shollenberger grew up in Maryland and is currently a junior at Drexel University studying science communication. In her free time, Karen can be found eating chips and salsa, hanging out with friends and family, or volunteering. She’s always up for good food and random adventures and is more than halfway to her goal of visiting all 50 states. Karen is a four-time leukemia survivor and enjoys sharing her experiences through her blog, The Worst Best Thing:

Originally published May 17, 2015 on The Worst Best Thing and reposted with permission.