As I timidly approached her, she looked at me, smiled and said, “You are so beautiful!” I turned around expecting to see another girl standing behind me. One taller, in a trendy outfit with her eye makeup touched up neatly. One whose nails weren’t chipped and who had her act together. But, there was no one. I snapped back around with a look on my face that resembled a deer in headlights and replied “Oh! Thank you!”. Inwardly, I was screaming “ME?! You are the beautiful one!”
She embraced me warmly and encouraged me as we talked. She even took a picture with me before she made her way out of the room. It was then and there I realized that this encounter was completely countercultural from anything I had ever experienced. Being on stage in front of me all weekend had magnified both her inner and outer beauty, and yet she was the one who told me that I was beautiful-before she even said hello. Though I learned so much from our few minutes chatting that evening, her statement “You are so beautiful” etched its way permanently on my heart.
If you could see a picture of my heart, I imagine it would resemble a patchwork quilt. The scraps of fabric would be printed with the names of those I love, the experiences I cherish most, and the tiny footprints of an unborn baby I will never meet this side of heaven. There would be scars from the worst times of my life, words that hurt the most and labels that I have come to believe about myself. But the moment this sweet, blonde, beautiful woman embraced me and told me genuinely that I was beautiful, one of those labels began to peel off.
I’m a former pageant girl. Pageant girl actually may be a far-fetched term. I am a former pageant girl wannabe. After an extremely difficult senior year of high school, I desperately wanted to get back at those that had always made me feel second best. And believe me, there were plenty of them. I had spent my entire high school life trying to scrub out the scars middle school had so viciously left on my self esteem only to be greeted with fresh wounds by failed relationships, serious rejection and an endless struggle with perfectionism. So, I did what any self-respecting Southern girl did in that situation and I decided to be Miss America. Just kidding. But I did enroll in Fairest of the Fair, our little county’s top beauty pageant and began training like a fool.
I practiced walking. I teased my hair. I bleached my teeth. I got a spray tan. I got my nails done. I added extensions, false eyelashes, fake boobs, an extremely over the top dress, red lipstick and fancy shoes. I rehearsed answers to political and controversial questions. I polished up on my knowledge of local events and eventually, I took to the stage. I smiled. I pranced. I waved and I batted my long (sticky and extremely heavy) eyelashes. When the results were being announced, I kept my fingers crossed. My heart raced as the winning numbers were called from the stage and when my contestant number rang over the speakers, well, I about died. I placed first runner up among 30 gorgeous young girls. It was quite the accomplishment and for a while, it fueled my confidence. I decided that I wanted that feeling always and would do whatever I had to do to keep it. But deep down, more than anything, I wanted to be first, not first runner up.
I tried a few smaller pageants but didn’t have any luck. My heart kept breaking little by little the longer the time passed without a “win”. Even after Jonathan and I started dating, I never quite felt pretty enough. He told me plenty of times how attractive he thought I was, and still does to this day. But for a long time, I wondered if he really, truly meant it. I know I sure didn’t think I was.
The older I got, the more I tried to grasp that feeling of “good enough or pretty enough” any way that I could. If I wasn’t pretty enough, I told myself, at least I could be smart enough or strong enough to compensate for it. However, it eventually filtered into my career and when that didn’t pan out, I prayed that motherhood would give me that chance. When I miscarried, I lost every shred of self-esteem I ever had. Every single shred. So much so, I dyed my platinum blonde hair (that I L.O.V.E.D.) brown in an effort to hide myself from everyone and everything. When you are down to nothing, pretty is the last thing you feel and the hardest thing to feel again.
After a struggle with depression and a lot of support from family and friends, the blonde started making its way back in to my hair and light began creeping back into my life. But the “first runner up” mentality still stayed stuck-firmly- on the walls of my heart always making me feel “less than” the other girls around me. It wasn’t until this weekend that the self-esteem I had lost for so long began to rise back up within me once again.
They say God works in mysterious ways. As mysterious as they might be, they are always intentional. I planned on attending “She Speaks”, a conference for Christian writers and speakers, this weekend to learn a little more about blogging. I came back with a passion, clear direction, full heart and overwhelming sense of the Holy Spirit. But I also came back without a label.
The worship leader that took time to speak life into me had no idea the hurt she was speaking to. I’m sure she thought I was totally weird as I came up to talk to her but regardless; she still took the time to tell ME, Bethany Harrison, that I was beautiful. Not pretty, not cute, not put together- beautiful. She wasn’t comparing me to anyone else because there was no competition. She saw me for me in a category all my own. In a room of 800 women. She saw me for me and thought I was beautiful. And oh how much more our heavenly father does the same.
I could go on and on about all of the lessons I learned this weekend. And if you see me this week, I probably have some sort of glow shining from my face because of the joy I experienced. But, what I want you to know, is of all of the lessons God cared to teach me, he was most intentional about me knowing I was beautiful-first place beautiful-in his eyes. As much as I have blatantly screwed up so many things in my life, he still cared enough to rip that label right off my aching heart as he performed a major movement in so many other lives. And sis, He would do the exact same for you.