Stories that Stick: Pretty Hurts
Posted on February 27, 2014
It’s been a great February and I’m so thankful for everyone who has contributed to Stories that Stick. Today is the last post in the series and it’s a powerful personal story from an amazing young woman who I hold dear to my heart:
Uncovering God’s True Beauty
By Andraea LaVant
Labels–at some point in life, no matter whether they pertain to looks, behavior, or an array of stereotypes and experiences that all blend together into one powerful word or phrases, we all acquire them.
For me, it was no different. Like almost every teenager, my goal in high school was to fit in. Somewhere between 8th and the middle of 9th grade, I’d dropped my Looney Tunes sweatshirts for cute dresses and colored stockings, my baseball cap for a roller wrap and tinted lip gloss, and my fanny pack for a Dooney & Bourke crossover purse (you remember…the ones with the huge duck on the flap). My transformation ultimately deemed me, “the pretty girl in the wheelchair,” and it was a label that managed to torment me for years to come.
At a very young age, I was diagnosed with a form of Muscular Dystrophy that the doctors initially predicted could shorten my life. At best, I’d require the use of a wheelchair for all of my years, and thus, needed to depend on others to complete the most basic of daily living tasks. As a child, I only mildly felt the effects of these differences. Occasionally, I wouldn’t be invited to a sleepover because of the assumption that I’d be “too difficult to handle,” or I’d have to forego a field trip that required a significant amount of physical activity. But, in general, during my younger years, I’d always managed to make friends and enjoy the typical childhood adventures.
At some point, I thought I’d grown accustomed to the stares and the questions, too. “What’s wrong with her, mommy?” an unassuming child would ask. “Don’t stare!” was the typical stern response a mother would reply as she’d snatch her child by the hand and drag him or her away. I also understood that my mere entry into a room would warrant turning heads; wide, gawking eyes; and perhaps a snicker of some sort. I thought I had accepted this as part of the wheelchair territory.
As I entered high school, I had an epiphany! I began paying close attention to the style of my peers, realizing that positive attention came from an attractive outward appearance. In addition to using a wheelchair, I had also remained a bit on the “plus-size” of the clothing line, as such, had typically opted for loose-fitting, baggy clothes. When I discovered that trendy garb was being made to fit my body type, that’s all I needed to boost my rather low self-confidence. Moreover, these teenage years also brought with them my parents’ willingness to let me explore the “oh, so colorful,” world of makeup!
At some point, the gawking stares that I’d received just for coming into a room turned to stares of awe. It seemed that people had an expectation that a wheelchair user was to dress dowdy or look unkempt (a stereotype that I still consider to be utterly ridiculous), and I was defying their misconceptions. There came a time when I’d subconsciously accepted the idea that, if people were going to stare, I’d embrace it. At least I could give them something worth staring at.
It’s amazing how that which starts out as a mere thought can steer so many of our actions.
By the time I’d reached 16, I refused to leave the house without makeup and was highly concerned with every aspect of my appearance. Even as I graduated and moved on to college, my reputation as “the pretty girl in the wheelchair” lingered through those high school hallways, as my sister (five years my junior), was often linked to me in that manner. And although I was doing my best to maintain this reputation, I’d found myself quickly succumbing to expectations that were impossible to maintain. This slipped its way into other areas of life. My self-worth and identity had become wrapped up in ensuring that people approved of me in every way possible, from my school work, to my extracurricular involvement, to everything in between. If I could somehow make sure that people overlooked my disability by approving of me in other ways, I felt accomplished.
At some point in college, I crashed. I hit a bottom when I looked up and realized that I could not face another day being anything or anyone other than who God designed me to be. If I kept going in the same manner, I’d literally lead myself to the grave, exhausted from trying to please everyone but who counted most – my Father, God.
I would not be truthful if I shared that the “mind transformation” that continues to occur to keep me in a place of contentment with who I am, regardless of the opinions of others, occurred overnight. I’ve had to be nurtured by my Heavenly Father on a day-by-day, sometimes moment-by-moment, basis to truly walk in purity of thought. Every day I must make a conscious choice to live according to 2 Corinthians 10:5, wherein, by God’s grace, I must “demolish arguments and every pretension that sets itself up against the knowledge of God, [taking] captive every thought to make it obedient to Christ.” I must dwell on the fact that He “fearfully and wonderfully made me,” and that I am not excluded as part of His “chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s special possession…” (1 Peter 2:9, NIV).
On the worst of days, the lingering words from the mouths of the young and old alike try to seep their way into my thoughts. They sound something like, “Wow! She’s (insert nice descriptive word here – beautiful, pretty, lovely). If she could walk, she’d be unstoppable!” or, “You have a lovely face” (as if every other aspect of my body was not up to par). But the more powerful words of affirmation and love from my Father have a soothing way of erasing the insecurity the world attempts to cover me with.
Now, don’t get me wrong. Those closest to me, and those not so close, clearly recognize that I still have a “passion for fashion.” I can spit off the best new makeup line or clothing trend with the best of them. However, my choice to don anything is no longer focused on how I believe others will perceive me or whether I want them to accept me. My primary concern is that my Father in heaven is well-pleased with me (and I know He is!). From there, I choose based on what feels good for me.
Now, every day, I look in my mirror and review the following declaration that is typed up and taped to it:
“God, thank you for loving me beyond my wildest dreams and ensuring me that I have all that it takes to be all that you have ever wanted me to be–your beloved Andraéa!
Can I get an amen?
Now it’s your turn: Have you ever been labeled something that wasn’t true to who God was calling you to be?
Tell me in the comments section below.
This afternoon, Andraea will be speaking at the White House sharing her story to highlight the intersections of disability rights and civil rights. I feel very proud and honored to know this remarkable woman.