Last month, I competed in a 2.1 mile open water swimming race. After several months of training, I didn't come in last, but I was pretty close. Almost 90% of the other racers were faster than I was. This is actually an improvement from the first time I did the race and I was in the last 10 finishers and was dead last in my age group.
After the race, I sat on the shore of Lake Superior, red faced and panting, with my wet hair plastered to my face. And I felt strong and beautiful.
Next week, I start adult beginning ballet classes again, for the second time in the same level. I’m signed up again, even though I have two left feet and weigh a solid 100 pounds more than your average ballerina. I’m not thinking about the fact that most of the people in the class only have to take it once before they are ready to move to the next level. I have no illusions that once I slip on my plus-sized leotard and size 11 ballet shoes that I'll be transformed into a graceful swan.
But when I catch a glimpse of myself on the mirrored wall in the ballet studio, toes turned out, arms in a half-circle about my head, I think yes, I can be be beautiful here too.
The beauty I find in those moments when I do and I try and I find joy despite my serious lack of natural talent might not be the kind of beauty that lands me on the cover of a magazine, but is sure as hell is the kind of beauty I want my kids to find in their lives.
For most of my life, I was a relentless perfectionist. I didn't raise my hand in class unless I was 100% sure of the answer. I didn't try out for the soccer team or submit my stories for the creative writing journal at my high school. I went to prom but didn't dance because I was too self-conscious about trying out any of the moves I practiced in my bedroom in front of anyone else. There is a long list of jokes I didn't tell, chances I passed up, and adventures I didn't have because I was too afraid of failing.
I took very few risks and I felt uncomfortable in my own skin almost all the time. I was playing small and hiding from the world for fear that to try and fail would cause me to actually physically die of embarrassment.
I’m a mother now and at the ripe age of 37, I feel keenly aware that life is too short to only do things you are good at or to only feel beautiful when someone else tells you that you are. I chose to believe that my beauty comes from the joy of being fully myself in the world: imperfections, failures, left feet, and all.
The longer I'm a mother, the more I realize that my children really are paying attention to the things I do and say about myself. So I bring them to my races and let them cheer for me as I struggle toward shore. And I let them watch me practice fifth position in my pajamas at bedtime. And when my son proudly shows me the lumpy scarf he knitted or my daughter falls down showing me her newest dance move “the booty bottom shake shake”, I make sure they know that in those moments they are impossibly lovely to me.
So, go on. Dance badly. Create imperfectly. Sing off tune. Run slowly. Write bad poetry. Do what brings you joy and remember that talent isn’t a prerequisite for joy. Know that in your joy, you too are beautiful.