If I know one thing about myself, it is that I am a hypocrite.
Two weeks ago, in Greenville SC, I met a former fashion photographer named Rick Guidotti. Rick has worked in Paris, Milan, New York, and all over the world. He has taken pictures of beauty icons like Kate Moss and Cindy Crawford. In 1998 Rick quit the fashion industry and started Positive Exposure. He travels the world documenting the beauty of humanity with physical differences. I’m probably going to write a lot more about this awesomeness on down the line. He is doing the world So. Much. Good.
But for now, just know that Rick and I are going to be great friends. And that he took about 1000 pictures of me. Even though I didn’t know he was going to. Believe me, had I known, I would have at least put on a little makeup and attempted to tame my hair. And my friends, in what was probably one of the greatest surprises of my life, this former fashion photographer said “Has anyone ever told you that you should model? Because you should.”
Let me repeat: a kind, gracious, and genuine man, who knows both the fashion industry and the beauty of the unconventional like the back of his hand; told me, Ashley Susan Arleca Harris, that I should be a model. And I am ashamed to admit that the words I immediately blurted out were neither kind, nor gracious.
“Well no. There aren’t exactly any models out there with CP are there?”
So sassy. The words felt ugly and hung in the the air as soon as they came out of my mouth. I was embarrassed, and I was ashamed. But because Rick Guidotti is a far kinder and more gracious human than I will ever hope to be, and because I think he could see the flush of embarrassment in my cheeks, and the hurt in my eyes, he said loudly while waving his hands “well there should be, and you should be!!” And then we laughed it off. In my life I have come to accept that I am many things. I am Redeemed. I am loved. I am blunt. I am fierce. I am strong. I am funny.
But I am not beautiful.
I have never allowed beauty to belong to me. Beauty doesn’t belong to this girl that is different. If you are like me, you are an expert in your flaws. You wrote the heading, the subtitle, the body text, the fine print, and the footnotes on those flaws. You can stand in front of a mirror, look yourself square in the eyes the color of dark chocolate, and rip yourself to shreds with an imaginary razor in two seconds flat.
Your hair is too frizzy.
Your eyebrows are awful. They don’t even grow evenly. Your eyes are two different sizes.
Your right eye is lazy.
Your under-eye circles make you look like a hag. Your pores are huge.
God. Get a pore strip. Those blackheads are out of control.
Your teeth are too yellow.Your front teeth are crooked. Your breasts are too small.
You have an ugly birthmark on your right arm.
Your once-prominent sixpack is currently covered in a thin layer of fat. Your ribcage is too wide and is crooked.
Actually, damn you, Cerebral Palsy. Because your whole damn body is crooked. Your hips are too wide. You have stretch marks on your ass.
Your knee caps turn in.
You have weird muscle pockets on your inner thighs. Your legs are too thin.
Your ankles are marred with permanently purple pores from poor circulation.
There are brown circular scars. The product of cast and leg immobilizer sores, they look like burns.
Your legs are too bent. And not even symmetrically so.
Those ten thin white scars that on some days you wear like a badge of honor? Some days you wish there was make up that would just cover them right up and you could forget about them forever.
There. You see? I am a hypocrite. Because I have written a lot of words and told a lot of stories and shared a lot of tears and lot of laughs all in the name of of acceptance. And in loving yourself. And in finding your greatest strength in what should have been your greatest weakness. And in finding joy in what should have broken you.
And I meant every word of it. I promise I did.
But I have never allowed beauty to belong to me.
Beauty has never belonged to the girl with the crooked body.
Beauty has never belonged to the girl who can count on one hand the number of men who have ever spoken the word “beautiful” to her.
Beauty has never belonged to the girl who has a love / hate relationship with her body. Who has been proud of it. Who has scrutinized it. Who in high school, starved it.Who has strengthened it. Who has neglected & weakened it. Who has even sometimes been in the mood to celebrate it.
Beauty has never belonged to the girl who kept her Barbie’s knees in the bent position so that they would look like her.
Beauty has never belonged to the girl who when men look at her on the street or across a crowded room assumes they are gawking at her for the attention-getting way she moves, never once considering that they might find her attractive.
This isn’t conscious. I don’t lay down to sleep at night and tell say to myself, “Ashley. Don’t forget. Beauty doesn’t belong to you.”
Even worse, it’s just never even been on the table. I’ve really just now realized this ugly truth about myself in the past few weeks. It’s like an unconscious stack of suitcases that have lived at the back of my mind since I was old enough to realize something was different about me.
Suitcases with luggage tags that read “You can be Redeemed. You can be brilliant. You can be loved. You can be strong. You can be funny. But beautiful? Nope. You are not beautiful.” And I’ve been okay with it.
And those suitcases? They’ve just hung out there in the back of my mind like a squatter, never leaving.
Here is what I have always known: Beauty belongs to the other girls who are different. It always has. Beauty belongs to you. It always has.
Beauty belongs to my treasure of a momma, when she stands in front of the mirror in her slip and high heels each morning doing her makeup.
Beauty belongs to my sister, it’s there in those perfect teeth that she thinks are too small, and in those strong, muscular, legs that carry her confidently everywhere she goes.
Beauty belongs to my KK, who carries metal in her spine everywhere she goes, standing straight as a ramrod.
Beauty belongs to my Maddy, and my Mackensie, and my Morgan, with their freckled faces and sparkling eyes, whose fearless spirits and empathetic hearts will surely grow them into the most incredible of women.
Beauty belongs to my Anna Grace, with her fiery red hair.
Beauty belongs to my Rooms, the truest human Barbie on the outside, and nothing like a Barbie on the inside. Beauty belongs to my little Hannie, the original gangster.
Beauty belongs to my Mama Kellie, the truest story of resilience and grace that I have ever known. Beauty belongs to MG, the tiniest girl with the biggest spirit.
Here is what I know now: Beauty belongs to the girls like me, whose brains use time to contort their backs into a bow, and whose feet turn violent shades of purple when they sit down.
Please know that I would never trade my brain for an undamaged one. Or my legs for Claire’s beautiful perfect ones. I wouldn’t. I’ve said it before and I meant it every time.
I wouldn’t want to play the game of life with a different hand of cards than the ones I’ve been dealt. I wouldn’t know how to.
But it’s time I realized that beauty belongs to me too.
I’ve always said that I wanted to pave ways and blaze trails for the unconventional people of this lifetime and all the ones that come after it. It’s time I practiced what I preached.Today, I did a little something crazy. I filled out an application with Ford Models. Photos will be taken next week, and it will be submitted.
Sure, I’m only 5’6’’. And I have a back shaped like an end-of-sentence parentheses. And bent legs that are covered in scars. And I walk funny. And nothing may ever come of it. But I have to try. I want all the little girls wearing tiny leg braces with butterflies on them tucked inside saddle oxfords that are two sizes too big to not wait until they are 23 to know that the world thinks they are beautiful too.