“You look beautiful” she said.
I blushed deep red. I could feel the heat on my cheeks.
She stood before me looking confident – tall, and thin with not a hair out of place, despite the humidity. She was chic in her lacey dress and cowgirl boots. The barn in the background made her look like she belonged in a country music video.
No stranger had ever called me beautiful before. I’ve never been one who was comfortable in her own skin, especially wearing dresses.
Like most women dressing for a special occasion I had spent hours that morning tearing through my closet, trying on every dress, fighting with my hair, retouching makeup only to settle on the dress I’d originally chosen. It was a white, silky, scoop neck dress with tiny black hearts all over it. I typically shy away from patterns because “big girls” supposedly look bigger in patterns. I agonized about wearing it for weeks, but I decided to go for it. When I slipped it over my head and turned to the mirror, I felt pretty. I felt confident. I felt beautiful. I hoped it was appropriate for an outdoor farm wedding, but not really knowing the bride, I wasn’t sure what to expect.
Hours later, hearing a stranger say it confirmed what I felt. I was validated. I was not vain for thinking of myself as beautiful. I’d been struggling with my weight and body image for a few months. This was at the beginning of what would be a long journey of learning to love myself at every size.
It began when we moved back home. I was depressed and anxious after losing my stepfather and both grandmothers in a few short years. Everything that felt like “home” to me was gone, and this place where I grew up was foreign. I felt out of place. I didn’t have a job. I spent many months on my couch, filling the void with food.
This wedding was a turning point for me. Here I was, dressed up and seeing people I hadn’t seen in years, people who remembered me smaller, thinner. This woman didn’t know I’d been battling depression and anxiety. She didn’t know that while I was getting ready that morning, I was on the verge tears. That I was feeling ugly and inadequate. In that moment, she didn’t see my frizzy hair, pale skin, or the beads of sweat on my forehead. She didn’t see me standing awkwardly in heels in soft mud. Despite the bride’s warnings on the invitation that this was a farm wedding and it had just rained, I’d worn them anyway. I’m a glutton for punishment, I guess. All she saw was a woman in a dress. She thought I looked lovely and wanted to give me a compliment.
I wish more people were like that stranger, willing to give another person a kind word. I wish I could remember her name, but I don’t. What I do remember is the kindness in her voice and the sincerity I saw in her eyes. Three simple words to a stranger she likely doesn’t even remember gave me confidence. I remember them on the days when the voices of my insecurities try to tear me down.
That evening, a woman who knew me at 16 complimented me, saying I looked happy and that my husband and I looked good for each other. I took the compliment graciously, squashing the negative whispers that rose around “You look beautiful.” I did, I was happy, and we are good for each other.
A friend I hadn’t seen in years gave me a hug. We posed for a photo together, and I smiled without sucking in. That night, I was beautiful.
Later that summer, I was shopping for a cruise, pulling dresses on and off, scowling at my reflection in the bright, tiny fitting rooms. I stopped and took a breath. I looked at myself, fully. I remembered I felt beautiful in a dress the day of the wedding, and I could again.
When I looked at the scale, I saw I lost a few pounds, though not as nearly as many as I would have liked. I remembered I felt beautiful a few more pounds heavier. I could feel that way again, at any size.
When I got my hair cut and was being critical of my chins, I stopped, because I remembered I am beautiful.
Thank you for your kind words, stranger. I’ve kept them in the pocket of my heart for the past two years.