Growing up is hard and the constant pressures from the world make it even harder and even more confusing. We grow up in a world where our parents play with us as kids and tell us that we can be whatever we want to be. Our parents foster and fuel our imaginations and our growth. And then something happens. Somewhere along the road this comes to a screeching halt. We are no longer pushed to think outside of the box and reach for the stars. Instead, we are coached to be more realistic. We have expectations pushed upon us in school, in our homes, by the media, our families, and our peers. We are told how to dress, how to speak, and how to behave. We are told to go to college, get a financially stable job, and settle down with a family. We go from being implored to create a world of our own to being told to fit ourselves into a societal mold with which most people equate with success; even if that success doesn’t quite line up with our own dreams and visions. We begin to fear that our individuality and who we are at our very core will be a disappointment to all of those around us because we see the world in a different way. So what do we do? Do we fall into line and fit our square-selves into the circular molds that society has deemed to be the correct way to live life? Or do we, despite the wishes of others and despite the potential for disappointment, try to muster up the strength to be ourselves in a world where everyone is telling us to be like somebody else?
Refinery29, an American-based fashion, style, and beauty website created a project that has recently garnered my attention. It is called #LoveMe letters. In this series, Refinery29 has recorded LGBTQ Influencers reading love letters personally written to their younger selves. After watching many of the videos, I was emotionally invested. I had tears in my eyes. I felt for these people. I ached for these people (some of whom having only recently come out of the closet) who, growing up had kept their true identities hidden in an attempt to try and be someone who they thought would be accepted. As you watch the videos, you see that in the end, each has found themselves to be stronger than they had ever thought possible. They also found the acceptance that they had so desperately wanted in their youth. Each of these individuals confessed such profound love and care towards his or her younger self. It was almost as if each person was talking to a younger sibling that was aching and needed direction. I applaud Refinery29 on such a striking series. The #LoveMe letters left me breathless. It also had my mind racing.
As someone who is actively trying to branch out and market myself as an Influencer in the fitness industry, I have a responsibility to use my voice and experiences and tell my story. I, too, have a younger self that I wish I could speak to with the love and kindness that I saw in these videos. I decided that while the struggles that I have faced are not nearly as profound or adverse as those of the LGBTQ community, professing my love to my younger self is still absolutely valid. Embracing your true self, at any age, is healing. We are all worthy of true self-love.
Here is my #LoveMe letter.
*This letter is addressed to Alex. My middle name is Alexandra and up until I was 18 and went off to college, this is the name that I went by.*
Hello beautiful! You probably just rolled your eyes, as you so often do when you are complimented on your looks, because you have always believed this to be people being kind. You believe that they say this because they have to be nice and complimentary, not because they actually mean it. But what about your mother? Ahhh, yes. She has always been the one person in the world who overly compliments your beauty. She is also the only person that you think actually believes that you are beautiful. But, of course, she believes you are beautiful. She is your mother and you are her only daughter. It is basically a motherly law that she has to believe you’re beautiful, right? Oh my dear child, you are so so so wrong. You are, indeed, beautiful. Take it from me, someone who has known you for twenty-six and half years. You are beautiful, not just on the outside… but on the inside, too, all the way down to that old soul of yours.
You just giggled, didn’t you? At the mention of your old soul? You have always considered yourself to be more mature and to be wise-beyond-your-years. In this case, you are so right. You have always embraced this. You have always had a deeper understanding of life and of people. Your empathy, your passion, your insight… it has all helped you to continually broaden the depths of your soul. I believe this is a big reason that you have bigger and bolder dreams than those around you. I applaud you on that, for being so young and so naive to the world, for lacking world travels and not personally knowing those with different cultural backgrounds or religious beliefs, yet you still have an incredible ability to feel for people. This will get your far in life. Don’t let it go.
I’m writing to you today, because I have some words of wisdom that I have learned along the way and if it is alright with you, I would like to share them with you. Please take my advice. I know you don’t like to ask for help, because you see it as a sign of weakness, but believe me my sweet soul, you are anything but weak. So let’s pretend that I don’t even know you need help. Let’s pretend that this is not your story and it is just mine alone. Then maybe you can take these words to heart, and feel for me… Because we both know that you have never been one to put your own feelings in the forefront.
At twenty-six years of age, I sit here with an incredible self-awareness. I was not always so enlightened when it came to my own feelings. In fact, I think I was very much in the dark for most of my life. Looking back now, I realize that most of the feelings… the insecurities, the doubts, and the self-sabotage came from one thing… my lack of self-worth.
As I mentioned before, Alex, I was often complimented on my looks growing up, but shrugged it off as people just being cordial. Some days, I even felt as if these people were out-right lying to my face, complimenting me out of an unspoken obligation to be friendly, rather complimenting me on what they believed to be true. Despite the compliments, I would always compare myself to the other girls in my school or neighboring schools who I thought to be much prettier than me. These girls were the really popular ones that had all of the friends, the ones that played all of the sports and had more varsity letters than I did. I looked up to those girls. They were gorgeous. They were popular. They were better at sports than I was. Their parents had more money than mine did and they dressed better than I did because of it. I envied them. They had what I wanted: better looks, better bodies, more friends, better athletic abilities, all of which translated to more attention… not just from boys, but from everyone… teachers, coaches, parents, and classmates.
Then there were the girls who were great at every aspect of school. They got straight A’s, they had impeccable artistic abilities; whether it be in band, choir, or art. In my eyes, I wasn’t up to par with them either. In my eyes, I was this normal looking, decently smart, okay athlete. I existed, but I didn’t quite make an impact. But to me, this all made sense. I didn’t believe I was really worthy of making an impact. There wasn’t anything about me that was special. I didn’t have a talent or one area of my life where I succeeded more-so than most. I was just simply there, taking up space.
As high school rolled around, this lack of self-worth was hidden behind a big smile as I floated between many different friend groups. I tried my hardest in school and managed to be an excellent student (although, not the best). I played sports every year. I even lettered multiple times (notably, not as many times as other girls had). I had a lot of friends, but didn’t have a lot of best friends. I got into a great college (the only college I had applied to) through the early application process (but, I wasn’t being offered academic or athletic scholarships). Do you see a trend here, Alex? I had plenty to celebrate and be proud of… but I always had to find flaws or make note of what I had classified as my own shortcomings. Looking back, I see that comparison was the thief of my joy and I never allowed myself to measure up.
In my junior year of high school, I hit rock bottom. Jolted with what would later be diagnosed as manic depression, I found myself having suicidal thoughts and not wanting to be alive. Doctors were unsure if it was bipolar disorder, depression, or anxiety and I was given multiple medications to try and get my symptoms to subside. Medication and treatment only made it worse, of course. It made me feel weak. It made me feel broken. There’s a stigma with mental illness. I already didn’t feel good enough for anyone… how was I supposed to be accepted if I was diagnosed with a mental illness? This diagnosis sent what little stock that I had left in myself plummeting even further. My already lacking self-worth had taken an even bigger hit.
I didn’t take treatment or medication for long. I wanted to fix myself on my own (like I mentioned before, asking for help was not my favorite option as I saw it as a lack of strength). So, I did what I always did, I turned to alcohol and partying, never to the extent that it affected my schoolwork, athletics, or extracurriculars… just enough to keep myself from facing my problems.
Don’t worry, Alex. Not all of my story is bad. A year and a half later, I went off to college. I found a loving, second home in my sorority. I had started to go by my given name, Leta, and found a new identity. Let me rephrase that… it wasn’t a new identity as much as going by Leta made me feel like I had more freedom to be myself; Leta gave me the power to be more of who I was at my core.
While I was able to introduce this new me to the world, there was still a lot of me that I kept hidden. I had so many feelings bottled up inside, so again, I decided to distract myself with schoolwork, parties, boys, and alcohol. This was a constant cycle for my 4.5 years of college.
Don’t think that my crazy college party days were a complete waste, though, Alex. College was also a time of growth and learning. I found a steadfast determination and dedication in college. I started to be more brave in going after things that I wanted. I would set my sights on something and work until it was mine, the first being an internship in NYC. That summer, of 2011, I found a lot more of myself. I was a small-town girl, all alone, living in one of the biggest and best cities in the world, without any family or friends to lean on. I was forced out of my comfort zone. I had never experienced anything like it. One thing from that summer that I will never forget… I had an epiphany as I was walking through Central Park on a Saturday afternoon in July. I was in awe at all that was surrounding me: the green grass, the flowers, the tall trees, the people, the buildings, and, most importantly, the beauty of it all. I was such a small, minute detail in that park on that day. So much life was happening around me. At that moment, the sky’s opened up to me and I was overcome with the strongest desire to breathe life into this world. I knew I had so much more to offer. I realized that the world was my playground and that anything I wanted was out there… I just had to go after it.
Fast forward three years. It was the summer of 2014 and I was living in Milwaukee. I can’t say I was happy there. I wasn’t happy at all actually, but I believed I had found my path to happiness. Before heading out to Water Street for a Saturday night out on the town, I told my friends that it was the last time I’d be consuming alcohol with them for a while because I wanted to pursue bodybuilding and compete in an NPC bikini competition. To me, this was it. I was going after what I wanted! I was chasing a dream and I didn’t care what anyone thought. I honestly believed that competing was the way to happiness and the way to find my self-worth. If I could just build that amazing body that I saw all over Instagram, you know… the ones with thousands of likes and hundreds of “Dream bod! I want to look like that!” comments all over it. If I could just look like those girls, I would be happy. I would be confident. I would love myself… finally!
I was so so so wrong.
Don’t get it twisted, love. My first prep was an incredible experience. It opened me up to a new world that I absolutely fell in love with. I found a strength, a will-power, and a determination that I never knew even existed in my being. It was enthralling. It made me feel ALIVE! But, it didn’t solve my problems. That stage-ready body disappeared under a layer of body fat and extra weight and then, all of a sudden, that girl with the indomitable will and hardcore work ethic was gone. Had she ever even existed? My self-worth crumbled and deteriorated as my show day physique disappeared. This happened again this past summer in my second prep. I found my self-worth going up, in direct correlation with my body getting closer to being stage ready. The closer I got to the stage, the better I felt about myself.
At my competition in November, I had a very sad 10th place finish after dominating in my first show season (two top 4 finishes and a national qualification). This made me question myself and my journey in the NPC. One poor showing and I was ready to quit? Why wasn’t I happy with the fact that I finished another competition prep? And not only did I finish, my second prep transformation was exponentially better than my first. What was wrong with this picture? I was missing something. It took some soul-searching to figure it out. I was missing self-love. I’m a preacher of self-love on social media… so why wasn’t I showing myself the love that I plead others to show themselves? Well, dear Alex, it’s because I believed that my exterior appearance held more of my worth in this world than my interior.
Sitting here now, thinking of this, it makes me laugh. I have always hated people complimenting my looks, because it’s awkward when you don’t see what other people see. And I’ve never seen myself as beautiful.
Everything I have ever loved about myself, Alex, are all interior things. In fact, when people compliment those characteristics, I absolutely melt. And none of those interior things fluctuate dependent on my body weight or muscle mass or body fat percentage. Isn’t that funny?
It has finally happened, my little Alex, I have fallen in love with myself, because I realized that all of the things that I have ever in my entire life loved about myself have no correlation with my appearance. My exterior has zero affect on my interior being.
You’re sitting on the edge of your seat now, aren’t you? I know you, Alex, and you love talking to people who are discussing their passions and the things they love. You get this warm feeling inside when you see their eyes sparkle and the happiness spread across every inch of their face. You see their body language open up as they become more engaged and you fall in love with them a little bit, because you see their raw passion. You see this genuine light within them as they talk about the things that fuel their inner fire. You love this so much, because you, too, have that fire inside and you love to let it out.
Well, I hope you’re ready for this… because as I tell you the things I fell in love with, I think you’ll recognize all of these things within yourself, and you’ll realize just how much you love these things, too:
Ambition and Work Ethic
I have, for as long as I can remember, been so proud of my work ethic and my determination. Taking on my first job at 15, and working non-stop to chase my dreams and my passions. Juggling a full-time job with being a full-time student who actually has a social life in college, to being a post-grad with a full-time job juggling competition prep. I’ve never been one to say “No, I can’t do this” in fact, I typically say yes and then kick myself in the ass down the road because I’m trying to do too much on too little sleep. But… it’s always worked out. Always. I’ve always found the time. I’ve always made my dreams and desires a priority. To this day, my favorite compliment is “I love your ambition.” It is one of my favorite things in the world when other people can recognize that I have this ambition in my veins and it seeps into every aspect of my life.
I have always had this relentless drive and tenacity that blows my mind. I don’t know where it comes from and most of the time it appears out of nowhere. But I love that I have the ability to put my all into something when I want it. I’ve never been one to give 70, 80, or 90 percent. I’m always all in.
Heart and Soul
As a self-proclaimed old-soul, I find myself with a vast understanding of the way the world works and what is truly important in this life. I believe you should always let your heart lead the way. Life isn’t about money, or a nice house, or a stable job. It’s about a happy and fulfilled heart. It’s about cultivating meaningful relationships. It’s knowing that love is the greatest adventure that life has to offer. It’s living life to collect moments and not things. It is understanding that travel and experience beats safety and comfort zones; and that without risk there is no reward. It is no secret that my soul is fueled by good energies and positive vibes. And I aspire to be a giver of those things, too.
I also have the ability to talk to people… and to understand them. I have the ability to touch people’s lives, even if only on some small scale. It all stems from the compassion and empathy that’s in my heart. This fitness journey that I have found myself on has introduced me to many people along the way. I am so thankful for the relationships that I have created through this journey and the hearts that I have connected with. I truly believe that, regardless of my outer appearances and even if I hadn’t ever found myself at 111lbs and 12% body fat, I would still have these people in my life:
The Marine, I met via Instagram and on some crazy level of our souls connected, and we have an amazing friendship. He has said that one of the nicest things that anyone has ever in his life done for him, was done by me. While he was out in the field for six week over Valentine’s day, I had sent him a “Superman” themed Valentine’s day basket with goodies, a gift to say “thank you for your service.”
The student in Southern California, another social media made friendship, who found my story and friendship to be so great, that she sent me the most thoughtful birthday present I have ever received, a Giving Key with the word “Inspired” engraved on it.
The doctor in NorCal who I don’t think I could have survived the last year without. She has given me this incredible perspective on life and the things that are really important. She has shown me my strength of character and is one of the reasons I am now so self-aware of the passion and soul that I have to give to this world.
All of these people have said that they appreciate my heart and my soul, and that is something I will always cherish.
I am blessed with an amazing family that loves me so very deeply. Their unwavering support as I chase my dreams and continue to find myself has been incredibly comforting. I see so much of my loved ones in myself. I see my father when I laugh at silly commercials or when I figure out the plot to a movie twenty minutes in. My artistic abilities and my creativity were all given to me by my father. I see my mother when I tear up at emotional videos or posts. The heart of gold and selflessness that I have is definitely given to me by my mother. I see both of my brothers when I try to act tough. It’s because of these two that I know, even being a girl, that I can hang with the big boys. It’s also because of them that I know what the heck I’m talking about when it comes to sports. I even see a little bit of myself in my niece whenever she starts to give some attitude. This is a little scary though, as I love my sister-in-law too much to wish upon her the sass-filled teenage years that my parents endured with me.
When it comes down to it, I realize my mannerisms, my attitude, my characteristics… so much of that is all directly given to me by someone whom I love so dearly. If I can love these people so fully and so unconditionally, how can I not love myself, when I am, in fact, little bits of each of them all put together?
I never knew it at the time, Alex, but there’s a thing to describe what you’re feeling and what you’re going through. It’s called atelophobia. It’s the fear of not being good enough. It’s an anxiety disorder that stems from feelings of imperfection and being incomplete. You, Alex, my dear sweet soul, are anything but incomplete. You are so incredibly whole all on your own. You are absolutely good enough. You are 100% worthy. I just wish I could open your eyes to that now. The muscles, the leanness, the low body fat, the glam of show day… it’s all wonderful. It’s your passion. But it doesn’t define you. All of these things that you love. All of these things that make up who you are at your core… let those things define you. Not the social media following, not the expectations of the fitness industry. You went into competing with the idea that competing and a better body were the answers to all of your problems. Only to find out, less than two years later, that YOU, my love, are the answer to all of your problems. YOU hold the key. That key is self-love. Please, don’t forget it.