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Jennifer Tress Headshot

When Will We Stop Asking If We're Enough?

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People are either drawn to words like "authentic," "vulnerable" or "body positivity," or they are put off by them. I used to be in the latter camp, rolling my eyes at what I deemed new-agey talk.

My friends and I would goof on talk like that over drinks. "Not to be all 'vulnerable'," we'd say with air quotes and then relay some vague truth about our lives or feelings. It was a tactic to avoid the messy emotions roiling beneath our skin, mostly asking, "Am I enough?"

Am I smart enough or savvy enough? Am I a good enough parent or friend or spouse?

Am I pretty enough?

That particular question came up for me at a few key points in my life, and my personal "not pretty enough" story and the self-esteem movement it spurred is well-documented. One outlet called me an "accidental body image activist" and I think that's apt. Even five years ago, I would not have expected to be a contributing voice to the body positivity movement, but I saw a need and leaned in. Now it's half my heart.

I don't roll my eyes at that type of talk now. This shit is important.

Most of us engage in negative self-talk from time to time, but for some that "not enough" feeling takes up a tremendous amount of headspace -- starting the minute they wake up and carrying on all day, translating into shame and feeling like they don't belong. But as Brené Brown so rightly states, the only way to flip that script is to be authentic.

Your level of belonging can never be greater than your level of self-acceptance, because believing that you're enough is what gives you the courage to be authentic, vulnerable and imperfect.

Someone who owns those characteristics like a boss is Natalie E. Illum, a friend from the Washington, D.C. storytelling scene.

In her recent essay "Why I No Longer Apologize For My Crutches," she discusses what it was like growing up with a disability (she was born with spastic cerebral palsy) and how she feels about her body today. The piece is accompanied by Denise Jolly's beautiful, arresting photos (part of her #BeBeautiful campaign). Both were inspired by a simple, yet hard won fight in our society:

The body is not an apology.

I started following Sonya Renee Taylor's movement a couple years ago, and that phrase struck me as so viscerally descriptive of TBINAA's mission: To get people to stop apologizing for their bodies. Feeling shame over the way you look is a waste of time. Come on over to the radical self-love side, baby. Her movement and others provide tools and communities to help do so.

As Natalie says in her article, "Yes, these photos are revealing - intentionally revealing - and celebratory. Okay, I'll admit it: they are sexy. Because, why not?! They are the thing itself: my body, as it is now. I cannot separate my body from the cerebral palsy that came with it. I do not want to... "

She and I were wrapping up her contribution to my project when her essay came out. Just like in her writing, she provides a perspective not commonly shared in mainstream society.

"Before I am female, before I am attractive, before I am date-able, I am a disability." When I ask her how she defines beauty, she says "The first tier is not beauty for me, it's ability."

Natalie was the first child with a physical disability in her school district to be mainstreamed with the rest of the (able-bodied) kids, and she naturally wanted to fit in. By the time she went to high school, she knew what most of us do:

"For girls, the first recognition as a 'pretty girl' or a 'sexual girl' is to be acknowledged by your peers as attractive and what is the standard for that? It's having a boyfriend or girlfriend. So I went about doing that."

"If you have a chronic condition or a disability that people don't have awareness of, you don't get the same level of social acceptance. If I take a day off or a few days off because I fall down and am injured, that is far less acceptable than if you have to have surgery, or if you're a parent and your kid gets sick."

You can find the rest of Natalie's videos here.

Perspective gives us empathy. Before knowing Natalie, I had less compassion for people with disabilities or chronic conditions. As an able-bodied woman I'd made assumptions that their disability defined them or that they were always in pain or needed help. It's so one-dimensional and limiting.

Over the past two years, I've met hundreds and hundreds of people who have shared their "not enough" stories with me and what often comes up is the misperception that only they, or a minority of people, think those thoughts.

In 2014, it can appear "radical" to continually discuss and promote the idea of loving our bodies and our unique experiences with them, but self-acceptance and empowerment is still something that so many people struggle with, to personal and societal detriment.

When I wrote my memoir, I finally believed I was enough (taking a hard look at your life and the choices you've made has a way of doing that). It took Natalie over 30 years to accept that her body was beautiful despite its limitations.

We can all do it: By being vulnerable and sharing our stories and accepting our imperfections, and by being authentic to the point where we drop the mask that prevents us from being open to the perspective of others. You are enough. We all are.