At 5’7” I’m slightly above the average height of women in America. In Mexico, I’m practically an amazon. A white giant among a dark-skinned population of people who are well…for the most part, fairly petite.
This is especially obvious to me when I’m at the gym. And by gym, I mean a single room that is no more than 20 feet wide by 30 feet long. There are no weights or machines. Just a wall of mirrors, 20 or so handmade wooden steps piled in the corner and a small counter in the back with a fridge and blender where you can purchase a sports drink of sorts (I’ve never tried one though it seems most of the people there consume one every day).
Natalie noticed a sign for Zumba the second day we were in Mexico, and since I’m mildly obsessed with dancing, I had to check it out. Turns out that Zumba is really a high-paced step aerobics class, but it’s the only workout facility within 25 minutes and at $1 a class, it’s hard to beat the price.
An early bird by nature, I decided to go to the 6:30 a.m. class hoping to get a good workout and “blend in.” Being nearly a head taller than everyone else made that a little challenging, not to mention my inability to understand Spanish and the rapid step changes that seemed to come every 12 -15 seconds.
My concern was less about looking like an idiot and more about accidentally kicking the woman behind me or smacking the girl next to me in the face with my flailing arm. Long limbs served me well as a basketball player, but in a Mexican aerobic class they are potentially deadly weapons. Especially here. Fire codes either don’t exist or are irrelevant. You pay and you get to participate in class….even if that means squeezing 20 people in a room that does not comfortably hold more than 10. And even then it’s tight.
Now, a few weeks and a dozen classes later, I’m a regular. The “Senoras” greet me with a bright “Buenos dias” when I arrive and then promptly point to which wooden step I’m “assigned to.” Apparently I’m not the only once concerned about controlling my lengthy limbs. And yet, when I inadvertently make contact with someone around me – which usually happens at least once a class – they just smile when I say “perdon” and shrug it off. They don’t expect me to be any different than I am.
And yet, for most of my life I tried to do exactly that. To be different; to modify who I was in order to conform to societal pressure, garner the approval of others, or meet some unhealthy or unrealistic standard. And when I couldn’t do that, I would hide what I didn’t like, or apologize for it. Talk about being exhausting and a recipe for feeling perpetually inadequate!
Today I know better. That while far from perfect, I’m made in the image of the most-high God. And that instead of trying to be someone different, what I really need to learn is how to be authentically me.
Authenticity was the theme of the talk I gave last month at the “Women on the Way” Catholic Women’s conference in Richmond, Virginia, and something God has been teaching me a lot about recently.
On the surface, it sounds really simple. “Just be yourself!” But being authentic requires courage, vulnerability and sometimes exposes the deepest, most flawed and unredeemed parts of who we are. That’s not easy or comfortable.
And yet, authenticity is also beautiful, captivating and the thing that allows us to connect most deeply with other people.
As I stood in front of 400 women that Saturday, I was real. Real about my struggles with an eating disorder in college, my failed marriage, the highs and lows of the last several years and also the incredible ways God has and continues to work in my life.
After the talk I met dozens of women who thanked me, cried as they relayed their personal trials or told me how inspired they were by what I shared. Turns out authenticity was exactly what they wanted…what they needed. And I know the same is true for me – that the more authentically I live, the more fulfilling, enjoyable and God-honoring my life is.
I think about this as I observe the world around me; the birds in the sky, fish in the sea, and animals and plants that aren’t trying to be anything but what God made them to be. And there is simplicity and joy in that! Just look at Mugsy and Nimits at the beach chasing each other and running around being dogs.
They had the time of their life and Natalie and I couldn’t stop smiling and laughing as we watched them.
I imagine that when we are authentic God does the same. That He delights in us being fully the person He created us to be. That He marvels at the diversity of His creation and loves when we embrace the unique way He made each one of us.
This morning as I finish up a jog with my new running partner, Blanca, a forty-something, 4’9 single mom and tortilla maker, I am well aware of that diversity. She doesn’t have a car, speaks less English than I do Spanish (which makes our conversations quite entertaining and reliant on hand gestures) and yet, we meet every morning at 5:45 a.m. to do a short run before aerobics.
After our jog she hops in my car and I drive us to class. We have become fast friends and after we get our wooden steps, she stands next to me. I look down and can’t help but chuckle. My size 10.5 shoe looks like a ski compared to her tiny sneaker.
Dear God, don’t let me step on her today, I think to myself.
Blanca looks at me curiously but since I can’t explain that in Spanish, I simply put my foot next to hers and point.
We both laugh and even more so when I put my arm around her shoulders and her head rests easily on mine. We giggle at our reflection in the mirror and the stark difference in our size and appearance causes a few other women around us to notice and do the same.
I imagine that I’ll meet a lot more “Blanca’s” over the course of my world travels and there will be plenty of times when I am clearly “different” than those around me. My prayer is that I will be authentically me in each moment. That I will celebrate their uniqueness just as I do my own, embracing every bit of who God made me to be.