Power Struggles and the Little Black Dress

dress one

My mom spotted it first – this darling, t-length little black dress. It wasn’t “in style” at the time, but it was classic, so it wasn’t out of style either. It fit me perfectly, hugging me where I want hugged and giving slack where Lord knew I needed slack. It was my junior year of high school homecoming dress and I felt like Audrey Hepburn.

The dress is timeless, and apparently really good quality, because I’ve gotten dozens of wears out of that $39.99 investment.

At some point I wised up and got rid of the spaghetti straps which earned me some more time before it looked antiquated. I wore it to formals in college, to countless weddings, to formal dinners on cruises, and to banquets.

There have been some occasions when I’ve wanted to wear the LBD (little black dress), but I couldn’t squeeze into it. Tears and subsequent ridiculous diets ensued. There were other occasions when the dress zipped with ease and I felt pretty darn good about myself, thinking, “Who can wear the same dress for 14 years? This girl.”

dress 3Last week I tried on the dress in preparation for a banquet for my husbands’ work. My suspicions were confirmed. While I could zip the dress all the way up (applause, please) I couldn’t take a breath, let alone a deep breath. I hurriedly unzipped the dress and when I could breathe again, I let out a sob, and then a few more sobs. Ladies, most of you know the spiral: I’m fat, I’m ugly, I’ll never be skinny, where’s the chocolate?

I’ve been insecure of my rear and thighs since middle school when I started noticing that others had chicken legs and I had cellulite. I’ve battled with tying my self-worth to my size for years. I went through phases where I compulsively weighed myself, until a few years ago when I said, “enough” and threw away my scale. I swore off basing my feelings on a number, and did my best to look away on the scales in the doctor’s office.

sassy dressBut two weeks ago, I went to the doctor for an ear infection and despite my darting eyes, the nurse decided to announce my weight to me and everyone else in the hall. Thanks, lady, can I reciprocate and share your weight with the world? But that number… ugh. It confirmed what I feared; that the winter had not been good to my waistline. I tried to get the number out of my head, reminding myself that I eat lots of healthy food and I workout regularly. I did positive self-talk, reminding crazy Allison that sane Allison is healthy, if not skinny, and that healthy is important.

But I was still devastated. I promptly declared to my husband that I was going on another restrictive eating binge. And then I panicked thinking about the banquet. I had banked on wearing that 15 year-old dress. I still held onto hope that the LBD would fit. The dress is forgiving where I often struggle.

But it can only forgive so much.

And it couldn’t forgive this winter’s extra layer of comfort food.

As it turns out, the dress isn’t the only one struggling with unforgiveness. I struggle to forgive myself when I splurge on a cookie or lack self-control with snack food, or reset my alarm for a reasonable hour over the gym. I hold myself to impossible standards in my mind, and when I fail, I can’t forgive myself, and I feel shame. I feel shame at my weight. Shame at my flabby legs. Shame that I can’t fit into a dress that I fit into when I was a teenager.

And why? Why do I give the scale, or that cookie, or that mirror, or that blasted little black dress that power? Why do I allow a number to dictate my feelings? I’m pleasant as a peach when I’m having a “thin day” but on “fat days”, you better watch out, because I’m closed off, judgmental, short-tempered, and oh so sensitive.

I’m tired of giving my weight power over my joy.

So I’m not going to let it. I’m choosing perspective (I may very well fit in the dress in a month or two, because every year I gain some weight in the winter and every spring I lose it again). I’m choosing grace (It’s pretty awesome that I could zip that bad boy up all the way after 15 years, and even if last year was the last year that worked, we had a great run). And I’m choosing joy (a 15-year old dress doesn’t get to rob me of a great evening tonight at the banquet, or a great week, or a great year).

I also bought a new little black dress, and it’s tan. Take that! And I feel good in it. And it fits me so well that I don’t need to wear spanx underneath (yeah, judge me all you want, but those have their place in a woman’s wardrobe).

As I scanned old photo albums for pictures of the little black dress over the decades, I noticed something. While 16-year-old me weighed less than current me, she was weighted down with so much more insecurity. She was awkward, unsure of herself, and desired more than anything to blend in. Current Allison may weigh a few pounds more, but she is confident, strong, and ok with making ripples.

Aging is happening. I gain weight faster and loose it slower. But I’m also getting wiser a little more comfortable in my skin – and my shape with each year. I still have a long way to go, but I’m growing, and growth is power. So LBD, who has the power now?

Book Recommendation – Just Lead

You all know my passion for members of the Body of Christ to decipher their callings, recognize their giftings, and serve out of their passions.  You all know that I especially have a passion to see my fellow female Christ-followers do this.

I recently read a book called Just Lead: A No Whining, No Complaining, No Nonsense Practical Guide for Women Leaders in the Church by Sherry Surrat and Jenni Catron.  I want all of you to go read it so we can talk about it together.  Blog book study: Who’s in?

Surratt_Just Lead_Cover

Jenni Catron is the Executive Director of my church, and I have had the privilege of getting to know her over the last year and a half.  Her leadership is a great inspiration to me and many other women (and men).  Because of her wisdom, strategy, and strength, she has been put into amazing leadership positions.  She hasn’t pushed herself into leadership positions through arguing and fighting gender limitations, but rather, she has risen into leadership positions because of her obvious strengths   She is humble and she just leads.  She embodies the title of her book.

Over the last six months, I’ve had the opportunity to do a study on this book with about 20 other women, and have been motivated, challenged, and called into greater leadership.  I was challenged to dream big dreams and to combat some forces that hold me back as a leader.

This book is a must read for women who lead inside and outside of a church, and quite frankly, I think it’s a must read for men who lead inside and outside of a church.  I know Adam has been clamoring to get his hands on this book because of how much I’ve talked about it.

The book tackles issues like criticism, comparison, conflict, and communication – with men and women.  It’s written by two strong women leaders who have paved the way for future leaders not with pushiness or brashness but with wise, gentle-yet-strong leadership.

As a young leader, I found this book to be and inspiration and a challenge, and I think you will too.  I feel like I was mentored as I read this book.  Let me know when you’ve read Just Lead and let’s talk about it!

Why I’m Not Telling Your Daughter She’s Pretty Anymore

Your daughter is beautiful – you and I both know that.  But I’m working on not telling her that anymore – at least not very often. 

Our culture is obsessed with beauty.  We are constantly bombarded through subtle and not so subtle messages that we need to be skinnier, less wrinkly, more toned, and more trendy.  Adults are bombarded with beauty messages, but so are kids.  Disney Princesses all have the same curvy figure and gorgeous big eyes.  Hannah Montana looked like a Barbie.  And Barbie…  well, we all know about the complex she has given to generations of women.

But it’s not just the big bad media sending out the message that women and young women need to be beautiful, we are all sending that message.  Next time you’re around a group of little girls, listen to all the compliments offered.  And listen to what is being complimented.  “You’re so pretty!”  “Your dress is darling!”  “Oh I would kill for that hair!”  “You’re gonna need to invest in a shotgun for this one!”  And the list goes on.

I’ve been catching myself doing this a lot lately, and not just with little girls.  I do this with grown women, too.

My go-to compliment with women is typically something appearance-based, and I get it, we get nervous around each other, and we say the first thing that comes to mind.  Sadly, the first thing that comes to mind is often a commentary on appearance.   And if we’re being totally honest here, many times the first thing that comes to mind is external stuff because we’re playing the comparison game.  Doesn’t it go something like this?

Internal dialogue: “Wow, she’s lost a lot of weight, I wish I could lose weight”

External compliment: “That dress is really flattering on you”

Internal Dialogue: “She is so beautiful. I wish I had good genes like her.  Thanks, mom for passing on your cellulite and big nose to me!”

External Compliment: “You’re so pretty.  I would kill for your figure.”

Internal dialogue: “She always looks so cute.  One day, when she has kids, she won’t be able to wear scarves because her kids will choke her… or earrings like that…  because her kids will rip them out”

External compliment: “I love those big earrings – you just always know how to accessorize.”

We were all raised with ideals of beauty bombarding us, and look where it has gotten us -We are caddy, jealous, and never satisfied with the way we look.  I don’t want your daughter to live this way, and I know you don’t either.

I don’t want her to read between the lines when she is told she is cute.  I don’t want her to ask herself, “Am I being told I’m cute because I’m chubby and chubby girls can only be cute and not pretty?”  I don’t want her to hear that she’s beautiful and ask herself, “Is it only because of my ample chest?”  I don’t want her to see other girls being asked to dances and going on dates and question her beauty when she’s not.

And that is why I am starting to think before I speak.  That is why I am filtering my compliments.  That is why I am intentional with my words these days.  I want your daughter to find value in herself that goes deeper than her exterior.  I want your daughter to know that she is breathtakingly beautiful because her character is stunning!  I want to encourage her to be trustworthy, diligent, smart, savvy, strong, hard-working, generous, fearless, good with money, wise, and humorous.  I want your daughter to know that she is beautiful on the inside, which is the best kind of unfading beauty!  I want your daughter to find her value and worth in who God has created her to be, not what society tells her to be. 

“Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting, but a woman who fears the LORD is to be praised.” – Proverbs 31:30

On Women’s Groups and Copouts

Truth be told, I don’t spend a lot of time with just girls much anymore.  I guess since I got hitched, and I like hanging out with my hubby, I’ve become one of those girls that does “couple-y” things or at least co-ed group things.  I have girl nights, and I have girlfriends, but I don’t do a ton of regular ladies groups. 

I didn’t realize that I had moved from the all-girl pack until a few months ago, when I realized that I had signed up for 2 ladies small groups.  Not one, but two.  One is a women leader mentoring group, and the other, a college small group.  Over the last few months, I have been surrounded by lots of women on a regular basis.

It’s fun.  We laugh and eat chocolate and cry and it’s really cathartic.  There really is a different vibe with women and sans men.  There’s a level of freedom and a depth of understanding that comes with being surrounded by people who share something inherent with you.

In our vulnerability, I hear trends in conversations that seem to come out every time I’m with groups of women.  We have some of the same conversations that I had with my middle school youth leaders, my closest high school girlfriends, and my college hall mates.  I have the same conversations with my college group and my women leaders’ group.  We talk about our insecurities, we talk about our anxieties, we talk about how we compare ourselves to one another, and we talk about our need for approval. 

Nearly every week, someone says something to the effect of “All women struggle with this” or “That’s just the way women are wired” as it applies to insecurity, anxiety, comparison, and need for approval. 

Can I be honest?  I think that’s a big fat copout.  As a lifelong approval-seeker, as someone who struggles with anxiety, and as someone who is adept at the comparison game, I have to say, I think it’s a copout to resign to a struggle just because I may be prone to it because of my genetic makeup.

I haven’t fully overcome my insecurity, anxiety, comparison, and approval-seeking, but I have come a long way, baby, and I still believe in my heart of hearts that my struggles can be overcome.  I don’t believe that I have to resign to or accept any struggles just because I may be prone to those struggles.  And you don’t have to, either.

Insecurity does not have to be part of who we are.  Anxiety does not need to rule us.  We can choose to not compare.  We can be content with who God made us to be.

If you are a woman, and you hang out with other women, don’t use your gender as a copout for struggles.  If you are a woman who has overcome insecurity, anxiety, comparison, and approval-seeking; share your story.  We would love to know your secret, but don’t keep it a secret.  If you hear women accepting their struggles, remind them that is not ok.  Challenge them to pursue growth in those areas.

Let’s challenge one another, as those who really understand one another, to rise up.  Let’s be women that challenge one another to be secure, calm, fearless, and confident.  What would our workplaces, families, churches, and communities look like if we conquered our struggles?

Women, what do you think: Do you resign to struggles because of your gender?

Do groups of women foster struggles, or challenge you to conquer them?  How have you overcome your struggles?

Do you share your growth with other women?

Talk to me!

Flashback to Middle and High School

I remember really vividly what it was like to be a middle schooler. Maybe it’s because I’ve worked with middle schoolers since I got out of college, or maybe it’s because the memories are just that emotional that they are forever etched in my brain. I remember wondering almost every minute of the day what everyone was thinking about me. I remember wanting desperately to blend in while wanting desperately to be noticed. I hated standing at least a head above every other student and most teachers. I hated that I had to wear dorky shoes because my feet were fully grown in 5th grade. I hated my chubby knees. I hated my huge nose.

I remember really vividly what it was like to be a high schooler. Maybe it’s because I work at a high school and daily take in the sights, smells, and sounds, or maybe it’s because they were really formative years that stick in the memory bank. I remember wondering almost every minute of the day what someone was thinking about me. I remember wanting desperately to be a Christ-follower while wanting to be accepted by the popular crowd. I remember wanting to make a difference in my world, but wanting to blend into the world. I hated my thighs. I hated my bra size. I hated that my huge nose hadn’t shrunken in spite of all my dieting.

Middle and High school are tough years for everyone. I know it’s different tough for guys and gals, but I can only speak for the gals. There is so much pressure to be the right size, dress the right way, be well-rounded, be smart… and the list goes on. It’s nearly impossible for girls to not be overwhelmed with fears, doubts, insecurities, comparisons, and often lies.

Girls (and guys, I don’t mean to leave you out) need a voice of reason and truth to remind them that they are loved, that they are amazing, that they have a purpose in this big world that’s bigger than their small worlds.

Sometimes that voice comes from a parent, a youth group leader, a teacher, a mentor, a friend. On rare occasions, it comes from an awesome book.

Today, my friend Annie releases an AMAZING book called Perfectly Unique that’s geared for teenage gals. This book is a reminder about how much God loves His creation. It is funny, wise, endearing, and full of truths that young women need to know. I waffled between being in stiches and being in tears while reading this gem.

I wish I’d had this book when I was younger. I think I would have felt more ok in my skin. I wish I’d had this book when I was in youth ministry, I think I would have had better language with which to talk to my gals.

If you are a mother to girls, a youth pastor, a teacher, a coach, a youth leader, a mentor, you should really get your hands on this book.

Because I feel so strongly that you should get your hands on this book, I’m doing a book giveaway (Annie will sign and send you her book). If you comment on this blog (this could be by sharing your most embarrassing middle school moment, or simply acknowledging that you want to be entered in the drawing), you get entered once into the drawing. If you share this post on facebook, you get entered once into the drawing. If you retweet this, you get entered once into the drawing. If you do all three, yes, you get entered 3 times, increasing the likelihood of winning. You are so smart!

So here’s the deal, if you have a middle schooler or high schooler in your life, give them a hug. Listen to their chatter. Earn the right to speak truth and goodness into their lives. They love attention, make sure you give it to them! And please, do get yourself a copy of this book, who knows what life change this could spark in the amazing young women in your life!

Ps, the drawing was completed 9/5. Grand prize winner was Ms. Karen McGee!

Dear Church (You always made it seem so simple),

(From a guest poster who wishes to remain anonymous)

Dear Church,

You always made it seem so simple, so easy, so perfect. I vividly remember those days
as a teen in youth group when I made my “True Love Waits” promise and committed my
whole self to my future husband—my prince charming—this man whom you painted
to be as perfectly suited and unconditionally loving as Christ. “It’s worth the wait,” you
preached year after year, as if marriage were the light at the end of an arduous journey of
self-control, and this future husband the fulfillment of my deepest physical and emotional
longings.

And then I met him within your walls—that guy who was so on fire for Christ,
who made the same purity vow as I, and held a similar idealistic vision of marriage.
We were so young, so innocent, so naïve. And you knew that. You knew we had
years of growing up to do, years of life to live, and that our understanding of love and
commitment were erroneous. But you kept that knowledge to yourself,
never hinted at any sort of hardship to come, anything less than beautiful. You cared only
that we made it to that altar—still immature youth toting unformed identities—with some
semblance of purity upheld and some line uncrossed. That we could face one another in
front of friends, family, and our God and say with unspeakable joy that we had saved our
deepest expression of love for each other and each other alone.

And then you let us go—turned us out into a world of responsibility, stress, financial
burden, and daily living. You knew what sort of temptations we’d face, through what
monotony we’d trudge, and the disagreements that would brew into all-out brawls.
You could have predicted the niggling doubts and gnawing fear that would eat away at
our minds, the questions we’d ask as we lay awake angry, confused, and distressed at
night: “Is this my forever?”

Church, you never shared—as young, impressionable youth with our best years stretched
before us—the most important truths of them all: Life is hard. Marriage is messy. Love is
so very difficult.  Relationships take real work.

Maybe I would have been better prepared. Maybe I would have paused and thought a little longer and harder about the commitment I was about to make.  Maybe I wouldn’t have felt so alone in my struggle if I had known that others struggle, too.   If the
message weren’t all about sex and purity and kissing dating good-bye, maybe I would
have shifted my focus and been able to wrap my head around the commitment rather than the wait.

Even as a young wife, with my fixed smile and resolve to maintain a rosy façade, you never asked the tough questions. You never encouraged me to share the hard truth. I felt ashamed of my daily love reality, as though I had somehow miscalculated the formula necessary for marital bliss. You assumed all was well, and why shouldn’t it be? We had lived an upstanding youth, made all the right choices, were equally yoked, and even attended your couples’ small group.

Why didn’t you warn me or give me some purposeful truth to cling to in the darkest
hours? Why didn’t you ask me to fling wide the doors of my heart’s deepest turmoil or
hold me as I cried through my pain and the smashed dreams of my future? Why did you
allow me to harbor my shame as though I were the only one who couldn’t unlock the key
to matrimonial joy?  Why didn’t you tell us how to work through the dark hours?

Because now I am painfully aware that real life is hard. Love is a choice. People change
and relationships shift.  I only wish you’d told me this, and that you’d intervened with questions and support sooner.

Church, what if you talked to your youth groups about wholistic relationships, not just sex?  What if you were vulnerable about your own struggles with dating and engaged couples?  What if you let down your guards and admitted that marriage is really hard work and then you actually explained what that meant in non-vague terms?  What if you took the institution of marriage off of its pedestal?  What if you asked your married friends hard questions, and then answered their return questions honestly?

And what if you loved me where I am?  What if you listened and prayed for me, and ceased to give canned know-it-all answers? What if you sat with me in my mess and helped me decipher what’s good and true again?

Sincerely,

An anonymous pew mate

Dear Church (What if we were known by what we are for, not what we are against?)

(From a guest poster who wishes to remain anonymous)

Dear Church,

I love Song of Solomon, I’m so deeply grateful God breathed such a beautiful and clear book of a holy, intimate, loving relationship between a man and woman so deeply in love… That beautiful picture of young love was far from my young reality.  See, I am one of the 1 in 4 women and (I know many of the 1 in 6 men) whose first sexual experience wasn’t beautifully crafted; it wasn’t a Genesis 2:24-25 one flesh, no shame moment. My first sexual experience wasn’t my choice.

I struggled for years through the myriad of emotional and physical manifestations that resulted from the decisions made that violated me, as well as the later decisions I made that allowed me to be violated.  Some of my early sexual experiences were not my choice, some of my later sexual experiences were my choice.  But none of those early sexual encounters were ones that God had dreamed up for His creation.  And when I came into a relationship with God, I needed a Church to walk with me through my brokenness, questions, anger, regret, and healing.

More often than I’d like to admit, church folks could not look past the sin committed to me and the sin committed by me to see the hurt, lost person searching for restoration and in need of a Savior.  It breaks my heart that those outside of our faith community understand the Church as it is being defined by people who sit in pews who often ignore the call to be “rooted and established in love” (Ephesians 3:17).  My daughter’s Bible so eloquently describes God as having a “never stopping, never giving up, unbreaking, always and forever love”.  Funny that my toddler is being constantly reminded of a message that is lost in grown up church.   Let us not lose sight of that love and our call to be rooted in it bearing its fruit.

Church, I beg of you to please consider the brokenness of our world when you address sexuality from the pulpit.  Don’t assume things about the past and present of those in your pews, youth groups, and small groups.  If we talk about premarital sex, we must discuss it in light of the harsh realities of our fallen world; sexual molestation, rape and the perversion that saturates every waking moment of our lives from television to the internet, from movies to magazines.

What if, instead of taking such strong stands on sexual issues, we challenged one another as Christ followers to be known by what we stand for—not what we are against?  What if in place of the ‘just say no’ messages, we relayed the importance of building God honoring, healthy, loving relationships?  What if we talked about how to actually have healthy relationships?  What if we preached that no one is so far gone that they can’t experience healthy love?

When we focus on what we stand for, we are able to view everyone in the light of the cross, where we so graciously stand. 

Oh sweet Church, we cannot change the reality that we live in a perverse, fallen world.  We can, however, raise up men and women who are able to engage with people in the midst of their brokenness.

What if we raised up fellow Christ-followers who were sensitive to those who have been abused?  What if we raised up men and women who could walk with those who are having sex outside of marriage and seek to truly understand the root causes of their choices?  What if we came alongside of people and expressed grace and love?

Church, let’s take the challenge to truly follow Christ, to sit at the well with someone and offer water to their parched soul.  Let’s challenge them to make a lasting change rooted in a new life, while remaining acutely aware of the grace and forgiveness we have received so that we can express it to those Christ has brought into our lives.

Sincerely,

An anonymous pew-mate