By Olivia Dufour via UN Volunteers
My story starts all too similarly to the stories of young girls around the world: gossip, bullying, and body shaming throughout middle school. I had always loved who I was, until the end of elementary school, when my peers tried to manipulate the way that I viewed myself.
This girl-against-girl bullying began to impact my pride and sense of self. My friends had slim, straight figures, while mine often became the topic of conversation. I was deemed too curvy by some standards, too muscular and athletic for others, never able to be good enough.
What appeared on the surface as a critique of my shape, would later be understood to be an expression of my bullies’ insecurity and envy.
As the months went on, the bullying transformed into organized meetings, where I was being talked about in girl’s restrooms, at birthday parties, and at recess. Friends sent me pictures of conversations about me on instant messaging and online chat rooms.
School was my passion, because I loved to learn. My days became more about avoiding people and places, than about learning new and exciting things. Eventually, the stress became too much to handle.
As a result, I changed schools three times: from public school to private school and then private school to homeschooling. Thriving academically in these vastly different environments came easily to me, but what also came easily was more bullying.
I did everything that I could to stay at each school, until I had no choice but to remove myself from the situation. I thought that students at new schools would be different, more compassionate and welcoming, but that was not my experience. While the names of the schools I attended changed on a bi-yearly basis, the trend of bullying as a normal part of growing up stayed the same.
I was running hoping to find the solution in new places and new faces, not yet knowing that the solution was to focus on myself, and get to meet the girl that I once knew so well. It would be a homecoming of my very own.
After four years I had an emotional breakthrough and the problem’s solution came to me instantly: show a powerful version of myself without changing who I was, and I would be untouchable.
Overnight, I became confident again, unharmed by the attempts to belittle me. Whenever I would feel as though my name was being whispered in the hallways, I would invoke C.S. Lewis’ wisdom “Courage, dear heart”, I would say to myself.
I wore the clothes that made me happy, I walked with a sense of pride that projected strength, and I spoke in class with purpose and clarity. Soon, these so-called enemies noticed and tried to become my friends, this strategy was more than working: it was teaching others to look within themselves.
From then on, I accepted only kind and genuine individuals into my life, and soon my circle of friends was receiving positive attention from teachers and students. My passion had always been to help others, so I founded a nonprofit workshop organization in 2010 called “Rise and Shine”.
I invited the schools’ students, friends and bullies alike, to participate in a movement of empowerment and self-reflection. Those who had bullied students in the past came to these workshops and explained that they too were tired of bringing down others, and wanted to change their path.
Surprisingly, apologies were sent my way, explaining why they tried to change me: they were intimidated by my positivity. I traveled across the Tri-State area doing speaking engagements, and teaching children aged 8-17 how to use their voices to help, not to harm.
I learned an invaluable lesson that while there is strength in numbers, there is even greater strength in oneself. To recognize the power that you hold is the first step towards greatness. The earlier that this recognition takes place, the longer you can live unafraid and uninhibited, but it is never too late.
Whether you are 2 or 102 years old, there is still a chance to be empowered from within. So if you are reading this and feel as though someone in your life has made you feel less than you are, take this moment to be assured that you are not alone. You were brought here for a reason, and you will accomplish more than you may ever know, with or without that person’s approval.
You are supposed to be different. There is an indescribable beauty that comes from knowing that no two women look exactly the same. I took my experience of being body shamed and refocused my energy on honoring myself and the women that came before me.
Educating the women and young girls of today was and continues to be an important way to prevent body issues from impacting their lives. The journey of self-love is the most important step towards a lifelong experience as an empowered individual.
Once I tapped into my unique qualities as indicators of strength and bravery, I became invincible, unreachable by media and beauty industry biases. It became clear that in a way conforming was more of an act of surrender, than one of fitting in.
When this message reaches you, I hope that you find a renewed love and purpose for yourself.
You deserve to live a life you are proud of. I will leave you with this, a quote from a powerful French poet RenéChar: “Impose ta chance, serre ton bonheur et va vers ton risque. À te regarder, ils s’habitueront.” (Impose your chance, hold tight to your happiness, and walk toward your risk. Looking at you, they will become accustomed.)