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My Salvaged Beauty cover photo by Laszlo Rathonyi
For as long as I can remember, I wanted to be loved. As a little girl, I would sit quietly, legs crossed on the square of worn grey carpet in my mother’s bedroom smiling in awe as I watched her put on her makeup. With every swipe of the eye shadow brush, I took notes.
As soon as she left the room, I turned my ordinary dull eyelids to pools of lilac splendor. I liked the reaction from people when I slid a bullet of bright red lipstick across my young and innocent pout. “Ohhh, pretty!” they’d say looking at my tiny teeth, some missing, peeking through a crimson simper. With a flutter in my stomach– just like that– I became hooked on the most tragic of all lies:
I am loved, because am beautiful.
When I got older, I learned how to be pleasing, not just with my looks, but also with my moves. My body created a kaleidoscope of shapes and dynamics. Sometimes I was small and quick; other times large, bold, and sweeping with my movement.
But my body was to remain one way: thin. It had to be thin.
Anyone who has ever danced, has heard some teacher, who is no doubt starving and sick herself, say something along the lines of “Your body is your instrument, and you must take care of it.” The world of dance harbors a one-size-fits-all mentality. I would spend the next 20 years fighting to take care of my “instrument.” Keeping it in perfect condition, all based on someone else’s idea of what was beautiful.
In college, I majored in Dance. At midterms, my professor informed me that I currently had a “B” in ballet class. If I could lose 10 pounds by the end of the semester, my grade could go up. Ten years later, I was standing in the office of my show manager in the 30 seconds between costume changes, being told something similar. “We have noticed you have put on a couple of pounds, and you’re standing out” she said eyes narrowing and stabbing my mostly naked body. “If you can’t lose the weight by re-auditions next week, we will not renew your contract and replace you.”
I was put on Weight Notice at 130 pounds… for my 5-foot 9-inch frame.
Every artist receives some kind of harsh and gut wrenching criticism for their craft. Painters are told to be more original with their canvas. Musicians are told to explore more profound rhythms in their songs. Sculptures are told the lines and grooves need to be crafted differently in the clay. But my art was me. My arms, my legs, my soul swirling and floating, and jiggling and thundering across the grey linoleum. My body, a lens through which to watch the passage of dance.
In order to be appreciated and loved by my audience, my professor, my boss, that my lens, my instrument, had to be a certain aesthetic or no one would even be able to see my dancing. Eventually the voices in my head began to take over. Be thin. Fit in. Your skills don’t matter as much as the body that’s presenting them. Don’t stand out in the group. Follow what everyone else is doing. Do whatever it takes, then you will be beautiful. You won’t upset anyone. You will be loved.
What came after that was pain; years of eating disorders, addiction, and self-loathing. I was furious at myself for not fitting in. I tried desperately to follow the schematic for the way I should look. I always assumed I took care of myself because I was talented at doing my hair and make- up and almost never left the house in my pajamas.
Being beautiful was an outside job.
If my appearance was under control on the surface, no one would see how out of control I was on the inside. No one would know that when I retired from dancing and became a “normal weight” woman, I needed a bottle of wine a night to help me forget. No one would know if I gave in and ate an entire pizza; that I mentally whipped myself for hours on the treadmill days after. Inside, I didn’t feel beautiful or unique for just being me. The real me was someone to hide, conform, quiet. I felt the warm rays of approval and love from others when I was playing by their rules, but if a little bit of me slipped out, I had to take care of it.
It wasn’t until I hit rock bottom in life that I realized I had to change. I needed help and spent many years working through the lies that were ingrained in my everyday life. Instead of beating myself up, I’d have to make friends with myself. Before making friends with that person, I’d have to meet her. Forgive her. The path of self-discovery is brilliant and well lit, once you turn the lights on.
Fast forward eight years. I’ve found a second career, which is incidentally in the beauty industry helping women learn how to apply makeup. My appearance has evolved but not as much as my soul has. When someone sits in my chair and starts to put herself down, I am quick to remind her that it’s okay to just be herself.
The most beautiful women I know don’t play small.
They don’t have to hide. They are enough, just by being the strong, smart, interesting people who take care of themselves, their families, manage their careers, and give to the communities around them. My favorite cosmetic these days is the glow of knowing I am worthy; worthy of love, and happiness, and all good things. We are all adored more than we could ever imagine, and it doesn’t have to be earned. It doesn’t revolve around our appearance, weight, wealth, or status.
True love is everywhere, abundant, and given freely without condition. It is within us and always has been. We don’t have to change shape or conform our appearance. We can just be tender, real, deserving and kind. The real person we were born to be is there if we are willing to meet her, learn from her and love her. It took me a while to learn all of this, but I have nothing but gratitude for the journey, and I feel more beautiful than ever before.
About The Author
Jessica Van Valkenburgh has a life path that is anything but linear. From the glitz and glamour of the Las Vegas stage, to backpacking through the wilderness of Northern Michigan, Ms. Van Valkenburgh believes that any aspect of life can be repurposed. She started her blog My Salvaged Soul in 2018 as a chronicle of hope, and the story of her journey through recovery and rejuvenation. She aims to prove it’s never too late to start over, change perspective or grow. Her message is a strong cup of black coffee in a mug covered in rhinestones. She resides in Michigan with her loving husband and lives for all things vintage, yoga, and pizza.