This summer, I’ve revisited the middle school years more intimately than I ever thought I would. As a camp counselor for girls ages 9-13, I re-entered a time I once knew very well. My new job brought day after day of deja vu; long rides on a stifling school bus, endless bracelet making, intense games of dodgeball, ‘Heads Up 7 Up,’ skits, bowling, S’mores, and so much more. All of it was so familiar.
I appreciated different things on my second round of middle school than I did my first time around. From my place eight years ahead of the girls, I saw so much in the quirkier ones. The ones who liked to fill journals with gorgeous drawings, or read peacefully in the corner, or dye their hair blue, or wear bright ruffled mini-skirts every day with their camp T-shirts. As someone who cared way to much about staying on the beaten path in those years, I admire their individuality. It takes confidence to be a true individual like that.
But one day, a girl’s comment about herself stopped me in my tracks. We were getting ready to go swimming, and as I waited for all the campers to be done changing, one girl studied herself in the mirror. “Cute suit!” I exclaimed at her new blue bikini. She looked back at me glumly. “I like it, I just don’t like it on me,” she said.
My face fell. She’s just twelve. Not even a teenager yet, but already well-versed in the self-depricating tone so many women use when we get into a bathing suit. My heart sunk, and I assured her that she looked great. But I knew she’d already tuned me out, just as I do when I complain in a moment of insecurity and a friend tries to brush it away.
That weekend, I met Nikki. I took a yoga class she taught and, on a whim, introduced myself after the class to thank her for such a great practice. In one of those weird moments where the world gets incredibly small, she and I chatted and got to two conclusions: 1.) she lives on the street I grew up on, and 2.) will be teaching English at my high school this fall. But what caught my attention most about her is her mission to bring yoga to teenage girls through a special practice called Girlvana Yoga. My camper’s disappointment with herself still sat with me, and I felt such a relief to meet Nikki when I did, as she hopes to dispel comments just like that.
In this short life, women and girls should be encouraged to have so much more gratitude for our bodies. The legs that carry us wherever we want until we’re breathless, the arms that embrace our friends when we haven’t seen them in forever, the stomachs that we can fill with the same delicious food no matter how flat or round they happen to be.
This summer’s sickening international headlines have made me that much more aware of life’s brevity; of my gratitude to still be here breathing and tasting and laughing and running. We don’t have forever. For that reason, I’ve recently started to grow beyond that place of self-shame and body negativity. However, Nikki knows that so many people, especially teenage girls, have not had that breakthrough yet. And she’d like to bring them to it.
I reached out to Nikki for an ongoing project I run called In Her Shoes. The project aims to start positive conversations on women and girls about the things they do, rather than how they look. I ask women to consider a certain pair of shoes and think about the best thing they’v seen or felt or achieved while wearing them. Nikki’s response, influenced by her passions of writing and yoga, is exactly what I hoped she might say.
“My name is Nikki, but everyone calls me Namaste Nik. I am a high school English teacher in Shaker Heights, passionate yoga instructor, and travel addict. I have always been a barefoot queen…I love feeling the grass between my toes or the smoothness of hard wood floors. I spend a lot of time on my yoga mat and I feel most grounded and beautiful when I am barefoot. These Birkenstock sandals allow me to feel barefoot in public. I have owned them for a week and I can say that I feel as if I have owned them for a lifetime. They are just like my yoga mat – dependable, strong, and perfect for whatever adventure I choose next in my life.
These shoes have given me the confidence to walk in my own skin, my own power, and my own confidence. Today, I had a photo-shoot for my yoga business and my photographer (also my best friend who is well aware of my fears) asked me to jump the rapid tracks to get to an amazing view. I did. I dirtied my shoes, I ran in the sunshine, and I embarked on an adventure. That is what my life is about right now. Adventure. I do not want soft & perfect feet! I want feet that are roughed up from climbing stone walls, dancing barefoot, and living out loud. Sure, I love stilettos and wedges, I can tap into my femininity when I wear them. But my true essence is feeling grounded, in the moment, so I can connect with others.
I’m still learning every single day how to love & embrace myself wholly. These shoes help me get there. My yoga tattoo on my arm means, ‘non-attachment’ – being able to let go of attachments, expectations, and control so that we can truly experience freedom. When I am wearing these sandals, I am reminded to just CHILL and embrace the adventurous path ahead.”
Signed just below her response, Nikki’s email signature jumped out in blue. It was a quote, one I wish I’d had for my camper in her low locker room moment. One that so many people could use when they start to compare themselves to others:
“The world needs you to be you. Find your unique voice, your truest self and share that with the world. We need you.”