Why in the world would anyone want to do business with me? I’m a fraud, who no one in their right mind would listen to. Or, at least, that is what I thought for many, many years as I bore the sins of my past and my skin color like the scarlet letter. It was only when a wonderful coach decided to take me through an exercise that my life ended up changing for good. On a lark she said, “Close your eyes and tell me the first word that comes to mind to describe yourself.” My answer? Unacceptable. I opened my eyes and it was like the world was in Technicolor. Her next question was, “What exactly is unacceptable about you?” I had a long list that included my height, my skin color in my industry, the fact that I cursed, the way I thought, along with a bulimic past. She listened intently and then issued an assignment. I was to write a story about myself highlighting everything I thought was unacceptable about me in a positive light.
I did the assignment, opting to write it like a Vanity Fair interview (the interviewer loved me). And it was the first time I truly saw everything that made me different as an asset instead of a liability. It was the first time I truly embraced that everything about me, every struggle, every challenge, every setback and every unique attribute that I had previously seen as negative was part of a quilt that made me a powerful woman. How many times have you thought to yourself ‘if they only knew who I really was…’? Well, how is anyone going to be comfortable with you in business if you are uncomfortable with yourself; if you are convinced you are in some way unacceptable?
In the 8th grade my mother started making me wear a girdle to school – I found out later that her mother had done the same to her… in 1940. It was the first message that I received that there was something unacceptable about me. I was fat; the only fat girl in the 8th grade. And it was the beginning of my spiral into bulimia and shame. I don’t remember if I felt I had anything to be ashamed of before girdle-gate, but I certainly did afterwards. I became incredibly self-conscious wondering if everyone was scrutinizing me the way my mother had, determining that my slim body was not quite slim enough. My thinking then progressed to, if I wasn’t slim enough, what else wasn’t I enough of. I found plenty of things.
Bulimia began in high school and continued throughout my college and professional basketball career, lasting nearly ten years; me sneaking off to bathrooms to cleanse myself of the self-hatred after binging on mounds of food. I wonder how my heart survived. A couple years after returning from Australia, I realized I had to make a choice; either just go ahead and kill myself or stop throwing up because no one was coming to save me. I woke up the next day and stopped (my journal entry simply said, “Fuck it. I’m done.”). The emotional stuff took many more years to work through, which I did mostly on my own because I was too ashamed to ask for help and my mind had convinced me that no one cared. I don’t recommend it.
The turning point occurred during my first week of work as an assistant women’s basketball coach at the University of Mississippi. I was informed that one of the players on our team had bulimia and she could not get cleared to play until she got help. But she was refusing it. So they wanted me, as the only woman on staff, to talk to her. The irony was not lost on me. I realized as we walked to The Grove that I could give her a prescriptive pep talk, or I could come clean about my own struggles. I anxiously chose the latter. I could read my player’s mind as I related to her my struggles with bulimia ‘if she can have bulimia and get over it, so can I’. She sought treatment immediately and was cleared to play before official practice started. Not only did I realize that telling my story did not kill me, it actually freed me, but I also realized that coming clean about my own struggles could help others.
I struggled in my business up until that coaching session when I realized my word was “unacceptable”, uncomfortable in my own skin – literally – and unable to embrace my full self. I spent a great deal of time feeling like a fraud, afraid that at any moment people were going to find out who I really was and reject me. And when I went out I wanted to be invisible. Isn’t it interesting that everything about me seems to be designed so that I am anything but invisible? I have always had a desire to help people be their most powerful selves, but what I realized through my own journey is that you can only be your most powerful self if you are able to embrace all of yourself. You can’t just choose the good parts.
As a leadership strategist, I have come into my own. I wear my unacceptability like a badge of honor and encourage others, especially women, to do the same. In every class I teach and at every speaking engagement I am proud to throw out the things that make me unacceptable. It is important for people to know that even though I am far from perfect, and I have struggled, and I am different, I am still powerful. It still catches me off guard the number of people who are appreciative of my willingness to open up. The word I hear most often is “hope”. One interesting outcome of embracing my own unacceptability is that once I became comfortable with myself, my life and my business began to flourish. For me, the word unacceptable has come to represent power. It means that I am unafraid to be 100% me; The Unacceptable Woman.