Flashing Comfort Zones

It’s a chilly 45 degrees outside, but the sun is shining bright through the clear glass ceiling protecting the pool from the cold winter day. Today is UNC Culture Magazine’s: Underwater Photoshoot and I am one of the models.

Before any photoshoot, my body begins to react in the same way.  My palms become sweaty, my heart begins to race, and my spirit becomes heavy. The simple act of posing in front of a camera becomes a mental battle between my voice of self-doubt and confidence.

You are not pretty enough. Your teeth are too small. You are not the “rightsize. The hobgoblin on my shoulder begins to whisper in my ear.  You will never make the final spread.

Lined against the edge of the pool are six beautiful young women awaiting the directions of the photographer. Their makeup is natural and their lips are bright, their vintage bathing suits hug their bodies in just the right areas, accentuating their curves… and then there is me in the background on the bench still awaiting to get my makeup done and pulling my one piece over my thighs to hide my wide Cuban hips.

Haha, would you look at that, you are the plus size model.  It whispers as I glance over the top of my compact mirror at the girls in their bikinis strutting their stuff.

Trying to ignore the anxiety building up inside of me, I walk to the bathroom, finding a mirror deep in the crevices of the locker room.  Staring at my reflection I start the exercise I have been doing for a few years –pointing out the aspects that I find beautiful about myself.

My freckles, my eyes, my smile, my hair…  I repeat this out loud over and over again, slowly the anxiety begins to die a bit. I muster up my courage, give my myself one last breath-taking model look and walk out the door.

Everyone is in the water already so I make my way to the shallow end of the pool, where all the girls are posing in an arm locked circle with their heads in the water, staring at the sky as the photographer shoots from above.  After a couple of shots, we are moved to the deeper end of the pool where each of us are asked to do an interesting pose underwater. So one by one, the girls line up and take their turn.

Finally, it is my turn and as I plunge underwater my heart starts to race again, it suddenly feels as if I am drowning. What’s happening!? My brain seems to yell.  You have never come up for air so quickly! You love the water –you’re are practically a fish!

Instantly, the years of swimming lessons, pretending to model, or being in a cool underwater movie scene vanish. Water floods my lungs from every direction and when I came up for air I am gasping like a fish out of water.

It doesn’t make sense. This is not me. I am supposed to be the role model of Beauty for Ashes –redefining beauty, loving yourself and all that. I mean, I do love my body and I know I have a pretty high self-esteem but, I can’t understand why I seem to be failing myself and my ideas right now. Why am I picking out every minuscule detail that is wrong in the pictures…? It doesn’t make sense.

But then it hits me, I am scared of the camera.

Never has it been so easy for us to see such distorted images of ourselves.  Photos can be manipulated by so many different means such as lighting, color, zooming, angles, and Photoshop. So suddenly, all this body confidence disappeared because, I’m comparing myself to others. I am highlighting the same quirks I love so much about myself as defects because I didn’t look like the “typical model” and they stood there frozen in a picture for the world to see, including me.

“I want thank you all for coming today” the editor-and-chief of the magazine announced as we took one final shot of the whole group. “All of you are beautiful and truly made the bathing suits pop! The spread for this shoot is going to be amazing and I am so grateful that you all took time out of your busy schedules to help us today. We love models of every shape, size, color, and race. I am so glad I had the chance to work with all of you.”

As everyone gathered their stuff and left, I stood there for a minute. I realized she was right. I am different, and that is what makes me beautiful.  I am a different shade, different race, and different size. So, I might not be as tall or as thin as a traditional model. But, I have my long wavy hair, voluptuous Latin curves, and my quirky smile that attracts others. And those are my model secret weapons.

Beauty for Ashes strives to help individuals redefine beauty and stepping out of your comfort zone is one of those means. It will teach you to find positivity in every experience.

Today I stepped out of my comfort zone, and with a few more practice rounds, I know the camera won’t scare me anymore.

Brigitte, 21

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Here are some photos of me and my best friend after the photoshoot embracing our beauty!

Switching Shoes

I was in shock as a crowd of five hundred shoe fanatics watched enviously as my name was called to meet Steve Madden. Shoes have always been my favorite accessories, so when I was offered a chance to meet Steve Madden, I could not refuse. After Madden congratulated me, he signed the shoes that I won and wrote “Persistence, not perfection” on the box. I have since used this quote to always remind myself that it is better to be persistent than perfect. My love for heels and my need for perfection became intertwined on that day.

Being a perfectionist has helped me stay on top of my academics. I am determined to get the best grades I can and the most out of everything I do. My family raised me to always do my best in everything, as opportunities do not come twice. I have always had a “no quit, no fail” attitude. As a perfectionist, I want to be in control of my work, to know that things will be done the way I want them to. Getting the best grade or finishing first at a meet takes a lot of time and dedication, but it motivates me to work hard to achieve my goal. However, I have come to realize that the same shoes do not work well in every circumstance; sometimes, my attitude needs to change.

I soon realized that some of my qualities served me better at certain times than others. The stress of college hit me hard. Trying to be involved, keeping up with all of my classes, and participating in events had taken a toll on the way I viewed myself. I began to question my abilities and if I was able to keep up my “perfection steak” throughout college.

I found myself constantly asking if I was capable of achieving all that I believed could back in high school. I felt that all of the hopes and dreams I had could not be accomplished because everything I had planned wasn’t going the way I wanted.

The impact that I had from Beauty for Ashes still has an effect on me today. I remember being constantly being told by me peers “Be positive and persistent, you can do anything you set your mind to.” The workshops helped me find people who I could turn to; not only when I am unsure of my abilities, but in times of laughter and joy.

Through the Beauty for Ashes workshops, I was reminded that life is not always about performing perfectly, but persisting. It is about being the best that you can be and never giving up. It is because of my perseverance that I have become who I am today and that I know never to settle for anything less than what I deserve. After so long, it finally hit me that sometimes I have to switch shoes. Sometimes I have to remove my heels and put on sneakers, because it is nearly impossible to run through my entire life in heels.

– Helen, 19

New Perspective

What do I struggle with? Self-worth.

My fear was always that I would be a nuisance.

I would walk up to friends only to be greeted with a false smile and a fabricated “Hey, how are you?” As the conversation would develop and I would begin to describe what makes me happy and what makes me ache and they’d roll their eyes in annoyance.

That is when it started, the questioning thoughts. “Why would they care about me?” My happiness would be irritating and my problems would simply be a bothersome friend-repellent. So what was I to do to avoid becoming this annoying person to others?

Stay silent.

Speak when spoken to. Be like a machine that shows no emotion and simply delivers objective data. Listen to other people’s problems because it is courteous, but never bring up your own. It’ll simply be a bother. Congratulate others on their achievements, but never bring up your own. It’ll simply be a bother. Listen to other people’s interests because it is polite, but never bring up your own. It’ll simply be a bother.

This was my struggle with self-worth until I attended Beauty for Ashes.

I was always afraid to attend. I was afraid I would be treated as a patient, as a psychology student’s guinea pig. However, an honor society I was a part of required attending school functions and I thought why not try a single B4A session and if I didn’t like it I can simply leave.

Safe to say I liked it a lot because I began to attend regularly and noticed my progress.

I remember one of the most impactful conversations of my entire life took place because of B4A and every word of it still rings in my ears. “Understand that you are not a burden, Jason. You are a blessing to anybody and you need to see that, because I see that. Your friendship is a very big blessing to me. You need to see that when you want to speak about your problems, whatever is on your mind, that you are not burdening anyone. If anything, you are giving them the privilege to let them into your mind, giving them insight into who you are, how you feel, what you think.”

Now that is a perspective I had never thought of before. A small shift in paradigm that caused a chain reaction throughout my entire being.

I have learned that others truly do care about me as a friend and as a person. That people want to hear about my talents, my achievements, my interests, and my problems. That people care to know me and my quirky intricacies.

I have learned that I am loved.

– Jason, 19

How We Were Born

It all started because of one boy, one sentence.

Seven students were gathered in a circle for our monthly Psychology Anonymous meeting as I posed the first question, “What are three things you like about yourself, and three things you don’t?”

As each student took their turn, I noticed how they struggled to find even one positive aspect about themselves, but were quick to name the bad. But then, I saw him.

Already shifting in his seat, his face portrayed discomfort and he started to gather his stuff as if he wanted to leave. But he was too late, it was his turn.

After a few moments of silence he whispered, “There is nothing to like about me,” with a cold, glossy stare.

It was at this moment that I noticed how today’s society has caused the youth to see themselves in such a negative light. Our self-image has been distorted in such a way that some people have become incapable of loving themselves.

I wanted to change that.

When June rolled around I started to gather research on body image and self-esteem. I took surveys of students across Miami Dade College campuses asking about what they have experienced and what they would like to learn more about. I created a pre/post test along with a psychoeducational slideshow and tested the material in my Human Growth and Development class. However, I wasn’t satisfied.

I wanted to do more than just educate the college population on body image and self-esteem, I wanted to give students a chance to grow, participate, and reflect, and so, Beauty for Ashes was born.

Beauty for Ashes is series of workshops I created that focuses on how our body image and self-esteem can be affected by our perception, the media, gender roles, and others. It is focused on making beauty a source of confidence, not anxiety.

In partnership with Phi Theta Kappa and the Psychology Club, I was able to bring the program my college campus and touch the lives of 41 students. Each student was challenged to reflect on their body image and self-esteem by participating in activities that focus on everyday things such as walking, taking a compliment, and defining beauty.

They were also asked to self-reflect by creating a mask that depicts their self-image and how they believe others view them, writing what they see when they look in the mirror, and writing a letter to themselves.

By empowering the young leaders, I allowed members of both clubs to facilitate the discussions and create their own presentations. As I guided them through the process of presenting their phase, I saw a transformation in them. Each facilitator had a story, and slowly it was beginning to change.

With the efforts of both teams, Beauty for Ashes is a hit and is now continuing to reach students across Miami Dade College Campuses.

Not So Skin Deep

“If flowers can teach themselves how to bloom after winter passes, so can you.”

My bully didn’t shove me into lockers or pull my hair. My bully didn’t beat me up or make the rest of my peers hate me.

My bully lived inside of me.

My bully allowed myself to believe that I wasn’t good enough, that I was a failure. That if I wasn’t perfect, no one would want to be around me.

My bully made me believe that everything I said was wrong. That everything I did was wrong, that the only way to validate my existence was to not be in the way, not be too loud, and not be seen.

I let the demons inside my mind get the best of me. I stopped eating. I slept too much. I didn’t really do much of anything.  It wasn’t until my AP European history teacher sent me to the school counselor’s office that I knew how hard I had fallen and realized that I was at rock bottom.

Throughout high school I clawed myself out of the whole I had dug myself into. Coming into college, I knew I wanted to change my outlook on myself and on life. I knew I wanted to change, but I didn’t know how much I would change.

I started going to Beauty for Ashes every week because some of my peers were going to be facilitating and I wanted to support them. I’ve never had a big issue with my appearance. I had never been one to look in the mirror until I hated myself nor obsess over every flaw I saw.

But I did hate myself.

I hated myself for having to go to therapy. I hated myself for not be kind enough or smart enough or quiet enough or hard working enough or good enough.

On the first session of B4A we had to describe what “beauty” meant to us and it was something that came up throughout the sessions. People described being beautiful as something that wasn’t skin deep, that it was something that was inside of everyone through their personality and beliefs. But how could I find myself beautiful if I hated my insides?

I found that definition very stereotypical and robotic. I didn’t feel that it was sincere. I felt that everyone had been hearing that definition as children and were just repeating it.

Then I started journaling. I started writing about everything and anything. I started peeling apart layers of myself and analyzing some of my darkest corners. And I realized that I am enough.

I can’t say that I won’t hit rock bottom again. I can’t even say that I’ll never call myself a failure or not good enough again.

But I know that I am strong enough.

Strong enough to pick myself up from the sleepless nights. Strong enough to make it through the rough weeks that might turn into rough months. Strong enough to put the pieces of myself back together even when they don’t seem to fit and I’m missing pieces.

And that is my definition of beauty.

– Suzy, 18

Mirror, We are Through.

I can still see her big brown eyes staring back, cold and empty.

They glisten with tears as she tries to suppress back her sobs. Her hair is stringy and drawn in all directions, her body slumps down, and her face is scattered with freckles. The heaviness in her heart is apparent, flashing. Her lack of confidence glooms over her with a bulls-eye on her back and the word “ugly” hangs around her neck.

But I can’t bear to look at her any longer. As I turn my face to block her from my view I press my back against the wall and slide to the floor.  My heart pounds hard in my chest.

The mirror has never been my best friend.


That is a just a taste of the episodes I use to have before I acknowledged I had an issue with my body image and self-esteem. It was a never ending cycle. Up, down, up, down, up, down. Rock bottom down.

I know the feeling of looking into the mirror and having my thoughts consumes my mind, my body, and my soul. It an almost physical and mental battle, a battle I know many of us still struggle with.

But after years of being dominated by the negative voices that lived inside me I chose to stand up. Slowly I began to rid myself of the negative influences in my life. I replaced my demeaning comments with positive complements, I filled my room pictures of happy moments and beautiful people, and I challenged the mirror every morning.  I stopped slouching and avoiding eye contact with those around me, and instead held my head up high.

Looking back I realize I was participating in the ideals of what Beauty for Ashes is built upon before the program even existed! I was able to change my perspective on myself and transform my anxiety into confidence.

Nowadays when I step on stage to facilitate a workshop I keep in mind all my experiences and my struggle. I don’t ignore them, but rather embrace them because it is part of my story.

Beauty for Ashes is my reminder that even though I have been at rock bottom I can still make myself new, like a phoenix being reborn from the ashes .

-Brigitte, 20

Labels No More


That was the word I wrote across my mask in big blue bold letters.

I remember the first Beauty for Ashes session I attended. We were told to grab a mask and on one side write how we believed others perceived us and on the other side, how we saw ourselves. We were then asked to compare them and although the good outweighed the bad, I couldn’t seem to let go of that brick of a word on the other side. In my mind, I was still annoying.

All my life I’ve found comfort in surrounding myself with others. I was, and still to this day, am enthralled by the lives and stories of others. I always managed to squeeze my way into a multitude of cliques, groups and crews. The moments, while precious and unforgettable, were fleeting. It wasn’t until this past summer, after graduating high school that I began to feel an absence that I realized I felt the whole time.

“Why did people forget me? Where did everyone run off to? Were any of them every truly my friend?” These were the questions that echoed throughout my mind, questions I asked myself every day.

Sharing that moment with the facilitators and the people participating in the seminar wasn’t easy, yet it was the doorway to a new perspective, a self-discovery of sorts.

With an ever growing family of people willing to listen, care and understand and an environment which welcomed expression, thought and question, every session of Beauty for Ashes gave me the strength I never knew I needed. It gave me the support I didn’t know was out there.

Through each phase of the seminar I was discovering a new part of myself. Every meeting I found more and more reasons to love myself for who I was and not for what I believed others thought of me.

Mirrors don’t lie and by the end of the seminar what I saw in the mirror was the person I was this whole time, the only difference between the beginning and the end was that now I could see it.

– Kevin, 19

An Equation for Beauty

It has taken me six days to write this personal story. I would write a few lines but then quickly erase it because I wasn’t content with what I wrote. Finally, I realized what the problem was. I was trying to write as someone that I am not. I was trying to be the broken girl who came back from rock bottom and became successful.

I am not that girl.

I am pessimistic, I complain all the time, I have no self-esteem or confidence, and I’m much too sensitive for my own good. But out of all these flaws, the most prominent one in my mind is beauty.

I would never define myself as beautiful.

Before I attended a Beauty for Ashes workshop I had many ways to describe beautiful—skinny, long hair, perfect smile—but then I realized this beauty is only superficial, there are so many other ways to define beautiful.

One of the first workshops I attended spoke about perspective. During the workshop, the facilitators showed a quote that said how we view ourselves is dependent on what others think of ourselves. In my head, everything began making sense. For years I had been ridiculed in school and even before my elementary years, my family often criticized my body image.

So maybe it’s a little too late for my nonexistent self-esteem to come back from the dumps but there was something else from that first workshop that stayed with me. Beauty for Ashes had their own definition of beauty. Beauty was not only described by physical characteristics but what went beyond what others saw, like our personality or passion.

After this workshop, I realized that I often let everyone else define who I was. My parents told me I was going to be a doctor, my grandfather said “Thank God! You’re at last smart,” and the rest of the world didn’t see me at all. That moment I decided to start defining myself because I was tired of living someone else’s life.

So I may never see myself like a Hollywood superstar but who cares? I rather be defined for the more important things like being genuine, friendly, kind, free-spirited and driven. Instead of finding my confidence in my physical appearance, I found it within myself and that kind of beauty is eternal.

— Stephanie, 19