The other day, I got into an interesting debate about Disney movies and their effects on little girls. Don’t get me wrong – I was a fan as a child. But, I take issue with the ‘Boy meets girl… girl is helpless but beautiful… boy saves girl… they live happily ever after.’ story. The entire premise of The Little Mermaid is that women should be seen and not heard. Ariel literally had no voice. She was silent, pretty, clothed, cartoon porn.

But she had ‘dem big eyes though.

Disney movies never tell the stories of strong women. Even after she literally saves all of China, in the end, Mulan needs a man and a man’s approval to make her feel worthwhile.

For however much we like or dislike it, we live in the world where others’ opinions of us, and our perception of those opinions, matter – maybe more than our own.

I am perpetually shocked when I see young girls post pictures of themselves on Instagram and Facebook, slathered with makeup, doing duck face and posing for the camera. I see those pictures, and in my heart I rail against society. Disney and pop culture do this to us, I rant. Girls are sexualized at such a young age. Society forces us into this box, I say.

But it is not just society; we do it to ourselves. And those little girls posting pictures of themselves with their boobs pushed up doing duck face did not just learn it online; they learned it from us.

This is what you need to do to be pretty. This is what you need to do to be seen as worthwhile.

My niece could have learned it from me. Goodness knows I sometimes dress promiscuously and happily post those posed pictures of myself with my girlfriends on social media.

I was shy growing up, and more than a bit insecure. It took me a really long time to “find myself” in any real sense. And I have a lot of really great people to thank for ultimately helping me get to that place. Now, at a freshly-earned 31 years old, it still surprises me how difficult it can be to hold on to that quiet self confidence.

The below is a piece of a larger story I am working on (and have been for nearly 8 years) about my times exploring Guatemala.

I throw on shorts and a tank and strap on my sneakers.  According to my watch – which I wear upside down and have also become ridiculously attached to – it is 8:10 am. Yet another surprising thing I have learned about myself this trip – if left to my own devices, I happily wake up at 8 every single day.

I quietly open the door to my shared dorm room and slide outside. I am staying at the Black Cat Hostel. It caters to a younger crowd, and is described as being the “party hostel” in Antigua by my guidebook. Unfortunately, my room is less “party” and more “awkward crying and snuggling couple”. Needless to say, music and headphone-less, I am ready to escape this morning. I swear I will never travel without music again.

I pass through the lounge – one of the few I have come across with a TV and WiFi – and step outside. The Guatemalan sun is already warm and I reach my arms skywards, stretching first one side and then the other while enjoying the play of the golden rays on my skin. I take a deep breath, a quick step, and begin to jog down the cobblestone road.

It still shocks me that I have come to love running here. In my head, I mentally thank Adley, Hadley, and Katrina for setting such a glowing example of health our first few weeks in this glorious country. They made being healthy look cool and for the first time in my life, the idea of eating well and working out does not make me simultaneously anxious and terrified.

I take a moment to ponder the lunacy of that thought. At what point in my life did healthy living become negatively associated for me? If I am honest, I know it all boils down to self-image issues.

I remember the first time I felt self-conscious about my body.  It was back in grade school, and my best friend’s mom took my friend and I shopping for track suits – you know, the windbreaker kind. We were in 6th grade. My friend and I were arguably the two smallest people in our class; as an adult I only reach a towering 5’2. But for whatever reason, my friend’s mom insisted that I buy an extra-large track suit while my friend of almost the exact same size purchased an extra small.

I remember being so embarrassed. Ashamed of myself in a way I had never felt before… in a way that wiggled into my heart and curled up there, nesting, breeding, multiplying.

I fit that fucking track suit until I went to college (not that I actually wore it).

I still do not understand quite why, or what about that experience was so horrible, but that moment and that track suit inexplicably altered the way I saw my body for the next twenty years. From that moment forward I was rattled. I viewed myself as the side-kick. The less-pretty one. The fat one. The quiet one. I never thought I was actually truly horrifying looking, but I never saw myself as beautiful either. I decided, of my own volition, that boys did not like me, and that I had to “sell” on personality.

For the next nearly 20 years, I looked at my body in the mirror and saw only the “flaws”. Instead of celebrating the curves and imperfections that make us all unique, I hated them. Shapely lines became mountains of fat, and those mountains grew to absurd proportions in my mind.

Looking back, I realize how absurd my fears as a child and teenager were – I was tiny. The whole thing was something fabricated in my mind.

The mother in question is, to this day, one of my biggest fans and I am 100% confident she meant nothing malicious by her actions. But, I was young and she was someone in a position of power that I trusted, and I interpreted her actions as unspoken negative commentary. For whatever reason, that experience took hold in a way that I cannot explain or understand, and still affects me.

I think that my negative view of working out and healthy living stemmed from a place of helplessness – feeling like no matter what I did, I would never step out of that sidekick role.

It is only as an adult – almost 30 years old – that I have finally come to love my body and see myself as beautiful. As nobody’s sidekick. As an intelligent, empowered, and attractive soul. I am lucky and I have an amazing group of girlfriends to thank for that realization. The women I surround myself with now are a tribe of souls that does nothing but build one another up and call attention to the bad-ass fucking goddess that lives inside each one of us.

I cannot describe how incredibly grateful I am to have rediscovered that pillar of confidence that I misplaced as a child. It is empowering in a way I find difficult to describe, but that pours over into every other facet of my life, and I thank the stars every day that my path led me to the soul-tribe of woman who made that realization possible. Many women, unfortunately, never get there and instead, wallow in their perceived shortcomings – paralyzed, lost, or over compensating.