What a Birth Defect Has Taught Me About Womanhood
Letter from Jessica Johnson
(Click on the letters to enlarge)
It seems that no matter how much we try, loving ourselves and the physical bodies God gave us can be a never ending cycle of good days and bad days.
Everywhere we look, we see other women to whom we compare ourselves, always finding something wrong with what we have and something beautiful with what they have.
I should know. I was born with one breast.
It has been a long journey, but it has also been a rewarding journey filled with overwhelming blessings (although I often overlooked those!). Life was bliss as a child, but once I hit puberty, I quickly realized I did not look like any of the other women around me, and the fact that I lacked something so connected to femininity made me feel unworthy, disgusting.
I spent the vast majority of my middle and high school years envying the women around me and hating myself all the while. Even after my reconstructive surgeries, of which there have been four, I still struggled to love myself, and I let shame overpower me. It haunted me in every moment, always telling me I was not good enough and no one would ever find me attractive or beautiful.
Do any of you ever feel that way, too? Do you struggle to remember your worth and your beauty, especially in God’s eyes?
I did, too, and honestly, there are still some days of struggle.
Throughout the years of learning how to love myself, and even becoming grateful for my birth defect, I found a few facts to remember when my days were dark. First is God’s love. Even on the days when I was angry with Him for what I was struggling with, He still found me worthy. He still loved me. Not only that, but He listened to me, and I knew in my heart He grieved with me, too. God did not punish me with this, nor did He ignore me when I felt lonely. I knew He sat with me in those moments, silent but powerful in His presence, telling me it would be ok and comforting me as a parent comforts a child.
Second, it took me a long time to understand the difference between jealousy and envy. If there was a word to describe my middle and high school years, it would be envy. I looked at other women and could only focus on one thing: what they had that I did not. One day, something hit me, though. I realized that with all of the times I spent wanting what another woman had, it came to reason that there might be other women out there who looked at me and wanted something I had, which meant I had something to be grateful for. How could I hate so much something that God had given me? Before realizing this, though, I coveted the physical bodies of the women around me because I thought that simply having two breasts would make me more of a woman.
It does not.
What makes me, and all of us, a woman is my love, my compassion, my empathy, my support, my strength, and my faith. The real beauty that lasts, the beauty that is infectious, is not a physicality. It is a warmth.
A warmth that comes from God, from love, from everything good. It is not defined by what we have or what we lack. Artists and authors have tried in vain to capture this beauty, but it cannot be pinned down into a set of words or a collection of colors on a canvas because it is not one of us. It is all of us.
I pray that we all come to love ourselves a little more gently and fully. If I can learn to love my birth defect and all of the other flaws I find in myself when compared to what society deems is “desirable,” so can you.
Back in those years when I hated myself, I could not see my future, but I knew that God had a plan for me. I knew He wanted me to hang on, even if that was all I could do at the time, and wait patiently to understand His plan. Years later, here I am, wanting nothing more than to comfort you, to reassure you that you are beautiful, you are worthy, you are good because God is in you.
With love, Jessica
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Get to know Jessica
Full name: Jessica Marie Johnson
Occupation: Private Tutor
Location: Lone Tree, Colorado
Educational background: University of Colorado at Boulder - BA in English with a Secondary Education License
How does your Catholic faith affect the way you live your day-to-day life?
Honestly, I live my day-to-day life feeling as if I am never alone. Constantly throughout my day, I am talking to God and oftentimes laughing with him (mostly at myself!). It is hard to describe, but I feel a sense of love from Him, even when I have done something embarrassing or wrong, when I feel lonely or isolated, and when I do not understand His plan. During those difficult times as I was growing up and filled with shame at my body, I still felt Him, and sometimes that feeling, or that little voice in the back of my mind telling me everything would be ok one day if I just held on long enough, was the only thing that helped me live my day-to-day life.
Has there been a particular teaching of the Church that has intimately transformed the way you see yourself and others?
Love. Love in so many ways. First, God loves us and does not punish us. Terrible events happen to good people, but not because God wills it, not because God wants to punish us. I was born with this birth defect, and while there were plenty of times when I was angry at why it was me who had to bear this burden, I also had an understanding it was not because I had done anything wrong. It just was. More importantly, I knew God hurt with me when I felt those feelings because He loved me.
Second, we must love others as we wish to be loved. It is common, but I was often very willing to love others and be gentle with them, but I struggled to be just as loving and gentle with myself because I hated my body so much. It took me a long time to realize that I was hating what God had given me, and if I felt guilty for not loving someone else, how could I so easily not love myself?
Third, His love gives me strength. We hate to feel alone and isolated, but with God’s love, I have been able to find strength during difficult times because I know He has not given up on me.
What aspect of your life right now do you find the most beautiful? The most challenging?
My marriage is by far the most beautiful aspect of my life. I am blessed to be married to my husband, who converted into the Catholic faith last Easter. His conversion dramatically impacted my faith, almost bringing a brand new life to it. Our marriage is something I cherish wholeheartedly. There are days and times when life is challenging, especially on a marriage, but the fulfillment we have found in each other and in working through those challenges is more than I could have imagined.
Tell us about a woman who inspires you.
My grandmother has always been a role model in my life. She was thoroughly involved in her church in Laurel, Montana, and she has always been strong in her faith. I have seen her go through some of life’s most difficult tragedies, but she never lost her faith in God, nor her quick wit and sense of humor. She is who I hope to become, someone who always gives of herself, someone others love to be around, and someone whose sense of humor brings light others.
Fill in the blank.
My morning routine consists of: coffee and walking my dog.
I’m currently obsessed with: listening to podcasts
I feel most inspired when: I see the Rocky Mountains while driving or on my morning walks.
My favorite part about my life right now is: being married to my husband.
The advice I would give to the millennial Catholic woman is: follow your heart. That is where God nudges you, so be sure to make time to listen to what is in your heart instead of falling into the chaos of everyday life.