According to Audrey Hepburn, “Happy girls are the prettiest.” I love this statement. It wasn’t long ago that I didn’t believe I could be classified as a pretty girl. It sounds strange now, but it took time for me to be able to say, “I’m a fitness model” out loud, without being apologetic. “Pretty” means something different to every person I’ve met. So why did I live for did I have such hang-ups over this word? It is just a word, but I feel as women, we give too much power to the masses’ idea of prettiness. Is there a universal standard for prettiness? Of course there isn’t. These days I feel pretty, even on my sweatiest, “no makeup” days — hiking in the mountains with my nose running down my chin and cheeks flushed red and white. But, achieving this level of self-love was a three-year process, and I’m still fine tuning it.
I didn’t see that there was something missing from my presumably confident self until I was training for my first physique competition in 2011. It seemed like everyone in my life was all of a sudden calling me a fitness model. I dreaded introductions from friends at parties, “This is my friend Mindy. She’s a fitness model.” I’d reply, “No. I’m an athlete. I’m not a model.” I knew I wanted to take my stage goals far and I knew I wanted to be a big part of the health and fitness scene, but… a model? During these early months of competition prep, I had a hefty amount of confidence to build if I was going to prepare for opportunities as a motivational public figure. Knowing this didn’t make the process any easier. I was still terrified that someone would point fingers at me for not looking like a real model once I was in the public eye. It sounds sad and negative, but we all have silly fears like these. We form fears based on unfounded rules we make up in our heads. Am I right? The truth is, I was a generally confident and fearless person until this new chapter in my life began. This new identity was the ultimate test that exposed me for not fully loving myself like I thought I did.
I’m full of passion and possess gifts that not just anyone has; yet for a talented and intelligent woman, suddenly I was showing signs of a crazy and nonsensical self-image. I can’t pinpoint where this struggle stemmed from. I’m sure experts would say it came from environmental factors like playing with Barbie dolls or watching TV shows centered around “beautiful” people. Perhaps it was the result of the many kids who had called me ugly in earlier years. (It seems like I’ve been called stunning as many times as I’ve been called ugly, which drove me bananas for a good 15 years). I think it was the first time I heard modeling terms like “commercial appeal” and “marketable look” when I blacklisted myself as a potential pretty girl. I don’t have that commercial look that’s commonly sought after in the modeling industry. So, I had to force myself to see that self-love comes from validation within me — not from external sources like people or magazines. If external sources think I’m the cat’s meow, that’s a bonus, but they won’t see it if I don’t see it first.
I’ve always valued thick skin and fearlessness, so to force myself to gain some stage presence and get over my inhibitions (and hatred for smiling on demand,) I entered small bikini contests in my hometown. I braved all sorts of challenges in a matter of weeks, and was reaping rewards while doing it. I even won a competition to be the next professional ring girl at boxing events. Let me tell you, nothing fast-tracks confidence more effectively than standing in a bikini on stage next to girls who are 10 years younger, and lighting the room on fire. I was building confidence by simply practicing it and was earning some fans along the way. Most importantly, I was proud of myself for having guts and taking risks, and genuinely liked who I was becoming. No type of therapy compares to accomplishing heavy and intimidating goals. At this time I was making a shift from relying on external validation, to finally creating my own terms of validation. As I approached that first fitness competition I was planning to create a Facebook Page to build a following of like-minded women. I had the silly notion that I had to win a trophy in my competition before being worthy of publicly calling myself an athlete. I wasn’t willing to welcome opportunities that came along with being a competitor (like modeling,) unless I could hide behind some credibility like a solid placing in a competitive show. I placed 5th in my category — no medal or trophy. It was a great learning experience but to me no trophy meant “not a real athlete yet and absolutely not a fitness model.” I’m embarrassed to say the old me didn’t take the plunge into the public eye on her own. She practically had to be hog-tied, carried, and thrown in, to see what she was made of.
It was my partner Jason who then challenged me on the piles of self-doubt that had been oozing out my ears for months. He had watched me grow from a girl who wouldn’t smile with her teeth showing; into someone who could at least fool an audience into believing she wasn’t nervous. He didn’t see why this rising star was terrified of going public with her new image and accomplishments. He refused to let me hold myself back any longer. He promised me for every one negative remark I may receive; I’d experience thousands of positive ones. With this, I begrudgingly launched my Facebook Page right after my first show. He was right! Nothing felt better than showing the world my real self, with conviction. This is something I want every woman with a dream to realize. It’s especially vulnerable taking on goals where we know we will be publicly scrutinized. But, a ratio of one thousand fans for every one Negative Nellie is a pretty encouraging. Don’t hold yourselves back from excellence. Every week I pinch myself, receiving compliments on my smile – that same smile that for over a decade had to be dragged out of me against my will.
Today I celebrate what sets me apart from other models. I accept having my dad’s ears, Grandfather’s cheeks, and my nana’s ultra-fair skin. I do get rejected from opportunities. I do encounter cruel comments about my appearance on social media outlets… and… now watch those comments roll off my back. I’m Mindy Ambrose, pro-level competitive athlete, published writer and model, and public figure. It was a three-year uncomfortable process to self-acceptance as I grew into these titles, but I finally made it and I love myself more each day.