Stilettos, ballgown, a giant wave, an even bigger smile, and a humongous crown on my head.
I am escorted into a new ballroom each weekend to give the keynote address at events like the Governor’s Ball and the Everglades Foundation Gala, chatting it up with Sting and John McEnroe. Weekdays under the crown are spent meeting at the State Capitol and speaking at schools, being stopped dozens of times along the way for children to ask, "Are you a princess?" (Not exactly.) "Did you come here in a limo?" (Well, yes.)
I conversed with billionaire CEOs and nonprofit executive directors. I posed on the front steps of the White House.
"…And your new Miss Florida, Rachael Todd—she's on her way to becoming Miss America!"
Cue record scratching.
Excuse me? Hold on while I pick myself up off the floor.
"You think I'm the best woman here to become a role model to young girls everywhere? Do you understand what I struggle with every day?"
But obviously, they didn't.
I recognized my lack of self-esteem at an early age; I was placed in advanced classes at school, and I have red hair. Talk about a recipe for adolescent disaster. I was the ugliest girl in school. I was excluded from sleepovers. I constantly compared myself to other girls around me. My strangeness hung around my neck like an albatross.
In college, I finally began to realize that I didn't have to be the girl everyone told me I was during adolescence. I started to see myself as worthy—like I had something to contribute. I took on leadership positions, I helped plan events for charities, and then, I discovered pageantry. One day as I was walking through campus I saw a poster: "Compete for Miss University of Central Florida and win scholarship money."
I needed the scholarship money, I loved performing, and I assumed I would figure out the rest as I went along.
Long story short, I graduated college in May of 2009, and shortly thereafter found myself competing for the title of Miss Florida—me and 47 of the most amazing, talented, driven young women I had ever seen.
The truth is, that week of competition I asked myself what I was doing there no less than 7,488 times. I questioned my worth when I stood next to them. I called my mom in tears to tell her that I had no business being there. My insecurities were doing their best to rip me apart. Those thought patterns were so automatic, I couldn't escape them.
When they announced me as the winner, I did not yet see in myself what that panel of judges did.
So here I am, six years and many, many galas, speaking engagements, mistakes, heartaches, successes, and opportunities later.
What have I learned about confidence, self-esteem, and the art of "owning the room"?
Well, it still starts and ends with the innate feelings of inferiority—that little voice of doubt. It doesn't matter if you're a high schoolgirl, a mother of three, Miss Florida, Miss Iceland, or Miss Universe—we all struggle with it. But we can control the negative self-talk.
I had to change the conversation with myself. It was challenging. I had to talk out loud to myself before every event. I had to honor my feelings of inferiority—I would picture my younger self in the corner of the room, terrified. Then I would call upon my strengths, listing them to myself. I would roll my shoulders back, stand tall, and paste that smile on my face until it became genuine. It was through this repetition that I began to see my mind shift toward confidence. She had always been there. It got easier and easier to connect with her over time.
Scientifically, this process is known as forming new neural pathways. The ability to repattern our thinking is neuroplasticity. I am living proof it's a real thing.
And no, it didn't happen overnight. I struggled throughout my reign as Miss Florida. I realized comparison got me nowhere. While I was so busy worrying about what other people thought, they were just as busy worrying about what I was thinking, and no one was doing any real thinking at all.
Why do we compare ourselves? What's really going on in our world, our culture that is causing this competition—especially between women?
I imagine women throughout history in community with one another. Perhaps walking to get water from the village well together, talking, sharing victories and struggles and connecting. I picture these strong, deep-rooted communities of women who had no choice but to hold tight to one another.
I believe that this positive upward spiral created a sense of safety and openness in which women felt they could be themselves, could relate—offering advice, a listening ear, or a comforting shoulder.
Now, think about this:
How could you be jealous of another woman when you were intimately aware of her daily struggles?
I only ever get jealous of another woman when I conjure up a fantasy life based on her social media highlight reel.
This false, fantastical view cripples my sense of empathy.
When I ask what pain, discomfort, anguish, and strife a woman's story contains; what trials and tribulations she is facing and how she has called upon resiliency, strength, and the will to go on, my jealousy melts into deep admiration and compassion.
I find myself wanting to learn from her. And that desire to learn crowds out jealousy so easily.
Brene Brown says, "Courage is telling the story of who you are with your whole heart."
I propose that we find more space for courage within community. That will help us accept ourselves as we are and find empathy for others.
Here are three ways to start:
1. Start or join a book club.
Call some friends, send out a few book suggestions, and dive in! With time and discussion of the books you'll hear other women open up about their successes, struggles, and challenges, and this will help you to feel more comfortable sharing your own.
2. Find a group fitness class.
There are thousands of ways to have fun, spark friendly competition, and get fit! The friendships you make will be inspiring and uplifting!
3. Invite a group of girlfriends over, make dinner, sit, and just talk.
For my 28th birthday, I decided to spend time with my best girlfriends. I wanted them to know how they've influenced me. I read gratitude letters to each of them, and there were more than a few tears. We shared our challenges, our victories, and related on a deeper level than ever.
Do you find yourself wishing you could walk in another woman's stilettos? Learn who she is, where she comes from, and what she's been through in her life. Your desire to live her life will fade. It will be replaced by a burning intention to fully live the life you get to call your own.