People might think that since I am a beauty- pageant winner, I’ve always had a lot of self-confidence and been secure in my body. But like other teenagers, I wondered: Am I normal? My body was going through the usual changes of puberty, but I was too embarrassed to ask certain questions: Why does my body smell? Am I pretty? I just thought I was weird. I did have a few extra inches around my middle, but I grew up in southern Virginia, where a size 16 had as much chance of getting a prom date as a size 6.

But when I started college at Harvard University in the late 1990s, I found myself competing with other girls to be thin and attractive. I spent lots of money on waxing, high-end makeup, manicures, pedicures and expensive hair products. After a year or so, I realized I was miserable competing in a race that had no finish line. It’s all fake: The magazine images of models and celebrities are processed 50,000 times before they reach the page. So it didn’t make any sense to keep comparing myself to what I saw and hating myself in the process.

In 2003, right after I graduated from college, I competed in my first big beauty pageant, Miss Virginia. Being from the South, I knew how strongly beauty queens could influence young girls and women. When I was crowned, I used my “celebrity status” and the important realization I had during college to let others know they were not alone in questioning their self-image. Nothing made me happier than to share an embarrassing story or feeling and hear someone say, “Oh my God, even you went through that! I don’t feel so bad after all.”

I wrote the book Body Drama to provide young women with a humorous and relatable resource that answers the questions that, like me, they think but don’t ask: Why do I have stretch marks, back acne, hair in certain places and bad breath? For examples, I used real-life women of all different shapes, sizes and ethnicities. I strongly believe we all need role models who resemble who we are. And with the feedback
I’m getting, the message is coming across—we all can love our bodies, and if we feel good about ourselves, we can do anything.

It’s funny: Sharing my struggles has not only helped others but healed me as well. Being a beauty queen meant having my body scrutinized even more. I have learned that I still love dressing up with heels every now and then, but I do it for me and not because I feel I have to.    

Nancy Redd is author of the NAACP Image Award-nominated book Body Drama.