At the end of this week, I will be headed to Moab, Utah, to support Sarah Herron on her second official weekend retreat for SheLift. SheLift is a nonprofit organization that Sarah founded to empower girls with physical differences and help them build self-acceptance and confidence through outdoor adventures and body-positive mentorship.
Sarah herself was born with amniotic band syndrome, a condition that happens in utero when the fetus becomes entangled in fibrous string-like amniotic bands in the womb. The bands restrict blood flow, which affects the baby’s development. In Sarah’s case, she was born without her left arm from the elbow down. Being raised in Colorado, Sarah developed a love for the outdoors, which was an important catalyst that didn’t allow her physical differences to hold her back. Instead, she regularly challenged herself to overcome obstacles as a means of experiencing a greater sense of confidence and self-worth. SheLift was born out of Sarah’s personal experience and the organization aims to normalize disabilities while challenging girls’ physical and emotional capacities.
Growing up, Sarah wore a prosthetic arm until she was in the fifth grade. I ask her why she decided to no longer use it at that point to which she said, “I noticed it started to become a point of show and tell and it was drawing more attention to me rather than making my life easier or assisting day-to-day activities. It felt cumbersome and like kids wanted to play with it like a toy.”
Her reflection leads us to explore what it means to ask for help in our society as a whole and as someone with a disability. For individuals who are physically different, being asked if they need help can often be met with resistance. The person with the disability may believe that the person offering help assumes they can’t do it on their own. As the student in this conversation about physical differences, I am totally on board with what Sarah is saying. As a student in life, I can’t help but think of how detrimental it is that we live in a culture that believes asking for help is a sign of weakness. Sarah notes,
“I definitely experienced that shame and embarrassment initially because you don’t want to be seen as weak and you don’t want to be seen as needing help to do things and you almost want to fight back against needing help. And then [one day] someone asked me for help . . . and I was flattered and honored. [I realized] it’s not seen as [weak] . . . it’s seen as ‘Hey, I’m here with you and I’m in it’ . . . [This allowed me] to shift my thinking from [seeing help as] negative and weak to friendly and empowering.”
Sarah shares pieces of her growing pains in high school and college. When she was removed from the bubble of where she grew up, she found it increasingly more difficult to know where she fit in. It was challenging for her to date and she felt insecure about her differences, hiding her arm in a jacket or avoiding situations or conversations that would lead to her having to explain herself and answer questions. This topic leads me to a very personal curiosity of how to engage with someone when what makes them different is obvious to the eye. Do you name the difference and ask questions or do you wait for the person with the disability to share? Sarah’s response is incredibly thoughtful and diplomatic:
“It’s such a fine line and I don’t really know how to answer that because you want people to be interested in it and you want people to understand your story. But at the same time, they have to earn the right to know your story.”
When Sarah was 24, she decided to apply to become a contending bachelorette on ABC’s show The Bachelor. Yes, she was and has always been a hopeless romantic, but that wasn’t her main impetus to apply. Rather, she was interested in exposing herself in a more public manner so that she didn’t have to feel like she was withholding information when online dating. If a potential match wanted to engage in some light stalking before a date, they would have all of the information about her physical differences in front of them. After applying to the show, Sarah was immediately called in for an interview and cast on the spot. She’s not naive as she shares that she knew the producers saw a beautiful girl with a disability, which would most likely mean high ratings. The cool thing is, Sarah didn’t care and powerfully recognized it: “I was smart enough to not be played a fool.”
Although Sarah didn’t find a romantic partnership on The Bachelor, she did find love. Through the trials and tribulations of her three appearances on the show, she learned that she was a deserving and worthy woman, and she began to love herself.
After the show aired, Sarah began receiving an overwhelming influx of fan mail from girls with physical differences (and many other women that just felt out of place in the world), who had watched the show and felt a deep kinship to Sarah and her experiences. She remembers being back at her advertising job at 72andSunny in Los Angeles and having dozens of letters waiting for her at the front office desk. She notes that most of the messages said things like, “I too struggle with dating or feeling uncomfortable in my own skin. I also was born without my arm or leg, or I have red hair, or acne.” She describes her reaction to the messages, “It was just overwhelming to see how many girls out there for the first time felt like they could relate to someone on that TV show.” For a few years, Sarah took the time to respond to as many of the letters as she could, but she really didn’t know what to do with all of the outreach. She recalls feeling like she “didn’t really want to own the responsibility that [she] had been given, or [she] didn’t know what to do with it yet.”
More than halfway through our conversation, Sarah tells a story about a man she dated a few years after The Bachelor. It was one of those all-too-common relationships in which one person doesn’t feel good enough for the other person, which inevitably manifests into fears and anxieties and actions that often sabotage the relationship. However, while Sarah was dating this man, her body and mind were regularly giving her signs that it wasn’t the right relationship for her. She would hyperventilate in his bathroom in the middle of the night, having racing thoughts of who he would eventually leave her for, and she found herself smothering him and the relationship even though she is a woman that loves her independence and freedom.
After they broke up, Sarah states that starting SheLift was a huge part of her healing process. Through her work, she began to see her own worthiness and she began to fully embrace and own the tagline of her organization — Maybe You Literally Can Even. She notes,
“As a poster child of owning your imperfections and being proud of who you are, I had to do a lot of work on myself first . . . I started seeing a therapist and really [working with] my flaws and [understanding that] they don’t make me wrong or ugly. [Now], rather than hiding my body image issues and hiding my eating issues and hiding my fears and anxieties and abandonment issues [in relationship] I’m upfront about it and own it.”
At the end of the interview, I ask Sarah to share with the audience what she would offer to someone who struggles with self-comparison and who wishes that things about themselves were different than they actually are. Sarah responds,
“I think mind shift is just the biggest, most meaningful practice for me. I would encourage other girls is to use the affirmations, use the intentions, train your mind to recondition and [learn] to talk about yourself in a positive way.”