A number of years ago, I was invited to speak at a small women’s retreat. I titled my sessions “Confessions of an Ugly Duckling” and, oh friend, was it a brave time for me.

You see, I was back home on Vancouver Island and I found my I had a few really bad photos, but this was one of the pure awful. It involved early puberty, a failed perm and bizarrely fluffy bangs, bad wardrobe choices (think: a giant black neck-tied bow), and at least 15 extra pounds due to a 3-week summer visit with Grandma (she was the ‘clean-your-plate-or-else-and-here-is-another-piece-of-fried-chicken-now-clean-your-plate’ type, and I was a pudgy Grandma pleaser).

I’d come a long way in personal grooming and fashion faux-pas over the years, but as I prepared to air my shameful evidence, I remembered the girl I had been quite clearly. With a great deal of vulnerability, I revealed the 6th grade start of what I titled ‘my ugly decade’ to a room full of grown women.

As I shared that photo with the room full of women there were gasps of shock – not at my photo, but at the bravery to share it. You see, I think that almost everyone in that room would have had a similar photo. Maybe not as bad as my failed poodle-like fluffy bangs perm, but a photo or a moment or a place in our history that we felt ashamed of, something we’d hide away hoping that no one would ever find it. There was solidarity and compassion in that group of women.

When I returned to my parents’ house, I told my mama about my successful talk and the photo and the ugly decade. I will never forget the confused, injured look on her face as she uttered six weighty words – but Ellen, you were always beautiful.

To be clear – I was awkward, clumsy, creative in my fashion choices, and the photo was pretty bad. But my mother – the one who knew my very heartbeat, who loved me before I was born, saw past hairstyles, extra weight, awful clothes (ranging from Miami-vice pastels to Seattle-grunge) and she saw what was real. Instead of awkward, she saw me growing into who I was created to be. And she called it beautiful. I understand it better now that I watch my daughter. I can’t believe her to be anything but beautiful, even when I’m frustrated or tired or wondering how in the world she could push one.more.button. My Sweet Girl is full of potential. She is bursting at the seams with joy, laughter, compassion, giftings, and unique treasures yet to be discovered.

There was a shifting in that moment with my mama, when I began to realize that when I made comparisons and found myself sadly lacking, I had missed the good, the beautiful. I did not understand that as I longed to be magazine-thin, perfectly dressed, with shampoo-commercial hair, that my confidence and beauty would truly radiate as I grew in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. I forget even now, and need reminding.

As I have talked to many gifted, talented, amazing, truly beautiful women, heard prayer requests, and sipped many cups of coffee, I realize that I am not alone. I suspect that many of us feel like that bad school photo or experience defines us, and we need to hear this truth – you, friend, have always been beautiful. Exactly how you are. You were created that way. Your smile, your laugh, your compassion, your mind, your heart – they make you undeniably lovely.

If no one else has ever told you, please know that although I might not have laid eyes on you, I know the One who made your heart beat, and I’ve read what He says about you. I know that from the very first moment of your life, and for every moment in between, you have been beautiful in a way that cannot begin to compare with anyone else. You are beautifully, uniquely you and we need you just as you are. Shine on, friend.

Oh, and you know what, looking back at that awkward photo? The one you don’t want anyone to see? You were awesome even then. And it might just be that you really did rock that perm.