A Space Too Small to Hold Me

As I relaxed into my coffee date with a kindred spirit, we wove our way through conversations about kids and work and the routine updates.

I noticed that she shifted slightly in her seat, and in the process, had caught her reflection in the window. She seemed to wince a bit, tugging at her jacket to cover her midsection, the tell-tale signs of body-indictment, spotted only because I am a self-proclaimed expert in the field. I asked her about it - about the relentless way we judge our bodies in every reflective surface - and from there, our conversation dove deep into the soul stuff that feeds our friendship.

I went on and on about The Beautifull Project.

About the miracle of making it come alive. About how I was starting to understand that my big body was made for this big message at this exact moment in history. About finding my reason for being.

And she interrupted:

"But what about when that doesn't happen? What about the times when you really have been excluded because of the way you look? Because that happens all of the time."

I had a ready response:

"Well then those things were never meant for me." (Neat and tidy responses are my fave. They allow me to stay safely tucked into my illusion of certainty.)

She pressed on:

"But what if it was? What if you were kept from your purpose because you didn't look the part?"

Coming to understand that she wasn't looking for any of my inspirational one-liners, I asked her to tell me more.

And so she shared her story.

It is important to the story that you know that my friend can sing. And not like car-karaoke-sing, but like stop-you-in-your-tracks sing. She has the kind of voice from which careers are made, which just so happened to be the work she wanted to do in the world.  She was committed to her craft, had perfected her performance, and was certain that she was put on this planet to use her voice through music. That singing was her reason for being.

And so she sang. Over many years, she became accustomed to the stage, having set her sights on one particularly coveted role, a role for which she knew her voice was designed.

A role for which she knew she was designed.

Except for one small thing. The part required both the voice, and the body, of a soprano. And my friend commands a big soprano voice in a big, powerful body. So, I suppose maybe it wasn't such a small thing after all.

Right. I said a "soprano body". I didn't know there was such a thing either, but here we are, living in a world where  "soprano body" is not just a thing, but a thing that can determine the course of a life. 

Apparently it's not always about vocal range or technical savvy or skill.

Apparently it's also about the size of your ass. Or your thighs. Or your belly.

Apparently the world of vocal performance has not been spared the notion that you are only meant for your work once you are thin enough to do that work.

I call absolute, unequivocal bullshit.

But I digress. Back to her story.

She auditioned for the part because, up until this moment, her voice had always been enough to award her whatever role she desired. Even my friend, immersed as she was in the world of vocal performance, had not yet gotten the memo about shrinking to fit into this tiny world.

Until she didn't get the part, and later found out that she didn't get the part because she didn't look the part, a decision that crushed her in a way that never totally allowed her to recover.

And so she changed paths.

I don't just mean she considered other vocal parts, but she changed paths entirely, slowly moving to a place where her singing became a passionate hobby and she pursued other professional endeavors.

Sure, there were other factors that influenced this realignment of the course of her life - like a mission trip that changed her heart and renewed a sense of purpose in her spirit - but in her most honest moments, she will admit that it was this singular rejection that altered her path forever.

As she struggled to share these details with me, I could feel the weight of  her grief in the space between us. I wanted to rail against the system - again ANY system - that crushes a woman's spirit by constantly communicating that she must shrink to fit. I wanted to destroy any world that was too small to understand the gift that they held when they held her dreams.

I didn't do any of these things. Instead, I hugged her, we parted ways, and her story stuck with me for months.

I wrestled with this idea that she had missed her purpose because of her body. It challenged the entire foundation upon which I was building my own dreams. I mean, is that possible? Could a body that refuses to shrink deter us from our purpose? Did she miss what she was meant to be when she let music move through her life?

Ummm.... nope. Not possible. 

The only thing my friend missed was the realization that her body was never too big for that tiny world.


That tiny world was just too small to hold her.

Let me tell you how I came to this conclusion.

By watching the awakening of one big-bodied woman with one big voice, and an even bigger reason for being.

This is Keala. You may not know Keala. She is an actress who plays the bearded woman in The Greatest Showman and the voice of "This is Me", the ballad turned epic battlecry of the marginalized. When that song was first released, there was a video that made the rounds on social media. I'll include it here. 

For those of you who don't love four minute videos in the middle of a long form narrative, I'll recap what you'll see if you watch.

It opens with an interview between Keala and the show's director, Michael Tracy.

Michael: And Keala didn't even want to come out from behind the music stand. I kept saying, "Just step out. This is your moment and you have to step out into the ring. Because that's what you're doing."
Keala: I didn't want to. I hid behind the stand until the day of that presentation. There was a moment in the song that I was actually so scared that I had to grab Hugh's hand so that I had someone to hold on to. And then we got to the end of the number, and all I remember is just deafening applause. It was other worldly.

If you happen to find yourself enamored by other worldly moments of human awakening, then now would be a good time to scroll back up and watch the video. I will never have the skill to put words together in a way that tops the experience of actually watching her come alive right before your eyes. 

Don't worry.... I'll wait. Go ahead and watch.

Now if you know anything about Keala, you know that she spent her lifetime believing she didn't fit anywhere.

Too big. Too loud. Of mixed heritage which she's deemed "cultural chop suey". Raised around people who looked nothing like her. Making her way in an industry that has no room for fat women. Hiding from the spotlight because she was afraid of what they would do to her if she didn't. 

And then she steps out from behind the music stand and sings this song, obliterating any doubt that she belongs in that beautifull body because it's that exact body that brings about her reason for being.

You see, this big-bodied woman with this big voice... well, she is not here to shrink into tiny spaces.


She is here to shatter them.

So what does this mean for my friend? Better yet, what does this mean for us...

So glad you asked.

For months, I couldn't figure it out because every time I thought about our conversation, I would think about Keala, moving that music stand, voice shaking, kicking ass, making me cry...

Was I to understand that Keala had succeeded where my friend had failed because Keala had persisted past her insecurities?

Ummm... again, nope. Our path is not some cosmic choose-your-own-adventure novel, with our purpose only waiting for us if we choose correctly.

Instead I've found that our purpose finds us on every possible path, at every conceivable twist and turn.

It waits for us as we saunter, it races ahead when we sprint. 

And when we stumble on it, as we tend to do, we must collect only enough courage to step into the ring, using whatever beautifull body brought us to the moment in the first place.

And if the world has determined that the space where our purpose lies is too small for us...


Then shatter that space.

But my friend, you're thinking.. I've left her out of the ending.

I would never leave her out. Let's talk about her beautifull body and her reason for being, shall we?

After she stitched her pieces back together, she started to carve out a career. Always drawn to serving people, she ended up working in a nonprofit that provides blood products to people in need. She liked her work, loved the mission of the organization, but was plagued by the notion that she had missed out on music, that she had come up short on her reason for being.

And then came the day when she collapsed in her dining room, knocked to the ground by searing pain in her abdomen. When she recounts this experience, she talks about seeing her son in his playpen in the other room, being unable to get to him, and knowing that this would be the last time she would see him as she lost consciousness.  She had suffered a ruptured ectopic pregnancy. She was bleeding internally, likely to die without intervention.

Help did arrive in time and she was taken to the hospital.  When she regained consciousness, she recalls being aware of the bag of blood that was being infused into her veins, the very same product that was the direct result of the work she had chosen. I wonder what might have happened that day had she chosen the stage instead. It's easy to assume that there will always be blood for needy recipients, but that's short sighted. The blood is there because of the people who work to support the mission.. because of people like my friend. Talk about a reason for being.

She made a full recovery, and gave birth to a healthy baby girl a year later.

Guess what she does now with this life she's been given?  She cultivates relationships with potential donors.

Do you know how she does it? She uses that big voice in that powerful body to tell her big and poignantly powerful story. 

Do you know why she has that story? Because her body transformed her pain into purpose. It brought her to her knees, so that she could bring life to other people.

She did not miss her reason for being because she altered her path.

Her purpose was waiting for her on every possible path she could have chosen, and it found her on the floor of her dining room.

And then it revived her, inviting her to new spaces, ones where she can sing or save lives or sit on her porch and love her babies. What she's doing doesn't matter really. 

All that is required of her... or of any of us, for that matter... is to show up exactly as we are.

In these beautifull bodies.

At this exact moment in history.


And shatter every space too small to hold us.

Sarah Stevens