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“You have nothing to be self-conscious about.”

I was wearing running shorts and a neon athletic t-shirt, makeup-less, hair thoughtlessly pulled into a low ponytail below my helmet, covered in sweat, nearing the end of a 20-mile bike ride.

My brother and I had each brought a long-time friend to visit our family’s cottage for a July weekend, and I had happened to settle next to his friend for the last few miles of our ride. Although I had known Anthony for nearly 10 years, I hadn’t spent time with him one-on-one, but always in the company of my family or brother.

Amid casual conversation, I made a self-deprecating joke about my body—rooted in the real self-consciousness and body-image issues I’d long struggled with. Anthony responded with that statement, “You have nothing to be self-conscious about.”

He said it kindly, quietly—only loud enough so I could hear it—but without question or hesitation. He had spoken right to an all-too-familiar wound of mine.

I had just finished my freshman year and had easily gained the freshman fifteen thanks to a bottomless nutella jar and endless cookies in the dining hall. My face was covered in pimples and blemishes (probably thanks to my eating habits). I regularly relied on a heap of makeup to attempt to cover up the pimples and self-doubt I was struggling with. Though body image issues were nothing new to me, I was at an especially vulnerable point.

“You have nothing to be self-conscious about.” He may have said it in response to a self-deprecating comment about my thighs, but he wasn’t just talking about my appearance. He didn’t say, “You’re pretty,” or even, “There’s nothing wrong with your thighs.” His words hinted at more than my looks.

The gentleman-like way he stated it spoke to my college freshman, sick-of-trying-to-fit-in-yet-standing-for-who-I-am heart. He had known me since I was in the fourth grade. He had been around our house all the time hanging out with my brother. He had even been on our family vacations. He was my friend—my beloved older brother’s best friend. He knew me and what I was about. While we hadn’t been close previously, he knew about my faith, my morals, my integrity, my big family. And those were things I shouldn’t be self-conscious about. He was attracted to it, all of it.

Anthony’s comment was the unofficial beginning of our courtship. It was like that bike-ride comment was a theme of our time together. Of course, I still got butterflies when he looked at me, but I didn’t worry about playing the game of love right. I didn’t even feel embarrassed when we went to the movie Cars 2 for our first date… because we were taking my toddler siblings (not to mention my littlest sister sat between us in the theatre). When we started officially dating a month later, it felt so… easy. I felt so at ease. As we got to know each other better, we naturally learned about each other’s wounds and weaknesses. Still, this theme persisted: You have nothing to be self-conscious about.

I didn’t have to wait long to appreciate the fact that my now-husband looked beneath the surface, and appreciates me, all of me, just as I am. Five years into our marriage and two kids later, I’ve struggled with the way my body has changed after having children. I’m still trying to come to terms with the stretch marks and loose skin that has settled in all over my stomach. But not my husband.

Moments when I lament my permanent postpartum body, my husband reminds me why he loves it. He gently puts his hand on my loose stomach and tells me how everytime he looks at it he is reminded of the miracle that is our two perfect daughters, and that is where they grew and lived for nine months each. While I struggle with self-consciousness about my stomach, I don’t around him (oddly enough, the only person who ever sees it). With him I feel seen, known, and loved—so much more than stretch marks.

The feeling of not having to be self-conscious around Anthony (as someone who is very conscious about what other people think of me) defines our relationship and marriage–and that feeling extends beyond body image concerns. That pervading sense of feeling at home with Anthony from the first months of dating made the decision to marry him feel less like a choice and more like a given. Being able to be my authentic self with him—with all my shortcomings and struggles, successes and strengths—is the ultimate joy and freedom.

He sees me as I am, freeing me of the pressure to be perfect or to put on a good face. I am free to be my genuine, weird self around him, to burp loudly, and to bare my blemished face or stretch-marked stomach. I am not tied down by fear of judgment or insecurities, but rather, I am free to be vulnerable with Anthony.

His response that day on the bike ride was certainly balm to a lifelong wound. But those words and the way they played out also spoke to the internal sense we all have of wanting to be seen and accepted for who we are, just as we are. And we all deserve someone who makes us feel like that.