A conversation with a trainer

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Julie is the first trainer I’ve ever worked out with that I didn’t, at some point, want to punch in the face. That’s saying a lot.

Julie is the owner and and head trainer at BAWS Gym. I’m excited to share her journey and wisdom with you today because I think she’s so inspiring. She comes from a place of humility and true caring and I think that’s the best.

Caitlin: When did you first become interested in fitness?

Julie: When I was young, I would watch my dad workout in the basement. He was in the military so like many Marines, he had a very strict regimen. I would go down the basement and watch him workout.  I was always impressed with his pull ups. One day he got off the bar and said, “Do you want to try?”  I was like ten years old. I got on the bar and I just hung there. And every day I went down there and hung until I could do a pull-up.

It got the the point (eventually) where we started doing round robin with pull ups.  It was so fun doing something with him and I really feel like he was the one who inspired me.

Also, not many people know this, but when everyone was playing sports in school, I was always at the YMCA working out.  I just loved weights. I loved them so much. And that’s really how it started.

I did get to an age where it was pissing me off that I was bad at certain things (running in particular) so I just kept working at them. And I just told myself, you have to become comfortable with being uncomfortable.

Caitlin: Well, that can kind of sum up the entire diet and exercise experience.

Julie: It’s so true. I train Spartan teams and that’s the biggest thing I tell them. I put them through rough workouts and I just say, you have to be comfortable with being uncomfortable.  I think it really resonates with people and it just tells them, all right, when I want to quit, I just need to push myself three more minutes. And that’s all that I want from people. When you want to quit, just give a little bit more.  It’s funny how much I’ve grown in life because of that attitude. I’ve totally put that quote to use in so many other areas of my life.

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Caitlin: I would imagine that many of the people you train do, as well.

Julie: Yeah, I think so. I think that once you do that, you really start to train your mind to be stronger.

Caitlin: So tell me about your fitness and nutrition education.

Julie: I started as a floor tech at the YMCA when I was 14. I would watch this one women train her clients and teach classes.  She inspired me and soon became my fitness mentor. She taught pilates. I took her classes and I started to really get into it. So, I got certified in that first. That women, Bethel, took me under her wing and taught me so much about fitness.

Then I went to West Chester University for kinesiology, but the program was really long and I was super antsy to get it over with. So, I dropped out and I went to the National Personal Training Institute and it was hands down the best experience and the best thing I could have
done. I don’t think I’d be where I am today if I didn’t do that. That got me certified in anatomy, physiology, kinesiology, and nutrition. I am also certified in kettlebells and Crossfit.

Caitlin: So you now own a gym. How did you get there?

Julie: I worked at a private personal training studio and the owner knew I had aspirations to open my own gym. He asked me if I wanted to buy his studio. I said yes. It was a franchise when I bought it and I tried to sever the ties to make it my own small business. But, the franchise came after me and said they would take me to court if I did that. It was a huge, huge mess. It was so frustrating. We eventually dropped it and I quit my job because more than ever before, I craved being a gym owner.

I had saved some money to get me by while I was searching for a location.  I finally found a spot in Huntingdon Valley.

Caitlin: Tell me about that gym.

Julie: It was called Bryn Athryn Workout Studio, or BAWS. I loved it so much, but eventually I outgrew the space and my training style had gotten a little bit more “gritty”.  And by that I mean, um, badass, I guess. Haha. I knew I wanted more of a warehouse like gym because I wanted a little parkour training, a litte Crossfit action, a little gymnastics, a little pilates, ya know a whole mix of stuff. The space needed to be functional for all of that.

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Caitlin: That’s a good problem to have!

Julie: It is. So, I’ve been in my new location in Hatboro (Pennsylvania) since October last year.

Caitlin: What kind of programs do you offer?

Julie: I do personal training during the day. Forty-five minute, one on one sessions, all tailored to the client. And then I do classes at night. Cardio kickboxing, pilates, strength & conditioning.

I also hold all types of programs and obstacle course trainings. I get groups together to get in shape for a particular obstacle race and then we go tackle it as a team. It’s a lot of fun.

Every two to three months I try to re-evaluate and come up with new programs. So, it changes all the time. The biggest thing I try to do is make the programs fun, fulfilling, and rewarding.

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Caitlin: So what is the most rewarding part of your work?

Julie: Seeing people change, emotionally and mentally. I had a 50 year old man turn to me, after two and a half months of training, and he had tears in his eyes. He said, “You know, I actually love myself again.” And I was tearing up because it’s just so gratifying to see people feel that way about themselves.

Fitness is such a big industry and it wouldn’t be so big if it wasn’t so hard.  Being fit is a hard journey. To help people get to their goals is so gratifying. And, you know, I do little videos and I put stuff about food and everything online, but it’s not because I want attention. If I can help one person do better, that’s why I’m doing it.

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Caitlin: I think what’s appealing about you is that there’s no ego. How important is it to you to be a real person to your clients?

Julie: Yeah, you know, a lot of people say they train with me because I’m real. I average a size six, I’m not a size two. I eat a donut when I want one. I don’t wear belly shirts and have six packs abs. That’d be nice, but would mean I would have to live life in such a strict manner. Unless, of course, your DNA is gracious to you. But, I try to be as real possible and let people know that it’s so important to live in a healthy way. And that means balance.

When I was younger I struggled with eating disorders and I don’t want people to go there. I don’t want people to be afraid of food or be obsessed with exercise. Instead, just focus mostly on whole foods, be kind to yourself and move a little almost everyday.  If you find that balance, you never have to punish yourself. You don’t have to starve and you don’t have to overeat. You can find balance where everything just comes together.

Caitlin: And you’re also pretty balanced in the amount of exercise you recommend.

Julie: Yeah, I mean, I used to be that person who was all into cardio all the time (after I went through my weight lifting phase). But, I realized that you only need maybe four days a week of exercise and, if you do it right, only 20 to 30 minutes. It’s great because it makes your metabolism revved just enough to build muscle and burn body fat, but you’re not starving all the time because your workouts are so long!

Caitlin: I know for a lot of people to take that first step to get healthy is really hard. There can be a lot of embarrassment and shame. I know you really succeed in getting people out who otherwise might have been too afraid to join a fitness class. What do you tell people who might be afraid to take that first step?

Julie: You know, it’s a journey and everyone is battling something. The first step is to be kind to yourself.  And if you can change one thing a week that will bring you closer to your goal, that’s awesome. Don’t be embarrassed with yourself because everyone is working on bettering themselves somehow, someway. People battle their issues in so many different ways and no one’s life is perfect. We never judge people who are overweight at the gym. We’re proud of them.  Keep your focus on you and no one else.  They don’t really matter when it comes to YOUR health. One of the things that I feel is great about BAWS is that it offers one on one training if you really feel you want to work out without others around.

I went through some hard stuff with health and fitness. And I believe the universe gives you those things so you can live and learn and teach people. I’ve had to gain weight and I’ve had to lose weight. And both are hard.  I feel that I went on that journey so I can connect with people, empathize and understand their situation to some degree.  It’s not going to be easy, but you have to want it.

Caitlin: I always think that no one is judging you as much as you’re judging yourself.

Julie: Yeah, you hit the nail on the head. That’s so true. You are your biggest critic. And we compare so much. I try hard not to compare myself to other trainers.  I feel like I look like the average person in way-

Caitlin: Well, I wouldn’t say that, but okay (laughs).

Julie: Well, I don’t look like a Hollywood trainer. You just have to focus on yourself and stay on your own journey. That’s hard to do, but once you can, it’s really satisfying.

Caitlin: What’s the most important lesson you’ve learned?

Julie: With fitness: There is no quick fix. There is no pill, there is no diet, there is no cleanse. It is day in and day out, on the grind. But, want it, enjoy it.

With life, business and myself: Be patient.  Many people will do so well, with whatever their goals may be, and then mess up and be so angry at themselves. Then they quit.  Never quit.  It gets you nowhere, but pissed off at the world.  Trust me, I know.

If you’re in the Philadelphia area, check out Julie’s gym, BAWS. Or, try virtual training, anywhere in the world.

 

More than a beauty queen

I remember as a kid getting applications in the mail for beauty pageants. I ALWAYS wanted to apply, but my mom ALWAYS said no. In retrospect, they were probably a scam, so, good going, Mom. And, my mom probably realized that I don’t like being fussed with and I don’t like being told what to do, so it probably wouldn’t have been a good fit.

So, I don’t know much about pageants. Enter, Jessica, 30-something mother of three young kids. Jessica competed in the Miss America system and even won the title of Miss New York State.

I was excited to talk to Jessica about what attracted her to the pageant system and to tackle some of the stereotypes we have all heard. And, it was moving to hear Jessica talk about the platform she holds so dear. Check it out!

Caitlin: So, here’s the first question: Is beauty pageant the right term?

Jessica: (laughs) Well, I call them pageants.  When I was competing there was a push to call the Miss America System a “scholarship program,” but I still call it a pageant.

Caitlin: So how did you get started with pageants?

Jessica: Frankly, it wasn’t something I always wanted to do, in fact I remember when I was ten watching Miss America and making fun of the way the girls walked. However, at my High School in Memphis, there was a Senior Miss Pageant and I decided to give it a try.  We competed in Interview, Talent, and Evening Gown.  I was trained in classical ballet, and I danced 5-6 days a week a couple hours a day. I loved it, but I missed out on a lot in high school, and I thought it might be a good way to show people what I did all the time. I also thought it would be kind of fun, but didn’t think I would win. I thought it would be a popularity contest and I was kind of a nerd. I was a big nerd, actually.

So, I competed and to my surprise (and everyone else’s) I won. Then, about a week later I saw an ad for Miss Memphis, which was a preliminary to the Miss Tennessee Pageant, which would then lead to Miss America. And I said to my mom, “Maybe I should do this.” And she said, “Absolutely.” The very next day, I received an application in the mail from one of the judges from the Senior Miss Pageant who thought I would make a great competitor.

I ended up being first runner up, and I had a ton of fun, so I thought this was something I could see myself doing. And that’s kind of where it started.

Caitlin: So you eventually became Miss New York. How did you end up in New York?

Jessica: In order to compete in the Miss America System, you have to work in the state you’re competing in, have a permanent residency there, or you have to go to school there.  I graduated from University of Virginia and moved to New York City to pursue acting. I had some success, but mostly I was waiting tables and I felt like there was something missing in my life. I had competed in Tennessee when my parents still lived there, and I had competed in Virginia when I was going to school at UVA.  So, I decided to go and compete for Miss New York to give me some direction and focus in my life.

Caitlin: So, you had to win Miss New York City first?

Jessica: Yeah, you have to win a local before you can compete at a State Pageant. My first year I won Miss Manhattan.

Caitlin: Wow, that’s no small feat.

Jessica: Thanks, but then I went to Miss New York and I was first runner up.  I won’t lie, I was  pretty upset and I thought, I’m never doing pageants again. But, I decided to go back and do it on my own terms.For me, that meant I was going to be myself and that way, if I won, it would really be my win. And if I didn’t win, that was okay, at least I was being myself.

And I won Miss New York City and went on and won Miss New York that year.

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Caitlin: That’s awesome. What did winning Miss New York mean to you?

Jessica: The biggest thing was, that this was a goal I set for myself and I was able to achieve it. I think anytime you set a goal and achieve it, it’s a big deal. For me, that was it.

The other thing was, I had become very involved in my platform and I saw it as a chance to get that out to people and talk about my platform.

Miss America is unique because not only is it the largest provider of scholarships to young women in the world, you also are required to have a platform, which is basically community service.

Now, since I’ve gotten out of the system, Miss America has taken on the Children’s Miracle Network as their national platform. But, when I was in it, we could take on anything we chose.

Caitlin: And what was your platform?

Jessica: Combating teen depression and suicide.

Caitlin: Why did that platform mean so much to you?

Jessica: For me it was personal. I have suffered from depression since I was a child and when I got into the pre-teen years and teenage years, I suffered from a serious eating disorder. So. eventually, in order to save my life, my parents put me in a child psychiatric hospital. After a month I was kicked out because my insurance ran out and I went home. Fortunately for me, my parents were able to afford to pay for my treatment out of pocket.

As Miss New York, I made my platform two fold. The first aspect was the insurance portion with regards to Mental Health Coverage, and what we could do to change that. The other component I talked about, was the stereotypes that surround people with mental illness.

When I would go into schools, I would always say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘mentally ill,’ you think of a crazy person on the street.” And everyone would raise their hand. And I’d say, “Okay, raise your hand if when I say ‘psychiatric hospital’ you all think of an insane asylum with bars on the windows and locked doors” and everyone would raise their hand.

And then I would say, “Raise your hand if when I say ‘Miss New York’ you think mentally ill, psychiatric hospital, depression’” and nobody would raise their hand. And so, I’d share my story.

With adults, I would talk about the stereotypes that surround mental illness and how to obtain treatment.   Statistics show that 1 in 5 people will suffer from a mental illness in their life time. So, even if you don’t, more than likely someone in your circle will. And, do you know what to do if you or that person starts to suffer? Because a lot of time people don’t know what to do. They don’t know where to turn or even what the signs and symptoms are.

Caitlin: Yeah, I imagine that must have been very powerful as far as stigma goes seeing a successful, beautiful young woman who has dealt with depression and who has gotten treatment. I think that’s fantastic you could do that.

Jessica: It was so often I would do these talks and people would come up to me after and say, “Oh my gosh, me too.” Or, “My daughter suffers from this.” I think it’s just getting that awareness out there. As a society, we’re doing better, but there’s still a huge stigma that surrounds mental illness. People are embarrassed to talk about it. It’s a shame, it really is.

I like to compare having a mental illness to having diabetes. Some people with diabetes can control it with watching their sugar and watching what they eat. Just like some people with mental illness can control it by making lifestyle changes or seeking counseling.  Some people with diabetes have to have a permanent insulin pump, just like some people with mental illness need more care, such as medication, or even being in a facility.

Caitlin: That’s a great way to look at it. You know, you were so young, did you ever worry about having a platform that wasn’t glamorous.

Jessica: You know, not then. I didn’t care what people thought. Now, I really find that it’s not just about me. I have a family. Eventually I will have to tell my children about this. Is it my favorite thing to talk about now? No, because it’s so far removed from my life, but at the same time, I know that five years from now my kids will be on Google, and be like, “Mom, you have some explaining to do.” But, I also think it’s important for them to know about it, because there is often a family history and so I think the kids should be aware of that.

But, back then, I was like, this is who I am. You like me for who I am, or you don’t. Now, with having kids, I know what I say can have an effect on them. So I have to think about that.

Caitlin: What do you think was the most positive impact being Miss New York had on your life?

Jessica: I think the first thing I learned was to be myself. You know, at first, I was trying to fit a mold, and I was successful, but I didn’t win. And it wasn’t really until I decided to really be myself that I won. I think from a personal standpoint, that was very helpful.

The other thing was seeing kids I helped. Seeing kids who went through what I went through. Let’s be honest, high school sucks for some of us, but what I could say to those kids was, if I can get through it, so can you. And being able to give them just a piece of hope was really something that was good for me.

Caitlin: You mentioned stereotypes earlier and I know everyone has a stereotype of what they think pageants are and beauty queens and that sort of thing. So, which ones are true and which ones aren’t?

Jessica: A lot of the stereotypes I think is people getting Miss America and Miss USA confused. They both have their strengths and their flaws.  However, I tend to think of Miss USA as more of a beauty pageant, and Miss America as more of a scholarship program.

I always feel almost embarrassed when I tell people I was Miss New York. I’m fairly short and I don’t consider myself beautiful or anything. Pageants have taught me how to fix my hair and put on makeup, but I think people expect some sort of knockout beauty, and that’s not me.

I also think there’s a stereotype that the girls aren’t that intelligent. I come across that a lot. Most of the girls I met were incredibly intelligent and very committed to their platform and their education.

I hear the stereotype that it’s very catty, and you know, I think anytime there’s a lot of personalities in one room you’re going to have some issues.   But for the most part, I’m still very close, best friends with seven of the girls I competed at Miss America with.

Close friends from Miss America

The stereotypes that are true…. does it get competitive? Absolutely. Are there people slashing your bathing suit or stealing your shoes? No. Nothing like that.

We do glue our bathing suits to our butts during competition. That’s true. Some girls do put Vaseline on their teeths to be able to smile longer. A lot of hairspray.

Caitlin: So you have a five year old daughter. I’m curious, what do you tell her beauty and what it means to be beautiful?

Jessica: We don’t really talk about beauty. I try not to make that a focus or something we talk about a lot. I do tell her she’s beautiful every day, because I think you should tell every little girl that she’s beautiful, . But, more important, I tell her that she’s smart and that she’s sweet. I stress that we need to be nice. Thankfully, my daughter has a much different personality than me.  She has a pretty healthy dose of self confidence, and we always say we want to get her a shirt that says, “I’m not bossy, I have leadership skills.” I’m sure when she’s older we’ll talk about it more. But, she’s just a little girl and I want her to enjoy that. It goes by so quickly.

Caitlin: So if she wanted to do pageants, what would you tell her?

Jessica: I think she’s too young now. But, that’s just a parenting decision my husband and I have made regarding all sports or extracurricular activities. We don’t let our boys play soccer tournaments all weekend either.  We feel there will be plenty of time for team sports and activities when they are older. Right now, we just want our kids to enjoy being kids and play.

If she decided when she’s 12 or 13 that she wanted to try pageants, okay. I’m a big believer that if you can come up with three good reasons why you want to do something, then, yeah, I’ll consider it. I don’t think it’s any different than choosing to play soccer or run a race or something. For me it’s just another form of competition.

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I think the hardest thing now, as an adult having been Miss New York, is that people assume things just because of a former title. I think my friends like to bring it up when I meet people, because it’s unique, and honestly I am forever grateful I had the experience.  However, I would like to think there’s a lot more to me than that.

I think anytime you meet people it’s so easy to have a stereotype about them based on a past experience and I think the more we can try to keep an open mind, the better off we’ll be in general.

If you’ve been reading this blog for a bit, you know I wholeheartedly agree with that last line. I really believe in the power of talking about things and getting past the superficial to break down barriers and build relationships. So, thanks to Jessica for chatting!

What did you learn that surprised you? Have you ever competed in a pageant? Talk to me!

 

Embracing natural beauty

For today’s conversation, I had the pleasure of speaking with Kali Blocker, one of the founders of Diosas al Natural(Natural Goddesses), a movement to inspire women throughout Puerto Rico and Latin America to embrace their natural beauty. Kali lives in Puerto Rico and shares tips, photos and stories of women going back to their natural hair.

Worrying and talking about hair might seem trivial to some, but Kali explains why this issue is so complex and important, and she does it beautifully. Thank you, Kali for taking the time to speak with me about your mission.

 

Caitlin: So, this goes deeper than hair. It’s a very complex issue. Tell me about that.

Kali: Historically throughout the Americas, the ideals of beauty do not typically include black women. Beauty ideals are Eurocentric, placing a higher esteem towards lighter skin, straighter hair, the closer to “white,” the better.

So, you had the 60s/70’s where there was the movement of black pride, with people wearing afros and reclaiming their roots, despite societal ideals.

Fast forward today, at work, for example, many of us feel pressured to change how we look, and in many cases, it is expected. Going into an interview with an afro for instance could be looked at as unprofessional, they might not want that look for their office. It’s inappropriate, unkempt. Stereotypes that are attached to a very ugly history.

Caitlin: Basically what they’re telling you is, it’s not white enough.

Kali: Exactly. The way your hair comes out of your head naturally is not okay.  Someone with straight or loosely textured hair may never hear something like that.

It’s also within the family. Naturally, colonialism has had its effects.

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Caitlin: It’s generational, as well?

Kali: It can be. I got my first relaxer when I was 3. And part of that was that my mom didn’t know how to deal with my texture. Which is crazy, right?  But it is common, so people look to get relaxers to make it “easier” to work with tightly curly textures. That’s why we refer to it as a journey, because you are learning how to work with your hair in it’s natural state.  There is much more information available now, and the information sharing started off organically in the early 2000s with women who were going natural, sharing their tips and tricks with each other on portals (picture sharing sites like fotki, etc).

When I was 12, I would look at other girls with straight hair, the white girls or girls with naturally straight hair in my school or girls who had a looser hair texture, and think to myself “ they don’t have to deal with hours at the Salon on saturdays, relaxers every few weeks, running from the rain, etc etc” (laughs).  I never desired to have their hair, but I was curious as to how to work with mine, as I knew that my strands weren’t some impossible feat to overcome.

So I attempted it at age 12 for a year, and then the hairstylist I went to told me my hair was too nappy to “go without a perm.” A very disappointing moment, to say the least.

When I was 18 and I started the process again. I had to experiment and figure things out. The beauty with the natural hair movement is that I can sign onto the (websites), where people post pictures and what they did to get their hair healthy. That stuff helped me big time in the process.

At the time, my grandmother looked at my hair and she didn’t understand why I was doing it. So, in some cases, it can be generational.

It hurts, I can’t lie about that. That’s why it so important to have this community and share these raw stories. It’s not always pretty. You know, you have people who shout out to you on the street. Someone once said my hair looked like a pile of shit!

Caitlin: Oh my god!

Kali: Yeah, you get that. People who don’t even know you.

That’s why it’s important that we have that community. If your mom, your dad, your boyfriend, your boss (doesn’t support your natural hair journey), you know how to handle yourself. You’re not torn down afterwards.  If you do feel hurt, you have the community to share your feelings with.

But, sometimes someone does say something to you and you feel self-conscious and you’re trying to get away from that mentality, but insecurities do step in. Am I ugly? Is this not okay?

It’s generational, it’s societal, it’s so many things.

Caitlin: How did this become a passion of yours?

Kali: I wanted to share information and empower other women.

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It started ten years ago when I took my journey into transitioning into having natural hair again.  Women would see me on the bus or the train and ask for tips.  I’d see women in the street with gorgeous natural hair and ask what their regimen entailed. It was really organic, it was really beautiful. It’s almost like a sisterhood of support. I knew how significant it was for me to go on the journey and push myself to get to this side.

The community has grown tremendously and I love it because it started so organically, you know?

About five years ago, me and one of my best friends had discussed going into Spanish and English content, but ultimately decided not to do it.

Then I met my boyfriend, Joaquin, who said he was inspired by what he saw in New York: Black women who were proud of their hair.

You know how New York is, everyone is super fly, dressed up and snazzy and wearing their hair and their style with pride, with no shame. He said he wanted to bring that to the people in Puerto Rico (where he’s from).

We originally had the idea to do a photo project and I was like, if you don’t do it, I will! And it was like, all right, let’s make this happen.

It started as a Facebook page, sharing photos and information. We shared each person’s journey. And a lot of women were so inspired by that. Then we had our first meet up last year. That was amazing. It was the first time something like that had happened on the island (of Puerto Rico). People loved it and I felt like I was amongst family.

It was beautiful to bring that here.

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Caitlin: You know, one of the goals of this blog is to remind us that we’re all really the same when it comes down to it. We all have hopes, and fears, and dreams. Are you seeing that as you bring what you learned in New York to the women of Puerto Rico?

Kali: Yeah, definitely. That’s actually what the initial mission was. Our priority is to cultivate the community here in Puerto Rico, but it’s also a learning experience for people outside of the island. And that response has been amazing, too. We wanted to share images of Puerto Rican woman that the media doesn’t usually show, encouraging dialogue and enlightenment.

Our mission was to start the conversation and our medium was pictures.

In movies, TV shows, even videos from the island and throughout Latin America, it’s a homogenous (and stereotypical) idea of what Puerto Rican women and Latinas look like. It’s similar in the states, an idea of beauty that mainstream media continues to perpetuate.

Caitlin: What do you hope women and young girls take away from your mission?

Kali: It starts young, you know? Children notice when someone gets more attention or affection because of certain features, etc, and it’s not what that child can be naturally.  It’s important for people to see themselves in the media, in images, etc. in a positive manner and to know that they are unique, and that is beautiful.That affects them. It’s stays with them.

My main goal is for fewer girls to have to deal with the questions that I had as a youngster.  The feeling that what came out of my head wasn’t adequate and needed to be changed.

In an ideal world, no young girls, or children in general, would have to deal with that. So, that is my mission.

I also want women to feel empowered. Everyone wants to feel beautiful, and when you feel confident in how you look, that makes a world of difference. It makes a world of difference in your relationships, and how you go on in life.

Caitlin: I heard this quote the other day from Salma Hayek of all people, “People often say that beauty is in the eye of the beholder, and I say that the most liberating thing about beauty is realizing you are the beholder.”

Kali: Exactly!

Caitlin: Yeah, you know I read that and thought, man, if you can realize the beauty within yourself, that’s half the battle.

Kali: At the point I am now, if someone doesn’t like the way I look, that’s not my problem. I don’t care to convince them either.

 

*Photos courtesy Kali Blocker