“To get through the hardest journey we need take only one step at a time, but we must keep on stepping.”
-Chinese Proverb

“Life is a journey that must be traveled no matter how bad the roads and accommodations.”
-Oliver Goldsmith

Philadelphia Portrait Photographers

The first person in my passion project is a dear friend of mine. A person I cannot imagine not having in my life. She sent me her story a few days ago and I know she was an emotional mess typing it. I was an emotional mess reading it.


Below is Jessica’s story in her own words.

In 7th Grade, my family moved into a new town. A really small town. Everyone already knew each other, and I was immediately the outcast. Within the first few weeks, I was given the nickname “Bubble Butt”, which for a 13 year old, isn’t a compliment. I ignored it because I didn’t know what to do and I would go and cry in the bathroom. I was soon given another nickname of “Squishy Face” because when I smile and laugh, my face squishes together. I started covering my face at school when I laughed. It was awful. Horrifying. Embarrassing. Instead of trying to fit in, I did the opposite. I became a skateboarder. A raver. I wore ridiculous clothing. If they were going to make fun of me, I might as well give them something to talk about. I wore shorts to school for the first time and I was named “Cottage Cheese legs”. I wasn’t a big girl. I was athletic and in great shape. They just needed something to talk about. And unfortunately, it was me. My self-esteem was horrendous – but I would hide it with my newly formed hard exterior. If you act like it doesn’t bother you, they’ll stop. Right? Wrong.
My parents raised me to treat others the way you want to be treated. I stick up for my friends and myself. I hold doors for people. I let an elderly woman take my seat on the train. I say please and thank you. I don’t treat someone differently because they may have grown up in unfair circumstances. Some people are not given the opportunity to learn these things in life. Those bullies are those people. Everyone makes mistakes – but, I never wanted to be those people.
In 2001 I left my small town for college in Philadelphia, ready for a new experience with new people who knew nothing about me. However, I quickly learned that there was no shortage of mean girls there, either. They made fun of the same things the kids did in High School. Sometimes, I felt like I was reliving it. I took to exercising to blow off steam. For that short time, I felt so much better about myself. It’s like I was in control of my life and my body. Exercising turned into overexercising. I would go to the gym twice a day. My gym was open 24-7. If I was having a bad day, I’d sometimes go for three. Towards my Senior year, I had built a solid group of reliable and trustworthy friends. I didn’t feel the need to exercise as much. I felt like I belonged for the first time in a long time.
In 2005, I met “Joe” while I was living in Philadelphia; A soldier in the US Army who was stationed in New York City. Joe was a born and raised a North Carolina Southerner who had lost both of his parents, but was positive about life and had the most charming way about him. He opened doors and pulled out chairs. He got along great with my friends and family. I thought he was the man I would marry and build a family with. To make a long story short, in 2007, life came crashing down around me. We had since moved from Philadelphia to Massachusetts. Joe and I broke up because he “needed to figure his life out.” He was cheating on me with a girl I went to high school with. I got suspicious and started doing some research online. This is when I learned to follow my instincts, which I believe is one of the most important things a woman can learn when it comes to relationships. I found out Joe was a lie. Joe was from Ohio. Joe’s parents were alive. Joe was awol from the Army. Joe was divorced. Joe was a con-artist. He had conned myself and my family into giving him a place to live, money and a new “life.” I hated myself for allowing him to take advantage of me. I felt like the stupidest person on the face of the earth. But, I was most angry at myself for allowing him to take advantage of my family and friends. This was my lowest point. How could I allow this to happen?
After “Joe” I lost 35 pounds. I needed to take control of something, and my weight was it. A few pounds turned into eating salad for every meal and at times working out twice a day. My parents were the only ones that expressed concern. My mom would tell me I was too thin, but the reaction I got from my friends and family was about how great I looked. I hadn’t felt that good about myself in a long time – so I kept going and going until I was a mere 145 lbs. I’m 5’10”. I have a large frame. It wasn’t healthy. Though I had created this fake sense of happiness on the outside, I had never actually come to terms with what had happened to me.
I have the best friends and family on the face of the Earth. I was diagnosed with Anxiety and after years of fighting off doctor suggestions to go on medication, I finally listened. In 2010, I finally gained that sense of calm back that I had been missing for so long. I felt back in control. I gained 20 pounds back. I felt out of control. I lost 15. I dated a new man for a year and a half, I gained 15. We broke up, I lost 15. It has been a vicious cycle that a few days after I turned 30 years old, I finally figured out.
In February of 2013, I attended the What If Conference in the Dominican Republic. In one of our group sessions, our Innovator Natalie Norton asked us to choose a word that we wanted people to see us as.
My word was Fearless.
I cried. And cried. And cried. I couldn’t get it out. It was like the “Joe” situation finally made sense to me and hit me like a ton of bricks. Melissa was there, and she held my hand. We lived together when I met Joe – and it was like she knew exactly what was happening. The strength she gave me in that moment helped me through the most important revelation of my life in the 6.5 years since Joe and I broke up. My fear of failing. Failing myself, failing my family, failing my friends. I didn’t feel like I had control over that. So I used my weight as my therapy. I felt bad, I gained, I lost weight, and I felt good. Over the past 9 months I’ve learned to face that fear. Conquer the fear.
Where am I now? I’m not fearless yet, but I’m getting there. I’m taking back what I lost when I was unfairly treated like a game. I’m eating healthy and working out in good moderation. I have my life back. I see my insecurities but remind myself of the positives in my life. I’ve learned to love my “Bubble Butt”. I try not to focus on the lines that are forming on my face from scrunching it together when I laugh. These are the things I cannot control. And I (mostly) don’t feel the need for that control any longer. I’m a young, successful woman – and I still have my whole life ahead of me. When you focus solely on the good, it changes you.


//For our shoot, I really wanted to capture her the way I see her. I think her and I were both hippies in a past lifetime. So naturally, I wanted to do an outdoor woodsy location. There are some images that are more serious where you can sense the walls that she has put up around herself, which hides the authentic Jess. There are also images where I tore through those walls and you can see the beautiful person this girl really is. It’s almost like you can see into her soul, you can feel her sadness, but you can also feel her joy. One more thing you can feel in these images is her new found confidence, her new found fearlessness.

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One of the things I love most about her appearance is her so called “squishy face”. It shows life, it shows emotion, it shows joy. It makes her, her.

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I really believe that people are brought into your life for a reason. And I really think that her and I were put into each other’s lives to help one another. The way we initially met is completely random and in a way odd (I found her on roommates.com). If I wouldn’t have found her, I would have had one less really supportive friend. I also would have never met Michael (he ended up living 1 block from us in the city) and I wouldn’t be where I am today had I never met her. When you put that into perspective, you start realizing just how important the people in your life are and how they have a purpose in your life.

My dear friend has come so far. She went from being head over heels in love, planning for the future with him, to finding out he is a completely different person entirely. Not at all the person she knew for years. Can you imagine? My heart broke for her. After this time in her life, I started to notice the walls that surrounded her, walls that she put up. I’m not sure if she is aware that these walls exist, but they do. Maybe they were put there from that time in school and I just didn’t notice them before or maybe they were put up after *Joe*. However, in the last year I am slowly starting to see these walls come down. And honestly, it’s the most amazing thing. I’m starting to see vulnerable parts of her that I never saw. I do believe that once you can accept your own vulnerability and show that to others, you are living a wholehearted life. Vulnerability can be seen as a weakness for some, but I think it’s an amazing feeling that allows you to truly be the authentic person you were designed to be. When we try to forget about our pain, our anger, and our sadness we are also forgetting about the joy and happiness we could have in our lives. By letting go of those emotions or facing them, you are freeing yourself from that pain, anger, and sadness. Sure it will take time for one to heal. But like the quote at the beginning of this post said, you must keep stepping.

Please share her story and show some love because not many people know her story. I also think there are so many more women out there in the same position, not sure which direction to take. This could help them.

She is incredibly brave for sharing.


I would like to give a special thank you to our friends at Papertini for donating the floral crown for this shoot. It was perfect and I greatly appreciate your support! <3

//Shoot details//

Location: Green Lane Park

Dress: Free People

Floral Crown: Papertini

Film// mamiya 645 Kodak Porta 400

11 responses to “Keep on stepping”

  1. Lorraine says:

    Melissa… You have said so many wonderful things about my daughter that I have always known. She didn’t share everything she wrote with us for a very long time…some of it not until today and I am thankful to you for being her friend and letting her be part of your project. My hope/dream for her is that she realizes what a beautiful, kind, amazing woman she is and that she always continues to DREAM.

  2. Absolutely beautiful inside & out!! Thanks for sharing your story Jessica! xoxoxo

  3. Gale Smith says:

    The people in our lives and the circumstances we have known, do not define who we are. Only we can do that. Jessica, when you begin to see yourself as the beautiful, worthy person that we all see, you will be at peace in your life and the world will embrace you for who you are.

  4. Janet says:

    WOW I would never have guessed – you are beautiful inside and out Jess

  5. becca krol says:

    lovely story. jess is a beautiful person, inside and out. true inspiration. bravery at its best.

  6. Louise Podanoffsky says:

    Such a beautiful young woman! Don’t ever feel bad about someone else’s stupid comments. I think they may have been jealous of your beauty all along.

  7. Josh says:

    Beautiful. All of it.

  8. Meredith says:

    Amazing. Thank you both so much for sharing!

  9. Nancy says:

    Dear Jessica,
    This is an amazing story of bravery. My story would be similar as I didn’t complete high school because of the cruelty of my peers. This story has brought back a lot of those “not so good memories” and I have been talking about it since I read this story. As a matter of fact, I just shared my story with my friend of 30 years and she couldn’t believe it. As a result, it has made me a kind and considerate adult not wanting to leave anyone out and making new friends all the time. I know how hurtful it feels being “picked on” and no one should have to carry those feelings alone. Thank you for sharing this story and I will pass it along to those in need. PS, I did complete my high school education as an adult and enjoyed it immensely.
    Hugs and Kisses,

  10. Edith says:

    Thank you for sharing. I have a 19 year old daughter with whom I shared your story. I know she will benefit greatly (as did I) from reading it and knowing that everyone is shaped by their life experiences and it is how we allow them to affect us that marks the difference. Your grace and courage in sharing your own life experiences helps illustrate to us all how we do not need to keep the walls up forever. No doubt, they are necessary at the time but they are meant to be temporary, but it takes hard work and courage to break them down and clear the way for new experiences. Congratulations to you in moving past the negative and opening yourself up to what life brings and being such a great role model for others. And, so as not to forget, you also rock these photos!

  11. bethany says:

    I am forever awe-inspired by the courage of these posts. Melissa – thank you for turning a passion into a project, darkness into light, and for sharing these stories. I look forward to reading, sharing, and RE-reading future posts. Just awesome!

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