Former Next Top Model Leah Darrow talks motherhood, body image, and raising confident daughters

Motherhood

May 22, 2019

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image courtesy of Leah Darrow

Leah Darrow, wife and mother of four, is a former model and contestant on America’s Next Top Model. Leah left the modeling industry when she was 25, after going through a life-changing experience that led her back to her faith.

Leah has a driving passion to inspire women to do something beautiful with their lives and is an international speaker, writer, and host of the Do Something Beautiful podcast. She also is the founder of Lux U, an online learning program for Catholic women.

In this interview, Leah opens up to EM about how the beauty industry affected her life, why she turned back to her faith, and insight for fellow moms who are striving to inspire the next generation of women to recognize their true beauty and self-worth.

EM: When you were competing on America’s Next Top Model, in many ways you were achieving your lifelong dreams, and in the eyes of the world, an absolute success. But you weren’t happy. Why not?

Early on in my life, I spent a lot of time taking in the ideas promoted by our culture on what it means to be a woman. The ideas that said: “I don’t want to have a family or kids. I want do things that are exciting, and I want to travel.” I thought that families were great and everything, but that life wasn’t for me.

I really bought into these ideas, and it took awhile for me to acknowledge them as lies.

I didn’t realize just how deeply these ideas would affect me. I had pitted myself against myself—instead of embracing who I was meant to be, I had rejected my identity in the name of independence. I rejected who I was meant to be as a daughter of God.

My life took a major turn when I let Christ enter in on April 2, 2005. I was in the middle of a modeling shoot on Top Model when I realized that I just didn’t want to be a part of this life anymore. Here I was, living the life I thought would make me happy, and I wasn’t happy at all.

On this day, I was particularly nervous and uncomfortable. I was scared that the photographers and those around me wouldn’t see me as beautiful or pretty enough during the shoot. And I hated every minute of it, but I knew most people would kill to be in my shoes, so that kept me from leaving.

But by a miracle, during this photoshoot, I had a type of vision of myself before God—I saw myself standing in front of God with my hands—empty. Those empty hands were a type of depiction of my life.

And at that moment, I felt God speaking to my heart, he was telling me: “I made you for more.” It was a calling to do more with my life, and I knew it was true.

I decided to walk out of the shoot, and never look back. I called my dad and asked him to come drive 1,000 miles to pick me up. He did, and since then, my life has never been the same.

When I finally opened up the door to the idea that Jesus Christ could be the answer I was looking for, I came to see the truth of the lies I’d believed — which eventually led to my reversion—my return back to the Catholic faith.

Encountering Christ’s love for me gave me the courage to start taking a stand for myself. I told myself: “I’m not going to live for the world anymore. And I’m not going to listen or obey the standards, I’m going to challenge the status quo.”

And through my faith and the grace of God, I became a strong woman. I desperately needed that personal strength and courage, and to realize that my identity was not in my appearance on a TV show or in a magazine, but that I was made in his image, and my identity is in Him.

I know from personal experience just how easy it is for young people to buy into the false idea that they need to put their lives on hold—put off family life, married life, religious life—whatever it is that they’re called to do. But really, if you do that, you’re on a road to disaster.

We need to live our life how we’re meant to live it now—we’re not supposed to wait until later on when we think it might be more “convenient”. We need to be proactive, and use the beautiful gifts that God’s given us in the world.

The truth is, we all go through hard things. But the most important thing you need to ask yourself is: are you going to deal with it and move forward, or are you going to allow your struggle to define you in a negative way?

It’s what you do with the hard stuff in life that really matters.

EM: Now that you’ve left the modeling world, you give talks all over the country (and world) to young women. How did you get started doing this?  

After I left Top Model, I went through three years of intensive mental health therapy and spiritual therapy. I had to really work hard to untwist the lies that I had believed for so long—for one thing, I’d seen men as the enemy and women as the competition. And I’d look at men as if they’d only want one thing. These lies can really affect you!

So I lived under the radar for a while, and I went silent. I spent this time in deep self-reflection and studying apologetics. I wanted to make sure I understood why I believed what I said I believed. I also said the rosary and went to Mass every day.

I begged God: “Let me live a quiet life for you. Please let me live quietly in little town or something like that. I’ll do anything you want, I’ll even be a nun if you want!”

I wanted no part in the public eye. I never wanted to become a speaker. It didn’t interest me. The idea of giving a talk—no way.

I did have some friends ask me if I’d consider sharing my story, and I told them no. But I will admit that I felt a sort of stirring call to share about it.

At first, I ignored it. But then one day, I was volunteering for a young Catholic group, and the speaker who was supposed to give a talk didn’t show up. The woman running the event pulled me aside and said, “I know you’ve mentioned that you’re not interested in sharing your story, but would you consider it since we don’t have anyone?” And I told her, “No, I’m sorry I’m not doing it.”

But then, the woman in charge said, “The Holy Spirit is telling me that you need to share your story.”  She then, placed the microphone into my chest, and just walked away.

I stood there, backstage, holding onto a microphone dumbfounded.

I remember thinking in that terrifying moment, I have no idea what to say! I’m completely unprepared, not to mention I don’t even want to do this!

I was SO nervous. Talk about being at ground zero.

It’s like someone walking up to you saying, “Hi, I’d like to buy some essential oils from you.” And you’re like, “But I don’t sell essential oils!!” That’s how I felt.

But then I started thinking, okay…maybe I could say something…maybe there’s something I could say that just might make a difference to someone out there listening.perhaps I could help…and if I can…then maybe I should try.”

So I did. I went on stage. And to this day, I have zero recollection of what I said. I’ve been giving talks for over 11 years now, and I can always remember some semblance of what I said, but for this one, I have nothing else that I can remember.

EM: A lot of women struggle with having a positive body image, especially after having children. What are some ways we can combat these negative feelings?

I’m in this boat too. Having four kids back to back, no, my body doesn’t look the same as it used to. I think the unhappiness with how we look as mothers comes from a lot of places—but I think the biggest problem is the mentality that our society has stuffed down our throats that if we have babies, we should be sure not to LOOK like we’ve had babies. It’s so contradictory!

You are a gift. To be a mother is a gift! Your life and your body have the marks of that gift. There should be more celebration around that! Having a baby is something we should be proud of—something we should celebrate more!

That’s not to say that we shouldn’t try to keep ourselves healthy. It doesn’t mean we can sit around eating bonbons all day—we do need to be strong for ourselves and for our families, but there has to be balance.

We mourn the way we look after having a baby, and we shouldn’t be mourning. I really do think this is a spiritual attack on mothers and women. Christ has wounds for the sacrifice he made for us as well—his body shows the scars of the redemption he won for us. Our bodies, too, have wounds so to speak in the sacrifice and generosity we offer to God and the world through our children.

When it comes down to it, true beauty is not about physical looks. It comes from being the person you are made to be. And that’s what we need to remind ourselves. Beauty is about wholeness and holiness.

EM: What advice do you have for moms raising girls today? How can we help our daughters to know the true meaning of beauty?

As mothers, we create the inner voice of our children. The things you say to your children matter. They are listening and watching what we do. They’re paying attention.

I try to take even small opportunities to teach them and remind them to be thankful to God for what He’s given us. Of course it’s not going to be perfect, but if you acknowledge your mistakes and ask forgiveness, they’ll learn from that too.

For instance, sometimes I’ll park farther away at Target when I’m shopping with my kids. And on the walk there, I’ll use the extra distance to say, “You know what, let’s praise God for our legs. Thank you Lord Jesus for the gift of our legs.” Or when we’re at home, if I see my daughter sharing with her sister, I’ll take a moment to point out the significance of this action: “Agnes, you just shared with Violet. And this is beautiful! You just added beauty to world because you have done something kind!”

It takes time, but you can make it a habit to be intentional about what you say to your kids. My kids are still young, but I’ve seen some small fruits from this. I have no doubt that I’ll make plenty of mistakes, but I do demand that they be kind and respectful to people.

On a more practical level, in my house, Barbie is a toy that is not allowed. The woman role-model that I want my girls to have is me, my mom, Mother Mary or the Saints —definitely not Barbie. Barbie says, “Look at me and be like me.” But she doesn’t look like a real girl, she looks like a 27-year-old woman with a ton of issues. I don’t want her playing with toys that will impact her perception of what it means to be a woman.

Even at a young age, our kids are taking in ideas and trends. Barbie emphasizes these ideas: “You need a bubble bath and mansion and a sports car—and then you’ll be happy.” This is not a good message to send our young girls!

So instead of Barbie, in our house, other dolls are allowed, strong women like Tigress from Kung Fu Panda and Jessie from Toy Story.

EM: As moms, it’s hard to make time for self-care, even though we know it’s essential for our mental and physical health. What does self-care look like for you?

If there was a one-word piece of advice I could give to moms on this front, I would say: recalibrate.

Parenting is a constant process of recalibration. Something that works today might not work tomorrow. Things will never be the same for long. Consistency doesn’t exist for us at this time in our lives.

For me, when it comes to my morning routine, I try to wake up early in the morning before the kids get up. I do that most days. I’ll light a candle, sit in my chair and pray.

That’s is my biggest piece of self-care: praying in the morning. No amount of pampering that can compete with that. Wine nights, spa days—I love all these other things, yes. And you know what, I say, do them. Do those things! But it is all secondary to prayer time with the Lord.

Sure, there are days that I’ve had a rough night and the kids were up a lot and I’m not able to wake up and do this. But I would say most days I do try to start my day with uninterrupted prayer.

There’s no greater form of self-care that we can do than giving ourselves back over to our Creator in prayer.

For more about Leah and the topic of true beauty, see Leah’s book: The Other Side of Beauty or visit her website: leahdarrow.com

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