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What I Learned In The Costa Rica Jungle

My favorite thing to do is laugh and make others laugh. I think there is so much joy and freedom in laughter, and I could not stop laughing at the SISTERHOOD retreat in Costa Rica.

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SISTERHOOD retreat at The Sanctuary at Two Rivers in Costa Rica. We are wearing our favorite yoga pants: Miami Fit Wear (www.miamifitwear.com), created by fellow sister, Raquel Ponce (front)

Fifteen women ranging in age from 19 to 47 arrived at The Sanctuary at Two Rivers in Cabuya, Costa Rica, for a weeklong adventure of self discovery, transformation and fun. We stayed in eco-chic tree houses enclosed with screens where we went to sleep and woke up to real-life jungle sounds of monkeys, insects and birds—no sound machines or alarm clocks needed! The howler monkeys (who sound like shrieking deep-voiced aliens) and the sun let us know when it was time to wake up.

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We showered outside surrounded by lush jungle plants and trees. To even get a cab into town, we had to hike down an obstacle course-like path filled with large rocks and rivers (sometimes in the dark using only my cell phone flashlight to guide my way.) The hike took about 30 minutes. I was soaking wet every time. Bug bites and bee stings were a common and expected occurrence.

We packed into old, beat up papi cars (a car driven by a Costa Rican man, whom I called papis), to get into town or go to the beach. I was so completely outside of my comfort zone (literally sweating 24/7 with no air conditioning in 90 degree jungle heat), but I found myself unable to stop laughing the entire trip. Literally, everything was hilarious. (We weren’t even allowed to flush our toilet paper because of weak plumbing.)

The Costa Rican jungle was stunningly majestic, but it was also extremely uncomfortable for me. It was hot. I was wet and sweaty at all times. There were no air-conditioned rooms to retreat to. I looked and felt like a wet dog. I didn’t feel remotely pretty. I wanted these incredible new women I was meeting to think I was beautiful, and that I looked like I do in my modeling portfolio.

Any makeup I tried to wear wouldn’t last five minutes, I would sweat it off. My usually perfectly styled, thick, wavy hair was tied up in a frizzy knot, trying to stay cool and out of the way.

I kept waiting for someone to care that I looked like a hot mess, but nobody did. I quickly learned it is okay to not look cute, seriously, nobody cares. It was like being eight-years-old again: the most important thing was to have fun, play, laugh, dance, climb mountains, get dirty, messy, swim, snorkel and go with the flow.

The freedom of it all made me laugh, thinking about how seriously we take our day-to-day lives, when what we should really be doing is surrendering to what is, trust we are on the right path (even in the dark), remember we are always supported, expect miracles and sit back, relax and allow true transformation to occur.

Stress has no place in the jungle. It gets laughed at. My absurd, self-limiting beliefs and stories I have created over the years that no longer serve me are comical. I let them all go with a deep breath and a deep, hearty laugh.

The heat makes me uncomfortable, but also present—I must stop and pay attention to the fact that even my knees are sweating, and it is okay. Self awareness is sexy. Joy is girl-next-door hot. Not needing to be anything but myself—sweaty face, bad hair day and all—is success. It is healthy to let go. It is safe for me to be myself. I am supported.

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The ultimate nourishment: homemade, fresh, organic, vegetarian meals prepared for us three times a day.

This epic adventure wasn’t about going to Costa Rica, it was about journeying inside, reconnecting with and embracing my fearless 8-year-old self, sharing my truth and coming home.

I wrote the following in my journal. This is my wish for everyone. You don’t have to travel abroad, you just have to be willing to open up and let go:

Fifteen sisters went off into the jungle and had the time of their lives. Opened up. Showed up big. Let it go. Let it fly. Surrendered to something so much greater than themselves. Relaxed. Released. Loved more. Lived easier. Created harder. Smiled. Felt free. Felt supported. Felt alive. Breathed easier. Got on with what’s really important, what really matters: They loved themselves. Effortlessly. Easily. And so it is. All is well.

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Santa Teresa Beach sunset

For more information on SISTERHOOD, you can email the creator, Emily Nolan: emily@mykindoflife.com.

Sports Illustrated Releases Its Most Body-Positive Swimsuit Issue Ever

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History-making, ground-breaking, trailblazing, body-positive, shocking.

These are a few of the words and phrases being used to describe this year’s Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Edition. The brand revealed not one but three cover girls, including Ashley Graham—a curvy Size 16 model—along with UFC fighter Ronda Rousey and high-fashion model Hailey Clauson.

For the first time in 52 years, and annual swimsuit issue features three women with three very different body types.

The controversial, unprecedented move has generated a lot of buzz and stirred up body image conversations in a big way. Some say this year’s SI Swimsuit issue will inspire more women to love and accept their uniquely different bodies, while others say Ashley’s body type has no business being in the popular men’s magazine.

There are so many varying opinions about what’s hot, sexy, healthy and acceptable when it comes to body image. Working as a curve model myself alongside models like Ashley, I’ve been on the receiving end of a lot of judgment and confusion about what exactly a “plus-size” model is. I think the biggest debate is, “Are plus-size models and women size 12 and larger healthy?”

Here’s what I know for sure:

1. Healthy looks and feels different on different people.

Plus-size models range in size from a 6 to 18. When I was a size 14, I booked a lot of modeling jobs, but I didn’t feel good about myself, because my body naturally is a size 8/10. So for me, being a size 14 is not healthy. However, I have friends who are size 14, who exercise, eat healthy, maintain a healthy BMI and have bodies that are naturally meant to be that size.

To look at Ashley Graham and assume she is out of shape, never works out and eats pizza and fries everyday because she is a size 16 isn’t a fair assessment. Only Ashley knows what’s best for her, just as only you know what’s healthy for you. One size doesn’t fit all when it comes to body types. You have to own and honor your own specific body type, and make healthy decisions that are best for you.

2. I am not everyone’s ideal standard of beauty, and I am ok with that.

I’ve learned (through a lot of tears, weight fluctuations, losing clients and not feeling good enough), that I can choose to be MY OWN standard of beauty.

3. I am so much more than what I look like.

Being physically beautiful isn’t the most important thing to aspire to. Seeing a woman in a bikini, regardless of her size, is never going to empower me.

Cultivating characteristics like kindness, compassion, a sense of humor and intelligence is always drop-dead gorgeous sexy to me.

Women who encourage, support and lift-up others are empowering to me.
This notion that a size 16 woman on the cover of a mainstream magazine in her swimsuit is supposed to make all of us who are not a size 2 feel good about ourselves is extremely misleading. The message being sent is that a woman’s value is based on what she looks like in a swimsuit. It’s completely missing the point of what self love and a healthy body image is all about because size 16 is not a healthy size for many women, and we are certainly more valuable than our bathing suit size and appearance.

4. What people say about me has more to do with them than me.

Whether you think Ashely looks incredibly stunning and healthy or overweight and unappealing says more about how you feel about your own body than Ashley. One thing’s for sure, she is an extremely confident woman to put herself out there and own and embrace her unique shape and image. That’s so sexy to me!

5. Learn to love, honor and validate yourself. You’re worth it.

It doesn’t matter who SI or anyone else puts on the cover of their magazines. Nobody can validate you or determine your worth except you. I think it’s great some brands are choosing to promote body diversity, but ultimately, it is up to each of us love ourselves rather than wishing or waiting for someone else to do it for us. I’m finding that when I am confident in my own skin, just as I am, others are naturally drawn to me as well.

6. Listen to your inner voice, not society.

Society tells me I am too old and too big to work as a model. I smile every time I cash a modeling check. Advertisers show me ways I don’t measure up to some pie-in-the-sky, unrealistic standard of beauty everyday. I choose not to subscribe to those messages. I pray, meditate and tune in to my own inner wisdom for strength and guidance.

7. The next time you start to criticize your body, stop and think of everything it does for you, and say thank you.

Sure, I have been guilty of comparing myself and my body to other (much thinner) models on set, especially when shooting swimsuits and lingerie. I used to criticize my thick thighs and wonder why I could never attain those beautiful washboard abs. Then I realized what a waste of time that was. I have so many positive messages to spread, people in need to serve and more important things to create. And my body, my strong, beautiful body is the vehicle through which all great things are possible. I choose to love and honor it each and every day.

Check out my interview on this hot topic on CBS News.

Read my story on mindbodygreen.com.

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