“For me it was always about following a passion. My passion is in education — I originally wanted to be a music teacher. It was when I was in graduate school that I really discovered all the things I cared about — access, success, affordability, equality, economic development — were not just things being worked on in college campuses, but were actually being dealt with by politicians... who were not doing a very good job. So I shifted my focus to public policy. At a Kentucky Derby Party in May of 2004, I saw my state senator. And I was like, Mary, I really want to get involved, I’d like to get a job at the state house or in the education department in Maine, could I send you my resume? I’m graduating in a few weeks.’ And her husband was there, and he said, ‘Emily, have you thought about running for office?’ And I said, ‘No, I haven’t.’ And he said, ‘I think we found our candidate.’ I didn’t even know the House seat was going to be open. I got elected November of that year in a three-way race after knocking on more than 2,500 doors. I went to the State House for the first time in my entire life as an elected official. I had to MapQuest the directions and print them off. [Laughs] I was 24 years old. I served ten years there. I was the youngest woman to ever lead the minority party in Maine, led us back into the majority, served on the Senate, and was elected to Congress. And now I have the best job in the world at Emily’s List. I will say, having lost two races for Congress since then, I get out of bed every day feeling great about myself — because I’m in it for the right reasons. If you’re in it for the title, you’re going to be real bummed when you lose and you’re probably not going to get over it. But if you’re in it for the work, and the difference you want to make, then you just get up the next day and try to find another way to get there.
At Emily’s List, we feature women from all different backgrounds as examples of what leaders look like. Whether they are older or younger, women of color, different religious backgrounds, different geographic backgrounds, different educational backgrounds…To me, a leader is someone who is motivated to do the work that needs to be done to make things better in their communities or their space — whatever space they’re in. We elect women to office, which is one kind of leadership. But often, the women who are leading the most are leading in places like hospitals, as nurses. They are leading at a school — as a teacher or a parent. Leading is about using your talents and your energy, whatever those look like, to improve things and move things forward. We find people who are willing to do the work who we think should be running for office, but never thought of themselves there before. For example, Lauren Underwood was a 32-year-old nurse, an African American woman from the suburbs of Chicago. That district had never been represented by a person of color or a woman before. You’ve got Sharice Davids, who is not only one of the first two Native American women elected to congress in our history, both elected this year, but she is also a lesbian. She’s a mixed martial arts fighter. Oh, and she’s a lawyer who graduated from Cornell. You have these women who have been leading all along, who just never thought of themselves this way. It's about changing their image of themselves. Even if it’s not about body image per se, it’s about how they see themselves and where they see themselves. You almost never see an image of Congress that doesn’t include women and women of color anymore. That means there are thousands of little girls across the country who, when they turn on the TV, see people like themselves... who are in Congress. And that didn’t used to be the case. Seeing that changes where your aspirations lie.
I ran for congress [in Maine] in 2014. In the middle of that campaign, my opponent’s party launched an attack against me accusing me of wanting to weigh teenage girls in public schools. They had run ads accusing me of things like being responsible for terrorism and Ebola and ISIS — I’m not, by the way — but when they ran this two-part ad series accusing me of wanting to body shame teenage girls, it made me mad in a way nothing had before. I’d been a champion of public health in schools and of data collection, and they misconstrued what had been a bipartisan piece of legislation. What my opponent didn’t know was that I’d just gone through a major health issue with my thyroid. I had, over the course of about five years, gained almost fifty pounds — not because I was eating too much or I wasn’t exercising, but because my thyroid was failing and I didn’t know it. I have an autoimmune condition called Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis. I’d been misdiagnosed with asthma, I was on three asthma medications, blood pressure medications. I was exercising, going to Crossfit, and everyone in the class was getting skinnier and faster and stronger, and I was getting heavier and slower and weaker. I assumed the weight gain was because of stress, but I didn’t feel stressed out — so I felt like my body and I were not in sync. I was diagnosed in December of 2015. By then, my thyroid was enlarged by about three times the size it should have been. In the middle of July of 2016, in the middle of running for Congress, I had my thyroid removed. So while dealing with a lot of body stuff, my clothes not fitting, they ran these ads accusing me of wanting to fat shame teenage girls. Which I would never do. I responded with my own ad addressing the attack, explaining that it was false and that I’ve struggled with my weight, it is hard, and it is personal. To this day, when I go around the state I have people stop me and say, 'I am so grateful for you, I made my daughter watch that ad.' I think it was a defining moment for me. It made me grateful for how I was raised.
Both my parents were people who wanted us to feel comfortable in our own skin. I was never a skinny kid. Never in my life. And that was OK. I have three sisters, we are very similar in a lot of ways, but we have very different body types. Height, weight, shape, all of it. That meant that growing up, we were by default around people who were different than you, so that was what you loved. It helped me understand it was normal to be different... not even different. To be yourself. When it came to being active, my parents just wanted to see us try. Try the soccer team. Go learn to play softball. Things that made us feel strong and empowered. We didn’t have a lot of money growing up, but feeling good in your own skin is the message I’d say I took away from my childhood. As an adult I also realized how lucky I was to grow up in a household that was very body positive for women. Because not everybody gets that.
Everybody’s body is different, and what works for one person doesn’t work for another. The different shapes and sizes that come along with that, it’s part of who we are and what makes us special. Growing up, I really wanted to be a Broadway star, still do. [Laughs] It’s not too late! My junior year, we did a cabaret at the University of Maine. Thankfully, digital cameras did not exist, nor did cellphone cameras, but I was cast as a Kit Kat girl — one of the strip club chair dancers. I did not think they would choose me, because I was not skinny. I just made an assumption that would not happen. The director was so amazing: she picked this cast of eight or ten of us who were all very different shapes and sizes. When it came time for costume fittings of lace and stocking and garters, we were all able to find things that made us feel great. And you know, it’s a little intimidating to go on stage and dance on a chair knowing your dad’s in the audience. [Laughs] But again, I never thought it was an option for me because I’m not one of those skinny people who gets to do that. To be in a show I already loved, with a casting director who was all about featuring difference… I was fortunate to have an experience like that.
I remember after I got engaged, I bought my dress, and then I went to Harvard for graduate school, worked my tail off, gained a little weight, came back, went to the seamstress and had my dress let out. It was great, fit perfectly, beautiful. My sister was like, ‘But you can’t tell people you had your dress let out.’ And I was like, ‘yes I can!’ There’s this convention that when you get married you have to lose a million pounds and be the skinniest you’ll ever be in your whole life. And that’s silly. I want to be able to dance and have a piece of cake. I think the most important thing is being healthy. Being healthy does not mean you are a particular size or shape. Everyone’s healthy is different. I wish that’s the way the conversation would go more.
I think somebody who is comfortable in their own skin comes across as very sexy. I think ultimately, even the people who are put on TV or in ads, the models you see… what you’re really seeing is their confidence. And I think sexy is great. But it’s more about how you feel when you’re sexy — not how you might feel when someone else thinks you are. And that’s where we get it backwards. Everybody brings a different kind of sexy to the party. For some people, feeling sexy means they wear more makeup. For some people it means they wear less. For some people it means they wear more clothes, for some people it means they wear less. I like to have my fingernails and my toenails painted, so I do. Other people don’t. The little things that make you feel good — you should do those things. I joke with my sisters, ‘time to bring sexy back.’ I love that song. [Laughs] But bringing sexy back means something different to everybody when it comes to how you feel and how you view yourself. Ultimately it’s about that confidence and comfort in your own skin. That underlies all other definitions of the word. It doesn’t change the fact that… I have memories of gym class, when it came time to change for gym, where I needed the Large tee shirt, and I felt different because of that. Memories of being at a sleepover where your friend says they weigh however much, and you think ‘oh God, I weigh so much more than that.’ Those moments are real. My grandfather always used to say, ‘Pretty is as pretty does.’ And I took that to heart. It means that what you do, what you bring to the table, and how hard you work is what you should be measured on. But there is also nothing wrong with wanting to look good for yourself. I think women are too often told that you dress up for other people. We need to flip that. I think that’s important. You should look good to feel good. You should do it for you.”