Pathfinder Interview Series: CJ Legare

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I had the opportunity to sit down with CJ Legare, founder of Functional Girl and featured speaker for our Pathfinder Program, about girls’ self-worth, sisterhood, and doing what you love. Girls can hear more words of wisdom from CJ at the Pathfinder Leadership Summit. Learn more at http://genaustin.org/what-we-do/pathfinder/

 

What do you think is the most pressing issue facing girls today?

 

I believe that the most pressing issue facing girls today is a lack of authentic self-worth. Our girls are living in a culture that tries to homogenize them, that tells them the things that make them unique are strange and wrong and they should try to look as close to this image as possible. We don’t live in a culture that celebrates uniqueness, we live in a culture that celebrates conformity and that is really tough on self-worth. I think that’s really tough on anyone who doesn’t fit the mold and there’s a genetic legacy involved in that mold. Let’s face it, when you look on the covers of magazines, when you look at billboards, when you look on the TV screen, there’s a very specific type of image being represented and very few people can relate to that or attain that. And yet we are told constantly that we should be able to attain that and if we can’t, it’s our fault and there’s something wrong with us. So I think it’s really challenging to have an authentic sense of self-worth when you’re bombarded — and I wish I had looked this up, Ragen Chastain who spoke at last year’s We Are Girls conference did this amazing blog where she actually quantified the number of negative messages that women receive about their body every single day and it was in the thousands. It was not in the hundreds, it was in the thousands. You really have to work hard to fortify yourself and to fortify your daughter against the culture that’s trying to swallow her whole and spit her out in some weird Barbie mold.

 

What is it about GENaustin’s mission that speaks to you?

 

There are two things that I relate to on a very personal level when it comes to GENaustin, and one of them is female empowerment. That is the basis of everything I do, every ideology that I purport to believe in and that I promote and that I share. Everything about who I am is rooted in the idea that my sisterhood needs to be empowered. I so strongly believe that women haven’t found our place in the world yet because women are meant to be united. We’re biologically predisposed to be united. When groups of women get together for extended periods of time, our periods sync up. That’s how powerful we are, that’s how powerful our hormones are, and that’s how much more powerful we are in a pack and I believe in a wolf pack mentality. I really believe that female empowerment is key to a bright, bold and brave future for our world.

 

The other thing is that I really do believe we can change the world. People who are a little bit more cynical will ask me ‘Do you really think one person can change the world?’ Yes, I do! Because I’ve seen it happen, I’ve seen what one act of kindness can balloon into. I’ve seen what one relationship that’s positive and stable and consistent can do for both people involved in the relationship and the butterflies that can have. Happy people want to make other people happy, it’s just one of the laws of the universe. Anyhow, so when people say ‘How do we change the world?’, we change the world by changing our children’s mindset. I absolutely believe that that’s how we change the world: we get to the kids. I believe that the children belong to all of us, no matter where they come from. I don’t think they’re somebody else’s responsibility. I am a huge advocate of youth mentoring and actively investing in our youth while they are still young and impressionable. And GENaustin encapsulates those two principles. Those are kind of core for me and GENaustin is the perfect fusion of both of them.

 

And it’s run by awesome chicks! I love the staff at GENaustin, Julia’s amazing and Ami and Blair and everybody I’ve worked with. It has just been spectacular! And the woman who got me involved with GENaustin, one of my professional mentors, Maura Thomas who’s on the Board, I respect her so much. So, when those people that you do hold in high regard say ‘Hey, I think this could be a good fit for you, would you check it out?’, those are the kinds of things that you tend to take seriously.

 

What advice would you give to a girl who wants to pursue a career in your field?

 

That’s an interesting question for me to answer because I’m an entrepreneur and I do a lot of different things, but for most of my life I’ve stood on my own two feet and made my money as a self-employed person one way or another. Whether that was experiential marketing, whether that was acting and modeling, whether that was film and television production, so I do a lot of different things but I only do things that I love to do! That’s kind of the advice that I would give. I’m gonna open myself up here, my therapist told me — and I think therapy’s important so I’m not afraid to say I have a therapist — but she told me ‘You can’t try and build your life towards what you love, you have to make what you love your life and work from there.’ So, that’s what I’ve done. I’m an artist, I’m creative and I love so many artistic forms. I love being in front of the camera, I love being behind the camera. I love fashion and style because I believe that style is an art form. A lot of people think it’s vapid or that it doesn’t matter, but the reality is it’s one of the highest art forms because fashion is just lifeless fabric until it’s coming to life on a human body. It requires a human being to be fully realized art and that’s why I think that fashion is so special. So, that’s what I would tell anybody. Figure out what you love and build your life around that and you’ll be okay. I’ve survived, there have been lean times, there have been times of sheer abundance where I was like ‘Holy cow! I could get a membership at the eyelash salon for a year right now because business is booming and I could have fabulous eyelashes for a year!’ But I’ve always survived and when you have that kind of spirit, when you’re willing to be brave enough to say ‘I’ve got one life and I want it to be about what I love and what’s important to me’, then you’ll find a way to make it work and you’ll find a way to not just survive but thrive.

 

What leadership qualities do you admire in a person?

 

I love this question and I have a couple of answers. One is that I think the most important job that a leader has is to empower people: to inspire them and then empower them to bold action. A leader’s job isn’t to keep people down, a leader’s job isn’t to control people, a leader’s job is to make more leaders. A leader’s job is to make more humans of action and conscience and thought and purpose. So, we when I see leaders that are actively empowering and inspiring other people to be bold and brave, I admire and respect that so much.

 

Respect is the other quality that I really admire in a leader. Judge Beth Smith is a local Justice of the Peace in Hays County and she’s been instrumental in helping GENaustin grow its presence in Hays County. She works with a lot of youth and something she said when I heard her speak at a beauty pageant workshop — she was brought in to speak about leadership — she said that something she is really cognizant of is leading by example when it comes to respect, and being very respectful of everyone that she deals with, whether it’s a criminal in her courtroom or it’s a fellow judge. It’s ‘Yes, Ma’am’ and ‘No, Sir’ and she could be standing speaking to someone who’s locked up behind bars and still address them as Sir or Ma’am. I think that seems like such a little thing, but for someone who is in a ridiculously bad situation — they’re having a bad day if they’re in front of a judge — that judge has the power to make a decision about how the rest of their day is going to go. For that judge to show them some basic human respect is something that she can achieve that can turn everything around. I think it’s so important, and hearing her speak about that has never left me. It’s something that I always try to emulate. So those are the two things that I admire most in leaders.

 

What successful woman inspires you, and why?

 

Ragen Chastain is my hero, she is just my hero among people. Ragen was one of the keynote speakers at this past year’s We Are Girls conference and she does body positive activism, health at every size activism, fat activism. She’s a writer, she’s a speaker, she’s a dancer, she’s a choreographer, and she’s 5 foot 4 and almost 300 pounds. She’s doing all of this work — and by work I mean blogging every single day about the reality of health and weight and the way people are treated if they don’t look the right way and the assumptions we make about each other — and she does it in a way that is smart and informed and backed up by research. I know that that is terrifying for people who maintain their self-esteem by feeling superior because they look the right way. And I know this because she gets death threats. Ragen Chastain gets death threats because she has the audacity to be unapologetically fat and living her life. She’s training for an Ironman Triathlon right now and she gets threats from people who say ‘We’re going to be next to you during the swimming portion and we’re going to drown you.’ Just for having the audacity to say ‘Hey, all this garbage that we’re sold about weight and health and dieting, it’s a lie! And P.S., even if it wasn’t a lie, everyone deserves basic respect!’

 

In this country in particular, fat people get treated horrible. So, she does work that is incredibly unpopular to the mainstream, she speaks at every venue from the GENaustin conference at Austin High to Google Headquarters to the Ivy League circuit at Dartmouth. She’s so brave and the work she’s doing pisses people off because it threatens their mainstream superiority. But the work she’s doing is also saving people’s lives because there are people who are treated so poorly that they don’t think there’s any reason to go on, they don’t think there’s any ‘better’. And then, they find this woman who says ‘No, it’s okay for you to stand up. It’s okay for you to demand respect. It’s okay for you to be informed. It’s okay for you to be exactly who you are and it’s going to be okay.’ It gives them a little bit of hope. She gets hundreds and hundreds of emails every day from people who tell her ‘I was thinking really horrible thoughts about life not being worth it, and then I found you and I spent six hours reading every single blog post you’ve ever written. Not only do I not want to hurt myself, but I’m excited and I’m inspired and I’m motivated!’ So, that’s Ragen.

 

I know that’s a really long answer, but to explain why she’s my hero — not just among women but among human beings — is because she is fighting such an unpopular fight. Everything she does flies in the face of ‘everyone knows’ health and weight and dieting culture. She’s doing it in the face of death threats and she doesn’t stop, she keeps going. She’s changing the world, she really is. I have nothing but respect and admiration for her and her work and what she’s going to continue doing in this world. So yea, Ragen Chastain and that’s why! Her blog is danceswithfat.org.

 

Why are you passionate about girls’ issues?

 

When I was a girl, a teen, a preteen, a tween, I really struggled. I had an unstable home life, I didn’t have good relationship skills, I didn’t have great people skills. I was painfully insecure and self-conscious. I had a real talent for alienating people without realizing it or meaning to because I was bold and outspoken and kind of stubborn and independent. That doesn’t roll well with kids, kids have a weird pack mentality too. So I just ended up without a lot of friends and with a lot of enemies and people who didn’t like me. I didn’t have an older sister, I didn’t have a go-to person that I could talk with to help me cope. I’m grateful that my journey has been what it’s been and I did crazy things like run away from home because I know what I’m made of now. But it would have been nice to have found the female role models that I do have in my life a little bit earlier than I did. It would have been nice to have an organization that was looking for girls like me in school and putting them in a place where they could feel safe and where they could talk freely. That would have been amazing. I didn’t have that, I didn’t have anything close to that.

 

Guys, they tussle and then they’re over it, they’ve forgotten about it five minutes later. Girls, we hold grudges, we get our girlfriends to gang up on you, girls are pretty horrible to each other. I think it’s important for us to change that because I really do believe women should be ruling the world. Secret’s out, I believe we should be ruling the world! There’s more of us, we live longer, I think that we have to find our place within this world, in this society. And I think that starts with changing — well this is something that I say a lot: ‘If we change the world for our daughters, we change the world for everyone.’ It’s as simple as that.

 

What advice would you give to your 13-year-old self?

 

If only I had a day to spend with my 13-year-old self! I think if I could only give my 13-year-old self one piece of advice it would be ‘Chin up, hang in there, it’s going to be okay!’ I didn’t have a horrible childhood by any stretch, but there were challenges and the relationships in my family were incredibly challenging and unstable. Those are the things that shape you when you’re a kid: your familial relationships. I think I would have just told myself to hang in there. It’s going to be okay and it’s not just going to be okay, it’s going to be amazing and you’re going to be amazing! There’s nothing wrong with you, you’re not a freak. It’s going to be okay, chin up little soldier!

 

CJ Legare was born in Tacoma, WA but spent her childhood traveling the globe as an Air Force Brat. After studying theater in college, she became the first plus-size model signed to Elite’s Miami division and spent her early 20s working in the fashion and entertainment industries. Her mid 20s saw a career change that took CJ back to her nomadic roots traveling the country as a mobile-marketing tour manager. She found herself looking for a way to fuse her background in fashion, entertainment and marketing with her keen desire to make a positive impact on the world. This led to the launch of Functional Girl, a multimedia lifestyle brand rooted in the idea that living a good life isn’t a luxury, but a boldly purposeful commitment to yourself. In November of 2008 the first Functional Girl column premiered in AAH magazine as CJ also began offering Life Styling services, including wardrobe styling and home staging. Her clients’ enthusiastic and often emotional responses confirmed CJ’s belief that women everywhere are craving some serious FEMpowerment. She has since expanded Functional Girl to include public-speaking, workshops, an e-zine, a podcast and a YouTube channel. Her mission is to redefine female culture by challenging women to celebrate themselves, to embrace sisterhood and to live life on their own terms.

Vanessa Wright