She Inspires Me
MARTHA GRAF, 64
Ellicott City, MD
Mom of Alicia Graf Mack, 33, dancer, Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater
In July 2008, I suffered what I thought was a career-ending injury — a cartilage tear in my knee," says Alicia, who's danced with Alvin Ailey since 2005. "I was devastated. But my mom reassured me that whether or not I came back as a dancer, anything I decided to do next would be brilliant." Alicia moved to St. Louis to get a master's degree in nonprofit management and teach dance on the side. She also married her long-term boyfriend. "My mom saw the possibilities in me beyond the stage — my health and happiness were paramount," she says. "Her unconditional support motivated me to get back to doing what I love most: dancing. I knew the steps I had to take physically, but my mom was the one who helped me most emotionally. She would constantly reassure me and say, 'Do your best; God will take care of the rest.' "
In 2011, Alicia returned to the stage to rave reviews. "It took immense courage for Alicia to make her comeback," Martha says. "At that point, people were familiar with her career, so she had to return at the highest level. Yet she was able to keep her dance style fresh and evolving; that's difficult to do, as it involves retraining your body and your brain."
Alicia's comeback stirred a change in Martha as well. "Inspired by my daughter, I underwent a personal reinvention," says Martha, whose résumé already included jobs as a professor of social work, talk show host, model, and creator of a hotline for cancer survivors. "I switched gears away from work and started to create my own art. I began painting interpretations of Alicia and other dancers from Alvin Ailey and Dance Theater of Harlem. Expressing myself through painting has given me a sense of peace that I've never felt before, and I'm grateful for my daughter, who's given me images that are beautiful enough to put on canvas. Dancing is Alicia's expression of beauty; painting is mine."
BETSY CURLEE, 61
Mom of Olivia Ward, 36, and Hannah Curlee, 33 (winner and runner-up on The Biggest Loser, 2011)
I was blown away when Hannah returned from the Biggest Loser Ranch for Christmas break," Betsy says. "The season was only halfway through, and she already looked like a new person! [Olivia returned to New York City, where she lives with her husband.] I wasn't expecting what came next: Hannah sat my husband and me down for a candid discussion about what could happen to us if we didn't lose weight. We were both at our heaviest, and we promised her we'd try.
"After Hannah returned to the ranch, I became inspired. It was emotional to see my daughters address their fears and struggles, but it also gave me hope. I remember one episode when Hannah and Olivia went bungee jumping and white-water rafting in New Zealand and loved every minute of it. It was as if losing the weight had freed them; they could finally embrace life in a way they never would have been able to as their heavier selves.
"My size was weighing me down, too. I was achy and lethargic, and I wanted that same feeling of freedom. I joined the YMCA and started eating more produce and less processed foods, and slowly the weight came off. My transformation was definitely not Biggest Loser — style, but in the past year, I've lost 60 pounds. As a substitute teacher, I'm able to run up and down the stairs without getting winded, and I can walk without my knees hurting. I have tons of energy — lethargy doesn't stop me now."
After the show ended in April 2011, when Hannah returned home again, she was stunned by her mom's new look — and lifestyle. "My mom didn't have anyone to push her, yet she lost weight — and she's still going," Hannah says. "Watching her has kept me on track maintaining my 120-pound loss. It's a win-win for both of us!"
DENISE STEACY, 57
East Stroudsburg, PA
Mom of Jennifer Steacy, 26
My daughters, Jennifer and Nicole, participated in cross-country track in high school," says Denise. "I was never a runner — or any sort of athlete — and I would watch them in awe and think, How can they just keep going? After Nicole left for college, a friend suggested we join a local running club that trains women to run a 5K race in 12 weeks. I agreed. It was extremely challenging, but thinking of my daughters inspired me every step of the way. The morning of the 5K, I was terrified. I hadn't yet completed a full three miles. When I crossed the finish line, I felt such a sense of accomplishment — and also that I might faint! Never in a million years would I have thought that at age 52, I would complete my first 5K."
Denise's elder daughter, Jennifer, was equally impressed. "I always knew she was capable of running, but watching her in action was very exciting for her — and inspiring for us!" she says. "And she's gotten me back into running. It's a complete role reversal — now she's the one motivating me!"
Jennifer's support encouraged Denise to cross more finish lines. "In the past five years, I've completed ten 5K races! Both my daughters have raced with me, too. I plan on running 5Ks until I can't anymore."
APRILLE FRANKS-HUNT, 36
Oklahoma City, OK
Mom of Maya Franks, 17
I've always called her my little tree hugger," Aprille says. "When Maya was 12, she decided to be a vegetarian. We'd always been a family of meat-eaters — my husband's parents had a farm, and they ate what they killed — but Maya decided she didn't want to eat anything that had a mom. As Maya got older, she became more educated about the hormones that go into our meat supply — and she was vocal about it! Whenever we went out for fast food, she would say, 'I can't believe you eat this!' Last year, we saw the documentary Food, Inc. together. It graphically shows what happens during factory meat production, and I started to question things. Should a chicken breast really be the size of my foot? I decided to make small changes. One night I prepared a meatless meal of spaghetti with spinach and tomatoes — and it was delicious! I got a little braver and tried tofu sausages and black bean burgers, and I was shocked how much I liked them. Now I eat meat no more than four times a week — it's Meatless Monday plus!"
The rewards went beyond the physical. "My mom's transition to a less meat-centric diet has brought us closer than ever," Maya says. "I never thought she would bite into a veggie burger — I mean, she's a steak person! — and I am so impressed that she took this leap. We both reap the benefits of feeling better and eating cleaner." Aprille agrees. "Maya made me more conscious of what I put into my body. I feel healthier than ever!"
JENNIFER BANKSON, 50
San Francisco Bay Area
Mom of Cassandra Bankson, 19
Cassy has always struggled with severe cystic acne that covers her face and neck," Jennifer says. "She was tormented terribly in high school. Girls would throw coins at her to mimic the large pimples on her face, and they would pull up her hair to expose the acne on her neck." The bullying got so bad that Cassy changed high schools. But Jennifer's support helped Cassy get through the most challenging days. "Despite how bad I felt about myself, my mom always saw the best in me," Cassy says. "Every day she would see past the acne scars to my real beauty."
Last year, that message sank in. "Cassy got really gutsy and started uploading videos of herself onto YouTube — talking about her skin problems, demonstrating how she covers up her acne, and discussing what products are working for her," Jennifer says. "Her videos went viral, with some getting more than three million views! I was impressed by my daughter's courageousness — and watching her led me to worry less about my own imperfections. I was 30 pounds overweight and constantly pointing out my flabby arms or apologizing for my muffin-top; I figured that was what people noticed. But seeing Cassy's confidence in exposing her biggest insecurity made me heed my own advice. Instead of judging my flaws, I made it my goal to pamper myself more. I would buy myself flowers, go for a walk — anything that made me feel good. Whenever a self-criticism entered my mind, I would replace it with a compliment, such as, 'I have really nice eyes.' Once I stopped putting myself down mentally and verbally, it changed the dynamic of my interactions. I find that people respect me more, and I feel more confident in conversations." Adds Cassy: "I'm so proud that my mom finally embraced the lesson she taught me: 'Love yourself.' "