Monday, Sept. 28, was a beautiful and a full day for Moline’s Sarah Stevens, who was awarded a $10,000 Nation of Neighbors grant by Royal Neighbors of America (RNA).

Founder of The Beautifull Project (TBP) in 2018, Stevens works as an online curator and author of content that encourages women of all body types, ages, and ethnicities to embrace their bodies and to live more confidently, freely, and fully in them.

Sarah Stevens

“Too often, as women and young girls, we hear messages that we’re not good enough,” Linda Wastyn, an RNA chapter leader who nominated Stevens, said Monday in a virtual award presentation. “We’re too smart, too aggressive, we’re too quiet, too big, too little. Too few people take the reins to do something about that, and change how society talks about women.”

“Sarah’s one that has taken the reins and says, stop, this isn’t good,” she said. “She’s sharing stories of women who have said no, I’m not going to listen to what society says about me. I’m good as I am. This award will allow her to take that to the next step, to educate, make a difference in our society.”

TBP – centered on thebeautifullproject.com — has grown into a multimedia platform that showcases the stories of women who navigate the world in diverse bodies, through diverse life circumstances, with diverse world views. Many of these women are faced with the challenge that the world often expects them to shrink in order to fit in. TBP encourages them to take up space instead.

“This gift is truly transformational for a project of this size, making possible things that were impossible just a few short weeks ago. I am both honored, and still a little shocked,” Stevens said of the Nation of Neighbors grant.

“When I started talking to women about their relationship with their bodies, I never imagined we would be in a position to expand,” she said. “This gift will allow me to give any woman who wants to come along for the journey the tools to find her way back to believing in herself. That is powerful, and I am so deeply grateful. It will help us create a world where every body belongs.”

Stevens wants women to see something different when they look in the mirror.

Julie Robinson, director of member development and public relations at the Rock Island-based RNA (a women-led, fraternal life insurance and annuity organization), said:

“We are honored to be able to support Ms. Stevens and The Beautifull Project. So many women struggle with similar issues around body image and it holds them back, kills their confidence. Ms. Stevens’ work enables a dialog around topics which, while not always comfortable, are pervasive and incredibly important to helping women succeed in whatever they pursue.

“For more than 125 years, Royal Neighbors has sought to empower women to make a positive impact in their communities. And being able to provide financial support to Ms. Stevens and her project aligns perfectly with that mission,” Robinson said.

Nation of Neighbors is an award and empowerment grant that annually recognizes individuals who are improving the lives of women and/or girls in their community with a new or expanded business, organization, program, or non-profit.

In 2020, $100,000 in grant money will be distributed through the Nation of Neighbors program. More than $2 million has been awarded to grant recipients since the program began in 2007.

From corporate life to empowering women

After spending a decade as a health care executive, Stevens decided in 2016 to depart her high-stress career and follow a path defined by her passion for supporting other women through mentoring. She became the first executive director of the nonprofit Lead(h)er, which matches young female professionals  with more experienced mentors, guiding them through career and community involvement.

Melissa Pepper, founder of Lead(h)er, won $10,000 from RNA president/CEO Cynthia Tidwell in 2016.

In 2016, the first year of Lead(h)er, founder Melissa Pepper got a Nation of Neighbors $10,000 award for her “Strike a Match” program — that linked 100 young women with leaders to inspire more women to volunteer, run for office, or start their own businesses.

Now 42, Stevens was leader of Lead(h)er through 2019, and gave her notice 14 months before leaving, when she founded TBP in honor of her daughter Alannah, who graduated this past spring from Alleman High School.

“It started as a gift to her on her 16th birthday, and has grown into a gift for us all,” Stevens wrote on the website. “It is a singular place to collect our voices and demand a world that doesn’t require us to shrink. The Beautifull Project is a space for us to heal, to be filled, to believe that we are worthy of love and belonging regardless of the size of our bodies or the strength of our spirits.”

“Once you land on the thing that lights you up – the thing you know you’re meant to do in the world, it doesn’t feel like work anymore,” she said Monday. “I poured a lot of passion into Lead(h)er; I still think it’s important. The experience at Lead(h)er taught me I could take an idea and turn it into a reality. It really served me well, because when it came time to turn my own idea into reality, I had the confidence in me and the experience to know that I could do it.”

She said she’s yet to find a woman who isn’t impacted by the unreal, unhealthy expectations that society places on some beauty ideal.

“I have never met a woman who doesn’t have a body story, where she learned there was something wrong with how she is in the world,” Stevens said. “She spent the rest of her life trying to fix it. It is literally every woman I’ve ever met.”

On Facebook, Stevens describes herself not only as a writer and speaker, but “also a fat-bodied believer in a big, full life who got tired of shrinking my body, my emotions, my ambition, and my voice. So, I learned to take up space instead. And I’m inviting you to do the same.”

“The Beautifull Project is a storytelling collective, inviting women back to their bodies, and creating a world where every body belongs,” Stevens said in the interview. “It is also an invitation to be full. It has nothing to do with moving toward a beauty standard. It has everything to do with inviting yourself to be full.”

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“It invites, allows and amplifies the stories of women,” she said. “There are three parts to that – the blog, the podcast and the photo gallery. It allows our body stories to be told in the written word, the spoken word and through photos.”

The national body-positivity movement has gotten more attention in recent years, like the singer/songwriter Lizzo, who says “I’m going to take up space and you’re going to adjust to it,” Stevens said. “The visibility of body diversity is part of what moves us forward. I will say the more diverse bodies are more visible than they have been historically.

“But like any social movement, this movement comes with substantial backlash,” she said. “Look at Lizzo’s comment thread on any body-positive post she puts out, and she is constantly attacked. We just struggle with letting people be and being kind.”

“We have been trained and taught that people with larger bodies, that there’s a lot of stereotypes that come with navigating the world with a larger body,” Stevens said. “You can’t tell anything about a person’s health by looking at them, and that’s the thing, even as I work to advance

The logo for The Beautifull Project.

the body-positive movement, that’s the thing you’re most often challenged with.”

“If I look at the trajectory of my own life over the last 10 years, I’ve never been healthier than I am today, so long as you consider my mental health, my physical health and my emotional health together,” she said. “We’ve done an enormous disservice in this country to only focus on physical health.”

“We’re whole human beings, and until we start to see individual people as whole human beings, we’re probably not going to be able to create a world where every body belongs,” she said. “Sometimes this work feels like I’m swimming upstream.”

“We’re not entirely there yet as a culture,” Stevens said. “I’m grateful for the increase in visibility. I think we just have to keep working.”

How Covid changed the Beautifull landscape

 Her TEDx Davenport talk from 2019 has gained more than 3,400 views, and because of it, Stevens was signed by an agency that wanted to promote her as a speaker. In the comments on the TEDx video on YouTube, Leslie Klipsch (co-founder of coworkqc) posted: “Absolutely incredible. This woman is wisdom and beauty and truth.”

Then this spring, the Covid pandemic cancelled many keynote speaking engagements this year.

“While it was originally my intent to devote all my time to the Beautifull Project, I made a decision to do some marketing and development work for Family Resources,” Stevens said.

Stevens gave a TEDx talk March 27, 2019 at Davenport’s Figge Art Museum.

She first was a consultant, and since July 1, Stevens has been director of marketing and development for the nonprofit.

TBP groups and interview subjects met monthly for about eight months before the pandemic hit, Stevens said. The pandemic has shifted TBP, since they can’t really gather in person.

“It’s just been recently when I’ve been thinking how to re-engage women,” she said. “We couldn’t really be together. I know we can record these things virtually and over the phone, but part of the magic of the interviews is being in person, together. There is something created in that connection I find really vital.”

She’ll restart the audio podcasts, which are available on the website. The RNA grant will be used to compile a self-published book for TBP, in about a year, including many of the hundreds of interviews she’s done with women.

“The thing I learned most consistently is that, women are very open to this message – this idea that, I want to stop shrinking.” Stevens said. “What ends up happening, they don’t really know another way to be in the world.”

“Often they’ll ask me, now what?” she said. One woman was angry because she only knows one way to be.

“I think about her a lot,” Stevens said. “She was saying, give me a tool to know myself differently. I have her in the back of my mind all the

Sarah Stevens

time. So this book will be full of tools and resources for women who want to understand the relationship with their bodies, with food and movement differently.”

She has subject matter experts, to help her put together content for the book, to help women “shift their lens and their life.”

The new, urgently needed view is for women to be able to look in the mirror “and not loathe themselves,” Stevens said. “I can’t count the number of women who tell me how difficult it is to even take in their reflection in the mirror. When I say see themselves through a different lens, I mean one that is loving and accepting and open and receptive.”

The book will “allow me to amplify the message, because it allows me a different platform on which to deliver the message,” she said.

During Monday’s RNA call, Stevens quoted author Richard Rohr: “The way we do anything is the way we do everything.”

“That quote has been enormously instrumental in my life,” she said. “I find it really true. I find it so easy for us to compartmentalize our whole lives. I’ve got it together over here, but I don’t there. It’s on point – the way we do anything is the way we do everything.”

Stevens and Katie Thompson model the new “Take Up Space” tees.

Stevens said that a lifelong battle with her big body, “while only intended to shrink my body, what happened instead — my entire life had gotten smaller,” she said.

“It also shrank my ambition, my voice, my emotions, my ideas and contributions to the world,” she said. “It shed all of the pieces that brought me to the place of being smaller. This was always about the size of my life. I wanted a bigger life, for my daughter, my friends, my wife, my mom, to reach backward and forward.

“I want us to do everything with zero regard for every single expectation that centers on our shrinking,” Stevens said. “This award allows me to invite more women to do that, to lay out a path. We’re so inundated about messaging, what we’re expected to do and be in the world, it becomes such a part of our hard wiring.”

“This gift changes everything”

“This gift changes everything, allows me to amplify the message, with more resources,” she said. “Rest assured, this is just the beginning – like dropping a stone in a pond, it is going to ripple forward and backward. Thank you for believing in this mission. I can’t wait to see what we’ll do together.”

Stevens and her wife, Becky, also have two kids who attend Moline High – Aidan, a senior, and Gabe, a freshman.

Stevens with friends — She says: “I’ve never wanted followers. I’ve always wanted co-creators… women who are willing to help me make a world where every BODY belongs.”

Becky recently posted about Stevens on Facebook: “She is inspiring, amazing and hands down courageous. I have been honored to walk next to this woman while she dug deep past her fear, past old habits, past all the things she grew up believing she needed to be loved. Turns out all she ever needed was an honest and loving relationship with herself. And if she can get there, we all can.”

Stevens also recently started a lifestyle brand (“By Sarah Stevens”) that runs parallel to TBP, including merchandise (like T-shirts) and a virtual yoga package.

“I’m trying to build the plane while I fly it,” she joked. “I’m still providing for my family and building these other arms of the project.”

TBP is the storytelling collective, that belongs to all the women, and not the brand. Stevens feels strongly that that is a collective, so the brand has similar messaging, “but doesn’t require me to make money off the backs of the women that shared their stories with me,” she said. “I feel like that’s sacred, set apart as its own thing.”

Her new “Take Up Space” T-shirts – partnering with Katie Thompson of The Market: A Journey to Joy — exceeded their sales goals. “Over the next year, there will be more merchandise,” she said.

The other RNA Nation of Neighbors recipients this year are:

  • Candace Benge, Gibbon, Neb., Little Town Gardens
  • Mary Bowley, Atlanta, Ga., Wellspring Living
  • Pamela Bunger, Mattawa, Wash., Mattawa Food Bank
  • Brittany Day, Fayetteville, N.C., Sandhills Chapter of Star Legacy Foundation
  • Erin Garrison and Trista Teeter, Albquerque, N.M., FIFABQ (Food Is Free Albuquerque)
  • Joyce Kyles, Memphis, Tenn., Walking Into A New Life, Inc.
  • Kellie Markey, Des Moines, Iowa, Dorothy’s House
  • Nancy Mwirotsi, Des Moines, Pi515
  • Delfina Vazquez, Selma, Calif., Selma Community Outreach Ministries
  • Robin Walker, Cinncinati, Ohio, Academy for Technologists Extraordinaire, Inc.

Stevens hopes to take TBP beyond the Quad-Cities, across the country and world. Recently, she heard from a dietitian in Australia who wants to work together.

“I’ve got some folks in Colorado, some women in New York who consistently show up for all the digital offerings,” Stevens said. “It’s interesting, breaking out of the local community and amplifying the message beyond it – it’s definitely something we’re going to focus on in the next year, because we need to, in order to expand the brand and support the project.”

“I definitely want to broaden the reach,” she said. For more about her new brand, visit www.bysarahstevens.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.