Nothing was ever quite good enough—until her director gave her one life-changing order.
My parents' apartment in the Bronx is just across the water from LaGuardia Airport. As a child, I would watch the planes fly overhead and fantasize about far-off places with ancient ruins, mysterious jungles, sacred music—and a different me. In my imagined travels, I always became a prettier, smarter, taller and thinner Kerry. My disease of perfectionism began early, and the myth of "I'm not enough" only flourished with time.
In college, I began over-exercising and under-eating, convinced that a perfect figure would ensure my success as an actor. In a profession where rejection happened daily and my fate was always in the hands of others, my body became the one thing that I could control. After graduation I moved to Manhattan and learned that no amount of exercise could protect me from real life. I went to the opposite extreme and started using food as comfort and gained the 15 pounds that I thought would destroy my dreams. But I kept auditioning, and soon enough I was cast in my first feature film, Our Song, about three girls at a Brooklyn high school.
Early on in rehearsals, our director, Jim McKay, said, "Don't go losing any weight." I couldn't believe my ears. Didn't he understand that actresses have to be perfect? That my success was predicated on the insane pursuit of thinness? "You're beautiful as you are," he said. "That's why I cast you."
In that moment, Jim let me know I was already "perfect" enough to be a star in his brilliant film and to be loved for who I am. Maybe I didn't need to be better, I thought. Maybe I was enough.
Later that month, we were shooting near LaGuardia Airport. A plane passed overhead, and for the first time I didn't want to be someone else, somewhere else. I realized that I don't have to be perfect. All I have to do is show up and enjoy the messy, imperfect and beautiful journey of my life. It's a trip more wonderful than I could have imagined.
Actress Kerry Washington plays Ray Charles's wife Della, in Ray, in theaters this month.
From the October 2004 issue of O, The Oprah Magazine
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