There are few things more daunting than walking into the cafeteria of a new school on your first day and wondering where to sit—this I know after moving to a new state during my sophomore year of high school.
It turns out that was the same experience Joanna Gaines had. And even though we all know her now as the enviable, inspiring star of Fixer Upper, she didn’t always have the confidence she exudes on the show.
“My sophomore year I was the new kid at a high school in Texas, and I had never been a part of a school that big,” Gaines told the magazine Darling in a recently revived interview. “My parents told me, ‘Walk in. You’ll make friends like you always do,’ and I just remember walking in and… I just did not know what to do with myself.”
I can so relate. In my case, I still shudder to think about the awkward moment where I tried to make conversation with a girl I recognized from a morning class and completely freaked her out by creeping up on her.
Gaines took another approach:
“In the lunchroom, everyone was a blur, and I was thinking, ‘How do people do this? How do you find that one person to sit with?’ So I literally walked in the lunchroom and walked out and went into the bathroom. My fear and my insecurities just took over, and I felt like I’d way rather sit in the stall than get rejected.”
By that point, Gaines says her insecurities were already deeply ingrained due to years of bullying over her looks.
“Kids in kindergarten would make fun of me for being Asian,” she recalls. “When you’re that age you don’t know really how to process that; the way you take that is, ‘Who I am isn’t good enough.”
Unfortunately, statistics show Gaines’ experience as an Asian-American is not uncommon. According to a 2004 study published in the journal Adolescence, Asian-American students were “the most frequently victimized ethnic group,” regardless of the racial makeup of their schools.
In Gaines’ case, she said she eventually learned how to put on a good front, but confidence never came naturally during her school years.
“If people thought I was confident, it was really just the way I masked my insecurity because I didn’t want people to really get to know the real me.”
As painful as some of the memories may be, Gaines says her experience gave her insight that she hopes will help her children and others.
“I always tell my kids to look for that kid on the playground who’s not playing with anybody, to go reach out, ask them their name,” Gaines says. “To look for the kid in the lunchroom who isn’t sitting by anybody, be their friend.”
Along the way, she says she’s found her calling is to love her kids, husband and line of work—and, through this, she’s gained that elusive confidence. “I discovered that my purpose was to help people who are insecure because I didn’t like the way it made me feel,” she says. “In that stall, that’s not who I am.”