PROVO — She remembers tucking her head between her knees as the plane barreled toward the ground, scrambling out of the fiery wreckage and then rolling to put out the flames. Stephanie Nielson's first thoughts were of her four children, waiting at home for their traditional Saturday night pizza. Then, she wondered what she looked like.
"When I reached up to feel my face, I couldn't quite make out what I was feeling," Nielson told an overflowing audience in the Wilkinson Student Center on Thursday night. She was the kickoff speaker for the "Recapturing Beauty" campaign.
With burns on more than 84 percent of her body, Nielson spent the next three months in a coma at the Maricopa Medical Center Burn Unit in Phoenix, fighting to stay alive. When she awoke, it took her another two months before she was ready to look at herself in the mirror.
"I knew that I was burned, and I knew I had scars on my face, but nothing could have prepared me for what I would see," she said. "My thoughts after looking at myself went straight to my children — 'How are the children going to see me when I can't even recognize my own face?' "
The Aug. 16, 2008, crash — which also injured her husband, Christian, and killed their friend Doug Kinneard — left Nielson with a different nose, protruding lips and a body and face covered in scars and scabs. She was embarrassed to have visitors and felt inadequate as a mother, woman and a human being. But as she looked closer, she began to see beyond her injuries.
"I saw glimpses of happiness, I saw God in my eyes," she said. "It was as if he was looking back at me, reassuring me and giving me hope. He had saved my green eyes, inherited from my father. My lashes had grown back thicker, and my eyes still had the freckles inside of them that Christian loved. I saw a bit of beauty in a simple moment."
Nielson, known and loved around the world as "NieNie," has chronicled this life-changing journey on her blog, nieniedialogues.blogspot.com. As a woman, wife, mother, sister, friend and member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Nielson reflects on what it means to find true joy and beauty amid hardships.
"(Her blog) inspires me," said Melissa Blumell, a young mother who attended the speech Thursday night. "Being a mom at home, I deal with the day-to-day monotony of trying to overcome how crazy (my kids) drive me at times. And she is doing that with all her trials. I know many moms who read it and are inspired by her resilience."
Though Nielson occasionally mourns her pre-crash face, she has come to love herself for who she really is inside — a message that is hungrily consumed by thousands of her blog followers, many of whom thronged the BYU ballroom Thursday night.
"They are seeing … something they know is true and right," said Nielson's sister Page Checketts. "They want to believe her. And they watch her, hoping that it's true, hoping that her example is real, that it's not just fake or put-on, but that she really does love herself and feel beautiful."
And she does, Checketts confirmed.
Nielson's love and gratitude for her body are inspiring to all who know her or read about her, such as Holly Morris, a BYU junior who arrived 45 minutes early Thursday evening to ensure she got a seat.
"That she can go through all her trials and challenges and be so strong is a great example to all women," said Morris, who reads Nielson's blog and Nielson's sisters' blogs. "I love them all," she said. "I want to be like them when I grow up."
To begin BYU Women's Resources and Services "Recapturing Beauty" campaign, Nielson encouraged the mothers, college-age women and young girls to recognize their supreme worth, reminding them that beauty is health, harmony, peace and self-confidence.
The campaign recapturingbeauty.byu.edu features additional speakers, yoga, mediation and Zumba classes, as well as a 10-day body challenge. It is intended to help women love their bodies, rather than want to change them based on popular messages in everyday culture.
"Our goal was to expand the definition of beauty and help students really think about who defines what beauty is, and to not be so quick to buy in to (society's definition)," said Lanae Valentine, director of Women's Resources and Services at BYU.
Yet, it's easier said than done, and even Nielson struggled for a while, said her mother, Cindy Clark.
"At first, she was very self-conscious about it," Clark said. "She didn't want anyone to see her. And slowly, she has come out of all of that. She realizes who she is now, and it isn't about her burns."
She's still the funny, smart, fashion-minded mother of four, who, when in the hospital wrapped head-to-toe in white gauze, asked if now she'd be able to fit into skinny jeans, remembers Checketts. And even when she had no hair, she always wanted to wear earrings and lipstick.
But Nielson's beauty is so much more than clothes, accessories or makeup, her family and friends say.
"The coolest thing about Stephanie is she's in touch with this inner beauty," Checketts said. "At first, it is a little startling because she is a work in progress and in the middle of cosmetic surgery … but as you get talking to her … it just melts away and you just see these beautiful green eyes with a light in them. It takes over all the scars and everything else and you truly do see beauty. It truly is amazing."
Nielson's new skin, grafted using skin from her head, thigh and stomach, is tight and painful and often cracks and bleeds. But the alternative is unthinkable.
"I know I came back to earth after my almost fatal accident, because I wanted my body," Nielson said. "I didn't care what it looked like. I wanted to experience this life on this beautiful earth with my children and family."
And today, she counts as miracles the little things, like kneeling down to wash her son Nicholas' hair in the bathtub, making dinner or doing yoga.
"And as for beauty," she said, "it comes in the red hair of Jane, in the freckles on Claire, the tender spirit of Oliver and the bright white hair of Nicholas. It is the sun, rising over the mountains every day without fail. It is my painted toenails and the people who love me, my friends all around me. It's my sweet husband who knew me then and knows me now and will forever know me just the way I am. With or without freckles on my face or flawless skin. I am his wife, and my beauty is apparent in the way he loves me."