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Mental Wellness

My Body Tells a Story

On April 21, 2023, I participated in a boudoir/private room photo shoot. Anyone who knows me would be shocked to find out I did this. Honestly, I’m a little shocked I did it because it was so far out of my comfort zone, but to understand my “why,” I have to go back a couple years.

I had a baby in November 2020. Overall, I had a normal, easy pregnancy, but I was left with loose skin, lots of stretch marks, ab separation, and almost no belly button. I felt deformed. I lost all the pregnancy weight and then some almost immediately after giving birth, so I didn’t understand why I had a bulging belly. As I started to exercise again after giving birth, I naively thought that was all I needed to do to return to “normal,” but I quickly realized there was no going back to how I used to look.

This was hard to accept, and I was left disappointed for a couple reasons. First, I wasn’t prepared for my stomach to look the way it did after having a baby. Maybe that sounds silly, but I don’t think I had ever seen a stomach that looked like mine–not online, nor out in the world. I also didn’t know ab separation was possible. I had never heard of that before giving birth, and that made me angry. From my understanding, ab separation is common during and after pregnancy, so why does no one talk about it?! Even though I learned that it was common, I still felt alone. I personally didn’t know anyone who looked like me or experienced what I experienced, and it was isolating.

Second, for most of my life, I was known as fit, petite, skinny, etc. I was the one who could mysteriously eat whatever I wanted without gaining weight. I was the one who could wear double zero, extra skinny jeans and still fit into my clothes from high school after graduating from college. Sure, it bothered me sometimes when people made comments about my size or weight, but it became part of my identity. Who was I if I wasn’t the skinny one? Who was I if I could no longer button my old pants or wear form-fitting tops that showed my flat stomach? I was suddenly an alien in my own skin. I looked in the mirror but didn’t recognize the person I saw in front of me. Meanwhile, I was being haunted by other women (online, out in the world, and eventually in my own family) who miraculously fit back into their pre-pregnancy clothes within weeks or a couple months postpartum, who two, three, four kids later looked like they had never been pregnant and didn’t have any visible loose skin or stretch marks. I would also read articles or watch videos that talked about how women “bounce back” so quickly after pregnancy. The answer: they start out very fit and/or underweight and don’t gain more than the recommended amount of weight during their pregnancies. Guess what? I was fit, underweight, and did not gain the recommended amount of weight during my pregnancy (not by choice–I just had a hard time gaining weight). How could my stomach look so deformed? It didn’t make sense to me and left me more and more frustrated, angry, and disappointed, which took a major toll on my mental health. I felt broken.

Several months and lots of ab work later, I was finally able to fit back into regular, non-maternity/postpartum jeans. Of course, I had to search for jeans that were small enough through the hips and legs but big enough at the waist, as my bump had not (and still has not) totally gone away. Still, I felt a bit more myself when I could wear some of my old clothes. But just as I started to feel a little more human, I found out that a friend of mine had suddenly and very unexpectedly passed away. My mental health took a nosedive, and I was at the lowest point I had ever been. For as long as I had known her, my friend was someone who loved life and was always up for new adventures. She had a big personality and was always her friends’ and family’s biggest cheerleader. She loved everyone she met, and everyone loved her. What happened to her wasn’t fair, and it was just another thing that made no sense to me. I suddenly realized how little control I have over things, which was a hard concept for me to grasp.

It took a long time for me to begin to feel better, but as I tried to move forward, I started to think of how I wanted to live my life. I had learned a hard lesson that life is short and unpredictable. How did I want to spend my time? What was important to me? As I reflected, I quickly realized a couple things. One, I had been so miserable because my stomach didn’t look like it did pre-baby that I felt like I had not truly been present for the first couple years of my son’s life. I was so preoccupied with wanting my stomach to look a certain way, to fit back into my old jeans, that I was missing out on the most important thing in my life. Two, I have never been one to be sporadic, take chances, or try new things. So many times over the course of my life, I have put limitations on myself. I have said, “That’s not me!” or “I could never do that!” Oftentimes, I have worried so much about what others would think of me that no matter how badly I wanted to do something, I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want to be judged. I decided that I didn’t want to live my life that way. As hard as it was, and still is, I tried to care a little less about the way my stomach looked and accept it for what it was. I also started to look for ways to stretch myself and get out of the box that I had been putting myself in for so long. I talked my way into a new, higher-paying position at work; I met my favorite band; and I found opportunities to speak up and not second-guess myself. It wasn’t always easy, but with each experience, I learned new things about myself; I was having fun while becoming a better version of myself.

As 2022 came to a close, I had this idea to do a boudoir photo shoot. It’s not something I had ever considered before, but I saw it as an opportunity to try something new, step out of my comfort zone, and celebrate this new body of mine. Throughout the planning process, I often had thoughts like “This is silly; I can’t do this.” and “This is going to be so awkward! Why am I doing this to myself?!” The week before the photoshoot, I was sick with COVID, and I thought it was a sign that I shouldn’t go through with it. But I charged forward, and it’s an experience I will carry with me forever (and probably do again sometime). I am usually pretty tightly wound and have a hard time relaxing, but throughout the shoot, I could feel myself letting go. Of course, when I changed into the bra and underwear outfit, I instinctively put my arms across my stomach. I had to tell myself that the point of the shoot was to be open, to embrace how I am in my current form. I also had to remind myself that the photographer and makeup artist were not judging me. They were there cheering me on every step of the way. I left the photoshoot feeling more alive than I had felt in the last couple years (and maybe ever). I felt free. I felt powerful. I felt like shouting, “This is me and I’m not apologizing for it!”

In the days following the photoshoot, I found myself constantly reflecting on the experience. I was reminded of how necessary it is to try new things. I have often shied away from new experiences out of fear of being judged, embarrassing myself, feeling uncomfortable, etc. But how will I know unless I try? Maybe the experience will actually be life changing. The experience also taught me to stop apologizing. Stop apologizing for the way I look. Stop apologizing for the way I am. Stop apologizing for the things I like. JUST STOP APOLOGIZING. A couple days after the photoshoot, I saw a quote on Facebook that said, “Never apologize for shining your brightest. The Moon does it all the time and we celebrate her.” I thought it perfectly summarized the way I was feeling.

About a month after the photoshoot, I had the opportunity to view my gallery. The meeting started with a slideshow of some of the photos. There was one of me in my bra and underwear lying back on a bed. I could see a hint of my loose skin and stretch marks, and I instantly felt myself tearing up. I saw a woman who was celebrating what her body had gone through. I saw a woman who wasn’t afraid to be vulnerable in front of strangers. I saw a woman who was finally embracing her postpartum body. And I was proud to be her.

Loving and embracing this new body of mine has been a process, and the frustration comes in waves. Some days I am able to acknowledge how hard I have worked and how much progress I have made. Other days, I still long for my pre-baby body. On days when I’m more bloated, I look down and see a more rounded belly than I did the day before, and I immediately think that I’ve somehow taken a step back. I have to remind myself that bloating is a normal part of being a woman. I get frustrated when I want to wear an older pair of pants but realize they aren’t comfortable anymore when buttoned, but I have to remind myself that it’s normal to outgrow clothes. It’s normal for bodies to change over time. It’s normal for our bodies to tell stories about what we’ve experienced. Mine tells the story of a woman who grew the sweetest little boy, who over the course of two and half years has made her want to become the best mother, wife, daughter, sister, aunt, and friend she can be. It tells a story of a woman who has persevered despite experiencing challenges postpartum. Through it all, I try to remind myself that I’m lucky. I, as well as my child, could have experienced any number of complications during pregnancy, childbirth, and postpartum. I could have had such severe ab separation that I required surgery to fix it. I could have never had the chance to experience pregnancy and childbirth. Around the time of the photoshoot, I came across a cropped photo of a woman showing her wrinkled postpartum stomach. She was holding a sign that said, “For every woman unhappy with her postpartum marks there is one wishing she had them.” Whenever I look at it, I can’t help but tear up. I may not look like I used to, but does that really matter at the end of the day? I look the way I look because I brought life into this world! That’s something only a fraction of people in the world can do, and I should be proud of what my body has accomplished.

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by EPiercy

Emily lives in Columbus, Ohio with her son and husband, within walking distance of her childhood home. She works as a paralegal for a large corporation. Emily has always loved routines and predictability, so becoming a mother threw her life and view of herself into chaos. Over time, she has become more accepting of herself and open to new experiences outside her comfort zone. Emily hopes that sharing her story will inspire other women who are struggling postpartum.

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