"A woman is the full circle. Within her is the power to create, nurture and transform." This quote by Diane Mariechild is one of my favorites. To be a woman is quite powerful and amazing, but it certainly doesn't always feel that way.
Beginning around the age of 11 or 12, I began a dark journey of negative body image and self-destruction - I had developed an evil eating disorder that snowballed into a dangerous, life-controlling beast, negatively impacting my health and life.
There were attempts at recovery, the first being a treatment center across the country, followed by medications, therapists, and lots of relapses.
Meeting my husband in 2005 caused a dramatic shift. He had told me that if we were going to begin a relationship, practicing my eating disorder "wasn't an option". Of course it wasn't a complete "flick of the switch," but his love was a huge turning point for me to seriously work on recovery.
In 2010, I became pregnant with my first child. That's when I realized that my body wasn't just mine, and I was responsible for the health and well-being of another human. This was another huge step in the process of recovery for me, and monumentally impacted my self-image.
Related: How Motherhood Saved My Life
To see that my body conceived, grew, birthed and nourished my baby was empowering, and I gained a new respect for myself. I saw myself in a slightly different light. Being pregnant, giving birth and breastfeeding (now for over 7 years) have continued to show me the power of my amazing, magical body.
I am now 34 years old and recovery is still a choice I make daily.
Recovery doesn't always equal "freedom" from a devastating eating disorder - it's rarely a linear process - but for me, recovery is a continuing journey that I have to choose. When I can't make that choice for myself, I know that I have to make it for my children and my husband - the people I am responsible for and who love me unconditionally.
The negative thoughts about my body that have been in my head for most of my life are still there, but what's different today is how I react to those thoughts. I have to combat the negativity and self-hatred with gentle truth, self-love and appreciation. I want to be grateful for my body, as it has given me the most precious and important gifts of my life. It's not always easy to turn those thoughts around, but I have to keep going, and somehow I do.
I have also seen a very dark side of motherhood and my body, after experiencing the loss of my third son at 37 weeks due to a tight knot in the umbilical cord. Experiencing such deep, heavy and unfathomable loss is horrendous mentally, and it was surreal to have a postpartum body, but no baby.
I am now pregnant again and grateful for the gift of another sweet soul to love. My trust in my body has wavered over the course of my journey, but I'm at a point currently where I feel strong and capable. Integrating regular barre and yoga classes into my life has helped me to feel some body positivity (especially during the insane journey that is pregnancy after loss).
Just as motherhood is an evolution and journey, so is our body image. The ebb and flow of our self-reflection can change and evolve over time. Motherhood is all about "transformation". How we see ourselves as women before motherhood can look totally different once we have the knowledge that a baby is growing within our womb.
How do we view our bodies after the changes of pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding?
Our society tends to put an emphasis on "bouncing back" quickly after giving birth. This puts unrealistic pressure on many women who think that they need to keep up with our cultural standards of beauty, which can create negative feelings that lead toward the dark path of postpartum depression.
When a woman grows a baby inside of her body, it's normal and healthy for her body to change shape and take time to adjust to those changes for months afterward.
Ashlee Dean Wells, mother and photographer from Chicago, began the 4th Trimester Bodies Project because "normalizing what is normal is a need this earth has been denying for too long."
With the goal of educating, embracing and empowering humans, Ashlee and her friend/assistant Laura Weetzie Wilson, travel worldwide to capture the stories of real moms through photography. They also discuss body positivity, postpartum care and other topics relating to the uncensored beauty of motherhood.
Related: Study: Commenting on a Child's Weight May Cause Lifelong Body Image Issues
Ashlee says, "We humans, in all of presentations, identities, and abilities, are beautiful - stretches, stripes, scars and all." Ashlee and Laura also spread their message through a podcast, blog and book.
It's important, refreshing and reassuring to see the honest, raw feelings of other moms along their journey of motherhood.
I asked some mamas for their words and experiences about their body-image, and I think you'll find what they shared to be insightful and helpful.
While many used positive descriptive words like "powerful," "beautiful," "strong," "capable," "amazing," "confident," and "appreciative," others named some opposite emotions like "defeated," "deflated," "disappointed," "unempowered," "failure," "defective" and "ashamed."
"After a medication-free birth at The Midwife Center, I felt strong and empowered... I finally appreciated my body, no matter the number on the scale." -Lauren W.
"After a difficult pregnancy, I felt submitted to my body and a suffocating, desperate need for help. My body looks different now - 9 months of bedrest and then the sedentary days of nursing and sleeplessness haven't made for my 'ideal'. I know that I can turn this around with strength-training and yoga, but at the moment I am tapped out.
I really can only take this day by day, and I appreciate the 'living in the moment' my pregnancy perspective gave me." - Maegan H.
"I struggled with an eating disorder in high school/college but after becoming a mother, I appreciate my body and don't worry about the smaller body issues I may have harped on in the past.
My body created, sustained and delivered a perfect little boy and has continued to provide milk for him for 14 months. I have most often selected healthier things but I am my most healthy currently, selecting organic, whole foods, eating less-processed and not so worried about the number on the scale because I know I am nourishing my body.
I am not trying to impact my weight - my view of "healthy" is no longer "skinny" but "nourished". - Jessica K.
"I am so freaking proud of my body! I LOVE my body and respect my body. It is STRONG! It is capable! It is beautifully, wonderfully WOMAN. Before I had kids I didn't really have thoughts on my body. I certainly didn't celebrate it, but I wasn't' necessarily ashamed of it either. I just didn't appreciate it." - Kate L.
"After my first birth, I felt like my body failed me - I hated my body and everything about it.
My second birth was about trusting my body and its ability. I walked, ate healthy, hired a doula, took hypnosis classes and switched care providers. I was able, with the help of hypnosis, to reach 8 cm. unmedicated at home. I trusted my body and the signals it was giving me. Something felt off and we went to the hospital, where I had a repeat C-section but it was my choice.
I breastfed my second child for 6 months. It wasn't always easy, but I was able to feed him as much of my milk as I possibly could. After my second child, I felt strong. I was a little squishier around the middle, my breasts were a little saggier, but my body was strong when I needed it. I still feel unsure in my new shape some days, but I am learning to love and embrace it.
My boys helped me to see that I was beautiful all along - I just needed a new lens to view my body from." - Sarah K.
"I struggled with an eating disorder in high school and in my early 20's, was able to develop a healthy body image. Then not being able to conceive, I felt like my body failed me and had a negative body image again. I felt my most beautiful while pregnant and I lost all the baby weight within 3 weeks from breastfeeding.
I weigh less now than I did pre-pregnancy, but my body has shifted the way it stores fat, so I don't look the same. Around the time my son was 9 months old, I was finally able to accept not having the "perfect" image and be proud of what my body has accomplished." - Alix L.
"I had two very amazing and easy births - one medicated, one not - and afterward, I didn't feel amazing or empowered at all. While I am so grateful that my body produced my two beautiful children, I find that I am not comfortable with the shape that I ended up with after the miracle of childbirth. I hope to one day feel confident and beautiful all the time again, but for now breastfeeding and clingy babies really just make me feel like my body doesn't really belong to me anymore." - Tyana V.
"My sister is getting married in December, and I recently tried on my bridesmaid's dress. My first thought was: 'My hips are huge since having my daughter, my boobs are sagging and look awful from the almost 2 years of breastfeeding, and my stomach is no longer flat.' Before I had my daughter, I would have said all this to the people around me.
Instead, I remind myself, like I always do, that at one point I thought my body was broken (after two years of infertility). I remind myself all the time that my body is amazing and it created, carried, birthed and continues to nourish her. My body is strong and I have to remind myself of that. I will never allow her to grow up hearing me say such awful and negative things about myself. I want her to know that she is beautiful and perfect, no matter what." - Sami R.
"As a teen, I was ruthlessly teased for my 'late-blossoming breasts'. I *knew* it was ok and when I did start to develop, I was ok with small breasts, but the teasing continued. I constantly wore clothes that were loose and not form-fitting since I was very self-conscious.
As an adult, I accepted my size and began to wear more figure-flattering clothing and became more confident in my body. However, those voices that teased me were still in the back of my mind. Then, I had children. I had two beautiful breastfeeding relationships with my daughters. I was able to provide the nourishment and comfort they needed. I also went on to help other women to overcome breastfeeding obstacles.
Through my nursing relationship with my girls, those scars from years of teasing faded, and I am more confident than ever with my body, the body that grew, birthed and nourished two beautiful daughters." -Becky H.
"I did horrible things to myself before I was pregnant. I was a smoker and drinker, and I wasn't happy about my body but was too lazy to do anything about it so I accepted it. I quit all that when I found out I was pregnant. I'm more comfortable in my own skin now and although I didn't eat too unhealthily before, I certainly make the effort now because I want to be around for my son, and I want my body to continue to provide for him." - Lori O.
"I love love love my children and they are worth every physical sacrifice, and I'd do it all again in a heartbeat. But I'd be lying if I said I haven't been pretty disappointed in my body these past few years. My first birth experience left me feeling completely unempowered and a bit of a failure.
Although my second birth experience was better, I still harbor some feelings that I was unable to do something women have successfully been doing forever. Recovery has been tough too. While I know I don't look all that different, my body image has always been so tied into how my body performs. I was a competitive runner growing up and I've always valued leanness and muscle definition over a traditional feminine form and curviness.
Diastasis recti, pelvic and back pain have been issues I've worked hard to resolve, but keep plaguing me and I feel like my body is constantly working against me, though I still want to enjoy running and push myself. Social media has has made it hard to not compare myself to my peers - old running friends and teammates who became moms and ran marathons months after birth.
My sex life has been greatly impacted by motherhood. I haven't had pain-free sex in almost 3 years and it's certainly taken a toll on my happiness with my body.
It's hard not to feel sexually defective and that my body is a bit broken...this has had a huge impact on how I view my body. Motherhood has been so wonderful, but it's also been very identity-changing in ways I wasn't quite prepared for." - Lauren L
"When I became pregnant with my daughter, I wasn't really concerned with losing baby weight. I was so excited to be pregnant. After giving birth, most of the weight came off from breastfeeding alone. I cleaned up my nutrition and through perseverance and lots of working out, I went back down to my pre-pregnancy size.
I felt good in my skin and although my belly wasn't flat, I was excited to wear my skinny jeans again. Now after having my second child, I need to continue reminding myself that I just had a baby and I don't need to worry about the number on the scale. I need to give myself lots of grace. My husband says I'm beautiful and I believe that God thinks this too. I don't need to worry." - Elissa C.
Motherhood the hardest, yet most rewarding job on the planet. As mothers, we are a mirror to our children, and our body image affects how our children see themselves. This is an important thought to keep in mind as we are shaping these little lives and building their relationship with their own bodies.
Photo Credit: Trimester Bodies Project