I have struggled with my body image for all of my adult life (and even some of my adolescent years). I have been continuously obsessed over the number on the scale and the size of my clothes – so obsessed in fact, I could tell you my approximate weight and pant size every year since I was 15 (however doing so would be ridiculous so I’ll refrain. You’re welcome). While I have always felt especially self-conscious about my mid-section, looking back on photos of myself as a teenager and young adult would prove that those insecurities were unfounded (at least for a time). I wish I would have known that! Maybe on some level I did – I always tried to be sexy I suppose. I felt sexy when I was with my boyfriend turned husband and I wasn’t embarrassed to put on a bikini in public. Even still, I would fight all of the insecurities in private.It seems as though I was not destined to be 108lbs and a size 0 forever (or even very long
for that matter). I remember gaining 10lbs when I was 16 or 17 and, at 118lbs, I started to hear that I should be careful because I didn’t want to gain any more – that’s not detrimental to a girl’s self-worth at all right? Into adulthood, I dealt with a weight that refused to remain steady and I would continually go up and down the same 10 or 15 pounds. Again, always hearing that dreaded advice to ‘watch myself’. Then, at 22 years old, I ventured into pregnancy. And I was not prepared for the lasting changes it would make to my body.
I had three full-term pregnancies and I gained 55lbs, 50lbs and 35lbs (full disclosure: I started the third pregnancy 30lbs higher than the other two so I actually weighed the most at the end of that one. 195lbs!) My stomach stretched beyond recognition. My boobs stretched beyond what I thought was possible. I kept getting asked about how
much weight I had gained (not just from doctors) and everyone had an opinion about it. I would hear other women get told that they were so tiny and that you couldn’t even tell they were pregnant from behind. I assure you all, you could tell I was pregnant from the moon! Each inevitable C-section left me with excess skin and baby number three left me with 40lbs I couldn’t get rid of.
Regardless, of the weight and the flabby tummy – I was grateful for the ability to carry my children to term and wouldn’t have changed that for anything. But altering a long-standing mindset of body image is not an easy task. I would see other mom’s talking about embracing their post-partum bodies and appreciating them for everything they did. However, while I could definitely encourage that for other mothers, I couldn’t do it for myself. Instead, I created a wardrobe of tummy-taming pants and loose shirts and did my best to pull it off. I simply didn’t have the time that it would take me to lose the weight – I had three children, a job and a husband that I really enjoyed spending time with. I was not the mom whose body bounced back after pregnancy or the woman who could simply take the sugar out of her coffee and lose that last stubborn 5 pounds – that would be my mother’s story and those genes clearly did not find their way to me (they did find my sister though. I swear I’m okay with it).
Throughout all of this, I suppose I did manage to have some confidence. I would always stare at the mirror in horror at what I had let my body become, shrug and then head out with a smile. I could still rock a school drop off with the standard mom uniform of yoga-pants, a messy bun and no make-up. I still felt sexy when it counted (I trained myself well). And at 18 months post-partum (baby three) I finally felt like the baby stage had lifted and I had a bit more time to devote to myself. I started running again and began to overhaul my diet. Basically, I was trying to convince myself that killing my ankles and knees while eating things I didn’t like and being hungry was totally worth it. But worth it or not, it was just starting to work when I fell into that stupid f*cking hole (we call it SFH for short)
About a week after my accident I saw myself in a full-length mirror for the first time. I was in the therapy room at the hospital, sitting on a therapy bed in baggy, elastic waist clothes, no bra and unwashed hair. I cried (like really cried). I wanted to give up before I even had a chance to start. In that moment, I did not think that I would be confident in my appearance ever again. I did not think I would ever feel pretty or sexy. I didn’t think my husband could be attracted to me anymore. And, clearly, I did not give myself even a small break for being one week out from a traumatic accident and major surgery. There were so many aspects of this injury to think about however, in this moment, I felt like I had lost whatever confidence I had left in my appearance and that there was no way to get it back. Even the realization that I was 20lbs down didn’t help. As it turns out, a spinal cord injury and subsequent recovery is a pretty good weight loss program. It does have its drawbacks though (good with the bad?).
A few weeks later I was given my first real demo wheelchair (as in it wasn’t meant for someone 6 feet tall and actually fit me to some extent). Again, seeing myself in the mirror while sitting in this wheelchair was incredibly tough for me to handle. This was me now. Sitting. That tummy that I had worked so hard to camouflage for so long was now resting on my legs. I looked short and wide and defeated. I cried.
After that, while still at rehab, I began refusing to leave my room without my hair and make-up being done (messy buns were a thing of the past). Maybe I couldn’t control the fact that I was forever sitting or that my residual tummy lay on top of my legs, but I could control my hair and I could control my make-up. It was the first time in my life I truly felt ugly as just me. I would try and put on clothes that weren’t overwhelmingly stretchy, but would hate the way everything looked on me – either it didn’t conceal my tummy enough, was uncomfortable or was too baggy and made me look wider than I actually was. As the warmer weather hit, I attempted to wear shorts but was conflicted about showing my legs. Was it weird to show my bare legs? I decided that I would do it anyways but it made me feel conspicuous and uncomfortable.
As the months went on and I left rehab, I was still fighting to find a positive body image for myself. It drove me crazy that my knees wouldn’t stay together when I sat in my chair. I have since discovered some tricks including adding some foam wedges to my cushion. But the foam wedges do throw off my posture and cause my legs to spasm a bit more so I don’t always use them. In turn, my knees fall open again and I feel self-conscious. It is still incredibly rare for me to leave the house without my hair and make-up done and the times that I have weren’t worth it because I was distracted and insecure the entire time.
My oldest son started a new school this year and as I got to know parents there, they would comment that I was always so put together in the morning. It was always meant as a compliment, but I wish they knew me before and I wish they knew the woman who was confident enough to show up in her mom uniform. I also wish that I didn’t miss out on mornings with my children because I’m so hell-bent on being ‘put together’. I wish I could still go out feeling confident while make-up free with a messy-bun.
I have been late for events or, on occasion, have cancelled last minute because I can’t get past my mirror. I feel like if I don’t look my best all of the time, it will make me seem more disabled. Maybe that sounds weird or terrible, but that’s just the truth. I want to be seen as me, and I feel like the more I put in to my appearance, the more likely people are to see me before my wheelchair.
My newest obstacle has been weight gain. How does one keep weight off when they are sitting all day? Especially one who is prone to gaining weight in the first place. I’ve worried about it daily for over a year, but my weight remained steady until about 5 months ago. The weight has come on fast and furiously since then. I have just recently decided to go off of a medication that could be the culprit. Either way, the increase in weight has affected my mood and made certain day-to-day tasks more difficult (getting dressed, transfers etc). And it certainly hasn’t helped my confidence. I compare myself to other women in wheelchairs and I hate that my chair is wider than their chair or they don’t have the ‘mummy tummy’ to battle with. I know there are so many women out there who are confident in their own skin and when I see other women, of all shapes, I truly do think they are beautiful. I just wish I could accept my body for what it is and feel confident in it.
I try to remind myself that I’m not out to impress the world. I have a husband that loves me and makes me feel beautiful. I can still manage to feel sexy when it counts (but that took time). It took me quite a few months before I could even watch any sort of love scene in a movie or TV show. It wasn’t so much the way the women looked, but the way that they moved – ways that I wouldn’t move again. And the thought of having to have sex with someone new is officially the worst thought ever so I’m really glad my husband is sticking around.
Body issues I never even imagined I could possess, have come to the forefront of my life. I don’t want attention or compliments, I just want to be confident in my appearance. I feel like such a hypocrite telling my children that appearances don’t matter and then, behind closed doors, crying because I’m not happy with mine. I’m tired of tearing myself apart when I look in the mirror or at a photo. I’m tired of listening to other people tear themselves apart when I wish to look like them (I totally recognize that is my problem and not theirs). I would love to throw my hair up in a messy bun, rub some moisturizer on my face and eat breakfast with my kids before school. I would love to attempt to look sexy for my husband without feeling silly. I would love to forget about my appearance every once in a while. However, if I consider how I felt about myself in that therapy room, one week after my accident, I realize that I have slowly found more confidence – just not yet as much as before. I realize that I have a lot of amazing people in my life that don’t care about my make-up or my hair or the size of my wheelchair. And in the end, I need to model self-love so my daughter grows up doing the same. If only I could figure out how.