Sometimes a friend tells you her story, and you want the whole world to hear it. This is how I felt when I asked my Facebook friends if anyone wanted to share any experiences they had with loving accepting their bodies unconditionally for a post I wrote last week. My friend and former student Hailee wrote a beautiful piece about how she uses watercolor painting to cultivate unconditional body love postpartum–both for herself and now other women as well. I loved her story so much, I asked if I could share it as a guest post here. You can read her story and see her paintings below.
I gave birth to a beautiful baby boy in March 2017, at the age of twenty-three. Before pregnancy I was pretty okay with my body. I had nice, toned arms and a flat stomach. Sure, I had my insecurities like most people do. Specifically, cellulite on my thighs, acne that I never could seem to grow out of, and thick ankles.
I gained forty pounds during pregnancy, which is not a lot, but is a little more than is recommended. Nine of those pounds ended up being baby. The rest seems to have stuck around even though I am a little more than three months postpartum now. I am pretty lumpy and soft.
The first couple months of my son’s life I did not get out of the house much. Adjusting to motherhood was difficult. Postpartum depression, healing from an emergency c-section, and learning how to care for a newborn was beyond exhausting. I often wondered why the human race still exists—why do people keep procreating when raising babies is so completely overwhelming?? (Honestly, “completely overwhelming” is not even dramatic enough to describe how hard it was for me.)
I asked myself what had I done? Would I ever feel like my own person again? Once your baby is born, you are no longer the sun around which your world revolves. You are responsible for another human being’s safety and comfort. It is TERRIFYING. And it is okay to admit that!
Even my body did not feel like my own anymore. My stomach was saggy and riddled with bright purple stretch marks; a wide, garish scar spread across my lower abdomen. The stretch marks streaked down my thighs and none of my pre-pregnancy pants fit anymore. Even my face felt a little rounder (although pregnancy did seem to make my acne disappear, knock on wood!).
Some days I still feel like crying when I see myself naked in the mirror.
I knew I needed to take a piece my life back for myself. Yet, I was at a loss on how to do that. I reflected on it for a few weeks in between constantly trying to figure out breastfeeding, giving up on that and pumping, giving up on that and using formula, and changing hundreds of dirty diapers.
I decided to stare my insecurities in the eye. I took a selfie of my stomach in all its postpartum glory. I sat down on my little gray living room couch while my son slept in his baby swing. I pulled my watercolor paints and brushes out of their dusty box. I sketched. I painted.
I reflected again.
And I decided I liked what I saw.
I posted that very first raw painting of my stomach to my blog and asked others if they would be interested in being painted. The only stipulation was that you had to have been pregnant. I accepted all ages, races, gender orientations, sizes, and those who had lost their babies.
The response was huge! Since then, I have painted almost thirty paintings and have people lined up for future ones. It has really helped me heal and view my body in a positive light. I get to see that I am not alone. I hope to help others see this too.
I have received messages from mamas who self-harm and hate their new bodies. I have heard them talk about abusive relationships in their lives. I hear them reminisce about their cherished angel babies they can no longer (or never got to) hold in their arms. I try to offer no judgement—only support and a painting that I hope can offer them a little comfort. That is as close as I can get to reaching through my laptop and hugging them.
I also get sent messages that say my work has helped them appreciate themselves and see their body as a piece of art—that it empowers them! YES. That is what it did for me and I am so thankful to spread that feeling to others.
Giving life to a new being is awe-inspiring. We are the bridge from the universe to the earth. Our bodies do absolutely amazing things. I know it can be hard to see that when we are taught that a large portion of our worth is dependent on how “pretty” we are. We are so much more than “prettiness.”
We are courageous. We look the unknown in the face and laugh with confidence. We bring humans earthside through our wombs and do not quake at pain or the sight of blood. We look at doctors and say, “Cut me open. Let me meet my little one.” We labor for hours, often days, with a partner or no partner by our sides, pushing our babies into the world. We feel more joy and sorrow than we can even comprehend.
Our bodies may carry the signs of pregnancy for the rest of our lives but why should we be ashamed? We should wear our stretch marks like badges of honor. Our stomachs sag because that is where we kept our children safe. Our incision scars say, “While things did not go my way, I did what was needed when the time came.” Why does it matter that our bodies are not how they used to be? Now they are so much more.
It is hard for me to put into words how much my postpartum paintings mean to me. I will keep making them as long as I feel it is my purpose.
I leave those who have let me paint them with these statements: thank you for trusting me, thank you for talking with me, thank you for supporting me. And to all those dealing with postpartum life: please be gentle with yourself, give yourself all the time and love you need, and hold your babies close.
Follow Hailee’s Postpartum Paintings project on:
Hailee Wilburn-Ervin resides near Lexington, KY. She’s obsessed with her family, her pets, and women’s/reproductive rights. In addition to painting, she enjoys writing children’s books and getting tattoos. Oh, and watching Netflix as much as she can.
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