She sits on the bathroom counter as I apply tinted moisturizer all over my face; she holds out her hand, I pump a tiny amount into it and she rubs it on her cheek. I open the empty foundation compact she plays with as I apply mine. Her actions mimic mine and we laugh when the brush tickles her nose. I place my eyelash curler on the counter, she reaches for it and carefully brings it up to her big brown eyes. Our eyes meet and I can tell she is pleased with herself.
“You are so beautiful, little girl.”
She stares at me. I do think she is beautiful. I don’t want her beauty to be about her looks, though. I wonder what I am teaching my 20-month-old, if I am damaging her in some way by letting her watch me put on makeup. I don’t want to inadvertently pass down my insecurities to her; insecurities makeup cannot hide, insecurities that build over decades but crumble easily when the right people come into your life. Because of my daughter, my insecurities don’t scream at me every time I glance in the mirror, they don’t weigh me down or bury me in fear. What I want to tell her when I stare at her face in the mirror is that she is beautiful and she saved me.
I got the impression when I was young—too young to know any better—that my body was something I needed to hide. I was aware of people staring at me. I cowered whenever I felt eyes on parts of my body they shouldn’t be.
One summer when I was teenager, my family and I went on a cruise. While walking down the dirt road a bit behind everyone else, two men approached me. My shoulders hunched over, I tried to make myself small as I walked faster. “Churro, churro,” was all I understood as they held the long cinnamon and sugar covered stick so close to my face I could practically taste it. My legs moved faster than they ever have as I tried to catch up to my brother and my dad, hoping that the two big men in my family would scare these guys off. The men persisted, following so close they were able to crush that churro into the front of my tank top, despite the purse strap I had over my chest. They were so aggressive I had crumbs inside my shirt. In that moment, I hated myself for wearing a tank top in the middle of summer. I relayed the incident to my mom with tears in my eyes and fear in my heart.
“What would you think if we looked into a breast reduction?” I asked my mom a few years later. I was barely old enough to drive, but there had been so many other instances similar to the one on the cruise, I had already begun looking into the cost of the procedure. Looking back, I’m sure the intense shame I felt on that trip was the driving force behind these conversations my mother and I shared.
“I think we can look into it. I know they cause you a lot of discomfort and pain. I know how self-conscious you are. Do some more research and we’ll talk,” she supportively answered back.
“There’s a chance I won’t be able to breastfeed when I have children,” I told her a few days later. We had been talking about at it length, looking into what insurance would cover. When I finally got to the potential complications, I told my mom “I don’t know if that is a chance I am willing to take.” That was the only reason I never went through with it; the risk outweighed any of the benefits. Sure, I would be more confident in my appearance, I would be less awkward, shy, and insecure. When children were brought into the picture, it was no longer just about me and how I felt about my body. It was about my ability to grow, nourish, and take care of my future children. My breasts were a heavy burden, but the decision to not nurse my children before they even existed was much heavier for me.
With the birth of my son, I gained a confidence that can only be attributed to my new identity in motherhood. The extra weight I carried after gaining 60 pounds was easy to forgive.
The part of me that was still hard to ignore, hard to accept were my breasts. My 5’1” frame could barely handle the F size I became during the last trimester. It was excruciating when my milk came in; I was engorged and stretched to the point I was sure my chest would explode. Sitting in the hospital bed, nursing pillow on my lap and pillows surrounding every inch of me, I held my newborn close to me. “Please latch,” I begged over and over. Tears spilled from my eyes as I changed positions and tried again. I tried for weeks using lactation specialists and holding him in every position physically possible. Regardless of how hard we tried, he didn’t latch.
The baby books don’t tell you how hard breastfeeding is. I thought it would be easy and natural. When it didn’t happen, I questioned if the decision I made a decade before was the right one. I felt like my body failed me. I felt like I’d failed my son.
I exclusively pumped for 10 months; it was like I turned into a human cow, pumping gallons of milk in one session. I fought shame constantly for nearly a year. Shame that was self-imposed because I was not breastfeeding. The freezers full of milk helped ease the guilt, as did donating my extra milk to NICUs. I had to constantly reassure myself: my breasts didn’t let me down, I was able to produce an insane amount of milk, I was able to nourish my child, I was a good mother. I tried to tell myself I didn’t fail.
But I never really believed it.
My daughter arrived nearly three years later. I was able to breastfeed her for 18 months. I nourished and comforted her with the milk from these breasts I’d despised nearly my entire life. I was still “chesty,” but for once, they didn’t seem like a painful burden. Breastfeeding my daughter was a gift. The moment she latched on in the hospital I nearly squealed with excitement. “She’s doing it, right? She latched? She’s nursing?” I needed everyone in the room to confirm that we were doing it. Tears flowed from my eyes as I stared down at this beautiful girl and thanked her for latching.
From the moment she latched on in that hospital room, I had peace. Peace with my decision to forego a reduction, peace with my inability to nurse my son. My body didn’t fail me. It had done amazing and beautiful things.
The birth of my daughter was the rebirth of me. I stopped criticizing my body, I let go of the shame and embarrassment I held on to so tightly for years.
My biggest fear is that she will grow up with the same insecurities I still struggle with and that she will learn them from me. I cannot teach her how to have a healthy body image if I don't have one myself. She gave me the ability to let go of my past every time she let me cradle her in my arms and nurse her. She gave me the ability to practice what I will preach.
We get ready together a few days a week. She watches me just as intensely as I watch her. After she strokes her cheek with my blush brush, she looks up at me with the same brown eyes I have. I feel like she is awaiting my approval. “You are so beautiful. Do you know how much I adore you?” And I do. I am constantly in awe of her. I have been her mama for almost two years. I have looked at and loved a miniature version of myself for almost two years. I think she is extraordinary and beautiful beyond measure. Every time she smiles, I fall in love with her a little bit more. She’s teaching me to love myself a little bit better each day.
Guest post written by Jacey Rogel. Jacey is a wife and a stay at home mama to a boy and a girl, with another girl due in June. She despised coffee up until she became a mother and now relies on it for survival, along with good books and pen and paper. Jacey's writing has also appeared on The Village Magazine blog. She occasionally blogs at Jaceywrites.com.