Botticelli’s Venus—a figure long synonymous with female beauty—does not boast the toned physique that has been deemed desirable by modern society. Rather, she looks full and feminine, with a rounded form, ample hips and bust, and a posture entirely full of grace. I recall studying this painting as a young woman in college, wondering why the world had shifted so far in its expectations of female beauty. Why had it become praiseworthy for a woman to starve her body, obsess over exercise, and forcibly alter her natural body?
At the time that I studied this painting in one of my beloved art history classes, I was a Division One athlete silently suffering from a severe eating disorder. I had, for years, been forming my body into something that it did not want to be for the sake of sport and what I had been told was “beautiful.”
The notion that thinner meant faster prevailed in the world of competitive running. In high school, I saw that the runners standing upon podiums were all bones and glory. So, naturally, I wanted both. This precipitated a spiraling preoccupation with “clean eating,” discipline, and pushing my ever-shrinking body to its limits. By the time I graduated high school and began the rigorous training plan that my college coach had laid out for me, I weighed less than one hundred pounds. Light as a feather, I felt as if I could fly. But the feelings of control and invincibility that I initially felt, eventually would give way to agony, fear, and despair.
With each pound that I lost, I became less myself and more the sickness that shackled me and fed me lies. Unfortunately, success on the cross-country course and images of “fit” women splashed across billboards, magazines, and social media kept me firmly rooted in this sickness. I did not fully recognize all that I was losing until I had completely lost it. My peace, my happiness, my ability to socialize, my aspirations outside of running, my health, and my fertility perished at the hands of the eating disorder.
And, then, saving grace—in the form of a kind and handsome young man—walked into my life. Slowly, with his help, I released myself from the chains that had so long bound me. I ate a strip of bacon because he made us brunch. I ran a couple fewer miles so that we could spend more time together on a Saturday afternoon. I stayed out a little later on a Tuesday evening, because witnessing the sun set over the river with him was far more important than maintaining my rigid sleep schedule.
I began to consider life after running, life without running. I began to consider life with him, life with love. One day, tired of simply considering, I walked away from my scholarship and the world of competitive running. Shortly thereafter, on an Appalachian mountaintop, I said “yes” to a diamond ring and a lifetime of love.
Sadly, despite my naive hopes, the eating disorder did not bid me adieu as soon as I said “I do.” It followed me, angry that I had tried to escape. My husband and I desperately wanted to start a family immediately, but my fertility had gone into hiding. To summon it from the dark depths, I knew that I would have to banish the eating disorder from my life—but that would be a real challenge.
Many hard months followed, as I fought for freedom from the disorder. I ate a diet full of foods that I had been scared to touch for years. I sacrificed nearly every form of exercise, save for walking and low impact barre. I learned to say “no,” so as to drive stress from my life. I prayed for the courage to continue, despite the anxiety brought on by these decisions. With much grace and support from my husband, these battles were won.
After a year of hard work and a few miracles, my doctor informed me that all of my lab work finally looked normal. My husband and I saw the two lines on a pregnancy test that very month.
Joy reigned in our home as two became three. A degree of fear also seeped into my heart, though, as I wondered how I would handle my growing body. I had already had to come to terms with considerable weight gain during the healing process, but I didn’t know if I could deal with even more physical change.
However, as the weeks passed, my fear dissipated. Instead of focusing on my own enlarging body, I found myself ebulliently celebrating the new being within me. Each week, I would happily announce to my husband the new estimated growth measurements (complete with fruit and vegetable comparisons) of our child. “Our baby is now the size of a peach!” I would exclaim, proud of my body for nurturing our gift.
As my stomach began to protrude a bit, I beamed. I had once been so concerned with preserving my flat midsection. I had refused to feed myself, punished any extra intake with additional miles, and wept at my image in the mirror if I noticed the slightest curve or bulge. With another life inside of me, though, I did the opposite. I ate to foster growth, slowed down quite a bit, and loved looking in the mirror and seeing the ever-increasing curve. Sure, I had once been capable of running a sub-five-minute mile, but how much more incredible was it that my body could now grow a person?!
Pregnancy showed me that true beauty is not brought forth through conflict with my body. Rather, it lies in joyfully embracing what I was created to be. Pregnancy showed me that life is not what the world tells you it should be. Motherhood may not look quite like the beauty that society raises aloft, but, in fact, it reveals the truest beauty—the beauty born of lending one’s heart to another.