joanna mongomery

I have struggled with body image issues for most of my life, starting when I sprouted up as a young girl and was taller than most of the kids in my class, boys included. I envied the little petite girls, and always felt big and awkward next to them. I have always struggled with my weight and have a large frame. Even my skeleton is large. Broad shoulders, wide hips, size 11 feet. I'm Amazonian. Or at least I feel that way much of the time.

Subconsciously, I was always attracted to tall, big boys, then -- later -- tall, big men. Extra tall men with big hands and big feet who made me feel positively tiny next to them even at 5'9".

When I met the man who became my husband, he definitely didn't fit the body type toward which I had historically gravitated. He's 5'11" with the energy and metabolism of a hummingbird. He eats whatever he wants, yet his average weight remains in the mid-150-pound range. He wears a size small t-shirt. A small. I can't fit into his jeans.

Falling for a man who didn't make me feel small brought up old body image issues I hadn't realized were still there. They returned with a vengeance and I've been working to address them ever since.

When we decided to have a baby, I really worried about how pregnancy would affect my 44-year old body. We all know that it's more difficult to lose weight the older we get. And our skin doesn't bounce back the way it did when we were younger. I always feared I'd be one of those women who ballooned out with pregnancy, gaining weight all over. I thought that by the end of my pregnancy, I'd end up looking like Jessica Simpson does now. Except I'm not young like she is, with legions of personal trainers and a Weight Watchers endorsement.

Fortunately, I didn't gain that much weight with pregnancy ... only about 28 pounds. But it definitely changed my body. And because I had a high risk pregnancy, I spent the last four months on modified bedrest with strict orders against any exercise. I carried the baby almost to full term under these restrictions, but my muscle tone turned to gelatin in the process. My tight pregnant belly now has loose skin where the baby used to be. And no matter how many crunches I do, that pooch of skin is going to be there.

I already had a plan in mind for how I would begin getting back into shape as soon as the baby came. An emergency C-section delayed those plans, as I was instructed that I could not exercise for eight more weeks. No mind. As soon as I hit the eight-week mark, it would be boot camp for me.

Well, then came the cancer diagnosis and radical hysterectomy and cancer surgery. Fitness plans further delayed.

Oh, and with these surgeries, there were scars. Big, ugly scars. The C-section scar isn't so bad, but the scar from the cancer surgery, where I was cut from stem to stern so that my oncologist could not only remove a bunch of my organs, but also so she could clearly see where the cancer had spread, is pretty gnarly.

So, let's see: I have muscles that haven't been truly exercised for months. A belly with saggy skin. An upside down "T" of scars, starting below my bra line and ending at my bikini line. A bald head. No eyelashes. Some puffiness from the steroids they give you with the chemo. Oh, and two alien-looking ports for chemo access, one below my collarbone and one on my ribcage.

Not my best look.

Back in the pre-baby/pre-cancer days, when I worried so much about my body and physical appearance, I had no pooch, no scars, no implanted devices, smooth skin, and a sassy haircut. I had no idea how good I had it. It's almost as if the universe decided that I needed to put this whole body image thing into a different perspective. Like someone decided to strip me down to the studs.

Well, it's not something I'd wish on anyone, myself included, but I have to say it has been more than a little effective, this physical stripping down.

I now look at the loose skin on my tummy and think, "My baby used to be in there."

I marvel at how my body was able to carry her as long as she needed to be carried, and keep her safe and secure and healthy. How it was able to house her in a warm and cozy environment; and how even though she was literally surrounded by cancer during her stay in my uterus, she arrived perfect and unscathed.

I look at my scars and am grateful that my surgeon was able to remove 98 percent of the cancer from my body. I consider them to be a badge of honor of sorts, like my bald head.

I'm still not used to the bald eyelash-free face. But a group of girlfriends and I are getting together for a Lash Bash, where a makeup artist friend will teach us all how to apply fun false eyelashes over what is sure to be more than a few bottles of wine.

And my weakened muscles are gradually being stretched and strengthened with Pilates lessons. And walks with the stroller.

My husband assures me that he loves my scars and bald head as much as any other part of me. He just wants me around for a long time; he's not concerned about my temporary physical appearance. And he still seems to be just as attracted to me as ever. If anything, the cancer has brought us closer, physically and emotionally.

Do I still want scar revision surgery and a tummy tuck after I'm cancer free? Hell yes. At least right now I think I do. Am I cured of all body image issues? Absolutely not. But I have a different view of my physical body than I did before I was taken on this journey. I place less importance on the appearance of the outer shell and have a greater appreciation for what is inside.

I'm learning that inner health trumps outer beauty. In fact, it seems that inner health is actually what shines through and make the outside beautiful. And the glow of happiness and gratitude do wonders for the skin. In some ways, I've never felt more beautiful.

 

Image via Brooke Kelly Photography