Aug 022014
Our Messy, Beautiful Summer Week 6

A guest post by Kelli Woodford

Can I See Your Belly Button?It has been twenty years and eight babies since I liked my belly button. (But who’s counting, right?) Since I only glimpse it in the dressing room mirror or stumble upon it in the shower from time to time, I suppose it has become something of a stranger. A relic of yesteryear, showing signs of age and wear–receiving little more than the passing glance and the demure nod.

But a Saturday morning make-over changed all that.

Fuzzy-headed toddlers arrived bedside at the cusp of dawn. Light barely winked in through the window, like sunrise herself in the middle of a yawn. Leaving my husband to tickle and snuggle with them, I got in the shower. The six-year-old came in just as I stepped out. She, groggy. Me, dripping. I didn’t expect us to have a conversation worth much. But her little voice surprised me, squeaked out over the sound of the boys now jumping on the queen-size bed:

“Mom, could we give you a make-over today?”

I couldn’t deny the hope I heard in her voice. I couldn’t deny the shine in her eyes. I couldn’t say anything but, “Yes.”

Ten minutes and a bathrobe later, the girls were back. Not just one this time, but three of them. They filed into my room, arms laden with their favorite dress-up clothes for me to try on, fingers loaded with nail polish in every color, and faces etched with the many expressions of delight: make-over, here we come.

And that’s when it happened.

As the very first dress was hoisted out to me, and I grappled with it, reaching for armholes, the littlest girl—that one whose voice squeaks in the most angelic way—piped up, “Mom, is that your belly button? Can I see it?”

Now, I’m not a modest person by nature, but when your tiniest daughter asks to see your belly? Well, it can call forth the modest in the least likely. But in the very same moment I was tempted to cringe and brush off her request, I realized the opportunity that lay before me. Here was my daughter, still firm and supple with youth’s abundance, asking not only to see my wrinkled, stretched, and saggy body, but somehow asking beyond her words, to see what I thought about my body. For I knew that it wouldn’t be only my belly button that would reflect in her eyes, it would also be my face. Not only “How does a mommy-belly look?” but also “How does a mommy feel about how her belly looks?”

This is the question that matters. This is the mirror that counts.

I dropped the dress so I could get my brave on.

(And then I swallowed hard so it wouldn’t get snagged on the knot forming in my throat.)

Each of the girls took turns looking at my belly button. They asked questions about why my many-times-stretched skin looks different than theirs. They poked and pulled. They wondered at it and marveled aloud. I smiled at them and drew them close. I explained how large a woman’s body must become to make room for the miracle of motherhood. I welcomed their questions and told them glory stories of births and laughed at the incredulity of it all.

And then the moment passed. I seemed to still be breathing. I pinched myself, just to make sure. Yes, I was indeed alive. I was indeed standing before them and what I saw in their eyes was not the disdain or competition of the locker room. It was not the criticism or condescension of the beach. There were no snickers. There was no raising of eyebrows.

What I saw in their eyes was respect.

In that holiest of moments, they had become divine mirrors: reflecting all the beauty of co-creation. (And what is left in its wake.) But it was more than that. Somehow my willingness to let them see my imperfection up close and personal was planting seeds inside them. Seeds that I pray will someday bloom into female relationships characterized by cooperation and trust, not competition and manipulation. Offerings they could take with them into locker rooms and beaches and classrooms and shopping malls and all the other places where the imperfect is seen as weak and where only the fittest survive. Kernels of what it means to know that beauty is deeper than skin.

I slid into the dresses handed me and swirled around in front of the mirror. They painted my toes lovely shades of purple and red. We talked hairstyles and eye shadows and shoes and what fall fashions we liked best. But the beauty of the make-over had already happened. And it wasn’t in the making-up or the covering-over. It had happened in the nakedness where self-acceptance is planted deep, in the darkness of dare where love becomes our lens.

Right there in my bedroom, bathrobe around my ankles, we were standing on holy ground.


Kelli Woodford lives in the midwest, surrounded by cornfields and love, with her husband and seven blue-eyed children. They laugh, they play, they fight, they mend; but they don’t do anything that even slightly resembles quiet. Unless it’s listening to their lives, which has proved to be the biggest challenge of them all. You can find Kelli on her blog and on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.

This post is part of Momastery’s Our Messy, Beautiful Summer series.

Our Messy, Beautiful Summer

Carry On, Warrior
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
Join the Momastery community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest

Jul 312014

Originally published April 9, 2011

Fourteen?Last week I read A Million Little Pieces and this week I’m re-reading I Never Promised You a Rose Garden and The Bell Jar. All three are about mental illness… and so it’s been a theme for me, these past two weeks… insanity. In truth, it’s been a theme for me these past few decades.

I spent some time in a mental hospital during my senior year of high school. I’d been a horrible bulimic for eight years and therapy wasn’t helping, especially since I spent most of my therapy sessions discussing how fine I was and how lovely the weather was. And one day during my Senior Year, I ate too much at lunch, and I thought I was going to die. Because to me… full=death. But I couldn’t find a place to throw up. And so finally, right then and there, in the middle of the Senior Hallway, I decided I was not fine – not at all. And I walked into my guidance counselor’s office and I said: “Call my parents. I need to be hospitalized. I can’t handle anything. Someone needs to help me.”

Here is a picture of me that was taken the week before I was hospitalized. I’m there in the Blue Suit.

I was a student government officer to a class of close to a thousand. An athlete, too. Relatively pretty. Smart. Seemingly confident. My Senior superlative was “Leading Leader.” In this picture I was co-hosting the Homecoming Pep Rally for the entire high school. Wearing the corsage to show I’d just been nominated for Homecoming Court. People who need help sometimes look a lot like people who don’t need help.

And so that counselor called my parents, and they came right away. And they found a place for me to get help. I often think about what that day must have been like for them. Maybe they desperately wanted to say No, No it will be okay! Not a hospital! We are your parents! We can fix this! But they didn’t. The moment I became brave enough to admit I needed help they believed me, and despite the shock, the pain, the stigma . . . they gave me the exact help I asked for.

I’ve never written about my hospital stay before, because a whole lot is fuzzy, and I can’t get a real grip on the memories. Back then not many specialized eating disorder hospitals existed, so the one I went to was a real mental hospital. There were only two of us on the unit with eating issues, the others were there because they were mildly schizophrenic, drug addicted, depressed or suicide risks. Many of them had violent tendencies. I do not remember being afraid of any of them. I do remember being afraid, in one way or another, of most of the people in my high school.

There was one man on our unit who spoke only in numbers. I ignored him at first . . . it’s hard to know what the appropriate response is to “Twenty-one ninety-six forty NINE?” But one day I decided to take a guess. “Fourteen?” I responded tentatively. I remember his face changing from empty to surprised to happy. Then back to empty, quickly. But I definitely saw happy, for a moment there. That taught me to try, at least once, to speak each person’s special language.

There was a sandy haired girl who always hung her head so low that I never really saw her face. I do remember what her arm looked like, though, because it was sliced up like a pre-cut ham. I saw it up close because I held her hand once when she started crying during a therapy session. She pulled it away at first but then she offered it back to me a few moments later. I remember that her hand was very cold, but it warmed up after a while. I don’t remember her name. I do remember her story and it was very, very sad. She was right to be crazy.

There was my roommate. I will call her Mary Margaret. Unable to speak with my little Sister, I allowed Mary Margaret to take Sister’s place for the weeks I was hospitalized. We whispered long into the night, every night. Mary Margaret was from a tight knit, fiercely loving family too, and we wondered aloud for hours how we ended up in that room together. One night, very late, we wrote vows that said we promised to take care of each other forever. We both signed the vows, with crayons because we weren’t allowed to have pencils. Mary Margaret made me promise not to eat the crayons. I told her maybe she should. We laughed. Mary Margaret was eighty pounds during her stay. She used to hide her food in her huge sweatshirt at lunch time and sneak it to me when we got back to our room. Mary Margaret and I saw each other once in the real world and then never again. We did not honor our vows to take care of each other forever. I’ve never looked for Mary Margaret, I’ve never even Googled her name. I’m too afraid. I know the survival statistics for anorexics.

There was art therapy and dance therapy and group therapy. It all made sense to me. The things the other patients said made sense to me, even though they weren’t things that my peers in my real life would have ever, ever said. Everyone had to listen to each other. There were rules about how to listen and how to respond. There were lessons about how to empathize and where to find the courage to speak. All the lessons made sense to me. I enjoyed them much more than my high school classes. They seemed much more important to me. We learned how to care, about ourselves and about each other.

There was the field trip we took to the art museum in Washington D.C. We rode into the big city on a small bus, we mental patients.We had a special appointment time at the museum, our own private tour. Because there were other groups and we weren’t to mingle with the normal people. I remember thinking that was probably best. We had a rule that we would all need to hold hands. In a long line. Like an extremely motley and sedated Conga Line. Throughout our entire tour.

I remember wondering why Mary Margaret and I had to hold hands with the group. We were relatively well behaved. We’re people pleasers, we bulimics and anorexics. I thought maybe our therapists were concerned that I would run away and attack the diners in the cafeteria and that Mary Margaret might run away with me and stand there and starve.

Then I remember walking by the museum cafeteria, and seeing twenty slices of pie revolving around on one of those buffet lazy susans. And I remember suddenly feeling very grateful that my hands were being held. I felt safe.

That’s what we all wanted. Safety -someone or some structure that would save us from ourselves, from the strange real world that others seemed to be navigating so flawlessly and we just couldn’t, at the time, for whatever reason.

And I remember trembling the morning of my release. I remember knowing I wasn’t ready, and knowing I had to go anyway, because I would never be ready. Because inside the hospital was so much easier and safer and surer than outside the hospital. And I knew I could get much too comfortable. Much too safe.

Because it all made sense to me in there. And that was a little confusing.

I’ve never done this before, but I’m going to go ahead and publish this without editing it first. I’m afraid that if I edit it at all, I’ll edit out all of it.


Carry On, Warrior
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
Join the Momastery community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest

Jul 302014
Our Messy, Beautiful Summer Week 6

A guest post by Katrina Anne Willis

ScaleMy relationship with food and with my body is complicated, slippery, broken. My ability to deal with it from a place of reason and intellect waxes and wanes. No matter how it may or may not manifest itself, I will always have an eating disorder.

Just as rape is not about sex, eating disorders are not necessarily about food. For me, it is a hole that needs to be filled; an endless, confusing journey toward self-acceptance and the ability to say without second-guessing: I am worthy, I am whole, I am enough. It is about control, or lack thereof. It is about shame.

* * *

I can’t be trusted around food. I don’t trust myself to prepare it. I don’t trust myself to eat it. When other people cook, it feels safe. And I know what they choose for me is better than what I might choose for myself.

I am constantly at battle with my body and my mind. Never, ever comfortable in my own skin. Even when I lost 60 pounds, I felt like a fraud. People said to me, “You look fabulous! Keep up the good work!” And I thought… So, did all those years of being overweight mean I was bad? I couldn’t hear their compliments because I twisted and gnawed on them until the bitter was all I could taste.

The minute I started to gain the weight back, the silence of my friends and family was deafening. No one said, “You look great! Keep it up!” And I heard what they were truly saying through the void. I heard their disappointment and their disapproval, even if they didn’t hear it themselves. That silence fed my deepest fears — that I was only worthy of approval when the numbers were decreasing.

* * *

I remember one of the very first dates Chris and I shared. I was a thin and athletic 18-year-old, addicted to laxatives and diet pills, existing in a dangerous cycle of bingeing and purging. He took me to a quaint French bistro, and he watched as I ate a basket of baguettes, then another. He confessed to me later, “I watched you eat all that bread. You were so beautiful and so funny and I knew you were going to go home and throw every last bit of it up. And I knew there was nothing I could do to stop you or to change your mind. So I just loved you through it.”

It is heartbreaking to hear what my food choices have done to others. I wanted it to be a private, secret place. But it never is. There is a desperate selfishness in those who cannot make peace with their own bodies. My mom had to lie awake at night worrying. Chris, too.

I understand that now because I see my own daughter pulling her shirt down over her bottom, looking at herself in the mirror and asking, “Do these jeans make me look fat?” And my answer is always — always — inadequate. Ultimately, I say too much, gushing about how beautiful and perfect she is. I know that to her young ears, it probably sounds hollow and insincere. She hears so many different messages in this world. Most of them say to her, “You will be perfect when you are this size. You will fit in when you can wear this.” I don’t want her to ingest those words, but she will. We all do.

* * *

My high school basketball coach — when I was 16, fit and strong and healthy — said to me offhandedly, “You’d be so much faster if you lost 20 pounds.” It became my life’s mantra. It was my fill-in-the-blank script.

You’d be so much ______ if you lost 20 pounds. Prettier, faster, healthier, more attractive, smarter, more worthy. If you lost 20 pounds, you’d be enough.

I have spent my life trying to be what someone else thought I should be. I have wasted much time equating my worth with my weight. I have lamented the amount of space I take up on this earth. Too much, too much… the voice in my head whispers.

* * *

The voids in our lives manifest themselves in many ways. Some drink to fill them. Some exercise. Some work themselves into an early grave. Some hoard money and things. For me, it’s all about food. It’s about stuffing myself until I’m sick. It used to be about throwing it all back up, watching it flush away. Now, I just sit with it. It spreads out from my stomach and my hips, this ugliness and insecurity. It is always with me.

I know in my heart and my head what I should eat. I know how much, ideally, I should weigh. I know how to get there. I know when I sit down with a bowl of ice cream that – more often than not – I shouldn’t. And it’s an internal struggle… every time. But I also know that ice cream is just a substitute for something else, something that needs to be filled. Something that only I can grant myself. Acceptance? Grace? Forgiveness?

* * *

Even today, in conversations about being overweight, my well-meaning friends say, “Don’t you worry about what kind of example you’re setting for your daughter?” And my answer is this: Yes. YES. I worry every second of every day about how my dysfunctional relationship with food affects me, my daughter, my sons, my family. Every. Single. Second.

* * *

Bulimia has rendered me a different person physically, even though my most prominent battles with it ended over twenty years ago. The damage that’s been done to my body becomes more evident as I age. After years of being addicted to laxatives, my digestive system doesn’t work correctly. My teeth are cracked and breaking, the enamel long ago destroyed. My metabolism has been altered, and I fight anxiety and depression on the daily. This is not a disease I would wish on anyone. It is a silent, private shame. It is a selfish, singular state of being. I hate being fat, and I am uncomfortable being thin. My skin — with its stretch marks and sag — feels foreign. I try not to look at it.

* * *

My teenage friends and I discussed Ex-Lax and Dexatrim in locker rooms, in dorm rooms, in sorority suites. We need to make sure there are other discussions happening as well. I have spoken with my 14-year-old daughter about eating disorders, about food, about healthy choices. I want her to know there is a soft place to land when her friends begin the discussions… or continue them. I want her to know that I’ve been there, that she doesn’t have to go.

Such pressure exists for our young people to achieve a level of perceived perfection. Get good grades, participate in extra-curriculars, achieve a societal standard of physical acceptance, run yourself ragged trying.

This is what I’d like for our kids to hear instead: Do your best, work hard, be kind, give back, help those less fortunate, make healthy choices, embrace what makes you different and unique, focus out.

Here’s what we need to say to our children, to our friends, to our family members, to our fellow human beings: I love you. You’re powerful. You make me smile. You make a difference.

You are worthy.

You are worthy.

You are worthy.


Katrina Anne Willis, a Hoosier currently living in Ohio, is happily married to her high school sweetheart and is the mother of four fabulous teens/tweens. An author and essayist, Katrina is the author of “Table for Six: The Extraordinary Tales of an Ordinary Family” and is featured in both A Band of Women’s 2014 “Nothing but the Truth” anthology as well as the upcoming HerStories Project anthology, “My Other Ex: Women’s True Stories of Leaving and Losing Friends.” When she’s not reading (everything), running (slowly), or pouring a glass of Cabernet, you can find her on her website and on Facebook and Twitter.

This post is part of Momastery’s Our Messy, Beautiful Summer series.

Our Messy, Beautiful Summer

Carry On, Warrior
Author of the New York Times Bestselling Memoir CARRY ON, WARRIOR
Join the Momastery community on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Pinterest

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