Caity’s Story

Inspiration-for-women

I think we’ve all been affected by breast cancer either directly or indirectly.  We’ve lost mothers, wives, sisters, grandmothers, and daughters.   I lost my grandmother to breast cancer and my aunt is a breast cancer survivor.  Cancer sucks.  There isn’t anything nice about it.  It does not discriminate by age or sex, it can happen to a male or even a young healthy female.

Being that it is breast cancer awareness month, I thought this was the perfect time to share Caity’s story.  Her story speaks to my soul.  To have her be a part of this project means so much to me.  She is amazing, incredibly strong, brave, breathtakingly beautiful and whether or not she thinks this, she’s an inspiration.  Caity, for women of all ages, you are an inspiration.  You are hope.  Thank you from the bottom of my heart!

My goal with her shoot was to make her feel beautiful in her new body.  I wanted her to find the sexy in short hair and the beauty we all see in her that she has trouble seeing in the mirror.  By the end of our shoot, her confidence was there and it was hard to deny. As we danced in the rain together, I just hoped that she could see herself the way I saw her there. Carefree, loving life, grateful and beautiful.

 

On June 4, 2010, after two years of doctor’s appointments, pain, an abscess and multiple ultrasounds, a biopsy finally gave me the answer I was fearful of all along.  I was 27 years old and I had BREAST CANCER!  I was in shock.  I was sad.  I was PISSED.  I knew something was wrong.  I had to ask for the biopsy because the doctor himself was convinced it was nothing major since I was so young.  He even said, “I do not want to rush to biopsy or remove anything because I do not want to mutilate you.”  Who cares if I have a scar on my boob?  I would rather remove something, have a scar and find out it is nothing than find out I have an advanced stage cancer because my doctor was worried about how nice my boob looked.

I was not happy with my first doctor so I quickly got everything together to get a second opinion.  Unfortunately that meant A LOT more tests and needles to end up with the same diagnosis.  I was diagnosed with DCIS (ductal carcinoma in situ) which basically means cancer of the mammary ducts.  Click here for more information. According to my doctors, “I won the breast cancer lottery.”  I had a non-aggressive type without hormone receptors and later we found out it was NOT in my lymph nodes and it was noninvasive.  I had genetic testing and I did not have mutations of the breast cancer gene.  Due to all of these factors I opted for a mastectomy of the infected breast with immediate reconstruction using a part of my lat muscle to build the new breast.  On July 29, 2010 I had my surgery. I did not need radiation or chemo but the recovery was painful and long.  Every 2-3 weeks I could feel improvements.

I went through physical therapy to rebuild the muscles that were damaged by the surgery and every six months continued to get my mammograms or MRIs.  Every three months I went to my breast specialist, oncologist, or plastic surgeon.  Every appointment was positive and each test came back clear.  I could see the light at the end of my cancer journey.  I was ready to move on with my life.  Thankfully I opened my mouth and asked for the biopsy.  Who knows how long it would have been before anyone found the cancer.

Well, two weeks after my mastectomy I got engaged (Aug. 2010).  Nine months after that I got married, April 23, 2011 (which is how I met Melissa).  Three months later I got pregnant and on April 6, 2012 I had my son Hudson.  About 10 weeks after he was born I was leaning over to pick him up off the floor when I suddenly felt a sharp, burning pain in my back.  I was unable to get up.  We both lay crying on the floor until I could figure out a way to move.  4 months later I finally got an x-ray because the pain would just not go away.  They found I had a compression fracture in my spine!!  Weird for someone so young to have that happen for no reason.

The fracture led to an MRI, dexascan (which is a test to look for osteoporosis) and a bone scan.  None of these gave us any information other than I had a compression fracture that was not healing.  Two months after these tests I decided to go to an orthopedic back specialist to get some pain relief.  He put cement in the break to help it heal and while he was in there he did a biopsy.  He was suspicious of a break that would not heal after 9 months.  Since I already had cancer he wanted to be safe.

THANK GOD he did that biopsy.  A microscopic, asshole cancer cell broke free and found a home for itself in my back.  The cancer weakened my bone and it broke when I picked up my son.

This finding led to a PET scan which I just found out that there is also some cancer in a lymph node in my right armpit.  The crazy thing is that when I had my mastectomy I had several nodes tested and they were all clean.  How the hell did this happen?  At least having this information gives my doctors a better understanding as to how my back got cancer.

This new diagnosis lead to chemo and radiation. This meant lots of physical changes.  Hair loss, weight gain, new scars, food aversions and crazy cravings etc.  I contacted Melissa about a year ago and told her the following information about my experiences…

1. I lost all my hair and was bald for more than 3 months.  I had my mom and husband buzz my hair after Hudson starting pulling out chunks.  That was hard to look at.  I had to wear a wig to work everyday from March until June.  Now I am dealing with brand new hair, it is wavier than before and still short.  I do not know what to do with it and I am not sure I like it, but I am trying to embrace the new me.  At least I have hair now! – Since writing this, I have had 7 haircuts to help shape and style my new hair.  I am LOVING shorter hair.  It is easy with a busy life.  Even though it is short, I can still style it many ways.  I also got blonde and red highlights in the front.  I figure, I only live once, and I am going to have FUN with my new hair!
 
2. I gained 35 pounds throughout the chemo process taking me from a size 4 to a 10!  That is the biggest I have ever been (besides pregnancy).  20 of the pounds were gained in a 16 week period due to steroids and the chemo drugs.  Every week I would have to stand on the scale before my infusion and watch the numbers increase.  It was horrible.  Talk about depressing.  It did not matter what I did, I was going to continue gaining.  Some days I would just cry because my pants would not button and I had no shirts to wear.  – At this point I lost 10 pounds and am back into an 8 but losing weight will be difficult because I have so many back issues and lack energy still from the drugs.  I used to ride my bike and exercise a lot to stay in shape.  I am unable to do that right now and I feel like a waste some days.  Other days I am proud of myself for working full time and raising my son. – I have now taken walks up to 2 miles again!  My energy and stamina are returning.  I will continue to slowly build myself back up to exercising.  
 
3. I do not see who I expect/want to see in the mirror. At one point when I was bloated and had the moon face from steroids I sobbed because the reflection I saw was of my dad’s aunt who is in her 70s.  I felt like a 30 year old trapped in an old lady body.   I am still waiting for the day to either see the old me or get used to the new me. – I AM used to the NEW me.  I look like myself again, just a little heavier.  Are there days I complain about my weight and wish I was skinnier, OF COURSE!  But, I am getting used to dressing my new body and feeling comfortable again.  Plus, it doesn’t hurt to have people tell you that you are looking skinnier!
 
4. I have 3 inch long, very dark scars on my chest from my ports.  I had an infection so they had to take one out (which is 2 scars) and put in a new one, another scar.  I hate them.  They are so hard to cover up and students notice them and ask me what happened.  I just say I had a boo-boo and it is fixed now (I teach kindergarten and 1st grade).  All the other scars on my body can be hidden all the time by the clothes I wear, but not these.  Once it is warm I want to wear lower neck lines and not worry about people starring at my scars.  Hopefully in the future they will fade and makeup will cover them. Since writing this I have yet another scar, but ALL are fading a lot.  I take a “who gives a shit attitude” about them.  I will wear whatever I want to and if people stare, then they are the ones with a problem.  Make-up can disguise them a little bit, but half the time I do not worry about it.
 
5. Due to the compression fracture in my back that was caused by the cancer, I have a bump in my back forever.  As I have healed and I go to physical therapy, the bump straightens some, but it will never go away.  I hate turning to the side and seeing that in the mirror.  I have to deal with that forever I guess…. Physical therapy really helped straighten me out.  I am not perfect, and never will be, but it is not the first thing I see in the mirror anymore :)
 
I also have had 5 weeks of radiation.  I have 5 lovely, blue, freckled-sized tattoos all around my right breast.  One of them shows when I wear low-cut v-neck shirts, but otherwise they are always hidden.  Do I like them, NO!  Are they the end of the world, NOPE!  Just another reminder of the LONG journey I have been on to get to where I am today.
 
 I am VERY happy and proud to say that I am a mother, wife, daughter, sister and teacher.  I am NOT a cancer patient.  I am a survivor and will continue to live like someone who DOES NOT have cancer .  Yes, there are days when I wonder or worry that it will come back, but I cannot live like that.  I am usually so busy that I do not have time to worry about it.  I need to think about my son, husband, extended family and my students.  They are what keep my got my through this journey and what will continue to keep me going…
Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-women Inspiration-for-womenA special thank you to our friends who donated their time and talent to this shoot:
Makeup by Yvette– Hair and makeup

Grace’s Story

Inspiration-for-women

Grace is one of our 2015 brides and during our shoot I got to know her better. Her and I just clicked. It was as if we’ve been friends forever.  I got her and she got me. As I sat here in tears just now, reading her story, I realized that her story is very much like my own story.  It’s amazing what a mind can do to a person. When I photographed Grace, my impression of her was, wow she is amazing and beautiful and caring and has so much love to give.  When you have an eating disorder, you don’t see that version of yourself.  Instead you see this horrible made up version that no one else sees.

Grace, you are stunning and such an amazing woman.  I am so glad that you see the version of yourself that everyone around you sees.  Because you ARE that person!

Grace’s story in her words:

“I am 6 feet tall, usually a size 10-12 in clothing, and weigh around 180 pounds I think (I don’t weigh myself anymore). I have a chest, a great butt, long legs and an overall figure that I’m now proud of and comfortable in. As a woman, it is out of the ordinary to actually be able to say your weight confidently, or to say it and not underestimate it by about 5-10 pounds. Saying it now though makes me feel more like a woman and more proud to be who I am because they are just numbers, and focusing on those numbers nearly killed me when I was younger. 

I was anorexic first, which started when I was a sophomore in high school at 16, and then became bulimic when I was trying to get over the anorexia. The bulimia lasted all the way until my sophomore year of college, when I was 20. Before I became anorexic, I was around 165 pounds, and I got all the way down to between 90-95 pounds, and that’s at 6 feet tall. I don’t know how I lived and breathed and functioned at that weight and height, but somehow I did. 

The main trigger for me was during weight training with my basketball team in the weight room after school one day. We did weight training once a week with the trainer, and that week he made us all do a BMI test since he just got the machine. The machine looked like a regular scale, and you just stood on it and it spit out this receipt looking thing that gave you your results, which the trainer read to us in front of everyone. When it was my turn, my results claimed that “in order to be healthy, Grace, you need to lose 20 pounds.” 

I was already and had always been really self-conscious about my weight because I always thought I was a little chunky or just bigger than I should be, especially compared to my older sister. She’s the same height as I am but always weighed less & was thinner because we have completely different body types (I understand and really truly appreciate and love that about us now). She’s 14 months older than me, so growing up we were always compared to each other by family, friends, classmates, even total strangers that saw us together and  I always thought since she was older, she should weigh more. 

 Then seeing it actually written down on paper and hearing it said out loud by someone I looked up to just pushed me over the edge and made me really truly believe that I had to lose weight. Since it was written down, it was a proven fact that I was fat. When my mom picked me up that day I told her what happened on our way home, and she says to this day that when I told her, she knew something was going to change in me.

Slowly I started cutting out calories. I was all about focusing on numbers, the numbers on the scale, the number of calories I burned every day, the number of calories I ate every day. After a few weeks of slowly cutting back and still second guessing myself and giving in to some temptations I then became fully consumed by the eating disorder. I tracked every single calorie I ate, measured every single thing I ate to make sure I was eating the right portions according to the food labels, and tracked the time between meals. I was eating maybe 600 to 800 calories a day and dropped weight really, really fast once it totally consumed me. I went to the gym on top of basketball practice and made sure I did at least 45 minutes of cardio every day. I lost my period after about a month or two and didn’t get it for over 2 years until I started taking birth control to actually give my body enough hormones to get a period.

I was always anxious, I think more anxious than depressed. I was consumed with time on top of the calories & numbers on the scale. I needed to make sure I waited long enough between the times that I ate so I wouldn’t be so starving between “meals.” I needed to schedule enough time to get to the gym and spend enough time there too. I was anxious all the time because I was terrified that if I changed anything that I was doing I would gain weight and that I wouldn’t be able to stop gaining weight and I would just become fat again. 

My parents tried to talk to me about it a few times, but I really was a super bitch to them & the rest of my family. I snapped at them all the time if they asked questions and I tried to keep my distance. I thought I was the only one to understand that I had to lose weight, and there was no way for me to not gain weight back if I didn’t keep doing what I was doing. It was all in my head and felt so alone and wanted to keep it that way because I knew I was right because I saw it & heard the words out loud. I didn’t want to depend on anyone but myself because I was the only one to get me and really care about not being fat anymore. 

Then eventually one day I started thinking about the rest of my life. Would I have to do this every single day for the rest of my life? Be hungry all the time, be consumed by the number of minutes left until I could eat an apple? How do I maintain what I’ve done? How do people manage to not be fat? I started to think about that the day I looked in the mirror and realized my butt cheeks didn’t even touch anymore because I was so rail thin. I was so lost and just really really sad. I didn’t know how I could do this every single day forever. 

Thinking those things and being scared of having to feel this way forever made me go to my mom and just break down. When I did that, she told me she already had a psychologist & a nutritionist that she could bring me to. Instead of my parents forcing me to try & get better while I was suffering, they gathered the information I would need when I was ready to move forward. I don’t think I would’ve lived honestly if they forced me to go to rehab or something during my worst times. They let me get better on my own terms, and I will always be grateful for that.

The psychologist & nutritionist helped me a lot, but I was still very internal with my feelings and kept a lot to myself. I got to the point where I was gaining weight back at a good pace and I had a better mindset about my looks. I still had to call my mom almost every time I ate something that I considered “bad” for me to make sure it was ok. She was so great to me and the only one that I really felt ok going to. I remember calling her a lot about trail mix because I thought it was healthy but there was still a lot of M&Ms in it. 

After gaining weight & being ok for a few months, ok meaning I was doing well with the doctors, feeling better, being healthy, etc. I started to really internalized my feelings again. I don’t really remember what triggered it exactly, but I think I just started to feel out of control. I wanted to keep making my doctors & my parents happy, but I was scared again about gaining too much weight back. I think I had gained maybe 30 pounds back and I thought that that was enough. I didn’t want to gain more but I knew the doctors & my parents wanted me to. That’s when I started binging & purging, because I could say that I ate certain things without really lying, but I wouldn’t be keeping those calories in. 

Then it just got out of control. Instead of eating what the doctors & my parents wanted me to eat, I would go overboard and eat ridiculous amounts of food. I would eat cookies, peanut butter, ice cream, cereal, anything that was really considered “bad” for you that I wouldn’t want to keep in me. I would leave school early sometimes so I’d get home before my mom got home from work so I could binge & purge without anyone else being home. I got smart & would replace what I ate in the pantry too before anyone could ask where something went.  I felt so sneaky and was proud that I could keep something like this a secret and still make people believe that I was sticking to their plans to get me better, because they still didn’t really understand me.

My mom figured it out though by seeing mascara on the hand towel in our downstairs bathroom. She thought it was weird that one of us would be washing our faces downstairs instead of doing it upstairs in the bathroom by our bedrooms, but then she put it together. I wasn’t as sneaky as I thought. Her & my dad tried to talk to me about it and I lied and told them I would stop. I just tried to hide it better but it didn’t work. 

Ultimately I was still afraid of gaining weight back & other people thinking I was fat. I wanted to be thin, I wanted to weigh less than my older sister. I wanted to be able to stand on that BMI machine & it to say I was perfect. I eventually stopped being bulimic in college. I think my parents wanted to keep me home one year after graduating from high school to make sure I was getting better, but they didn’t want me to feel trapped and they wanted me to be able to get better on my own with a fresh start. I went to Rutgers where my sister was already a junior when I started my freshman year. I started off the year really well without being bulimic for a few months, but off and on I would start to feel not good enough, not perfect enough, or just not right so I would binge & purge. My sophomore year I moved out of the college dorms into a house with 5 other girls. I was pledging the sorority my sister was in, so of course I was getting compared to her by sorority sisters & by friends. I remember a guy I was seeing my freshman year actually told me my sisters butt was better than mine (my sister tried to beat him up at one point for me because he was such a jerk). But at some point during my sophomore year I started binging & purging again a lot. We were partying a lot more and just eating worse, being in college & all so I just wanted to have fun, party & eat like everyone else, but not put on the college weight. 

One of my roommates actually called my sister and told her what going on after a few weeks, and my mom called me just a few hours later. I went home the next day & my mom and sister spoke to me this time instead of my mom and dad. It was then that my mom confessed that she had had an eating disorder when she was young like me and ended up having a miscarriage because of it. She didn’t want me to experience the same thing, and she really did understand. My sister did too, and she wasn’t the one that was comparing the two of us together. 

It was that day that I realized I could ALWAYS rely on my family, that no, I was never going to be perfect by everyone else’s standards, that I was never going to have the same body my sister has or have a body like anyone else. It still took me years to feel comfortable in my skin after that day, but I didn’t internalize it as much anymore. I worked towards becoming and accepting myself and understanding that I had a family I could depend on and that I was already perfect to them. 

I think just over the past 2 years is when I really, really came to appreciate my body & feel comfortable in my skin. I don’t weight myself anymore because the numbers on the scale mean nothing to me. Apparently my estimated weight is even overweight for my height according to BMI standards, but I feel really, really good. I’m really active and eat pretty healthy but never restrict myself. I found balance and realized there are more important things in life to worry or be anxious over than being what other people consider perfect. 

I do not regret anything that I went through either, even though it was the hardest experience in my life, and probably my family’s life. I learned how to appreciate myself and what I have, and how to appreciate my amazing family. I don’t think I’d be as close to them today if WE didn’t go through the eating disorder. My mom & sister are people I will always consider to be my best friends. My dad & brother are fantastic men that I look up to a hell of a lot. The 4 of them were the only ones to stick with me through it all and love me more for it. 

And to all the women, girls, boys, men or anyone struggling out there, you can get better. It is such a hard struggle, but realize you can count on YOURSELF and who you consider your family. I will always be there if you ever need me. “

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The OKOB sponsors of this shoot:

Makeup done by the amazing Yvette Delgado


Natalie’s Story

Own_Kind_Of_Beautiful 01

Natalie is one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met.  I would have never expected that she was secretly struggling inside.  I cannot thank her enough for sharing her story.  Her story is something that a lot of women go through, but rarely talk about.  I think it’s time we change that.  I know that her story will speak to so many women. If you are a women that is struggling with this, I hope that you can find the courage to talk to someone.  Whether it’s a complete stranger, a girlfriend, your mom or your aunt, or even me, I can promise you that speaking to someone will help you heal and help you move forward.

Natalie’s story in Natalie’s words:

Having a miscarriage is like being initiated into a secret club that nobody wants to be a member of. Chances are you know several women who have gone through it, but no one ever speaks about it.

When Mark and I learned we were having a baby last summer, we were equal parts shocked and thrilled. We rushed to tell our family and close friends that we were expecting. We began to make a list of baby names. I brainstormed what I might do with the upstairs bedroom to transform it into a nursery. It never occurred to either one of us that anything would go wrong.

So when I began to bleed on a Wednesday at about 6 weeks, I freaked out. I called my mom in tears. She was able to calm me down, but she also gave me a difficult truth: that I had absolutely no control over whatever was going to happen. I took a few deep breaths and went on with my day, choosing to believe that everything was probably just fine. I had plans to go to the beach that weekend, I could relax. By the next day, the bleeding had stopped.

First-trimester symptoms were in full force that Friday, so I decided to stay home from the shore and take care of myself. Saturday morning I woke up in a great mood. Mark and I were talking and laughing as I went into the bathroom and discovered more blood. Lots of it.

We made the trip to the ER, still optimistic that everything was fine. The PA checked me out, checked my hormone levels, and waved off my concerns. “We’ll do an ultrasound to be sure, but everything looks fine.” They wheeled me in to the ultrasound (without Mark, because it was an emergency test), and I sat in the dark with the tech who, upon finding the baby, positioned the screen so I could no longer see.

I started to worry again. Why isn’t she speaking to me? Why did I see her type “free fluid” onto the image on the screen when I leaned over to see? The resident OB Gyn came in to do an exam when I returned to my room. She returned a half hour later after viewing the ultrasound and said “The fetus seems to have implanted a little too high, so we have to discuss options with you. I’ll call the doctor on call and be back.” With that she left, and Mark and I turned to each other. I still didn’t understand what she meant. Implanted too high? The ER nurse came in and asked if the OB had been in to see me. I said yes, and as I repeated what she told us, I burst into tears that just wouldn’t stop. The nurse held my hand and told me how sorry she was. I finally understood. The baby was gone; I was no longer pregnant.

They wheeled me in for a procedure to remove the “tissue” (because, that’s all it was at that point). There were about three nurses and the doctor in the room. As I felt the anesthesia pulling me under, I began to cry. I missed my baby, a baby I’d never get to meet or hold or see or touch. As the tears rolled down my cheeks, each nurse put her hands on me. I felt as if I had four moms with me stroking my hair, touching my arm, as the medicine took me away.

The days following were a blur. People sent flowers, and text messages, but nobody really knew what to say. The more time that passed, the angrier and lonelier I felt.

Having a miscarriage is a very personal and private event. Because of this I think it’s hard for people to understand on even a basic level what you’re  going through, since it’s not often discussed.  Instead of bringing it up, most people choose not to say anything at all.  This made me feel like such a failure. I was broken, my body couldn’t do the one fundamental thing it was designed to do as a female. I felt like people didn’t want to approach the subject with me because they knew I was broken.

I began to withdraw from everyone. I stopped my workout routine and began to gain weight. I tried to pretend that everything was fine by inserting myself back into social gatherings way too early. I’d wind up sitting in the corner not talking to anyone and wanting to leave immediately. Or, I’d wind up drinking too much and having to leave early. Through all of this, my husband Mark was there for me every night when I woke up crying, every morning when I felt like I couldn’t get out of bed, and every day when the house needed to be cleaned, or laundry done, because I couldn’t bring myself to move. We grieved together over the loss we shared. Though I felt so alone and isolated from everyone else, I always knew I had him to confide in and draw support from, no matter what.

Over time, the few people who weren’t afraid to ask me how I was doing and encourage me to share were the ones who helped me work through my feelings. I realized eventually that while it’s difficult to talk about, the more I shared, the better I felt.

The grief will always be with me. I don’t miss my first baby any less than I did a year ago, but that grief has morphed into something I can function with.

Mark and I are expecting again, and the baby is developing perfectly. I’m not so naive to think that this is how our story ends, or that this is how it works for every woman trying to conceive. For some women it takes years and years to finally be blessed with a child. For others they may experience multiple losses in between successful pregnancies. The bottom line is that with every pregnancy, a woman has a 1 in 4 chance of miscarrying in the first 12 weeks.

Throughout the first trimester it wasn’t even the risk of miscarrying again that had me scared. I felt like I would forget my first baby, that I’d be the only one to ever grieve him or her. And maybe that’s true. Nobody will be able to carry the memory of that child the way that I will, and I consider it an honor. I can tell this child and my future children that they have a special angel watching over them at all times. I can plant life in my garden to honor the child who completely changed our world. And, most importantly, I can share my story with other women who are going through the same thing… to help them understand that they are not alone.

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Lauren’s Story

Own kind of beautiful projectI asked Lauren if I could share her story.  Even though, I didn’t know the entire story when I asked her, what I did know completely touched my heart and I knew that if it was hard for her to talk about, it was hard for other women as well.  As I got to know Lauren, I couldn’t imagine how she felt after having to make the most difficult decision of her life.  Lauren is a person filled with love, giving so much of it to others, it doesn’t surprise me one bit that she would long to be a mother.  With just under a month left, this little guy will be brought into the world surrounded by family and friends that love him so much.  *And with a guardian angel*

Lauren, I thank you from the bottom of my heart for sharing your story.  Thank you for being brave, inspiring us all to open up and be vulnerable and thank you for being the person you are!

Lauren’s Story in Lauren’s words:

“It’s been a really long journey to get to this point in pregnancy, and as much as I try to relish and soak in every moment, I’m so ready for this roller coaster to end and be on the other side of motherhood.  Being a mother has always been a dream of mine.  Back when I first met Ryan, my parents had a late in life baby, Alexis who was almost two when we started dating.  The way he played and cared for my little sister (heck, he even went to her 2nd birthday party without me cause I was back down at college in Savannah) I knew in my heart that he cherished family as much as I did and was the one I wanted to marry and raise a family with.

Our pregnancy adventure started back in November of 2012 when we first found out we were pregnant. I had always envisioned recording Ryan’s reaction when I told him (since I have a hard time containing excitement and soaking it all in) so that’s exactly what I did. I had set up the iPad and took a video of me telling him we were expecting our first child. After the appropriate 12 weeks, we released the video (which we edited) to announce our expecting news. The video went viral, having been shared so many times on Facebook, and was even featured on the blog OnToBaby.com (http://www.ontobaby.com/2013/02/sweet-surprise-pregnancy-announcement-video/). Our first trimester was tough, but not unlink any other, however I had always had this hesitation about going out and buying baby things, and would always find some excuse not to indulge in an adorable onesie since I was constantly worried about something going wrong. I suppose I was superstitious of sorts.

Routinely, ultrasounds happen at week 12 and then again at week 20. So around the second week of March, we had gone in for our 20 week check up and that’s when everything changed. During our ultrasound the technician had told us that she spotted extra toes on both of the feet. I immediately started bawling because I knew something was wrong. Extra digits wasn’t something that was in either of our families (hereditarily speaking) however, she assured us it was something that could be taken care of shortly after birth and that she was going to send us down to the hospital’s Fetal Diagnostic Center offices to get a better ultrasound, where we would be able to get better answers.

About two days later and we were in the ultrasound room again, and the technician walked in and asked her routine questions about my age and birthdate and then stated that we were there to look at the toes and kidneys. This being the first time I had even heard the word ‘kidneys’ I was blindsided by this new issue we were checking out.

Once finished with that ultrasound we made our first visit to the sad room. This is the room that consists of 3 chairs, a table and a box of tissues. No, they don’t refer to it as “the sad room” (though I’m pretty sure the office may actually now after hearing me call it that so many times) and the doctor sat us down and told us our baby’s kidneys were both multi cystic. He proceeded to tell us that this wasn’t a good sign since they would be non working kidneys, and a person needs to have one good kidney in order to live. We ended that day (a Friday) with a prescription to go down to CHOP (Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia) and somehow the hospital fit us in the following Monday. We spent an entire day at CHOP (a bit over 8 hours) and it consisted of a two hour ultrasound. They ended up finding a few other things, ears not raised into full position, which they should have been at that point, and some extra bone mass at the back of the neck – small items compared to the still cystic kidneys. It was this day that we finally threw in the towel and asked to know the sex. If I was to continue to pray for my child’s life I wanted to know the life the baby would have. She was a girl. Our baby “Cane” was a girl. (we had conceived during Hurricane Sandy and always referred to our baby as “Baby Cane”). CHOP ended in the sad room again with numerous doctors and counselors telling us our baby wasn’t going to live, most likely had a rare genetic disease and that we had a choice to make. The laws in PA state that a pregnancy termination can not take place after 22 weeks, and since we were in our 21st week now we had only days to decide.

We reached out to every counselor, friend and family member that knew anything about the subject for advice. Ultimately we decided to get the amniocentesis to gather information for genetic testing, though we knew we wouldn’t get all the information in time to give us any indication about Cane’s future, it would at least help with future pregnancies. Our general test, and our microarray both came back normal, indicating that our only other option was to try to test for the specific genetic problem that the doctors though it might be. I say ‘might’ because even though Cane had symptoms of Meckel Gruber Disease, her brain wasn’t growing outside of her skull, which would have been a huge indication.

Meckel Gruber Disease. I don’t think I’ve ever googled and read about something so much in my life. It can hide/show in 6 different chromosomes and only two companies in the country test for it. It would cost us at least $3000 to have the genetic test run and still the test only a 70% detection rate. High numbers for no guaranteed answer.

Regardless of what Cane had, we found that her kidneys were beginning to fail at our amniocentesis appointment and the amniotic fluid was lowering. The baby’s kidneys produce the urine aka amniotic fluid, and without proper amniotic fluid the lungs would not develop properly, thus not allowing her to breath following birth. Meckel Gruber Disease is not a retardation that people know about because you can not possibly live with Meckel Gruber Disease. The longest living person with the disease was something like 7 months, and that was after 7 full months of numerous corrective surgeries trying to fix the child so they could live. Not a life I would want for my little girl.

In the end we decided to terminate our pregnancy. One of the hardest decisions I have ever had to make in my entire life, and I never wish the pain of that experience on even my worst enemies. When I thought it through, I knew that she could possibly live within me till birth, since I was her life support, but knowing that she would ultimately die during or right after birth wasn’t something I could bare. I also had to keep in mind that I would be facing another 4 months of carrying her, seeing strangers ask about my pregnancy, and having family want to give me gifts regardless if they understood her fate. Admitting that we terminated our pregnancy is not something that I want to shout from the rooftops, in fact many of our family members don’t know this. But, it was reading stories like my own online that helped me come to terms with our situation and what was best for the future of our family. I wanted a family regardless, and if I was to try pregnancy again, I needed to say goodbye to Cane on my own terms and prepare for emotional healing, work on my relationship with my husband and make sure that I could be brave enough to do it again.

Since our video had gone viral, and so many people knew we were expecting we ultimately had to do an online announcement of losing our baby girl. We received so many messages, letters and gifts of condolences, we couldn’t have asked for any better support. Anyone who knows my husband and I know that we’re such family oriented people and want nothing more than to raise a family of our own.

After losing Cane, depression sunk in. Ryan and I took a trip down to Savannah that April  to just be with each other and get away from our home. It was great for the two of us, but it wasn’t until the following October that I found myself in the doctors office for something completely unrelated bawling because they had given out a routine depression test. The months following losing Cane we continued to receive “junk” mail of baby coupons or free trials, it seemed there was always a constant reminder of what we didn’t have anymore. I had no idea that I was even that depressed until this random appointment. The doctor put me on a mild antidepressant, and it wasn’t until it started to work, that my body finally relaxed and we were able to conceive again. As thrilled as we were, we both knew we were in for a long winter. Without knowing what chromosome to look for we couldn’t do an early CVS to know if this baby had the same problems as Cane did, so we had to wait until week 16 to see the kidneys. Longest 16 weeks of my life. I had decided that a positive attitude was what would be best for my baby and I, and that if something was wrong somehow the universe would tell us. The winter before I had had my superstitious behavior (which is uncharacteristic for me) and Ryan actually had a dream before anything went wrong with Cane, that the baby was in fact a girl, but that we had lost the baby. As pissed as I was at him for telling me this dream, looking back, it was like God was trying to tell us something.

Possibly the most irritating fact of Cane’s fate was learning that routine ultrasounds at week 20 happen because so many Americans are overweight, and doctors would not be able to see vital organs of their pregnancies at week 16, like they could for the rest of the population….

Sixteen weeks passed and our ultrasound was scheduled for Valentine’s day of 2014. We were back at the Fetal Diagnostic Center, in the exact same room we said goodbye to Cane in. I couldn’t contain myself and started crying as the technician started her routine ultrasound. She had no idea what was wrong, but she immediately asked what she could look at to help me and I cried out “kidneys!”. She scanned in and saw they were cyst free. The amount of emotion in that room was insane. Ryan and I cried together and celebrated the health of our baby boy. We had a 25% chance of him having the same problem as Cane, which doesn’t sound horrible, but 1 in 4 chances is basically the highest you can have for genetic defects. So for him to be healthy was by far the best Valentines present either of us could ever pray for.

We decided to give him the name Leif Maxwell. Leif was actually a name Ryan had heard in a song way back in high school and always favored. We actually knew this would be our boy’s name before we even got married, but it wasn’t until we assigned it to our healthy baby boy that we looked up the meaning. It means “beloved and heir or descendant”…nothing could fit our little man more perfectly! We only have a few weeks left in our pregnancy and we’re both so ecstatic to meet this little person and love him with every ounce possible. It’s been a long and emotional journey, but we couldn’t be more ready to be parents and start our family.”

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For our shoot, I wanted to surround her with peace and serenity.  After everything she has been through, I wanted her to literally feel life around her. Because even in sad and painful moments, there are happy moments and in those happy moments is the healing for those sad moments in life.

More images from this shoot posted on our photography blog M2 Photography.

*I promise you, she was safe during this entire shoot*

Sponsers of this OKOB shoot:

Yvette Delgado-Makeup and Hair

Floral crown: Belovely Floral and Design

Photography: M2 Photography

 


Wonderful Woman Wednesday- Elena

Own-Kind-of-beautyElena has been my best friend since the third grade.  We’ve been best friends for 22 years. It’s crazy to think that I’ve been alive for only 30 years and 22 of those years have her in them.  How many people can say that? I remember our many sleepovers that involved very little sleep and a lot of laughing and talking. We were known as the Moyer sisters (we had the same last name, no blood relation).

Elena is one of the most thoughtful and down to earth people I know.  Being 2 hours away from her these days can be challenging and I do not get to see her as much as I wish I could. However, that doesn’t change our friendship status. We may only get to see each other a few times a year now, but when we do, it’s like nothing has changed and that is how friendships should be. She’ll always be my most cherished friend.  There isn’t a day that goes by that I do not think of her.

Ava and Bella adore their Aunt Wee Wee.  They had a difficult time pronouncing her name when they were little and that name just stuck with them. She is the best godmother to them and they always love being around her.

I truly believe that people are put into your life for a reason.  Elena was the one friend that knew my struggles and stuck with me. She is the one person that I never tried to push away from my life.  She never judged me, but instead encouraged me and gave me strength when I needed it.

Her and I, we look out for each other. We push each other and we support each other.

We’ve had some sad times, some crazy times, but mostly ridiculously fun times together. Imagine the stories we’ll be able to tell once our friendship reaches the gold 50th anniversary status!

Elena, thank you for being such an amazing friend to me and godmother to Ava and Bella. We all love you Aunt Wee Wee!

 


Mallory’s Story

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“If you want to conquer the anxiety of life, live in the moment, live in the breath.”

-Amit Ray

I grew up in a civilian military household.  We were comfortable, and I always knew my parents loved me very much.  Everyone said I was lucky that my family was not “truly military”, meaning we didn’t move every couple years to a new base.  This was true, but the trade off was that my parents traveled a lot, which meant I was home alone a lot.  My grandparents were there, and my sisters sometimes, but it felt like I was always home alone.  Combine this with what I would later find to be a genetic predisposition, and I developed severe anxiety at an early age. And when I say anxiety, I mean truly debilitating, paralyzing anxiety.  Ridiculous things like being home alone or coloring outside the lines (at an age when you don’t have the motor skills to keep the crayon in the lines) would result in crippling terror.  I would often find myself frozen in place, unable to breath for fear of all the irrational thoughts that filled my brain.

Every time I’d describe my anxiety to a friend or an adult, the response would be “yeah, I get nervous about things like that too” or “you’re just a perfectionist”.  But I knew it was not just nerves, and I wasn’t trying to be perfect.  The issue was, if I didn’t do something perfectly, I would lose my grip.  I’d find myself stumbling back in the clutches of the anxiety once again.  There were many days when I couldn’t sleep, and still others where I couldn’t move from the overwhelmedness.  I was mortified by the number of times I would panic and cry my eyes out at a friend’s house, desperately wanting to stay, but knowing I couldn’t control the fears enough to do so.  Trying to overcome these sensations as a little girl was too much.  And most of the time, even if there were people around, I felt alone through it all.  It felt like no one could truly understand the feelings that dominated my life.

Sure, my parents saw the struggle, and they did everything right.  They were incredibly supportive.  They were always willing to pick me up from my friend’s sleepover at any time of the night when I would surrender, and the anxiety would win.  They took me to a counselor, who diagnosed me with clinical separation anxiety and assured us all that I would eventually grow out of it.  But what I didn’t understand was that this would be a lifelong battle.

Academically, I fell in line with my fellow overachievers and worked towards perfect grades.  But when this didn’t quell the impending sense of fear and dread, I would find myself so incapacitated I couldn’t function.  Finishing the assignment or even facing the source of the anxiety was unimaginable.  I’d stay home on the day of the exam feeling suffocated by the weight of the panic.  I attempted to do the same in the sports world, but after a year of what felt like persistent failure, I decided sports were too risky.  They set me up for public anxiety attacks, and I desperately wanted to at least appear in control, even if I was internally in turmoil

It quickly became apparent that this was not a functional technique, so I tried a variety of other things to help diminish the panic, such as keeping myself so busy I couldn’t think or relying on boyfriends for support.  Later in life I would even take to drowning my fears in alcohol so I could finally feel at peace enough to sleep.  But surprisingly to me at the time, none of my desperate attempts worked.  I felt like a failure for not being able to control emotions.  Psychiatrists would tell me it was mind over matter – to me, that meant that if the anxiety is still bothering you, it is because you are not strong enough to overcome it.

And then one day, my friend brought me to meet her horse.  Seems pretty simple, and at the time it meant nothing, but horse-back riding eventually become foundational to my struggle with anxiety.  Horses became my escape.  Riding brought me confidence, and the barn gave me an outlet.  I even started working with anxious horses (typically Thoroughbreds right off the track), all of whom needed someone else to help them overcome their anxieties.  I understood their struggle.  I was able to be that person, and frankly they gave me the strength to go home and do it again the next day.

And this was not a magical transformation.  It definitely was up and down.  In high school my family moved from Georgia to Virginia in between my sophomore and junior year, which triggered a downward spiral once again.  I tried to cling to friends and guys, and even school and alcohol.  But what kept bringing me back out of the panic was my horse.  He needed me, and I needed him.

People hear the term “anxious”, and so many have no idea how paralyzing it can be.  Anxiety is the most multifaceted, persistent beast I have faced to date.  But when you find yourself bawling for hours in an empty house unable to think or move or breath or eat, you realize this is not make believe.  You are not a failure.  This is an illness that has to be overcome.

Those that understand this story from personal experience know that anxiety is not even trendy enough to be considered a mental illness.  And even more unfortunately, mental illness carries so much stigma in today’s society that sometimes I’m grateful it isn’t.  The classification doesn’t matter, though.  What matters is that it is real, and your feelings are valid.  Don’t be ashamed of the frantic stressful panic that may at times consume you.  It is undoubtedly terrifying, but the only way to conquer your fears is to acknowledge they exist, discover your triggers, and continuously work towards identifying ways to manage those situations.  For some, physical outlets help, like yoga and horse back riding.  For others, meditation and meticulous time management is enough.  Whatever you do, I encourage you to keep trying different techniques until you find something that works.  When I was younger, I would tell myself stories that were the exact opposite of the fears I was envisioning.  It sounds ludicrous, but after a while, the story you are creating seems much more believable than the one you initially pictured.  Your mind may be tricked by the anxiety, but you can develop the skills to outsmart your mind.

And lastly, don’t think you will grow out of this.  I didn’t, and I can’t assure you you will either.  My grandmother is 95 years old and still struggles with separation anxiety, so I doubt I will ever have that luxury.  However, I will say that I have learned to channel my anxiety to use it as a productive motivator rather than letting it own me.

When I was young and started this journey, I had no idea what anxiety was, much less that my sister, my father, and my grandmother had all suffered with it.  Only when I began to talk about it did I begin to understand.  Whatever is your vice, overcoming it is going to teach you more about yourself than you might have been ready for at that moment.  But in the end, you are a stronger, more beautiful woman because of it.

-Mallory

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Mallory, I’m so glad we met. I love your positive outlook on life. You are such a beautiful soul and a huge inspiration!

xoxo, Melissa.

Mamiya 645// Kodak Portra 160 & 400

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A special thank you to the creative team and sponsors of this shoot.

Makeup: The amazing Gina Kay from True Beauty Marks

Photography:  Me, M2 Photography

 


Wonderful Woman Wednesday- Ilde

Ilde

Ilde is part of my dreamunity. She’s a friend I can go to for advice. She is someone I can count on, an actual real friend. She is someone our family can adventure with and someone who brightens your day. She is genuine, which I feel is the best quality any person can have.

I looked up the meaning of Ilde, which is battle.  I found this interesting.  If you know Ilde, you know how strong she is, but you also know how sweet she is.  She is strong enough to get through anything.   Sure, we all have our struggles, but she doesn’t let them get the best of her.

She is the mom, and an amazing mom, to three adorable children. I admire the person she is and wish I had a few more Ilde Cooks’ in my life. However, there are only one, possibly two Ilde Cook’s in the United States and one of those is my friend. I’m happy with that.

Good and true friends are hard to find.  If only we lived next door to each other!

Ilde, we are so lucky to have you in our lives.  You are a beautiful and extraordinary woman.  I hope you can see the beauty that we all see in you. You make all of our lives better by being in it!

Love you Ilde!

xoxo-Melissa.


Wonderful Woman Wednesday-Ava

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Ava means “Life”

Together Ava and Bella mean “Beautiful Life”

Ava is our first born by two minutes.

She is all heart, a gentle old soul and my cuddle buggle. She is peaceful and compassionate. She loves people and she loves animals.  She is strong and believes in the impossible.  She wants to be a butterfly doctor when she grows up.  I’m not even sure that even exists, but I know if it doesn’t, she’ll make it exist.  She also wants to create a butterfly museum where children can create butterfly art.

Her eyes show love, care, and sensitivity. The meaning of her name is life and there is so much life in this little beauty.  I hope that one day she can see the beauty in herself, the beauty that I see each and every day. It is usually the first beauty I see when I wake up every morning, standing over me with hungry eyes and a smile.  Her beauty that is effortless, natural, and more than just skin deep.

She fills my heart with so much happiness and love that it could explode.  They are my miracle babies that I never thought I would have.  They’ve made this beautiful life much more beautiful by being in it.

Ava, my butterfly, spread those cheerful and colorful wings and enjoy life.  Enjoy all of it’s beauties and everything it has to offer, and never settle.

Be adventurous. Swim upstream instead of down, you do not have to go with the flow. Create your own path. Most of all, always stay true to you.  I am so proud of the little lady you’ve become.

~Fly baby girl, Fly~

Love, Mom xoxo


Wonderful Woman Wednesday- Bella

own-kind-of-beautiful-BellaBella means “beautiful”

I will be doing two WWW posts this month.  You can take a good guess who those two little beauties will be.

This month, our little girls turn seven.  People always tell you how quickly time will fly by once you have children.  I always imagined it would, but it seems to be going by way faster than I ever anticipated.  It seems like yesterday we were bringing these two little 4lb. babies home.  And here we are just 9 days away from their seventh birthday. {insert a puddle of tears}

Bella is my flower child, my free spirited little girl, my little free bird.  She has a warm and tender heart and sees good in everyone. She’s an explorer filled with wonder.  She’s a little crazy, but the best possible kind.  She is exactly what her name means, beautiful.  I hope one day, she can see all the beauty she possesses. The beauty that her dad and I see in her.  I also hope that she never stops wondering and wandering.

Look out world.

Happy Birthday little dove! I want you to fly and keep flying.  I love you!

{Mamiya 645//Kodak Portra 160}; Floral crown: Belovely

 


Katera

“The thing that is really hard, and really amazing, is giving up on being perfect and beginning the work of becoming yourself.” -Anna Quindlen

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I, Katera Anne Pellegrino, am here to tell you that I’ve been struggling with an eating disorder, for the past 6 years. I wish that I could say that it’s something that’s behind me and that I’ve worked through it, but that would be a lie. It’s something that I continue to struggle with every day. Sometimes the struggle only lasts a few hours. Sometimes it lasts a few months. While it doesn’t have as much control over my life as it used to, it’s definitely still a part of who I am.

Growing up, my weight fluctuated a lot. In middle school, I felt bigger than most girls my age. Suddenly everyone started getting boyfriends, but I didn’t. My only thought behind why I didn’t was because I looked different. In 7th grade, I went on medication for my skin and lost almost 25 pounds. After that, I managed to keep most of the weight off and started competitive cheerleading. There was this constant pressure to be the skinniest and the prettiest girl on the team. That’s what got the coaches’ attention and that’s what got the judges’ attention. I remember hearing mothers tell stories about their 10 year-olds who were eating paper towels so they could be skinny enough to be a flyer. It was a sport focused on appearances and I got sucked right into it. Although it did teach me to be posed and confident in front of thousands of people, it also made me extremely self-critical.

Once I stopped cheerleading in high school, I slowly gained weight. Heading into my freshman year of college, my goal was to lose the Freshman Fifteen, not gain it. I wanted to get a boyfriend (something that is nearly impossible and completely pointless in college to begin with) and I thought the only way to do so was by being skinny. After dieting and exercising, I managed to lose 20 pounds. Once I started seeing results and hearing compliments from people, I just wanted to lose more weight. I started to drastically cut calories and limit myself to certain food groups. I became obsessed with burning more calories than I was consuming. By my the middle of my sophomore year, I was using pills, on top of excessive exercise, to keep my weight down. I went through phases of binging and purging, then starvation and depletion. Although I never reached a dangerously low weight, the measures I was taking to lose weight were incredibly dangerous. At one point, I was  consuming no more than 300 calories a day, but working out twice a day, for two hours at a time. I got down to 123 pounds and knew I couldn’t keep this cycle up for much longer.When I was 19, I decided to run my first half marathon. I thought this would be a healthy way to kick my disordered eating habits once and for all. Although it helped, I still managed to restrict and monitor my calorie intake, now digesting enough to support my training runs. The cycle between training for races and binging/starving continued for the remainder of my college career. 

Once I started graduate school, I entered therapy to deal with the issues that had been behind my insecurities. My eating disorder was fueled by the feeling of never being good enough and the worry that I would be left for someone who was better. I had nothing more than a series of dysfunctional on-again off-again “relationships” with boys who took everything from me, gave nothing back, and left me feeling more disgusted with myself and empty on the inside. I tortured myself trying to figure out what was wrong with me that no boy wanted to be with me. I tore myself apart on the inside and on the outside. Maybe 5 more pounds would have made him stay? Maybe if I had lighter hair? No matter what I did, I never felt like I would be good enough for anyone, so I had to try and be perfect for everyone. Getting skinnier and prettier would be the answer to all my problems. Spite and jealousy can make for powerful motivators, but they’re toxic and unhealthy. As long as I was motivated by what others thought of me, I would never be my true self. And that is the person that everyone should really see. 

I’m more than half way through my 24th year of life and have just started to understand what it means to be comfortable in my skin. I have this project to thank for that. This has allowed me to come to terms with my past and to make it a public part of my life. l’ve realized that I will never be good enough for everyone. And that’s just fine. Running is no longer punishment for eating. It’s my happy place. It’s what makes me feel my prettiest. Maybe I don’t have a perfectly flat stomach, but I have legs that have pushed me through hundreds and hundreds of miles (and the medals to prove it). There will always be someone who’s faster, skinner, and prettier than me. But none of those people will ever be me. They won’t have my past, my emotions, my legs. Each day, I’m letting go of the need to control everything in my life. And as long as I continue to do that, I’ll always be free. 

I want every single girl to know that you’re never alone. I know there are no magical words that I can say that will make you feel like you’re perfect the way you are. But I want you to know that you’re not the only person who has ever felt that way. We all have some kind of struggle and there’s no reason to go through it alone. Holding it in will do nothing more than destroy you. Don’t let it eat away at your beautiful soul. I will always be here for you, no matter who you are or what you’re dealing with. Along side of you, holding your hand, struggling too. 

Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beauty Own-Kind-of-beautyKatera, you are a beautiful person with such a beautiful outlook on life.  I’m so glad to have met you and glad we now have each other.

xoxo, Melissa.

Mamiya 645// Kodak Portra 160 & 400

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A special thank you to the creative team and sponsors of this shoot.

Makeup: The amazing Yvette Delgado

Floral Crowns:  The talented and beautiful Lauren from Belovely Floral and Design

Photography:  Me, M2 Photography