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Candid photos help mom deal with aftermath of eating disorder, pregnancy

The photographer shares striking images of herself online.
Hayley Garnett has been honest about her struggle with diastasis recti, a condition where abdominal muscles separate during pregnancy.
Hayley Garnett has been honest about her struggle with diastasis recti, a condition where abdominal muscles separate during pregnancy.Courtesy of Hayley Garnett
/ Source: TODAY

Hayley Garnett shares such honest pictures of her body that her fans occasionally wonder what she looks like covered up.

“I’ll get messages sometimes that say, ‘Do you ever post a photo not in your underwear?” Garnett, 31, told TODAY, laughing.

“I don’t notice that anymore because to me, that’s just me and how I am and who I am now. It’s really crazy how freeing it can be.”

It’s been a long journey for Garnett to become so comfortable, including surviving a bout with an eating disorder.

The photographer, who lives in Columbia, Missouri, takes many close-ups of her exposed belly to show what having three children — twin girls, who turn 2 this weekend, and a 5-year-old boy — can do to a woman’s skin and muscles. The candid shots have attracted a large audience on Instagram because so many women can relate.

Garnett and her twins.Courtesy Hayley Garnett

She’s been honest about her struggle with diastasis recti, a condition where abdominal muscles separate during pregnancy, leading to a belly that doesn’t return to its normal shape after giving birth. Garnett was frustrated that her stomach was “a mess” — internally and on the outside, particularly after carrying the twins — but she became tired of hiding it.

“There was just one day that my son had asked me about what the marks on my stomach were,” she recalled. “As I was explaining to him that the marks were reminders of all of my babies, it clicked into place — I want to share this. I don’t want to feel about bad the changes, I want to embrace them.”

Just a few years earlier, Garnett struggled with her body for another reason. At about 5 feet tall, she weighed 120 pounds — the most she’d ever weighed before. The extra pounds were noticeable on her petite frame, which sent her spiraling into an eating disorder in her 20s.

Garnett weighed 89 pounds in the photo on the left, which was taken in 2012 before she had children.Courtesy Hayley Garnett

Garnett became obsessed with eating only healthy food — a condition known as orthorexia — and paired the calorie deficit with too much exercise. Over two years, she dropped to 89 pounds and looked like a “tiny mass of bones and skin,” she recalled.

"When I had the eating disorder, it made me really hate myself," she added.

Garnett was so underweight that she stopped having her period for six months just as she and her husband wanted to start a family. It was a wake-up call that led her to start eating normally again. The pregnancies soon followed.

“It’s funny because during both of my pregnancies, I was horrified with how my body was changing just because I was used to being tiny,” Garnett recalled.

“But after I had my babies, life felt so much different. There was so much more for me to focus on and look forward to and just be grateful for.”

Still, she was envious that other women came out of their pregnancies with fewer stretch marks and no internal damage. Garnett is a huge advocate of pelvic floor physical therapy after giving birth, but her case of diastasis recti is too severe to correct with this approach, so her only option would be a tummy tuck, she said.

Garnett is grateful for her husband, who she called her biggest supporter, sees all of her and appreciates her body, she said.

“Sure, things look and feel slightly different — but in the grand scheme of things, nothing changed,” he recently wrote on Instagram.

“The reasons I fell in love with her had nothing to do with any of the body parts affected by her postpartum.”

Garnett has now returned to her normal weight after her struggle with an eating disorder.Courtesy Hayley Garnett

Garnett still loves to work out, but she now focuses on lifting weights rather than cardio because she wants to build muscle and strength. She eats healthy, but doesn’t count calories or eliminate any foods from her diet — if she wants a cookie, she’ll eat a cookie. She now weighs 106 pounds — a healthy BMI for her height.

The photographer now finds it “crazy” freeing to expose issues that once brought her shame, with the candid photos part of the therapy.

“It just brought me a lot of closure. It makes me feel less alone because so many other women feel the same way,” she said.