Last week, I aired out some of my concerns with discussing body image before I answer Sophia’s question about how the process of pregnancy has changed my body image. If you didn’t have a chance to read it, you may want to head back just for the smart ladies in the comments.
So here, we go.
I was not happy with the ways my body changed while I was pregnant.
That seems like a no-brainer- but I was surprised that I wasn’t happy with my watermelon self, and then my deflated balloon self, and then my saggy-getting-back-into-shape self. SURPRISED. Because I had this concept of myself as being some forward-thinking lady with a healthy sense of self and a safe removal from leaning on my looks for confidence. Because I knew that I was going to gain weight and then quickly lose it and look all sorts of different ways in between, and that this was a natural and healthy thing.
It’s amazing how natural and healthy suddenly become irrelevant when we’re talking about how we look. Better yet, how we FEEL about how we look.
Since becoming pregnant, I gained 40 lbs. The weight gain wasn’t the only difficult part, however, as it was accompanied by other treasures- cellulite, sagging skin, and stretch marks. Before, I’d never been 100% in love with my body (who really is?) but I was always content. I had a genetic paunchy belly despite my sixteen years in ballet, a little bit of back flab that spills around my bra (is there anyone who DOESN’T have this?), chicken legs and a few other areas of concern. The fact that I was able to still “love my body” despite these obstacles made me feel like I had this body image stuff in the bag.
Since last June, I’ve figured out that it’s a little easier to announce that we should all “love our bodies!” when one’s body is a slender and curvy size two. It’s been humbling, to say the least, and a little difficult to admit on here. That bit of hypocrisy is a little hard to swallow.
But it hasn’t been an entirely negative experience. I’ve learned a lot about myself as I’ve experienced my body catapult from one change to the next. Acknowledging that you didn’t know yourself as well as you thought- that perhaps you may be a little more shallow, a little less grounded and self-aware is a major step in the process of growing as a person. Coming to grips with the tension of loving myself while still being largely dissatisfied with how I look has been illuminating.
There are two ways I check in with myself to make sure my dissatisfactions are healthy:
Am I allowing the way I feel about my body to impact my self worth?
This is THE huge difference, I really think, between healthily acknowledging the realities of how you look, and obsessing about each flaw. The leap from crying as I try to button my pants to laughing as I recount a story where someone mistook me for a pregnant woman (again!), is that in the first instance, having that extra bit of belly meant to me that I was an unattractive and disgusting example of humanity, whereas in the second, I was just a girl who recently had a baby. This is huge not just in PREGNANT body image, but body image in general.
Am I comparing myself to how I know I could look, or to an unreachable, impractical goal?
Recently, a news site had a headline about a certain model returning to the catwalk with her “post-baby body.” It nearly sent me spiraling into a fit of tears and ice cream binging. But is it really practical for me to compare my body to the body of someone who has the luxury (and necessity, for the sake of her career) of exercising all day, hiring a chef to prepare meals, and paying a nanny to handle the icky and time-consuming work of raising a baby? I’m gonna say “no.”(And then there’s the pregnorexia trend, of course.)
The emotional changes for me were gradual and scattered. In the beginning of pregnancy, I just felt chubby. I couldn’t wait for an actual little round momma-belly to serve as a constant reminder of the pregnancy. It was like an engagement ring. I wanted that physical, outward representation of all of the happiness I was experiencing.
Then I got that belly. And it was accompanied by hips and thighs and a double-chin- for which I had NOT asked (and as far as I could tell, weren’t helping the baby any, so what’s the deal?). I knew that it was a good thing and it didn’t affect my sense of self worth, but I really didn’t want to look at myself, either. I didn’t feel ugly, but I don’t think there was ever time during this stage where I felt outright pretty. I was just. Large.
Then I had the baby. The unfortunate part about this stretch was the perfect storm of physical recovery, emotional adjustment, hormonal roller coaster and sleep deprivation. Remember how I said those first few weeks were brutal? Take all of that and add a dose of “chubby.” Not a fun time. In addition, like so much else that I was experiencing, I didn’t know how long it would last. How much of this additional poundage would I be carrying around for the rest of my life? Was I going to need to get used to this double-chin permanently? This was where I hit my darkest point- but to be honest, it wasn’t just body image. I felt ugly. I felt worthless. But how much of that was from chub alone? I’m not sure.
It wasn’t long before the weight started sliding off- but I won’t get into specifics about how and when this happened, as I’m sure it works differently for each person. The major point is that when I started to lose a few pounds was less important than when my outlook changed. The process of moving from “I’m ugly” to “my body has changed, and that’s okay” probably has a hormonal and emotional component that I can’t necessarily quantify. But I do know that a piece of it was what I mentioned above- not letting what I saw in the mirror dictate how I felt about my value as a person, and not setting impossible standards for myself.
Some other things that I’ve always “known” but that have been reinforced by this process…
1. My body is a tool. I recently read an interview where Gloria Steinem commented on the commerciality of women, saying the problem is that, “…the way women’s bodies are looked at, we’re supposed to be ornaments, not instruments.” Similarly, a good friend recently sent me an article about how our bodies are intended to be used- not just admired. Why is it “okay” to expect men to be rugged, sweaty, tanned? We have this old-fashioned notion that men’s bodies are to be used as tools- which is why we can see the rugged Marlboro man and think that’s attractive. Women don’t have a similar purpose. We’re intended to sit around and chat and just look lovely. If my husband’s hands are roughened from working on the car, it’s masculine. If my hands are worn and calloused from dish-washing or painting, I need a manicure.
When I think about things in this light, it seems outrageous to try to set my body on a shelf and hope it’s never impacted by the strain of work, hardship, life. That is NOT the legacy I want to leave behind. And if my hope is to use my life to accomplish great things, I can’t expect my body to be unaffected.
2. Numbers don’t matter. Once upon a time, I knew when I looked best- somewhere in the middle, between the highs and the lows of fluctuating weight gain and loss- and I could easily ascribe a number of pounds or dress size to that place. Now, the rules have changed. My size and weight have very different numbers attached, and I’ve relearned that the numbers just don’t matter. If I feel good about how my new, larger hips look and feel- and then suddenly feel horrible when I see the size on the tag, this represents to me an unhealthy perspective of size and weight. I may never ever again see a “2” on the label of a dress. But does that matter? If I’m healthy, feel good about myself, and look good in that slightly larger sized dress? Nope.
This is tricky, tricky because I’m NOT condoning fat-acceptance. I think this is difficult terrain to navigate without a good of self-awareness and maybe some honest friends.
3. What other people say doesn’t matter. One of my teaching colleagues greeted me with, “Morning, Fatso!” every. single. morning. during my pregnancy. It didn’t phase me at all (other than needing to force a chuckle after the thirtieth time of hearing the same old joke). Similarly, I told you guys about times when people would make rude comments both during and after pregnancy. None of it sent me home in tears. Conversely, friends would rave about how quickly I lost the baby weight and how “cute” I looked while pregnant. Didn’t encourage me very much. You know the good old standard Eleanor Roosevelt quote, “No one can make you feel inferior without your consent”? I think it’s a little like that. What other people say doesn’t matter quite so much as your underlying sense of self- it determines which comments affect you, and which roll off your back.
4. What my husband thinks does matter. If my husband thinks I’m attractive, I’m pretty content. I don’t know how I feel about this in theory. Perhaps it’s old fashioned, or maybe it’s the foundations of a solid marriage. Not sure. Either way, unlike the above, if he says I look fabulous, I feel like I look fabulous. I think it’s maybe partially because he is that honest and caring friend for me, and partially because (out of love for him) I want to be attractive for him.
In those first few dark weeks, I projected. Quite a bit. I assumed that because I thought I looked awful, he must think I look awful, and then I would resent him for thinking such a thing. I realized this in a discussion with a friend who asked if Josh still complimented me. I said, “NO” sob sob sob. She said, “Really? Do me a favor. LISTEN for it this week. See if he ever compliments how you look.” Sure enough, that following week, I noticed that Josh said I was pretty. Like. A lot. I was so dismissive, brushing him away with “Yeah, right” that I didn’t even really hear him say it.
5.This stuff takes time. If I’m discouraging anyone who is already pregnant or plans to become pregnant, let me take a second. In the depths of despair in the first few weeks following giving birth, I spoke to a mother of two who told me it took her about a year to bounce back from each child. A FULL YEAR. And also ONLY A YEAR. Meaning that even at this point now, I’m only halfway through the process of healing and returning to my healthy self. And at the same time, this process isn’t going to last very long. It’s both a means of finding patience and hope.
6. A girl needs clothes that fit. I think that goes pretty much across the board, pregnant or no. When you’re newly a size 10 and you’re still trying to fit your hips into a size 2 pair of skinny jeans- it ain’t pretty. But it was also the same after giving birth. Flopping around in baggy maternity clothes really makes a gal feel frumpy. I don’t know the solution, because the weight change can be pretty fast- but I found that buying one or two new things here and there that did fit changed EVERYTHING.
That’s what I’ve got, Sophia. And yet I feel like I’m just scratching the surface. Anyone else have anything I missed?