“Each individual woman’s body demands to be accepted on its own terms.” – Gloria Steinem
I used to not get it. Like, really not get it.
Even though I SHOULD have gotten it, because there was “that time when I was twelve…” But I’ll get to that in a minute.
I grew up in a thin body, from a thin family, with thin genes. My biggest body problem as a teenager was a LACK of curves, body fat and extra weight, culminating in not getting my period until my sophomore year in high school, and I would have laughed until I cried if you would have told my adolescent self that I would one day feel self-conscious about HAVING curves.
I wanted to crawl into a hole and disappear when a twerpy male middle school classmate mockingly called me “flat-chested,” and remember lying to a friend in ninth grade when she asked if I used pads or tampons. “Neither” seemed like the most humiliating answer on the planet, as I could hardly bear to admit that I was still locked out of this passageway to womanhood that every single one of my cheerleading, boyfriend-securing friends seemed to be perfectly at home in.
So you would think that my shortcomings in the body-embracement department would have planted a seed of compassion in me, for ALL body struggles that ALL people face, as few are easily managed or undeserving of empathy.
Years later as I leveled out into a young adult with a passably average bra size, a BMI-appropriate weight/height ratio, even some modeling under my belt, I found myself – gasp – judging other women. It’s as if I simplistically thought to myself, “I figured this whole body thing out, why can’t my classmate who clearly needs to lose twenty pounds, or my friend who seems to be making no effort whatsoever to tame that cringe-worthy muffin top?”
Sound like a scene straight out of Mean Girls?
Before my body went through the cataclysmic transformation that is gaining 50 pounds, birthing a 9 and ½ pound baby, and figuring out where on earth that whole tornado of pounds, fluids, fat and flesh leaves ME – it had been about 20 years since I’d buried those feelings of out-of-control body insecurity, apparently deep enough to conveniently reflect those feelings onto others around me in the meantime.
Shame on me. I simply didn’t have a clue.
I cringe to think about how naively I used to judge the body struggles of others. How offensively I used to simplistically attach “obvious” remedies to others’ deep and thorny struggles. I knew the sting of that judgment as an awkward, finding-my-way pre-teen, and – lo and behold – I have come face-to-face with that same judgment for a much different body, from others and myself, as a post-partum new mother.
Decades post-middle school, I am now part of a demographic of people – mothers – who are about as fully developed as a human can be. We don’t need other people to pick apart our bodies and question every single thing that is or isn’t falling into place – we do it to ourselves every time we resent the stretch marks that should celebrate new life, or curse the broad hips that we should cheer for miraculously allowing our most treasured child to emerge. We force ourselves into spandex “shape wear” until we can hardly breathe, and count the minutes until we can get home and rip it all off in a sanctuary free of the public’s disapproval.
Magazines allow new mothers to be beautiful in exactly two forms: while still pregnant, belly rock solid and breasts overflowing – or mere weeks after giving birth, frolicking on the beach in a bikini with once-again-flat abs.
As if that ever happens on any planet in the Cosmos (no, Cosmopolitan does not count).
People tend to embrace your body when you’re pregnant, and abandon it after you give birth. And the worst part is when we let them, and when we abandon ourselves.
I can’t tell you how many times, leading PEPS groups, I’ve heard healthy-weight women share “Highs & Lows” and the highs include “fitting into my old jeans” or “getting out of maternity clothes.” There’s nothing inherently wrong with this – in fact, if done in a healthy way, these little milestones can certainly be cause to celebrate. But when we attach TOO MUCH of our self-worth to a number on a clothing tag or a reading on a bathroom scale – we lose. We lose the best part of ourselves.
Mothers and people who know them, I offer some thoughts to keep in mind when surveying a mother’s body (most of these thoughts can apply to ANY woman’s body, whether you’ve given birth or not):
1) Any flippant critical thought you project onto a woman’s body, is almost guaranteed to be 1/100th of the strength of what she’s felt about herself. You’re really not thinking or telling her anything new, ever – so best to just keep your thoughts and words positive or not say anything at all.
2) WE NOTICE when we’re having a conversation with you and your eyes casually wander from our face to our (insert troublesome body part here: midsection, butt, thighs…). In fact I’m so aware of this I wrote about it here on my own blog, right after one of the numerous times someone has wrongly assumed I was pregnant due to my body’s pesky penchant to keep any remaining pounds wrapped snugly around my waist.
3) If I start laughing when you scope me out in tight black leggings and a loose sweater and remark, “how skinny!” I look, it’s because yesterday, after eating a large lunch while wearing a less forgiving dress, I could have passed for second trimester.
4) No woman’s body IS EVER THE SAME after going through a pregnancy and giving birth. But it’s also not unhealthy, not un-beautiful, and not something we should EVER be ashamed of! It’s just different.
5) Healthy comes in many shapes and sizes. Someone can look like the “picture of health and beauty” and have a (fill in the blank: raging eating disorder, sky high plastic surgery bill, hateful relationship with herself). On the other hand, someone can have some curves and a little extra “padding,” stretch marks, sagging breasts, a soft stomach – and be PERFECTLY HEALTHY. And everything in between. So ask yourself – is my goal to be HEALTHY, or is my goal to LOOK the way that our culture pressures us to? If you’re a visual learner, this is a fabulous photography project that celebrates the “unconventional” post-baby body: http://www.abeautifulbodyproject.com/.
It’s OK to grieve the loss of your pre-baby body. I still have my moments. But what we all need to hear more often, is that it’s also OK to feel GREAT. Think about how your baby sees you – he loves your stomach and your warmth and your arms and your legs. He loves ALL of you. Shouldn’t you, too?
We get so obsessed with diets, fixes and improvements for our body, when most often what we’re desperately in need of is to go on a diet of the MIND – to lay off the over-indulgence of critical words, the counting of calories and pounds when our health is NOT a serious concern, to compare, compare, compare ourselves to everyone in sight.
What are you feeding your mind? What would it look like if you were half as discerning about what you allowed into your mind, as what you allowed into your body? What would it look like to finally let go of that goal to lose X number of pounds, and just love yourself now?
You are beautiful. You are amazing!! You are ENOUGH. No one else can compete with YOU. Anyone who makes you feel bad about yourself doesn’t deserve to be in your life.
Earlier this week I came across these words by the brilliant poet, Nayyirah Waheed:
“And I said to my body, softly. ‘I want to be your friend.’
It took a long breath and replied, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.’”
While you’re figuring out where you stand on all this and aren’t sure about rocking that bikini just yet, a well-fitted one piece bathing suit is a great investment. It takes the focus (yours and others) off any potential body insecurities or distractions, so you can continue focusing on the world’s more important problems, like do waterproof diapers actually work?
Here’s to showing some skin and finding out.
About the Author
Seattle native Beth Morris is a PEPS Newborn Group Leader, writer for this blog and her own (writeasrainblog.com) and stay-at-home mom to Anderson. She enjoys salty margaritas and can sing a mean Shania Twain karaoke cover (definitely in that order), and wishes life were more like the TV show Friday Night Lights.