For most of my life, I've thought of myself as a pretty body positive person. Even before I had that language, I thought of myself as a person with high self-esteem, who respected lots of different ways of looking and being in the world. Then I got pregnant, gained 43 pounds, had a baby, and learned that I wasn't nearly as enlightened as I thought. But now, nearly two years into life with my son and my postpartum body, I can honestly say that I love my postpartum body more than before.
It turns out, a lot of what I thought was my own open-mindedness and self-acceptance, was simply me being lucky enough to have been born in a time and place where my kind of body — slender, athletic-looking, with curves in the so-called “right” places — is the kind our society celebrates. It's not especially hard to “love” a body that is constantly held up as being desirable. I had mistaken body privilege for body acceptance, and had quite a rude awakening the moment my birth high wore off.
In the earliest days after giving birth, looking at myself in the mirror was a surprisingly intense struggle. My inner voice would literally whine over the changes I saw, genuinely hurt by the juxtaposition between how we're taught to view pregnant versus postpartum bodies. I looked nothing like the women celebrated in the media for “getting their bodies back” after baby, and for me it was the first time in a long time where I felt the pain and shame of having one of the many kinds of bodies society considers unworthy. I hated that feeling. I hated starting every day essentially berating myself over something I’d sworn my whole life didn't even matter. I knew some of the changes I was seeing would fade over time, but I also knew that I didn't have much control over which ones those might be, so I needed to learn to love all of myself, regardless of whether I ever looked like my old self again.
For me, that meant being honest about how I saw myself, and talking about it with my partner. I also started learning about shame, and questioning myself when abusive thoughts crossed my mind while looking in the mirror. I started being more mindful about the media images I consume, and going out of my way to follow body positive models and activists of all shapes and sizes, so I could re-train my mind to appreciate different kinds of beauty. Over time, that's really made a difference. It helped me stop beating myself up all the time, and gave me the space I needed to realize the following truths, which have helped me come to appreciate my body even more.
I say this all the time because I'm completely in awe of it, but for real: I made. A. Person. I am ride or die for my own (and frankly, every other bio-mom’s) postpartum body, cause females are seriously strong as hell.
Part of the reason I chose to have an unmedicated birth at home was the same reason many people run marathons or climb mountains — I wanted to see if I could do it, and learn something about what I'm capable of. And I absolutely did learn, a lot. Long before I was able to see my own beauty again, I stayed sane by remembering my newfound, bone-deep pride in my body’s strength, because it's tough as f*cking nails.
My postpartum body is the site of a miracle. Inside it is where I, myself, made one of the sweetest little people I know. It's where, in the most intense throes of labor, I met the rest of myself; an awe-inspiring badass who has more raw power and force than I ever could have imagined.
Sometimes, my son will poke or grab my belly and smile, or giggle, or kiss it. Early on, my first impulse was to feel offended — “Is he making fun of me?!” — even though he is, thankfully, too young to realize that society thinks he should see any part of me as anything but beautiful. Now when he pokes at my tummy, I usually smile back. “That's where you used to live! Did you know that?”
Before having a baby, it was really easy to unconsciously adopt society’s idea that what women’s bodies look like is more important than what they can do. But once I became pregnant, and my body was constantly responsible for keeping another person alive, my priorities started to flip in a big way.
Knowing that my breasts fluctuate in size because I’m making milk to meet my child’s changing physical needs, makes a huge difference for me. Recognizing that each of the little stretch marks on my belly mark a point at which my skin could have painfully split open, leaving us both vulnerable to sickness, yet didn't, makes me so grateful for all that my body does, regardless of how it measures up to some external norm.
It seems silly to not have realized this sooner, but being young, healthy, and able-bodied has a way of making you feel invulnerable. As long as you don't get in an accident or anything, you can stay pretty well insulated from the consequences of less-than-healthy habits.
Realizing that my baby’s life actually depended on what I ate, how much rest I got, and how strong I was, finally made me realize that my own life depends on all that, too.
People may get pregnant and have babies every day, but I certainly don't do those things every day. Seeing myself grow a person, feeling that person move inside me, going through labor and pushing him into the world, was life-changing. My body did so many things I could never consciously choose to do, in order to keep me and my growing baby safe. I'm just amazed by how smart and capable my body is.
I used to take for granted that, as an able-bodied person, I'd always be able to enjoy a yoga class or go for a run or dance when I felt like it. After having a baby, and needing to take time to let my body recover, I realized that I shouldn't take those things for granted. That downtime, when I couldn't just up and do all the things I was used to doing, helped me appreciate my body so much more.
My relationship with my pre-pregnancy body had some positive aspects, but most of the positive things I did or felt for myself were kind of accidental; things I stumbled into.
Now, I'm far more intentional about how I view and treat my body, how I allow my body to be treated, and, as a result, it feels more precious to me now. I pay more attention to how I use my body overall; not just when I exercise, and not just for the sake of what I look like. In my experience, things you work for are always more dear to you than things you just happen to get.
I never mourned the “loss” of my pre-pubescent form, or longed to once again look like I did in middle school. My body still does all the things it did before (and more), I’m still surrounded by people who love and respect me, and I still have a satisfying sex life. All of the lies women are told about our bodies — especially that we’ll never be loved, desired, or happy unless we look a certain way — have been proven resoundingly untrue in my life.
So why was I clinging to what I looked like before having a baby? That body might have looked more like one I've seen in a magazine or on screen, but it only ever experienced a fraction of the love and meaning I currently enjoy every day.
Gradually, over the past two years, I've found myself getting kind of excited to get dressed in front of the mirror again. I catch myself smiling as I shimmy into my lacy underwear or some new jeans. The whining, mourning voice that judged my postpartum body every day has been replaced by a more mature one; one that cheers me on. I like her a lot better.