It is the day after my son's birth. I'm still in the hospital. I am amazed that I can look down and see past my stomach. In the 24 hours since giving birth to my son, it has not once occurred to me to feel anxious or ashamed of my postpartum body. "My stomach!" I say to a friend. "It's so flat!" She wrinkles her nose and gives me a tight smile. "It'll get smaller," she tells me. I blink, hurt, shocked, and utterly surprised by her words. Didn't she realize that I was delighted that it was smaller?
That day in the hospital marked the start of my super-complicated relationship to my postpartum body, a body whose shape I had never particularly minded before (or while) I was pregnant. Over the years I had always fretted about my skin and my hair, but I was always rather content with my stomach, my curves, and pretty much everything about how my body was shaped. But after giving birth, when the weight didn't simply fall away — as I had assumed it would, having been #blessed with a Road Runner-fast metabolism up until that point — I judged myself and the way I looked hard.
My post-baby body is extra fraught because I am a birth mother. On the one hand, that means that I have no "excuse" for not losing my baby weight, because I'm not raising a child. On the other hand, my soft tummy and stretch marks are, in a way, a souvenir of the child I relinquished. Maybe that kept me from trying to lose weight in any concrete way; I never dieted or did crunches. Or maybe the whole notion that our stomachs are supposed to be flat is an arbitrary standard with no basis in reality or actual beauty, and we don't need a freaking excuse for having soft tummies. Maybe that kept me from losing the weight.
So the weight stayed on. I eat way more vegetables now than I did pre-baby, but I refused to "diet," to deprive myself specifically for the purpose of losing weight. No matter how enlightened or self-aware I tried to be, though, I was no match for a lifetime of social conditioning (and, I realized, of smug complacency at maintaining an effortless size 8 up until then). Turns out, it was super easy to hate my body when it stopped conforming to certain beauty standards! And then to hate myself for hating my body! What kind of feminist was I, anyway?
As I had done in my pregnancy, I kept lounging around in the same pair of extra-forgiving paint-splattered jeans until my dad offered to buy me new jeans for Christmas. I emphatically do not recommend going jeans shopping in the three months post-baby. I had to keep going up a size from what I thought I was, and then up another size, and by that point I was holding back tears in the dressing room, wondering if I'd ever get my old body back. (I ended up with some very cute purple skinny jeans, which promptly ripped in the crotch.)
It has been an incredibly healing experience to have audiences cheer repeatedly at the sight of my stomach; I highly recommend it. It also is an incredibly healing experience to write the word "love" on your stomach every night.
But little by little, more and more love for my body kept creeping in over time. Here are some things that helped:
Burlesque. I found it super difficult to hate my body when it was covered in glitter and a crowd of people was cheering for me to strip. After one especially sweaty performance in a friend's backyard, I stayed in my underwear all day. Multiple women said to me, "Thank you for being so comfortable with your body." I responded, "Glitter."
Sex. Tons of people still want to have sex with women whose bellies are soft and stretch-marked from pregnancies! You can still have smokin' hot, multiple-orgasm, throw-me-against-the-wall sex in a postpartum body! (OK, yes, this is one area where being a birth mother might give me an unfair advantage. I do not have a small human depending on me for food, so I have more time to do things like have sex. But you can do this. I believe in you.)
I hung out with my kid and quit jobs and started new jobs and kissed people and ate mac and cheese and thought about things besides my stomach. Slowly, slowly, the shame dissipated.
Telling my story. I've performed a solo show about my pregnancy and adoption journey all around the country. At the end, I perform a letter to my son as a burlesque routine, with each line of the letter written on a sign. The final words of the letter — LOVE YOU — are written on my stomach in lipstick. My round, stretched-out stomach. It has been an incredibly healing experience to have audiences cheer repeatedly at the sight of my stomach; I highly recommend it. It also is an incredibly healing experience to write the word "love" on your stomach every night.
Fashion. I inherited a bunch of my Grandma's costume jewelry and signed up for a personal styling service, and started putting more care into my appearance instead of just throwing on the same flannel shirt and yoga pants every day. I got the asymmetrical haircut and nose ring I'd been wanting for years. I invested in a disco adventure suit and I hit up Buffalo Exchanges and sometimes I wear big hats. I let my outsides be as weird and artsy and sparkly as I wanted my insides to be.
Just... life, man. I kept doing things I liked, like producing and writing plays. I hung out with my kid and quit jobs and started new jobs and kissed people and ate mac and cheese and thought about things besides my stomach. Slowly, slowly, the shame dissipated.
I don't claim to love my body unconditionally. I certainly feel fat and/or unattractive sometimes. But then I just keep doing whatever I want anyway. When I feel weird about my body, I just let myself feel weird; I try not to add shame on top of shame. Life is too short.