I gave birth almost nine months ago, and it shows. My hips are wider, my belly hangs lower, and new stretch marks decorate entire patches of skin on my breasts, tummy, thighs, and rump. I haven't lost the baby weight, nor is it on my list of priorities to do so. My body changed, just as it was supposed to. Even so, a lot of well-meaning folks cannot resist the urge to tell me that I don't look like I gave birth; and in all honesty, I wish they'd stop.
I understand where this comes from, of course. We live in a culture that condemns fatness, cellulite, stretch marks, and other perceived imperfections, particularly if you're a woman or femme. New motherhood can be difficult for infinite reasons, but I'm certain that the evolution of our figures and the stigma we tack onto that, make things all the harder.
We find ourselves, all at once, having to navigate sleepless nights, the care of tiny, fragile creatures who need so much, and the loss of the bodies that we inhabited beforehand — the bodies we'd maybe even finally come to love. To tell someone that they look like they "haven't even given birth" is meant to praise their "success." It's to imply that they don't look so bad, that their bodies aren't destroyed or unattractive or pitiable, that they look like their old selves.
This isn't a compliment I want or need. Giving birth isn't something I'm ashamed of, nor are the changes in my body that happened as a result of carrying a small person inside it. I want the memories of my pregnancy, labor, and their aftermath to feel celebratory. I want to revel in how strong and powerful I felt once my daughter was finally out.
I'd be lying if I said that I haven't once felt ill at ease in my body since Luna was born. The immediate weeks after her birth were spent in various degrees of pain. Once it didn't hurt to move around anymore, I found myself looking at a reflection that I didn't quite understand. It wasn't an ugly reflection. It wasn't a broken one, either. It was just new, and it required an adjustment period.
These days, my body is less of an hourglass shape and more of a cactus, with uneven curves and rolls distributed throughout. I've been plus size for most of my life, but now I have even more of those characteristics we are so regularly taught to hate. It isn't just the stretch marks or cellulite. It's the dryer, thinner hair. It's the breakout-prone complexion and skin tags. It's the shape of my stomach, rather than its size alone.
Most people who give birth experience one or more such changes. But when almost every mainstream mommy magazine (or mainstream women's magazine, for that matter) is touting "how to get your pre-baby body back" diet and fitness plans, it's all too easy to fall into the trap. It's all too easy to feel like we cannot be our best selves, or the best mothers to our children, unless we get back to our old selves.
Everyone knows about this kind of messaging. Whether we like to think of ourselves as "body positive" or not, the internalized assumption that all new moms must want to get their old figures back resides in a hell of a lot of people — whether or not they have children themselves. It's why "not looking like you've given birth" becomes a sort of comfort. So much has changed with the arrival of our little ones, but maybe our old selves aren't lost.
I'd like to think that our pre-baby selves had more to offer this world than our bodies, though. I'd like to think that my body is one of the least important or interesting things about me; and that the same has been true before and after my daughter's existence. I'd like to think that I have gained a lot more than I've lost. I've gained a best friend. I've gained the joy that comes with seeing her tiny face light up in the morning when she first sees me. I've gained confidence in my own resiliency. I've gained the marks and curves that serve as a kind of homage to it all.
I don't need to look exactly like my old self because that person wasn't a mother; and being a mother — no matter how exhausting, emotionally draining, and utterly wild it can sometimes be — isn't something I'd want to give up. The process of becoming a mother isn't something I'd want to sweep under the rug, as if it never happened.
So if someday you see me, and think that my skin is glowing, or my curls are doing a cute thing, or I look hot AF in an outfit, or I've somehow managed to apply my makeup in such a way that I look as though I've slept for more than three hours, please comment on those things. If you catch a glimpse of my new stretch marks, saggy boobs, or changed belly, try to avoid feeling sorry for me. To accept that these things aren't flaws — nor would they be if I hadn't had a kid — is to acknowledge that "pre-baby body" rhetoric can be harmful and damaging for a lot of humans. It's a narrative that implies that we've failed, when nothing could be further from the truth.
So please don't tell me I look like I haven't even given birth. Tell me that I look like I have. Tell me that I look different, because I do. Because I am.