A mother stands with toddler in underpants and sweater
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The Harm In 'You Look Like You Never Had A Baby!'

My baby was 6 months old, clinging to me, fat and happy, when That Family Friend crowed, “You look like you’ve never had a baby. I mean, you look GREAT!” She was beaming. The message, however well intentioned, was undeniable: the lack of obvious, easy-to-spot physical proof that I had given birth was seen as a positive. I looked “great” because my body looked unchanged. My hand went to my abdomen instinctively, covering what That Family Friend apparently couldn’t see.

I thought to myself, Have you seen my perineum? My prior C-section scar? My loose skin? And what about how I was doing on the inside? You have no idea.

All the guests were (ironically) praising the baby’s “juicy” thighs. Women’s thighs enjoy no such adoration, especially not with residual pregnancy weight on them. Postpartum, I felt more juiced than juicy. But I found I was anticipating, maybe even taking a sick pleasure in, their appreciation of my “slim” body. It is not easy to escape this paradox. It is what prevents the medicine of common sense and true regard for one another from taking effect. I may have stared stupidly at That (THIN!) Family Friend, before I managed to shape my face into a smile. The subtext is: Unless you are thin, the body you have and therefore the person it contains, is just not good enough. Rarely at a loss for words, I had no comeback: Another win for thin? High five, I did it? Also, did she or anyone consider that my weight (postpartum or otherwise, because I had a history of being underweight) might have been lost with a slew of other painful losses, like the ability to rest well, feel deep pleasure, or satiate myself without grating mental commentary?

What might one woman (99% of the time, a mother) mean when she gushes to another woman, clearly holding her baby, “You look like you never had a baby!”?

I’ve been “complimented” with variations on this confusing statement (confusing, because, well, I had two babies) from oh-so-many mouths. An older family friend at a baby shower brunch, because, yes, let’s make sure the parent-to-be gets the memo on expectant body image. A very pregnant patient at the midwife’s office at my 2-week postpartum visit. Friends’ mothers. Even my mother (who will read this: I love you so hard) proclaimed enthusiastically, “You slimmed right down!” These comments reveal the damaging cultural standards we’ve internalized — even mothers like me who’d like to think we’re smarter than that.

Why do we do this to each other? Why don’t we have pat replies to correct the warped perceptions that give rise to these comments? Why didn’t the midwife, for starters, gently interject medical knowledge about healthy weight? Why don’t our elders crow as we become more like them?

Why don’t we protect each other from harmful behaviors — restricted eating, anxiety, depression, and self-harm — that can ensue?

Is it because of commentary like that, despite knowing intellectually so much better, I still can’t glimpse my postpartum tummy without feeling some ancient, sad disdain?

Complimenting postpartum weight loss is not a kindness, even if it’s culturally sanctioned. If we wanted to make people feel good, regardless of body shape, we’d send different messages altogether. Welcome to the belly club, honey! Hold off on the planks and onto the baby-weight pounds, good for your bones, and no one’s business anyway. Inoculate yourselves against the tyranny of thin worship! It’s NOT like this everywhere in the world...

From the moment each of my pregnancies started showing, I was inundated with comments about my appearance. It was especially praiseworthy to others that you could not tell I was pregnant until I turned around. Weirdly, not looking pregnant was treated as a good thing. My body wasn’t only mine, but a receptacle for public commentary and walking petting zoo. Unfortunately, this didn’t end after I delivered my children.

I feel a duty to identify as postpartum forever.

It’s hard enough to love your postpartum reality, dripping, bleeding, sagging, aching, emptied, and working round the clock. But add to the American cultural baggage about body size, shape and fat bias? No wonder there is a spike in eating disorders, anxiety disorders, and depressive disorders in those long weeks and months after giving birth, when you are supposed to be focused on bonding alone, but are often distracted by articles on weight loss that pop up when you start to Google “postpartum” anything. The takeaway is that (repeat after me) you should change immeasurably, in almost every way, but not look like it.

Don’t worry: If you keep fat on your body, extra skin, as most do (10+ pounds), no one will say anything. And you can fill in all the negative blanks with every demon voice you ever had about your own self-worth based on how you look compared to some impossible standard few people meet. And if possible, adding to the list of destructive tasks, you should go backward in time, avoiding both aging and death, or at least physical evidence of these processes.

I’ve worked as a doula, and thought a lot about how moms wind up in (many) impossible binds: We are both revered on a Sunday in May and institutionally expendable 364 other days. Our bodies are sacred only in a brief window when our bellies are distended with third trimester babies.

After that, we are shamed into wanting our bodies to be less. Some resist that destruction; others are consumed by it. Thin people like me, regardless of the healthy or unhealthy reasons for our low weight, exacerbate the warped perceptions by modeling the unhealthy ideal, and so maybe have even more of a duty to speak up and deflect appreciation.

I don’t want to look great but be sh*tty, nor do I want that for you; I want postpartum to feel great, even when it feels hard. I feel a duty to identify as postpartum forever. At this time, we’re open like never before and never again, and our very neural circuits rewired to connect to creatures born blissfully free of such bullsh*t programming. (Don’t worry, it gets in there quickly.) Postpartum, we’re people who have made people, and our bodies show it. We may have nothing else in common with each other but that: Our form and function have been revised. And we don’t want to hear about it from you, unless you appreciate all forms of mother bodies equally.

Unfortunately, barring ultra-athletes, I am one of the people who almost reaches that impossible standard, making me into the accidental poster girl for everything I think is wrong with our culture, and everything our culture does to sabotage real health. Hey, body dysmorphia, social degradation: If you need someone to point to, I’m free on Thursdays.

Still, the best response I can come up with is a lot softer than fighting words: “I actually feel better when I gain a little more weight. Could you get me a big plate of food, nope, bigger than that? And hold this yummy, chunky baby so I can get it all in my mouth?”

At the baby shower, with my slow-chewing beautiful mom by my side to help with the baby’s dive-n-grab, I filled a plate, toweringly high, sat near That Family Friend, and ate it, perhaps with excessive flourish, which is what I wish we were all empowered to do anyway.

If you or someone you know has an eating disorder and needs help, call the National Eating Disorders Association helpline at 1-800-931-2237, text 741741, or chat online with a Helpline volunteer here.