During the past eight years, my body has stretched, shape-shifted, deflated, and rearranged itself with dramatic flair. I love that I can contemplate my changing body with fondness and humor now.
It hasn’t always been that way. My two babies and my body showed me how.
I began my first pregnancy as a thin and unenlightened 24-year-old. I dreaded “looking fat” (= bad) before “looking pregnant” (= good), and then “looking fat” again, after the baby was born. After all, I grew up in a culture that treats gaining weight as a moral failure, a culture that depicts fat people as lazy, disgusting, incompetent, and out of control. And we’ve all seen how TV shows and so-called “women’s” magazines treat celebrity weight gain and weight loss around childbearing.
Although I was overjoyed about my pregnancy, I was also distracted by this pressure and by my alarmingly changing waistline. Still pregnant long past my due date, I journaled anxiously about having six weeks instead of eight to “get my body back into the shape that lets me have my normal confidence and presence” before teaching again. My heart thrilled when a surprised student told me I didn’t look like I’d just had a baby. I wanted to be thin and in control, to look professional and conventionally attractive. I wanted my body back.
I lost the weight, effortlessly; my body has always tended to thinness. Yet I had not gotten my body back. I was, undeniably, physically different in myriad ways. No one had told me to expect that! My old clothes fit differently (or not at all), my flesh looked and felt different, my curves had shifted.
I knew I was supposed to get my body back. But back from where? For whom? My twenty-four-year-old body? Why? I’m thirty-three now, softer with age and life as well as babies. I don’t think that body is sitting on a shelf waiting for me to go get it.
In any event, I don’t want it.
Because as my body has stretched and shifted and opened and changed, my mind has too.
My body is marked in ways I did not anticipate, was not told were possible by the “lose the weight” and “get your body back” narratives. Since my first child was born eight years ago, my waist has been an inch or two higher than before. My rib cage is broader. My belly is softer.
Although these changes were hard to accept at first, I gradually discovered that this altered body is even stronger and more capable of pleasure than the earlier version was. Heading into my second pregnancy, I knew two important facts: I will never “get my old body back,” and I don’t need to.
This time, I was able to welcome the shapeshifting, a huge blessing during what turned out to be a very difficult pregnancy. I’ve been able to love my changing body past pregnancy, too. Since our youngest child’s birth, my spine has curved in new ways, chin pushing forward, posture marked by bearing and carrying these small people. My thighs are bigger. Stretch marks grace my breasts, which are still changing: between my first baby’s weaning and my second pregnancy, they were two cup sizes smaller than they’d been my entire adult life, and who knows what they’ll do after my youngest weans? My menstrual cycle has changed, too, lovely between my pregnancies but far heavier and more painful after the second. And this is all okay.
Living in my pregnant and postpartum body, I have learned three very simple, very hard lessons:
1) We are embodied. That sounds obvious. If asked, before I got pregnant, “do you live in your body?” I would have said “of course.” But I so totally didn’t get it.
Babies and young children get it. They roll around, bend, stretch, feel every inch of their skin. They fart and laugh. I’ve watched my babies love their bodies—and my body—with pleasure and non-judgment. Without shame, hang-ups, anxiety, or self-consciousness. They don’t apply a ranking system. They apply curiosity, affection, and that awesome baby pragmatism.
Before all this warm fuzzy baby goodness, though, I was rudely chucked into body awareness by pregnancy. I was struck, over and over, with how bodily I felt, different from all my prior experiences. I’ve always been a puker, but here was nausea that scorned all efforts not to vomit: I was going to heave right here, right now. I had to leave meetings to pee because, again, there was no “wait.” Bowled over by fatigue, I occasionally woke unexpectedly at my desk. My shape and size changed more dramatically than during puberty. I felt my growing uterus, learned about parts of my anatomy that I couldn’t have located before. Other people stared at me, asked questions about my body, commented on my size. A total stranger inquired about the state of my cervix when I was just trying to pick up some vegetables. Another body moved inside mine, beloved and mysterious.
The postpartum period brought new and surreal heights of body-awareness. I looked into a mirror three days after giving birth to see immense, rock-hard breasts impossibly stuck on my own chest because my milk came in. I felt a large blood clot plop out of my body while chatting with a friend. I found milk spreading across my shirt when someone else’s baby cried.
I was all body.
And yet I was still myself.
Turns out I’d been a body all along, only I hadn’t quite noticed somehow.
2) Bodies change.
I knew that my belly would get huge and my breasts would produce milk. I did not know that my body would—or even could—change head-to-toe in such bizarre ways. I didn’t know it would be different forever, that there would be no “old body” waiting to be retrieved.
It hadn’t occurred to me that I would continue to age, the changes of aging unfolding underneath the changes of reproduction. That my belly, breasts, thighs, and brain would be a decade older at the end of this rollercoaster ride. That they’d be changing anyway, pregnancies or no pregnancies.
When anxious new parents wanted to compare notes on our physical experiences, I often said “every pregnancy is different” or “every body is different.” But I only really grasped the truth of those words when my second pregnancy was a nightmare of endless nausea, worlds away from my first pregnancy. When my second baby was so different from my first. When my body took over twice as long to regain any semblance of normalcy. Bodies change.
3) Perhaps most radically, I don’t have to be skinny and taut to be okay. To be valuable. To be myself. To enjoy my body and my life.
I grew up with women who dieted, disliked photos of themselves, and constantly believed they were too fat. My mother, stepmother, friends’ mothers, all the women in sitcoms and ads. By the time I was twelve, I regarded my own body with deep suspicion. My stomach was not flat. My grandmother told me I had “big legs like my mother.” I never knew whether I was pretty, or desirable, or okay.
My children have never looked at their bodies and measured them before deciding whether they could have fun. They’ve never felt they weren’t “beach ready” or couldn’t wear particular styles because they had belly fat. They think their bodies are great and expect me to have fun with my great body, too.
My first child’s innate body-positivity reinforced my surprising experiences within my own postpartum body. I gained weight, I got soft and lumpy, I moved farther from the societal ideal of female beauty, and yet somehow nothing bad happened! It just did not matter at all in my real life and relationships. By my second pregnancy, I could greet stretch marks, changes in weight and shape, and the year or so postpartum of larger-than-usual waistbands matter-of-factly and even fondly. From “I need to fit into my clothes,” I got to “I need clothes that fit me.”
Eventually, and gradually—because of my affectionate young hedonists, my aging, my amazement at my own physical strength through pregnancies, births, and parenting, my body-positive feminist friends and husband—I grasped that we have the right to enjoy our bodies and our lives right now. My body does not exist to be displayed and judged. I get to feel good in my body and enjoy what it—what I—can do. Running and playing with my children is a lot more fun with this understanding. Sex is, too.
Our culture acts as if pregnancy is like wearing a removable belly. It’s okay to get round in a certain way as long as you take the belly off with the baby, revealing your former body (and former self). You have to get your body back, ASAP, so get to work.
But the radical truth is this: the wild and powerful changes of the reproductive experience can also give us body wisdom and comfort in our skins. Viewed differently, they can help us gain a new relationship with our bodies, a new comfort with the reality that our bodies are always changing (cyclically, seasonally, through aging, with changes in activity or health, …). A new affection and peace.
There are, mercifully, many possible paths to this radical embrace of our physical selves. I’ve witnessed others travel there through deep interpersonal love, the aging process, sexual pleasure, political activism, spiritual practices, athletic endeavors, and experiences of illness. And I know even more routes exist.
As for myself, I accidentally got there through a couple of delightful babies and a mushy postpartum belly.
Forget getting my body back. I’m happy to have gotten my body—really gotten it—for the first time since I was a very young child.