When I was a perfectly normal and healthy 11-year-old girl, my mom and I kept a journal where we would write letters back and forth.
I had a lot of concerns to share. Most were extremely silly, such as worrying that my favorite British actors wouldn’t like me if we met in person because of that whole 1776 American Revolution thing. So maybe ‘perfectly normal’ is a stretch, but I was at least reasonably healthy when I had a more serious question.
“Please be honest. Am I too chubby?”
I described the concerning little pouches of fat around my armpits and tummy. My mom wrote back, reassuring me of my health and normalcy, promising that my residual baby fat would soon melt away entirely.
For the purposes of this blog post, I don’t need to spend much time on the cultural sexism and obsession with appearances that create this kind of problem for women and girls. We can all feel the galling, constant, nagging comparison of our real bodies to the ones we hold in our minds. Too chubby. Too tall. Too skinny. Too jiggly.
During pregnancy, I felt the comparison between good bodies and bad bodies more keenly than ever, because a good body meant I was a good mother, too.
I kept a close eye on the scale at every appointment, and whether I felt a twinge of pride or shame at the pounds I had gained or lost (in the first trimester, due to morning sickness), it bothered me that my emotions were attached to the spinning number.
It bothered me even more when I received compliments based on my size and appearance as a pregnant mom. “You look like you’ve swallowed a basketball! Good for you!” The words felt good, but I knew that not every woman or every pregnancy has a cute, tiny, Blake Lively baby bump. If my 21-year-old, easily pregnant body was good then would a future, bigger, older pregnant me be bad?
If my future pregnancies were less ‘basketball’ and more ‘shopping cart’, I knew those compliments would dwindle as my body ballooned. I didn’t like the thought. I didn’t want my size to correlate with my quality as a mom, because I was terrified that after birth, my body (and my pregnancies) would never be the same size again.
After my baby was born, the changes were dizzying. Comfortingly, the pregnancy weight had dropped off by my 2-week appointment, but breastfeeding did not play a strong defense. I began to notice that my long days at home snuggling my baby were resulting in a bigger, softer tummy than ever.
Sure enough, my pre-pregnancy clothes didn’t fit anymore. The idea was so hard to accept that it wasn’t until Rory was 9 months old that I finally managed to hand down my old favorite sundresses to my younger sisters, a task that was made even harder by their sentimental value.
Each sundress had made some very sweet memories. My first kiss. The time Kyle surprised me with Valentine’s Day in January because he was about to leave for his second semester of law school. The one I had transformed from an ugly old dress into one that Kyle loved on me.
Letting go of those dresses felt like letting go of the person who used to wear them, who was spontaneous and romantic and girly and in love. Since entering parenthood, all of those things became a lot harder. I’ve had to painstakingly rediscover who I am and what I think about myself in my personhood, my marriage, and my physical self.
Being a wife and a mom has fundamentally changed the way I see my body. The temptation to compare and weigh and cover is still there, but I’ve learned to talk myself through those feelings and impulses and remind myself of what really matters.
Being a wife and mom has taught me these truths. When I struggle with my appearance (like, every day), this is what I repeat to myself:
- My body sheltered my growing baby for 9+ months and brought him safely out into the world. I have a long, purple scar under my stomach (and, you know, an awesome kid) to prove it.
- My body feeds and comforts my baby. I’m bigger, softer, and squishier than I used to be, but to Rory, I’m the coziest, happiest, most beautiful thing he knows. For bringing such love and security to my baby, I love my new body.
- My body is sexy and beautiful to my husband. He has always been so sweet about making sure I know it, but I still used to stress about wanting to look a certain way so I could feel desirable. Until I had a breakthrough: no matter how I felt about my body, having sex with him is still great. The world objectifies our bodies, sending the message that being slender and toned is necessary for sexual gratification. But when we’re enjoying that unity with each other, it transcends our appearances. We don’t worry about rolls of tummy fat or jiggly thighs.
- My body weight doesn’t matter. We don’t have a scale at home, which has been really good because whenever I come across one in a friend’s bathroom or at the doctor’s office, I’m tempted to weigh myself and obsess over the number. That’s not healthy. Recently, I read an article in which a mother who had always struggled with her relationship to her weight would always step on the scale backwards and ask the nurse to not tell her the number during her pregnancy checkups, unless it was of concern. This is so smart, and I’m doing the same for my current pregnancy.
- My body is powerful. I may not have a six pack, or any abs to speak of for that matter, but Kyle and I started running together last summer and. You guys. The feeling of your body toughening and strengthening is seriously cool. The first time I ran a whole kilometer without stopping had me so excited I started whooping there in the park. When we started that felt totally impossible but now I know I CAN do it and I’m excited to keep improving my time and endurance. BUT, that said:
- My body is not a priority for my time. When I get that feeling, that guilt, that little part of my brain trying to promise that tomorrow I will work out more and eat less, I give myself a reality check: could I spend more time and effort trying to look a certain way? Yes. Do I want to? Hell, no! I want to spend my free time reading to my baby and cooking nutritious meals with my husband and catching up with friends and news on Twitter and reading Flannery O’Connor and watching British dramas and learning new songs on the ukulele. A ‘perfect’ body might be possible, but it would be a full-time job with all the ~healthy~ food prep, running, weight lifting, and Instagramming. I’ll be over here eating ice cream and enjoying time with my family, kthxbye.
Because bodies are wonderful, but their value is not in what they look like but rather, what they can do. I may not fit into those cute little sundresses anymore, but my body can still kiss my husband, feed and snuggle my baby, hug my friends, cook food, drink beer, and do a million other things that define me beyond what I look like.
That’s my body image.