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Your body cannot be ruined

May 7, 2009

In this post, a friend of Happy Bodies reflects on a body positivity aha! moment she experienced after the birth of her son. For many of us college-age women, childbearing seems like a far-in-the-future event, but her wise words should resonate with us now. We thank her for sharing her story.

I won’t lie. I thought I would bounce right back. I didn’t even start showing until I was six months along. My weight gain was on the low side of the recommended range. I carried nearly all of it in my belly. I didn’t have any stretch marks. People told me all the time how great I looked.

And then I actually had my son. Where before I could run my hand over my taut belly, so ripe with potential, my hand now sunk into a pile of fluff. And it turns out I did have stretch marks, angry burgundy scars all along my lower belly. I just hadn’t been able to see them on the underside of my pregnant abdomen. Slowly, as my uterus contracted and shrank, so did my belly. But the lost weight left behind skin that was crinkly like crepe paper. Two months postpartum, feeling like I finally had lost my pregnant belly, I tried to put on the jeans I had worn until I was five months pregnant. I couldn’t even get them past my hips.

Pregnancy inverts the “before” and “after” pictures from the diet pill ads. I looked longingly at the pictures of myself on the beach the year before I got pregnant, and I couldn’t believe I had ever thought there was a single thing wrong with my body.

This was new territory for me. Sure, I had nitpicked my body before, but I actually thought I had a pretty good handle on the body image stuff. My mother raised me well. Exercise was for getting strong. Food was to be enjoyed. And I thought it bitterly ironic that I had gone and done the thing that is supposed to be my highest purpose as a woman – producing a child – but the changes it produced in my body made me feel like I was somehow less than I had been before.

But something in the juxtaposition of those thoughts turned on a light bulb. Having been raised a feminist and having always seen feminism as obvious and true, I don’t have a lot of aha! moments with feminism, but I had one then. I realized that it’s all a trap. It’s not about any objective value embedded in any of these things. It’s about setting standards that women will feel they must chase, and then, if they ever manage to meet one of those standards, setting up a whole other set of standards. You’re damned if you do and damned if you don’t and you can’t win so why play?

I felt liberated from a burden I didn’t realize I’d been carrying at least since puberty. I felt like I’d found the Holy Grail of self-acceptance and started evangelizing. When a friend who was feeling old after her 35th birthday complained about the loose flab on her arms, I tried to tell her about how having a baby made me realize it’s all a load of horseshit and she should love her flabby arms. “That’s different,” she said. “You have an excuse.”

That wasn’t what I was trying to say, not it at all. How to put it differently? It’s that our bodies don’t exist to be objects for aesthetic evaluation. Not that no one should look or admire or appreciate – but that’s not what our bodies are for. They are for living in. Legs that carry us from place to place. Hands that grasp. Hearts that beat. Lungs that breathe. Brains that think and feel. And yes, uteruses that grow new human beings from scratch. How is it that we have come to stand in such harsh judgment of the bodies that grant us something so fundamental as our very existence?

The Web site Shape of a Mother helped me a lot on this journey. Started by a woman pondering the way our postpartum bodies are a kind of dirty secret, she posted candid pictures of her own body and invited other women to post theirs. Here is her goal:

It is my dream, then, to create this website where women of all ages, shapes, sizes and nationalities can share images of their bodies so it will no longer be secret. So we can finally see what women really look like sans airbrushes and plastic surgery. I think it would be nothing short of amazing if a few of our hearts are healed, or if we begin to cherish our new bodies which have done so much for the human race. What if the next generation grows up knowing how normal our bodies are? How truly awesome would that be?

If you read through the archives you will see a lot of pain but also a lot of healing. But even with all this self-awareness, I still don’t share it with my pregnant friends until after they have their babies. I know that they, like I once did, believe they’ll bounce right back. Occasionally women who have never had children or who are pregnant for the first time write to Shape of a Mother expressing fear – even terror – at the pictures there. They believe pregnancy will ruin their bodies. And what can we mothers say to them? It might not change your body much at all, and it might change it profoundly. But no, it will not ruin your body. Your body cannot be ruined.

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2 Comments leave one →
  1. May 8, 2009 1:19 AM

    Beautiful post.
    I didn’t really expect my body to ‘bounce back’ but that might be because it was never that kind of body. I never had a ‘good’ figure so I had nothing to lose. I wonder if that made it easier to accept the changes? At least, I know that pregnancy and birth was an overwhelmingly positive experience for me, in terms of body image. Having my body do something amazing and which brought me joy was really a valuable lesson.

  2. Nikoleta permalink
    May 8, 2009 9:44 AM

    Wow, I really love this post. Though I have no experience with childbirth, I think the message is one anyone take hold of: your body cannot be ruined. so powerful. Thank you.

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