How pregnancy and birth transformed my body image

I wrote this article in 2014, two weeks before my daughter’s first birthday. I include it here to remember—to remember what it was like to be in my early postpartum days. To remind myself of the hard-won truths I explored in this piece (we all need reminders right?) And to remember the kinds of meaning I have fashioned from my birth experience in the past (as I encourage parents to do in their birth story writing). I also offer this here, of course, to share with you. Because this -ish is timeless. And because sharing our stories offers a way for us to connect, heal, shape culture, and more.    

Society is conditioned to tell women that pregnancy and childbirth will ruin their bodies. “Just wait, your body will never be the same,” they tell you, with this implicit warning that those changes will bring sadness, loss, and maybe even shame or embarrassment.  So get ready.  Fear the stretch marks and saggy boobs; the soft suppleness that doesn’t conform to our social ideals of the body.

Yes, my body has changed in significant ways since my pre-pregnant days.  Yes, in pregnancy, I had some struggles—I developed debilitating pelvic pain, I felt morning sickness, I got headaches. Yes, I had to heal from postpartum hemorrhage and a second-degree tear.  Yes, my post-birth belly skin is looser and softer than before.  And, at nearly a year postpartum, I am still working to heal my pelvic floor.

Despite all this, I can say with confidence: I have never felt better about my body in my whole life.

That’s right, after carrying and birthing a child I have a better body image than ever.  I love and respect and appreciate my body like never before.  Recalcitrant bladder, squishy belly and all.
I used to have the body every woman in our society is taught to long for.  As a teenager, I used to thumb through the Victoria Secret catalog comparing my body to those of the models, confidently concluding that my body looked just as good, if not better. Hey, I was 16.  I got a lot of male attention as a young woman and learned that my body held the key to my social acceptance (or so it seemed).

So I had this pretty body, but I was a mess.  I was anorexic.  Depressed.  Worse.  I got the guys, but not in any real way. I was addicted to their approval, subsuming my own personhood, willingly becoming a mere object of gratification in an effort to be liked.  To belong.  My self worth was not coming from my inherent awesomeness as a person; it was barely attained via outside judgment I clung to desperately.  I lost friends over it.  Had horribly abusive relationships. Starved myself for two years.  Worse.  I had the body but I had no power, no confidence, and zero self-esteem.  I sacrificed my body on the altar of social acceptance.  I didn’t think I had much else to offer.  (I was so wrong.)

In my 20s things got a little better, but it was basically more of the same.  I judged my body and used its acceptance as a measure of my self-worth.   I’d refuse to eat on days I went to the beach, so I could keep a flat belly.  I didn’t eat (but drank a whole lot) during a college trip and shed 10 pounds, because I was bikini-clad in Mexico all day.  I watched friends struggle with similar diet and exercise monsters.  It seemed normal.  Keeping up in San Diego as a young woman felt like a tall order.

College helped me develop a burgeoning sense of myself but I was still a long way from really loving and accepting my body.  It was something I wanted to control and manage more than nurture.

As I grew into my late 20s and became more stable in my sense of self (by the grace of time and a lot of intentional growth and healing), things began to gently shift.  I felt better about myself and now pursued healthier relationships (my awesome husband is a perfect case in point).  But I still judged the hell out of my body.  When I looked at my legs in the mirror, I saw cellulite.  I was constantly striving to maintain that flat belly.  I judged and criticized my body at every turn.  My sense of self worth was still tied to external approval, though in more insidious ways.

BIRTH

Then, in my early 30s, I got pregnant.  Suddenly, my body was changing and I was not in control.  I was sick for 3 months with no relief.  I bled through the first trimester and risked losing the baby.  I could do nothing but take care of my body as best I could.  My belly began to swell.  My pregnancy continued.  A sea change was coming.
You would have thought the challenges of pregnancy would have thrown someone like me for a loop.  Surprisingly, my internal dialogue changed in unexpected ways.  I starting loving and appreciating my body for the first time, in a healthy way.  I would get up in the morning and, instead of loathing a poochy belly, I would marvel that a tiny life was growing inside.  I loved feeling its roundness.  Eventually I loved feeling her move around inside my belly.

 
Jaime Fleres pregnant
 

 

Instead of skipping breakfast to spare myself the calories, I would rise and prepare protein-rich nourishing meals.  It was no longer a question of how to stay thin; it was a question of how to really nurture myself.  When I stepped on the scale at each prenatal visit, I would see the ever-increasing numbers and smile, inwardly proud that I was taking such good care of my body and baby.  I stopped looking at my thighs in disdain. I started taking baths, rubbing my belly with oils, and talking to my sweet babe.  And even when pelvic pain made it hurt to walk, I’d find ways to love and move my body through gentle yoga and dance.

Daily, I marveled at the miracle of my body.  It was making another human being!  My amazing female body was making her bones, her blood, her brain, the beautiful and delicate features of her face, her soft skin, her eyelashes, those tiny little fingers and toes.  My incredible body was preparing to make milk, nature’s most perfect nourishment, to feed her for months, maybe years, to come.  My body was doing all of this.  My body, which I’d judged and abused for so many years, is truly the most impressive living system I’ve ever known.

It is strong. It is resilient. It is creative. It is powerful. It is beautiful.

And in birth, I found within me a new strength and power I’d never acknowledged.  It has always been there.  Waiting for me.  Like the kundalini energy lying dormant at the base of the spine—ready to rise—labor churned up a primal creative power that is my birth right—that is every woman’s, every human’s, birth right.  I had the power and the privilege of bringing new life through my body and into this world.  There is nothing more incredible.  And for 20-some hours my body pulsed and breathed and chanted and opened and loved my baby into this world.  I need no external confirmation that this act is pure brilliance.  That my body is strong and beautiful and so much more than enough.  That this body is okay exactly how it is.  That I am okay just as I am.

And in the months since that day—through the steep learning curve of early breastfeeding, some intense physical healing, hundreds of hours of nursing, and the close confines of co-sleeping—again and again, I’ve watched my body rise to its task of being the co-creator and sustainer of life.  It is a source of comfort and love.  It is home.  It is perfect in all its imperfections.
Some days are better than others (in truth, I do get down sometimes about my slow-to-heal pelvic issues) but I make a choice every day to practice ahimsa, non-harming, and metta, loving kindness, toward myself.

I still use my body to serve someone else.  But not like I used to.  Instead of trading it for love and affection, I use this body to set an example for my daughter, through love and affection.  So that she can get a much earlier start at loving her body and feeling a deep and unshakable sense of self worth.  In the days and years to follow, I will model what it looks like to love your body.  To respect your body.  To honor yourself.

BLISS

I will show up in pictures of her childhood.  I will wear my bikini at the beach (and even eat lunch that day).  I will continue to get bodywork, do yoga, and pursue other things that make my body feel good.  Together, we will dress up, sing, dance, belly laugh, eat delicious and nourishing food, talk openly, and hang out in down dog when we need a new perspective.  We will celebrate our beautiful female forms.

And she will think she is beautiful, but not because I told her so, because she knows with every fiber of her being that this is so. 

And if she chooses to be a mother someday, we will talk about all the changes this season of her life will bring and how increasingly strong and powerful her body will become as it co-creates and sustains life.

And the thought that it will ruin her will never cross her mind.  
 

Jodi Neufeld