Monday, December 21, 2009

A Mother's Body

During a recent discussion among a group of women friends in which a few of us were taking pot-shots at ourselves about our post-baby bodies, one friend in the group passed along this website: The Shape of a Mother. I spent some time reading submissions posted to the site and looking at photographs, and it all just brought me to tears. First, because I think the women shown are beautiful - in body and spirit. And secondly, because it makes me feel sad that I have such a poor self-image.

I am 42 years old. I have given birth to and nursed six children. At 5 feet, 5 inches tall and 128 pounds, I am not overweight. I am actually within the healthy weight for my height and build. And yet, it's the heaviest non-pregnant I've ever been in my life. I sometimes look at photos of myself from 10 and 15 years ago and pine for what I used to look like: thin, lean and angular, flat of stomach. It's so true, that old saying, that youth is wasted on the young. I surely didn't appreciate the body I had then. I didn't even recognize that it was anything anyone might be envious of. It certainly never occurred to me that one day, several years into the future, I would look back at my younger, leaner self, and wish I still looked that way.

The truth is, though, that I spent a good part of my younger life being underweight. It wasn't anything I aspired to or put work into - it's just the way my body wanted to be. I'm probably at a healthier weight now than I was when I was 25.

But now, time and five pregnancies have changed this body forever. There are bulges and rolls where there used to be flat valleys. Certain areas are beginning to head a little southward. I have a pot belly covered with baggy skin from having been stretched out so far, so many times. My abdominal muscles are like pudding and just can't hold it all in anymore.

When I glimpse myself in the mirror, unclothed, I quickly look away. I hide in the bathroom to get dressed or undressed; even my husband doesn't get to see me in the light of day anymore. I feel embarrassed about my body, and mildly contemptuous. Sometimes I wear a Spanx under my clothes to smooth the bulges. Sometimes I fantasize about having plastic surgery - a little liposuction here, a little tuck there, a little lift here.

Why do I do this to myself? If it were a friend saying all these exact things to me, I would say to her, "You're beautiful. Look at all the amazing things your body has done. I am in awe of you." But I know that I am not alone in these feelings. So many of my friends also have poor feelings about their mother-bodies. We lament and make jokes about the stretch marks and saggy boobs and flabby bellies. Why can't we embrace who and what we've become? Why don't we see the beauty in ourselves, in those very marks of motherhood, in what our bodies have accomplished? Why do we feel embarrassed and ashamed?

I have long been of the opinion that pregnant women are truly beautiful. Personally, I have never felt more beautiful, more complete, than when I have been pregnant. The rounder and fuller I grew, the more fulfilled and happy in my own skin I felt. I loved wearing form-fitting clothes when I was pregnant. I was not afraid to bare my belly, and even sat for a revealing photo shoot when I was about six months pregnant with the twins. I treasure those photos, and I love the way I look in them, round and ripe.

I still remember after my first baby was born, taking a shower for the first time after giving birth, and being a little horrified at the shriveled, wrinkled little mound my belly had suddenly become. And I think ever since then I've been struggling with my body self-image - trying to make peace with what my body has become, and mostly failing. How can I love the body that is accomplishing something magical, and hate the body that is left in the wake of the magic?

My husband has told me that to him, a woman isn't really a woman until she becomes a mother. And even as I cringe and shy away when he puts his hand on my belly, he tells me that I'm beautiful. Why can't I see myself through his eyes?

Where does this notion come from, that youth and physical perfection are goals worthy of self-torment? Why do we mothers believe that firmer and harder is better, more beautiful? Can you imagine if we instilled in our children that physical perfection, that holding onto youth, rather than being healthy and happy, are what they should strive for? Wow, that's something to think about, isn't it? Kind of makes you wonder at what point in our lives our priorities change so drastically. I know that it would break my heart to see my daughters develop this sense of self-loathing someday. I want them to believe in their beauty at every age and stage of womanhood.

I am 42 years old and my body isn't what it used to be. But it's done some amazing things, and I would like to learn to take pride in that - in the physical evidence of what this body has accomplished. That is going to be my new year's resolution: to learn to love myself.


Leigh Anne said...

beautiful post, Lisa. i couldn't help but think of the little .gif i kept seeing on about how stretch marks are our pregnancy the military. they show the hard work we did while we carried our babies and gave birth to them. of course, i am a woman who has been overweight most of her teen and adult years (minus a few years where i had a good handle on my weight). I wish I had the little mound of loose skin on my tummy that shows I was once pregnant. The only difference in mine is that there are just more stretch marks than there were before, haha.

wow, that was a long comment. i guess i said all of that because your post really touched me...made me think. i've always had low self esteem (even in the years where i could have been considered "thin"). It's hard to see ourselves through others' eyes though.

I think you're are an amazing mother and are beautiful...inside and out!

Anonymous said...

This was a wonderful post. For me, one of the biggest challenges of pregnancy was body acceptance at all stages of my pregnancy. I struggled with eating disorders that still linger to this day.

Thank you for the wonderful post.