Pregnancy and childbirth bring a lot of changes to a mother’s life. This goes without saying. Your body changes. Your family increases by one. Your brain changes. Your heart changes.
I found, that with these changes, something else happened: people felt like they could comment on my body.
I know. Pregnant women are beautiful. And there is something so exciting about a woman on the verge of becoming a new mother. I find myself smiling at pregnant moms or moms with newborns. And I enjoyed being smiled at when it was me with the large belly or the wee baby in a sling.
The reaction is automatic. I want to say: “You look GREAT!”
Some better things to say would be: “How are you feeling?” “You seem so happy/calm/excited!” “How about this weather?” Even “That’s a cute shirt.
I also felt beautiful when I was pregnant. And in many ways I loved hearing “You look great.” But it also somewhat diminished how I felt. I felt vital and strong and happy and nervous. I loved my taut belly and my growing breasts. I secretly hated the stretch marks that took my once smooth, white belly and zigged it through with dark purple.
And people did say I looked great. And one family member good-naturedly told me my butt was getting big. (Which actually really hurt my feelings, despite the fact that I enjoyed my bigger butt.) But comments on butts aside, I liked hearing how good I looked.
But the postpartum period is problematic. Look at how we treat celebrities. We all marvel at how quickly they get their “pre-baby bodies back.” No one needs to say that it is unrealistic to expect anyone to present with washboard abs mere weeks after delivering. And even if I know intellectually that that is an impossible standard and that surely no small amount of photoshopping or working out or dieting or styling helped achieve that enviable postpartum look, it doesn’t change the fact that women’s bodies are routinely objectified.
And not that we needed research to man-splain that women are, indeed, objectified, judged, and perceived on their body before they even open their mouths, it does show that 99% of women have been cat-called or harassed on the street or in a public place in their lifetime. In the same survey, which was conducted in 2008 by Stop Street Harassment, 95% of women stated they had been the object of excessive leering or staring at least once in their life. 68% said it happened more than 26 times in their lives.
Do I think everyone that commented on my body was a sexist, patriarchal objectifier? No.
But society is full of the idea that a woman’s worth, abilities, or progress is marked by the way her body looks. Dr. Renee Engeln states that, from a young age girls are told that they are “beautiful” or “pretty” while their male counterparts are told they are “smart” and “strong” setting up the foundation for this innate belief that a woman’s worth is matched to her body. When it comes to pregnancy and postpartum, many people, including other women, will judge a new mom on how well she is doing in her pregnancy by how she looks.
But the truth is that a female’s body before, during, or after pregnancy has nothing to do with how well she’s doing mentally, emotionally, or even physically. Especially for postpartum mothers, where postpartum depression is so prevalent- her looks do not determine how well she is doing with motherhood, sleepless nights, or the hormonal changes that occurred when she gave birth. So why is it the first thing we look at when seeing her?
This was the case for me. Due to a number of health circumstances, I had dropped weight rather quickly after both my pregnancies, but people always commented on how “great” I looked. Dr. Englen states that, “Research has demonstrated that one of the reasons even brief exposure to all those Photoshopped media images of women makes women feel so awful is because these types of images activate appearance schemas. In other words, they heighten our awareness of and attention to information that’s focused on appearance — our own and others.”
I thought maybe after I gave birth, since I am not a celebrity, no one would pay any attention to my body any more. Of course everyone would be too busy looking at my baby. But that was not the case. Again, I was told I looked great. One of the first comments on a picture of my 12-hour-old son that I posted to facebook and me was “look how flat your belly is already!” This was from another new mom. And I totally read it as: “I’m comparing myself to you and scrutinizing your belly because I feel self-conscious about mine.”
And then I lost weight from breastfeeding. Quite a bit of weight. My son didn’t get the hang of solids for a long time and he was a big guy that nursed and nursed and nursed. I enjoyed the days of eating ice cream every night. And, honestly, I enjoyed how much attention I got for being a young mother who looks like she has never given birth.
People have said that to me: “Wow. You don’t look like you’ve had kids.” And it’s messed up. Like we should all be striving to be these pre-baby selves in so many ways: we should jump back into sex, we should shrink our bellies, we should get back to work quickly. To be a parent without seeming like a parent is somehow a lofty goal.
My son’s nursing slowed. I gained back weight until I was at about my “normal” pre-baby weight. I got fewer compliments on how great I looked. And for the first time in a long time, I felt truly uncomfortable at a weight I’ve been for most of my life.
That was a lightbulb moment. Because I realized just how much people had discussed my body as a thing.
The second time around, I was still gracious when people told me I looked great.
But everything was with a grain of salt. I was polite, but I was annoyed.
Fast forward to six months postpartum. I had been struggling for three months with a digestive disease. I couldn’t keep weight on. I fit the medical definition of “wasting” because of the percentage of body mass I had lost. I was so sick. I was tandem nursing. I was also spending half of my time in the bathroom and the other half just trying to eat enough. Forget exercising, I was conserving my energy for making milk.
And when people told me I looked great, I didn’t know what to say. People would ask how I lost the baby weight so quickly and I wanted to say “Oh, I go to the bathroom around fifteen times a day and my body is starving.” And finally I did start telling people that I was sick. Partially because I didn’t feel like taking credit for something I had not been trying to do.
And the sad part was, the thinness seemed like a consolation prize. I spent months of my daughter’s babyhood, placing her on the bed so I could run to the bathroom. I went to a lot of doctor’s appointments. It was tough being away from the house. But at least I looked fabulous.
No one means to be hurtful when they compliment a woman’s body. But it hurts. It really does.
As a result, I have stopped talking about women’s bodies. This includes celebrities. This includes my friends, who really do look so fabulous with their pregnant bellies. I never assume a woman is pregnant–or, even worse, ask her if she is. (Stop doing this!) And I’d ask other people to do the same.
In fact, Dr. Englen says it wonderfully when she states, “There’s something disingenuous about expecting a woman to live in a culture that systematically reminds her of every failure to meet an absurd beauty ideal and then asking her to nonetheless feel beautiful. Instead of telling women they are beautiful, let’s tell them they don’t have to be. Let’s remind the women in our lives that we value them for what they do, not how they look.” It’s an oxymoron to tell a woman that she should strive to reach this optimum level of beauty and fitness because that’s what female who has it all together does (that is more often than not photoshopped into magazines and Instagram images) but to still, “love your body” no matter what. How is it possible to even do that? How do you focus on something other than your body when that’s the only thing everyone seems to talk about?
Comment instead on how happy the child is. What a lovely mother she is. What a great job she’s doing. Or, you know, ask her how she’s doing.