The Shape of a Mother
A year after childbirth, my best friend pulled her dress over her head. She cupped a few inches of extra skin that hovered across her belly. It was skin stretched by the pregnancy of her second child at age 36, her son, born a year before.
Fifteen years her minor, none of my pregnancies carried to term, I stood, flat bellied, underweight from a stressful college semester, and muted by our physical differences. I felt like any comment I could make would be arbitrary, meaningless, some cliche about how the skin gave her her daughter. My friend spoke of the body she missed and berated her new appearance, wishing for plastic surgery. I changed clothes fast, hoping to hide the plateau of my midsection. From her words and gestures, it seemed like all of her body belonged to her except the residual inches. Those inches belonged to someone else, somewhere else: circulating a bin of medical waste with other pieces of nameless flesh. I wanted to tell my friend that the memory of her daughter’s uterine life resides in her spare inches.
For the ten years of our friendship, I, physically boyish and angular, had envied my friend’s feminine body: the thick of her hips, the slopes of her frame, rounding, soft and buoyant. Now I envied her thatch of ”extra” belly. Where she saw ugliness, I saw a place where magic had happened.
I wanted to listen to her and encourage, but I felt foreign to this discourse. Everything I’d heard about an “after-baby body” had something to do with “fixing” it, with exercise, with dieting. I didn’t know how to approach it because I could not be empathetic. I didn’t know how to vocalize that, to me, her flesh was lovely, an ornamental reminder of feminine strength.
I found out weeks later that I was pregnant with my daughter who was born that fall. Because I was underweight at the time of conception, I gained over sixty pounds and stretch marks bloomed across my thighs, breasts, and belly.
Six months postpartum, I have settled into a size far beyond my pre-pregnancy weight. At first I was alarmed by the sight of my deflated stomach crowded with red rivers of stretch marks and dimpled by extra skin.
One night I stood, naked with my eyes closed and ran my hands over my new body. Words like “engorged”, “saggy”, “flabby”, “pooch” appeared in my mind. The body I touched had transformed and felt foreign.
I focused on the feeling of my skin: dry spots on my elbow, a callous on the side of my foot. I tucked my fingertip into a rippled stretch mark near my left hip, and I remembered that in my tenth month of pregnancy, I watched the stretch marks bounce while my daughter rolled around my uterus. In a year, my body had metamorphosized, and so had another, smaller body: from the collide of conception to a cooing, growling person. I did not and do not claim her body, but because of her, I can claim mine.
The media promotes an impossible maternal body: one that slides down the runway right after birth, virtually unchanged from the prenatal experience. Some women’s bodies do seem to retract almost instantly into their pre-pregnancy shapes. This has happened naturally to some mothers I know, but the media’s portrayal of postpartum body provides an inaccurate representation of what we should expect from ourselves after pregnancy. Many healthy, active women are genuinely transformed by pregnancy, and they struggle to find peace with their changed shapes because society encourages them to keep these shapes hidden, calling them “mom bodies” and “post-baby bodies.” When wholesome nutrition and balanced exercise do not provide celebrity-slim results, many women feel pressured to reform their bodies in unhealthy ways including dieting and cosmetic surgery. While there are women who do need plastic surgery for medical reasons after childbirth, such as abdominal separation, there is an unnecessary pressure on those who do not need that medical intervention to align their bodies with the unrealistic expectations of society.
So how do we adjust our postpartum, physical expectations? Where can we find realistic representations of female bodies? The doula who supported me during my daughter’s birth recently shared a website with me, The Shape of a Mother, which has been running since 2007. The site is an open forum for women to discuss and share their postpartum figures with other women. As I browsed through the discussions and photographs, I became aware that my postpartum body is not weird or irregular but ordinary and natural.
My body is one of many which has supported the growth of a new person, and my new appearance outlines my strengths. The creator of The Shape of a Mother, Bonnie, writes about why she formed the site, “It occurred to me that a post-pregnancy body is one of this society’s greatest secrets; all we see of the female body is that which is airbrushed and perfect, and if we look any different, we hide it from the light of day in fear of being seen…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.”
One of the advantages to an online forum is that it allows people to be anonymously public. In a situation concerning the usually private and intensely personal feelings about body image, both the visual and verbal discourse within Shape of a Mother provides a valuable first step toward opening real-world discussion about the postpartum body, helping women view each other and themselves realistically, encouraging a public acceptance of ”momified” shapes, and transforming the way we define our bodies: instead of flaws, we have the evidence of maternal sinews. Ours is the flesh of vitality. Ours is the swell of creation.
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