By Kristin Beck
Issue 123, March/April 2004
Long before I got pregnant, I became sensitive to the various messages out there about pregnancy and motherhood. As with other things in life, once your radar switches on, you’re astounded that you’re completely surrounded by data. Natural birth or drugs, cradle or family bed, which stroller strolls best . . . all of this information had been out there before; I’d just never had a place for it in my brain. Suddenly, the Mommy File was open for business.
I must have been five months pregnant when I saw the commercial. There she was on the left, the unhappy, frumpy woman. Nothing seemed to be going right for her; the photograph was badly lit and a little out of focus, and her name was Before. On the right was her successful alter ego. No wonder she was smiling—she had the good sense to hire a professional photographer. Looking good and knowing it, her name was After. As we all know from endless exposure to such ads, After was a few pounds lighter than her sad friend.
Then I saw another ad, and another, all for different companies. Too often, I noticed in those Slim Fast (or Jenny Craig or Weight Watchers or Dexatrim) advertisements, the “before” picture featured a new mother. From an advertising point of view, it makes sense; here is a population of “overweight” women who might lose weight rather quickly, the shed pounds credited to the weight-loss program. But the subtext is that there is something wrong with postnatal fat, that it’s something to correct, and that, in fact, a woman holding her tiny newborn baby is worthy of criticism. These women, whose life-giving extra girth is the reason we’re all here, are being used to illustrate that shameful state of womanhood, the fat lady.
A pregnant woman has society’s blessing to eat heartily, even irrationally. Her whimsical appetite is accommodated by her disheveled partner’s midnight run for Jelly Bellies and a Monte Cristo sandwich. She is, after all, “eating for two.” Often, it’s the first time a woman can begin to satisfy her lifelong hunger, which long ago she learned to try to squelch. (Bonus: She gets to boss her partner around about it at the same time.)
I heard it said again and again: Fecund is beautiful; men go wild for a shiny-haired earth mama. This was hard to believe, if only for the logistics of sexualizing such an oval person, but also because of the way society views fat in general. Men find pregnant women sexually irresistible—but only, I was careful to note, if they don’t gain “too much” weight, and only if the weight is contained within the pregnancy. Women are given an opportunity to really get down to the business of food and not worry about crucial glares—until the baby comes. After that, it’s a different story.
Our friends Before and After drove this home for me. Having made this stark realization, I began listening to what women were saying about maternal weight gain. Every woman seems to have an opinion about it, mothers and non-mothers alike. Many remark that they’d love to have another baby, “if it weren’t for the weight gain.” This made me wonder: Do women fear maternal weight gain so dreadfully that they limit the number of children they will have, put off motherhood, avoid it altogether—or, worse, compromise their pregnancies, or the baby’s or their own postnatal health, for a skinny body? Yet, more than a few times, I paused to consider whether I, too, would be repulsed by my body after I’d given birth.
After all those years of “research,” six months ago I finally did have a baby. From all of the hype, I was pretty sure I’d hate the way I looked once I’d given birth. I’d prepared myself for the eventuality that my body would be misshapen, that I’d be afraid to stand nude in front of the mirror because I’d be so unrecognizably stretched-out and gross.
To my great surprise, I actually love my body more now than before I got pregnant. I view my body with a previously unknown sense of respect and awe. Yes, I’m bigger and stretchier and jigglier, and it’s been 15 months since I fit into my jeans, but in the meantime I made a whole other person! I stand taller now, and walk with greater purpose. I’m proud of my baby body, knowing that it gave my son a comfy vessel in which to gestate, and has been the source of all his nourishment since birth. When he’s hungry, he cries for me to bring my body to him for a feeding. When he’s tired, he wants my body to comfort him—an angular form won’t do (ask my husband). I’m eating enough food to nurse successfully, and that’s as much food as I need. Rather than feeling desperate to “lose the weight,” I’m reveling in my baby (and my body), enjoying him every moment, without entertaining those intrusive, culturally prescribed thoughts.
What was supposed to have been my Before picture is, happily, my After.
Kristin Beck is Cormac’s mom and the coauthor of Facing 30: Women Talk about Constructing a Real Life and Other Scary Rites of Passage (New Harbinger Publications, 1998).
Photo by Lisa Lefkowitz.