Notice a trend here?
From the Eva Mendes “Sweatpants-Gate” to Kelly Clarkson’s ongoing encounters with fat-shamers, our nation is obsessed with celebrities’ “post-baby bodies.” Tabloids tells us we should hate-envy them when they’re impossibly fit and we should mock them when they’re not. Marketers tell us we need complicated diets and exercise equipment. Celebs like Kim Kardashian, Christina Aguilera, Pink, Kerry Washington, Mila Kunis, and even Princess Kate show up on magazine covers looking ridiculously toned and thin, their pictures printed next to ALL CAPS TIPS on how you, too, can get your "real" body back. God forbid your body show any sign of having actually carried a child.
The language we have around this issue belies how women are judged by their bodies. There’s no such thing as a post-baby body. There is just your body. You don’t need to forget about pre-baby you because pre-baby you is you! You may wear many hats as a mother—caregiver, nurse, provider, etcetera—but you are still the same woman just with a little more experience.
As a mother myself, I feel like I’m constantly barraged by images and articles that draw a clear line in the sand. You can either be a woman or be a mother. You can’t be both. Whether I’m in the checkout line at the grocery store or scrolling through my newsfeed at home, I’m painfully aware of the separation. It’s either Cosmo or Parenting—there’s seemingly no middle ground. Why can’t I read about the latest beauty hacks while simultaneously wiping tiny, sticky fingerprints of the screen?
Let’s be honest, sometimes motherhood isn’t glamorous. Sometimes my hair stays in a messy bun for three days in a row. Let’s be even more honest. Sometimes I don’t like to look at myself in a full-length mirror. You see, I have a chronic illness that causes my connective tissue to be stretchy. That means that when my skin was pushed to its limit during pregnancy, it didn’t and most likely never will go back to what it used to be. I’m not going to lie and say some cheesy line about how motherhood is magical and babies are miracles and I love my body. I still struggle with body image issues and feel sharp pangs of bitter jealousy when I see young women on the beach without so much as a single dimple of cellulite or even a tiny stretch mark.
I’m told by my fellow mommy friends that I need to just give up on the idea of being the same woman I was before I had a child. Look, I’ve seen Frozen a million times; I do not need to be told to just “let it go.” After going through a high-risk pregnancy, I had a real wander-in-the-desert crisis of identity. On the inside, I was still the same nerdy, pop-culture junkie with a loud laugh and too many opinions. The outside was a different story, though. There was a “mother’s apron,” as some lovingly call it, where my firm, mostly flat stomach used to be. The incision from c-section created a geographical border along the lumpy hills and craggy valleys of my body.
I couldn’t reconcile my “pre-baby” and “post-baby” bodies for what seemed like an eternity. I felt like my worries about my appearance were betraying all the feminists who have fought so hard not to be judged on looks alone. At a time when I was supposed to be feeling like a mighty goddess with the power of creating life, I was struggling to even identify as feminine.
But a positive change in perception came when I began thinking about the example I would be setting for my son as he grew. I realized I needed to be the one to teach him that women are neither defined by their body nor their ability to reproduce.
Thankfully some women in the public eye are embracing the entire spectrum of womanhood and changing the dialogue. In the March issue of Shape, Olivia Wilde offered a refreshing portrayal of what a real mother’s body is like: “I’m softer than I’ve ever been… The photos of me in this magazine have been generously constructed to show my best angles, and I assure you, good lighting has been warmly embraced. The truth is, I'm a mother, and I look like one.” As Kate Winslet said in a recent interview, “I don’t want to spend my time thinking about the size of my ars… I want to be around for my children. That’s it. Those are the priorities. Not getting a flat stomach.” Jennifer Garner decided to put an end to the incessant pregnancy rumors by saying, “From now on, ladies, I will have a bump, and it will be my baby bump. It's not going anywhere. Its name is Violet, Sam and Sera [her children].”
The confident ownership these women have of their bodies and the mindful intentionality in the words they use to describe their roles as both mothers and women is a necessary step in the body-positive movement, I think. Rather than labeling our bodies as “pre-baby” and “post-baby,” we need to tell a complete story about our bodies. My story involves surviving a high-risk pregnancy only to relearn how to trust my own body again through the eyes of my baby boy.
Though my son is only a toddler, I realized that I have the tremendous responsibility for setting the standard of how women should be treated. If he sees and hears me constantly berating my body and putting myself down, he will learn it is acceptable language to be used when talking to or about women. I had to see myself how he saw me: nurturing, comforting, strong, and capable all at once. Your story may be and probably is different, and that’s fine, too. I’m full of my own flaws, but at least I am full.
Related Reading: I'm a Feminist But I Hate My Body. What Should I Do?