Friday, May 16, 2014

Swallowing a Beach Ball, After Photos, and Mom Jeans

I will never be one of those pregnant women who looks like the same lanky version of her pre-pregnancy self who just happened to swallow a beach ball.  You can tell I'm pregnant from behind and above and below and pretty much any other angle you catch me at.  My hands swell and my feet swell, and I get cankles and a puffy face.  And you will probably never find me doing a photo shoot with nothing but a windblown sheet wrapped artfully around me.

In fact, I've always found the maternity photo shoot thing a little disconcerting.  Why are so many of them half naked?  Why are all of these women taking pictures of themselves in their underwear and then proudly displaying these pictures for God, grandma, and everyone else to see?

But my very smart husband has a point about those strange (to me) photo shoots. He says that for women who have spent their entire lives watching what they eat, obsessing about their stomachs, and finding their worth in their pant size, it must be incredibly freeing to step outside the popular beauty ideal and still feel, well, beautiful.  It must be a welcome change to smile over their own expansion, to look down and see a mound of stretched out skin and, rather than make that noise in the back of their throats that means they think they look fat and disgusting, reach out a hand to feel the roundness of it.  Hopeful and happy and proud.

He's right, though it pains me to say it.  I get that.  I feel that.

Maybe I don't always feel beautiful while I am pregnant, but at the very least I feel a suspension of the pressure to subscribe to the beauty standards of the day.  I love to watch my stomach grow, even though I never seem to get that perfectly beach ball roundness other women get.  I even love to be told I'm huge, though I understand that's not a welcome compliment to most pregnant ladies.

But even still, this window of being happily round is a small one.  For a few months, we can conditionally suspend the pressure of feeling like we are supposed to look a certain way, but it ends abruptly, certainly before our bodies have bounced back and often before our brains have even caught up with the process.  This reprieve is finite: there is a point at which it is acceptable to start looking pregnant (a moment that seems to fall right about the start of the second trimester, and heaven forbid your body dare to start before the allotted time) and there is a point at which we believe our bodies should suddenly stop looking pregnant (usually about 35 seconds after we push the baby out).

Because looking pregnant while you are pregnant is amazing and miraculous.  But looking pregnant when you're not pregnant is about the worst thing that can be said about you, or so it seems.  We have decided as a society that it's never appropriate to ask a woman if she is pregnant, so great is the perceived horror of being presumed pregnant when you are not.  That shape is only beautiful, apparently, when there is a baby in that beach ball.  Any other time, naturally, it's abhorrent. 

I have been just about every weight a girl can be, for a while at least: fat, thin, that somewhere in the middle where you feel fat but your friends tell you you're just thick or solid or curvy.  I have been up and down the scale looking for the weight that will finally make me feel like myself.  I have bought into all those after photos that seem to promise that when I finally get it all together, when I finally reign in the uncontrolled part of me that likes food more than I like myself, then I will have a glossy, perfect, kind of life.

But my experience was that I felt about the same about myself at every weight.   That is to say, I felt not quite enough no matter how much I had gained or lost, and though when the scale was going down I felt a certain sense of accomplishment, at no point did I ever feel like I had arrived at myself the way those after photos seemed to promise I would.  I think that for me, and for many women, there is no goal line for that drive, no point at which we have done enough to feel like we deserve to like the way we look at any given moment.

It was when I was at my thinnest that I realized my worth could never be read by the numbers on the scale.  It was when everyone was always congratulating me on how I looked but I was secretly sinking deeper and deeper into the early phases of an eating disorder that I began to realize that what was broken was not the type or amount of food I was putting into my body, but the fact that I had never felt like I had permission to like the body I had right then.  At any version of right then that my body had ever been.

We talk about things like beach bodies, as if only by displaying the proper amount of willpower can we earn the right to feel the sun beat down on us and the sand between our toes and the salt water kissing our perfect thighs. We talk about getting back into our pre-pregnancy jeans as if our bodies can just rewind to a previous incarnation, as if it's okay to want to be the way we were before this monumental change has happened to our lives.  As if we're not supposed to look and feel and be different because of the process.  We say we love being moms but wouldn't be caught dead wearing mom jeans.

After nearly three decades of being miserable because I didn't look the way I thought I should look, I decided to take a different approach.  I decided that instead of trying to make my body match an ideal I saw popularized by pretty much all forms of media, I would try to make my mind like the body I had.  As it was, in that moment.  And I decided that if my body changed, I would try to like that version, too.  

But in a way, going through pregnancy now is putting that new way of thinking to the test.  It's one thing to decide to like the way you look even as you step off the dieting roller coaster and give away the too small pants you were always sure you were going to fit in one day.  It's another, as I am learning, to look forward to embracing the messy postpartum body with acceptance and grace.  The only way I have ever faced a post-baby body is with the hearty chorus of "I can't wait to lose this weight" on repeat in my ears.  It was never a possibility to be okay with that in-between body that no longer housed a baby but still showed the stretch and strain of when it did.

It's amazing, though, how my perspective has shifted now that I am carrying a daughter.  I can't help but feel I have less time than I expected to figure this out because when she arrives, there are so many things I want to show her and teach her.  Starting with how to be brave and patient and kind, with how to be someone instead of just trying to look like someone.  And of course I want to show her, because she may not learn it anywhere else, how to love the body I have carefully carried and nurtured for nine months, the body I will feed with my own body for many more months, the body Sam and I will delight in as a miraculous creation, poring over the toes and the fingernails and the tiny little lines on the lips.  I want to show her how to love the body that eventually everyone will tell her should look a certain way but should really just look as it does, in all its own imperfect perfection.

My hope for her is the same as the hope I have for myself these days.  May she be full of life and love, may she laugh often, and may she be blessed with a body that allows her to dance and run and play.  And when she looks in the mirror, may she see more than the package that holds her all together.  May she be hopeful and happy and proud, whether she has swallowed a beach ball or even just looks like she did.

Image credit, used under Creative Commons license.