Its taken me about 4 years to come to terms with my changed body. 4 long years, from the moment the stretch marks began appearing on my expanding belly I no longer looked in the mirror and saw the body of a 17-year-old, the body I saw was alien to me. It looked not like the body of the people I spent time with, my friends and fellow students, their bodies did not swell and grow angry purple lines across the stomach, thighs, breasts, back and arms, their bodies did not betray the rules of youthful elasticity and their bodies certainly didn’t have questionable pelvic floors that woke them three times a night. I held myself and my body to the ultimate definition and ideal of “normal”, a “normal” based on my peers and the similarly aged women I saw on TV or in magazines. I wanted to be given the opportunity to behave, look and feel like all other people my age and when I looked at my body it defied this ideal. While the people around me drank and partied, the only thing I could do was eat, and perhaps this too contributed to my expanding stomach.
So, for 4 long years these feelings of self-loathing have invaded my identity, as a young adult and a mother, it is difficult, problematic, upsetting, it pervades your sense of being and creates an image of low self-worth, that even my status as a mother with a dependent can’t undo. This low self-worth and distortion of the normal postpartum body is not helped by the images in the media. I gave birth on the same day as the Duchess of Cambridge, imagine that, bump buddy with royalty! The day after she gave birth she as simultaneously praised and questioned for wearing a slim fitting dress that showed her soft postpartum belly. The newspapers devoted how long it would take for her to get her slim figure back, what she would wear, and what was appropriate. I read these things and had no choice really but to compare myself to her, and that was hard. Even family and friends remarked how it would take me a little bit of time to “get back to normal”. It’s odd, I’ve always managed to live within a paradox, whereby I can look at images of other women, women who deviate from the norm far more than even I do, I look at them and I see beauty, true beauty, but when I look at myself I don’t? Why? I’m not even sure myself!
For such a long time I saw my body as a prison, and the stretch marks looked like the visible bars on my jail, I was unable to see past them and I was also not willing to leave their confines. Over the years I have had so many people telling me how to feel about my body. The phrases they used to counter my feelings of self-loathing tended to be focused around the idea that I should have to be okay with my changed body because I had a wonderful child because of it, for me, this never provided much if any comfort, I didn’t understand why I should have to trade my body for my child, the two were never entirely mutually inclusive. In many ways, I am still the very same turbulent teenager, unable to accept the authority of others trying to tell me how to feel about my body because It simply doesn’t work that way.
Alas, all I have written this far has been rather sad and a little depressing, but thats the reality of the battles that many women faced with a body that does not look or feel like how they believe it should. But here comes the positive part! The Body Positive part… It takes time, maturity and distance to realise, here comes the big revelation, that the reality of postpartum bodies is that there is no normal! Some women will and do bounce back, some by there bodies own natural graces and others with activity, strength and determination. Other women may take longer, or (shock horror) may never have a body that looks like it did before they fell pregnant, and the most important part is that THIS IS OKAY! A body is a body, a vessel of you, and it does not reflect your competency as a mother or your validity as a member of society! The flat stomachs we see on screen are as okay as the stomach you see on yourself, we as a system simply haven’t got round to celebrating them yet. There are many projects that do. The “shape of a mother” series of photos celebrates all women and their pregnant/post-pregnancy bodies, celebrating their strength diversity, and their perceived flaws.There is no quick fix for body positivity, we are still bombarded with people telling us how to feel and what to wear and much of the popular body positivity space is fundamentally flawed, dominated by pictures of curvaceous white women which is why I don’t want to take up extra space in the body positivity arena when there are many who look like me. Body positivity needs to up its game to be way more inclusive of POC women, those with disabilities, those of all walks of life and cultures.
Yet, body positivity has brought so much to me, for the first time I have learnt to unlearn what I believe to be the ideal body. I have learnt to trace my fingers over the valleys and ridges of my stomach, to revel in the textures of untouched and stretched skin, to marvel in their unique size depth and shape. They look like silver flames dancing across my flesh, or layers of silver birch trees on the edge of a forest, they stretch from above my belly button to below my pubis and further down my thighs. They shimmer and catch the light as I move, the wrinkles of stretched skin that inflate and deflate as my stomach shrinks and grows. They have become poetry and art, and I a living 3D sculpture, a canvas upon which the gods decided to paint. Like all art, my body is open to interpretation, and each person is entitled to their perception; for some it is evidence that I carried a child, for many that in itself is enviable, to others it shows laziness, shame, it is something to be feared, as it shows the ugly unspoken undocumented effects of pregnancy. But the reality is, that I am my own harshest critic, and that no one has spent as much time trying to find the flaws in something that is neither pretty nor ugly, it just is, has been and will be, and most importantly it is mine, to do with as I choose and it is up to me to decide whether I view it as a masterpiece or not.