On being the elephant in the room…
Before I was pregnant, I didn’t think so much about the concept of a post-pregnancy body except to wonder why celebrity magazines seemed to be so obsessed with it. But that also seemed pretty normal, since these publications are already obsessed with women’s bodies at every stage of our lives. I figured it was just a way to manufacture drama. I’ve realized it’s a lot more insidious than that.
The problem with the body after baby obsession is the problem with how we see the pregnant female body in general: we make it all about fat. While I was pregnant people kept telling me Oh you don’t even look pregnant! into my third trimester, which is plainly nuts since I was carrying twins to full term (for those keeping score at home, a typical baby is between 6 and 10lbs at birth, a placenta is about 5 lbs, and amniotic fluid is about 5 lbs – my babies were 6 lbs each at birth, and I had two placentas and nearly double the amniotic fluid of a singleton pregnancy). I realized after a while that it’s not that I didn’t have a gigantic protruding stomach, it’s that I didn’t look fat. I gained a little weight in my face, but otherwise my arms, neck, and legs stayed exactly the same. I carried far to the front so my belly wasn’t visible from behind until month 8 when Baby B decided to hang out on my right side. And I was skinny enough to begin with that any fat I gained in my torso just looked normal, even though I probably gained about 10-15lbs of just fat. Since giving birth I’ve had a lot of people tell me I look great, and then following up to clarify that they mean I don’t look fat. When they say this, they’ll even phrase it as It looks like you lost all your baby weight, assuming that being pregnant means getting fat to begin with.
Our impression of what makes pregnancy hard is largely based on the thought of being really heavy – it’s hard to move, there’s more pressure on your feet, you get hot easily – even though those symptoms often kick in well before the weight gain sets in. Maybe it’s because it’s icky to imagine that huge stomach is full of organs and liquid and an alien lifeform. Or maybe it’s because the only frame of reference men have for anything that looks similar is just being fat. And many women do gain a lot of fat during their pregnancies, whether from hormones or changes in appetite or an inability to move freely or depression, and find themselves shamed for it before and after. So certainly there are women for whom a post-baby body is different largely in that there is more of it. But there’s nothing wrong with that fat – being fat does not mean being unhealthy, and female weight gain is typically made into a problem purely because heterosexual men think it somehow makes women less desirable.
But fat is the red herring of the post-baby body. It’s the things that actually make pregnancy hard that really alter your body afterwards. The redistribution of weight on the hips can widen hips and the feet, permanently changing the way you walk and creating pain, swelling, and tightness in the lower half of the body. The hormonal changes affect mood and appetite during and after pregnancy, as well as changing your hair texture, the quality of your skin, your body’s ability to perceive and regulate its own temperature, and your blood pressure. And the expanding belly doesn’t just cause stretch marks – it considerably loosens the skin, rearranges organs, permanently strains the pelvic floor muscles, separates the frontal abdominal muscles, and can even crack ribs. For me, these are the concerns of a body after baby.
The biggest adjustment has been to my separated stomach muscles. I’m not weak, I simply can’t use these muscles because they’re no longer connected down the center. This can give the appearance of weight gain in the stomach, but even though my waist is several inches larger than it used to be, I’ve hardly gained any fat there. The extra inches are all from my organs pushing through the stretched membrane – you literally see the impression of my intestines against my skin. Right after I gave birth, this separation was massive – about 6 inches or so of just space between my abs. I could barely walk or stand up straight. Even sitting was intensely painful because my back muscles had to work so hard to keep me upright. After 6 weeks, the gap had shrunken to about 2-3 inches, and with almost 2 months of physical therapy it’s down to 1 inch. My body functions differently with this injury – it’s still hard to stand up fully straight or walk quickly. And I admit it’s hard to like the way my stomach looks with this strange stomach protrusion, even though it’s probably unremarkable to anyone else.
But to talk about this change like it’s frivolous weight gain that regular diet and exercise will simply melt away is so wrong it’s simply irrelevant (and talking about weight in that way is already offensively simplistic and patronizing). Where the post-baby body gets really complicated is how these changes make us feel. Again, the frame of reference for this kind of bodily change is rapid weight gain, when it should be sudden injury. Our society wants to frame women’s displeasure with our bodies after pregnancy as vanity, an unrealistic expectation of eternal youth, when we just need to accept that we’re mothers now and therefore no longer objects of desire. But dissatisfaction with your body after a pregnancy isn’t a simple response of I objectively look less attractive now – it’s more of a what is this body I’m in now and why doesn’t it look, feel, or function the way I expect?
After you give birth, it takes the uterus about 6 weeks to shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size. But since there’s nothing in there anymore, the result is a stomach that looks like a slowly deflating balloon. It’s a rapid and disconcerting change. As the uterus shrinks, the skin of the stomach can take a while to catch up, and the oddest look is in the first few months, when your stomach no longer looks pregnant but your belly button is sagging out of place and you have a literal handful of loose skin hanging over your waistband. These changes aren’t just visual, though – pelvic floor problems can come up in mundane activities like going to the bathroom, having sex, sitting up, or lifting a heavy object (like a baby, which, may I remind you, continues to grow about half a pound a week early on). You expect your body to be there and are frustrated to learn that it’s not. And the process of “getting back into shape” is arduous and glacial. Reattaching the membrane between separated stomach muscles can only be done by encouraging those muscles to get closer, by strengthening other muscles nearby and teaching your body to move in an entirely different way.
And while you are learning to function differently as you also learn how to be a parent, it’s hard to feel good about the way that you look, even if you manage to shower regularly and make yourself presentable. Unlike weight loss, you can’t really base your expectations of where your body will end up on what you looked like before – your muscles, bones, and organs will all be a little different, not to mention the distribution of fat. So you find yourself with a closet full of clothes that might fit soon or might never be wearable again. Even as some things start to fit again, you are faced with the daily prospect of the motherhood wardrobe requirements. Is this garment easily washable, given that it will probably get spit up on? If I’m going to pump or breastfeed, are my breasts easily accessible, or will I have to completely undress multiple times a day? You consider the nursing bra, which is somehow worse than a regular bra, in that it fits worse and is less attractive. Nursing clothing in general is universally hideous-looking and makes you feel like you shouldn’t leave the house (except for this dress from NOM Maternity, which was the only thing that still fit me in week 37 and somehow still fits me now – no this is not sponcon but I really wish it were) .
You become used to the way you look and the way your body feels, and then you wake up after giving birth and suddenly you have a different body that is unfamiliar and no longer seems to have an excuse for being so. The farther you get from your pregnancy, the stranger it feels to still be in a body from which you are disconnected. At least when you were pregnant you could rationalize the fact that you couldn’t totally feel your stomach with the very real fact of a tiny human (or several) in there. But now that you’re no longer pregnant, society says, you’re just a regular bitch again, and your body, even as it might still be responsible for supporting life, deserves to be scrutinized again. So you become intensely motivated to return that body to how it is supposed to look and feel. I have seen so many Pinterest ads for body after baby workouts – lose the weight and look better and be more fit than ever before! But losing the weight is a hollow goal, because it’s not the amount of your body that feels wrong, but it’s shape – that muscle used to be a little lower, that bone a little to the left. It’s function – I never had trouble doing this before, I never used to ache here at the end of the day.
It’s not enough to lose weight. It’s not enough to be wanted. It’s not enough to feel physically capable, although that helps. Your body after you are pregnant is the body of a new stage of life, of a different person who lives in a different way and has a different family and different experiences. It is the body that seismically shifted to make room for another person. It is the body that runs on 5 hours of sleep and still lifts 10 lbs 100 reps a day. Until you feel like that person, it is not your body, and it’s possible that it never will be. You hope to meet it in the middle, encourage it to come back to you like you remembered it and maybe nudge toward it yourself. Body after baby is someone else, and you have to learn to make that someone you.