Body image [& pregnancy]

If you are anything like me, a woman (she/her) raised in the patriarch, then you are no stranger to pressures placed upon our bodies. From an early age we receive messages on how to be a ‘good girl’. We are told how our bodies should look, how we should dress, and how we should behave.

‘Good girls’ should take up as little space as possible. They are thin, small, they smile, they are not too loud or too opinionated. They are to be desired. They must constantly cover them up with makeup and self-tanner, and then show them off to the world. They are to be display and open to criticism.

I was born into a petite frame. I won the genetic lottery. I was told by everyone around me that I was doing it “right”. My body was thin and therefore desirable. My skin color was acceptable. I got attention from the older, more popular boys at school. They asked me out on dates and told me I was pretty.

I knew how to follow the rules. I knew how to be a ‘good girl’.

My grandmother pulled me aside before Christmas dinner after my first semester of college. She told me that she was proud of me for not gaining “the freshman fifteen”. My inner people-pleaser felt like I was getting applauded by all of society. ‘Good girl’s stay small. The world won’t like you if you are big. I understand.

I ate a small plate of food that night. I skipped dessert.

I followed the rules throughout my life, making sure that I was a ‘good girl’: a pretty, like-able girl. I went the extra mile to ensure I stayed ‘good’. I shaved off all traces of body hair, wore push-up bras, plucked my eyebrows, dieted, tamed my long, curly hair, put on makeup, wore high heels, and spent money on clothes to stay up with the fashion trends.

I didn’t ask for seconds. I starved myself before big social events or vacations when I knew my body would be on display. I took up running to stay thin. If I ate too much, I purged it all up.

I tamed my body like it was a wild thing that needed taming.

And then I got pregnant and it wasn’t planned.

I sobbed into the phone to my mother. I had broken the ‘rules’ for the first time in my life. I learned a whole new set of rules for how to be a ‘good girl’ while pregnant. Rules for how not to gain ‘too much’ weight. Not looking ‘too pregnant’. For how to show off my baby bump.

My friends told me that I shouldn’t worry about the weight gain, that I would probably be that girl who ‘barely looked pregnant from behind’, that my petite frame would save me once again.

During the first trimester, all I wanted to eat was bread and french fries. I fought back against my cravings. I didn’t understand why my body was rebelling against the rules I had followed my entire life.

My body was rebelled against the twenty-eight years of obeying the rules. It was tired of being squeezed into size-00 jeans at all costs. It was tired of being starved, plucked, and purged.

I felt like an addict of some kind, unable to control the body I was so used to controlling. I felt like a bad girl.

And so, my body grew. I became bigger everywhere. I ordered bigger clothes. And then maternity sized clothes. And then sized up again. My body wasn’t x-small anymore.

I tried to embrace the curves and the growing belly. I tried to connect to it all. I tried to love my body as is.

But I didn’t know how to. I was deeply disconnected.

I started therapy during the second trimester trying to unpack the nearly three decades of body conditioning I had received. Trying to love my new body and embrace my pregnancy and the growing life inside of me. I told my therapist I felt depressed and alone, ashamed and belittled. She asked me who was contributing to my feelings. I told her, “everyone.

During each and every prenatal check-up, my body was weighed. I dreaded stepping on the scale. In college, I would weigh my body on a scale first thing in the morning. The number I saw would dictate how much or how little I would eat that day. I hated scales. I hated that weighing my body was part of my prenatal care because it was all I could focus on. They would ask, “do you have any questions for me?” and I was too busy wondering how I could have possible gained that much weight since my last visit, to be able to even ask a question.

Each visit after eight weeks, OB told that I was gaining too much weight too quickly, and sent home with nutrition information and a prescription to exercise more often. I tried telling my then OB that I knew the rules, I knew how to diet, I knew how to stay small. But instead, I nodded my head and accepted the disapproval. I agreed to do more to keep myself small.

I spent so much of my pregnancy angry at my body for getting “too big.” I tried to force feed myself vegetables even though they made me nauseous. I tried to order the size small fries instead of a large, hoping it would make a difference, hoping it would keep me small.

I desperately wanted to be that ‘glowing mama’ who felt deeply connected to her baby. Who felt love for herself and her incredible body and growing baby. I looked around for images of other women who might be going through something similar. I couldn’t find anyone who was talking about this. “It must just be me.” Everyone else can follow the rules. Everyone else’s body obeys them.

By the time I had gained more than double the recommendation, I was beyond devastated. I cried to my partner about my weight, texted girl friends to vent, seeking approval and permission to be big. The responses I got were mostly, “don’t worry, the weight will come off with breastfeeding.”

I switched providers and found a midwife who accepted my weight gain as part of me. Who didn’t make me feel like I was doing it all wrong. I didn’t need anyone else to add to this level of self-disgust.

As my body continued to grow, I had to size up in size in my maternity clothes again. I resentful other pregnant mamas who didn’t look ‘pregnant from behind’. Why did I have to be the one to get big? I didn’t deserve this. I was the best rule-follower of all.

As I prepared for labor, many of the women I turned to on social media advice told me to pack a hair straightener and makeup in my hospital bag. I got the message that after birthing a human, that I ‘must look perfect after birth.’

Then, my beautiful baby was born. As I slowly healed from my emergency c section, I felt more shame and disapproval. The rules I read said that ‘babies are supposed to be born vaginally’. I was not supposed to have a c section. I was supposed to have a birth story worth typing up in an Instagram post, quoting how incredible the whole experience was, how in love I was with my baby, how I had never felt a love like this before, etc, etc. Cue the perfect photo of a made-up mom looking like she didn’t break a sweat during the whole labor and delivery process.

But my experience was nothing like that.

And then something marvelous happened. I stared down at this perfectly formed tiny human that my body grew whole. This baby cried and screamed and cooed and wasn’t trying to be anyone but himself. He wasn’t conditioned by anybody, yet. He loved and needed my body in ways I couldn’t understand. be continued.

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