Smaller Than Before: The Politics of Postpartum Bodies
A close friend of mine from graduate school was in town over the weekend, someone I hadn’t seen since I was mid-way through my pregnancy. As we briskly walked toward each other, arms outstretched, brimming with wild enthusiasm about our long overdue rendezvous, Amalia blurts out from across the toddler trafficked park, “Oh my God, look at you, you don’t even look like you had a baby! You’re smaller than you were before.”
I wasn’t sure how I felt as we hugged, in the midst of awkwardly digesting her jubilant albeit off the cuff comment about the apparent erasure of my pregnancy. The embrace was cut short as she gently pushed me back to scan every inch of my postpartum body, unable to contain her energized description of how “little” I look, how “tiny” I am – spilling with words she defines as every woman’s dream. Or more to the point, every woman’s goal.
I want to be marked, in some way, by pregnancy, by the birth of my child. This is not to say that I would have wanted to maintain all the weight gained during pregnancy, but I do feel the body as well as the mind/psyche/heart go through a series of metamorphoses as life is being nourished inside and outside of the body.
Women are constantly shamed for their shape. Prepartum, postpartum, and never-partum. All but the smallest sizes are viewed as less than, not driven enough to surveil every morsel of food ingested, not vigilant enough to carve out time for daily workouts. Even women I know who do embody the cultural ideal – trotting around in the smallest sizes the jean manufacturers are producing these days- even they don’t feel at home in their bodies.
The droning laundry list of things that women say about how they “got their bodies back” include and sadly are not limited to: “breastfeeding is definitely what made the baby weight fly off”, “I got the food delivery service straight away. I was determined to return to my pre-baby wardrobe as quickly as possible and that way I didn’t have to think about what I was eating, it was done for me”, “I started counting calories while in the hospital. I was surprised by how long it took for the weight to come off but I feel like it’s the only thing I can control right now so my focus is sharp”, “not even a moment goes into thinking about my food intake. I guess I lost it all while running after my rambunctious toddler. He never gives me a break.”
Amalia is freshly married, 38, ambivalent about having kids. As she blithely puts it as she considers raising a family, “I could take it or leave it.” The ubiquity of psychological disconnection and body disenchantment is illuminated in Amalia’s detailing of my presence. My physicality is noticed first. My size is experienced and discussed in relationship to banishing pregnancy. The absence of body change is asserted as an enviable compliment. Meanwhile, my darling toddler is resting on my hip and I look into his eyes knowing that he grew inside of me and together we altered the feel and shape of my body. And then I think to myself, “Why would we want to erase that?”
Amalia provoked me to reflect on hundreds of fragmented interactions I’ve had with women since my baby was born. Women who are mothers themselves, women dying to get pregnant, women who share their horror of giving birth, “getting fat”, “staying fat”, women who asked me how much weight I gained while pregnant, my own mother reflecting on her speedy loss of baby weight and curious about why mine wasn’t slipping off as quickly. The dynamics of women and what we unwittingly do to each other is devastating. Paralyzing. A cultural vestige all too pervasive.
And then of course we are inundated with endless magazine images of emaciated post-pregnancy “stars” who “got their bodies back instantly.” They pontificate about the various ways women must expunge maternity. The pride taken in shrinking one’s body at any cost is emblematic of a cultural obsession with women not being real women.
The intimacy I experienced with my body and my developing baby during pregnancy was perhaps the most compelling transformation I have ever known. It became, in a way, a metaphor for how I feel about parenthood—a striking awareness of loss of control, simultaneity of surrendering to change on a moment-to-moment basis while experiencing more joy and more fear than the heart can contain. Pregnancy and parenthood invoke an unprecedented heightening of anxiety—excruciating awareness of vulnerability, altering one’s perspective on the fragility of life, as well as a depth of love that redefines the concept. Why would we erase all of this complexity– the physical and psychological makings and markings of pregnancy and parenthood?
I am not necessarily idealizing the experience of pregnancy. I’m not saying women should necessarily enjoy gaining weight, being tattooed with stretch marks, or relish the postpartum belly jiggle. I am attempting to call attention to cultures calamitous requirement that women erase the life giving process.
As Amelia and I make our way through the throngs of sweaty and spirited toddlers and exit the park, she turns to me and reiterates, “You’re so lucky, you look exactly like you did before.” There’s a pregnant pause. And I say, “Actually, my body’s changed from having a baby, and that is why I’m lucky.”
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