My soul would sing of metamorphoses.
But since, o gods, you were the source of these
bodies becoming other bodies, breathe
your breath into my book of changes…
~ Ovid, The Metamorphoses
My abdomen is probably the only part of my body I’ve never felt insecure about. Everything else has, at one time or another, been overrun by pudge, pimples, stretch marks, or, the most likely culprit in my case, unwanted body hair. When I gain weight, I tend to pack it on around the hips, thighs, chest, but, thanks to the crapshoot of genetics, I have never really had a flabby stomach.
That, however, is no longer the case. My abdomen is a fleshy pillow now. I can sink my fingers into it like bread dough.
My body has gone through many permutations over the past ten months, but this one is the most engrossing to me so far, because, well, I kind of like it. It’s just so soft. If I were a baby, I’d much rather curl up on my fleshy belly pillow than, say, a washboard.
This fascination with my post-partum belly started literally right after labor. I kept my eyes covered with a washcloth while I was pushing, because my senses were so overloaded I couldn’t process visual stimuli, but at the moment of Julian’s birth my mom pulled the cloth away and the first thing I saw was my rounded belly, free now of baby and jiggling like a unstable tower of Jell-O. And then Julian was there, warm and perfect and covered in goo, and I welcomed him onto the soft cushion of my torso, an ideal place to land when first entering the world.
Sure, my shallow, neurotic, appearance-conscious self loathes the Belly Pillow, but part of me feels affection and protectiveness toward it, similar to the way I get defensive of my obese cat, Little Tubbers, when people comment on her girth. (I prefer to think she’s just “fluffy.”)
As recounted in a previous post, my breasts have undergone the biggest changes (emphasis on “biggest”). When I look in the mirror, I still can’t help but think, “Geez, whose breasts are these?” I didn’t get many stretch marks on my belly, just a few purple commas around my hips, but my breasts, on the other hand, with their deep blue veins and violet squiggles pinwheeling out from the aereola, have bloomed into something almost otherworldly.
Sometimes I look at this new body of mine and feeling a twinge of despair, thinking of the suitcase stashed in the attic that I masochistically labeled “skinny clothes,” a suitcase filled with the trappings of my former body, including one beloved pair of jeans that I hope to be reunited with one day.
Other times I look at myself and just feel raw fascination. Our bodies are constantly undergoing minute changes, but the processes of pregnancy and childbirth wreak such hurried transformations – it’s like watching one of those time lapse nature videos of seeds sprouting and flowering, while the sun skims repeatedly across the sky, marking days like seconds. Only instead of a seed, it’s my own body expanding and unfurling before my eyes.
The moments when I feel love (or at least not-hate) toward this new body of mine are healthy moments, I think – but they are too few and fleeting. I would guess most, if not all, women in our culture feel some level of anxiety about their bodies at any given moment; it’s like a constant hum in the background, a white noise we’ve grown so used to hearing that we live by its rhythm.
This body anxiety, and body awareness in general, was certainly amplified for me during pregnancy. I gained forty pounds – maybe even more, because my final pregnancy weigh-in at the hospital flashed up in kilograms, and I told the nurse not to translate that into pounds for me. I had enough to worry about without that last little blow. By that time I was fed up with being weighed regularly at the midwife’s office, watching the numbers climb at a rate often exceeding the “pound per week” rule. (I once mentioned to a male colleague over lunch that I’d gained almost five pounds in the previous two-week period and he responded by gaping at me in disbelief and horror – not cool, bro.) Thanks to Google and those pastel pamphlets from the doctor’s office, I had it burned in my brain that the optimal pregnancy weight gain is between 25-35 pounds – and to go beyond that range surely meant that I was a careless fatty with no self-control.
Well, I blew past those markers fairly early into my third trimester, much to my dismay and puzzlement. I wasn’t sure where all that weight was coming from or going. After all, I vomited almost daily for the first twenty-two weeks of my pregnancy and didn’t get a healthy appetite back until the seventh month or so. I had also gone off sweets almost entirely and had delusions of making that change permanent (sweets are a weak spot of mine); I thought I’d finally broken the stranglehold of cupcakes and hot tamales over my life. But, of course, when my appetite didreturn, so did my hankering for all things baked and sugared. Still, I didn’t go totally overboard. Most days.
As it turns out, most of my pregnancy weight was fluid retention, and it was distributed so evenly all over my body that it was hard to tell it was happening. My mom bought me a nice pair of zip up boots during my third trimester, and I had to struggle to zip them up over my calves. I remember railing against the boot makers in my mind, cursing their obvious prejudice for model-types with unrealistically skinny legs – but lo and behold, those boots zip up easily now, with room to spare. Toward the very end of the pregnancy, I even began to suspect that my nose was getting wider. When I asked Michael to verify this, he said I was just being paranoid, but he has since confessed that yes, my nose did indeed flatten out, but he wasn’t about to admit that to my (distended) face.
So everywhere from my calves, to my nose, to my eyeballs, my body was absorbing enough fluid to make my weight skyrocket, but distributing the fluid so seamlessly all over that I was starting to worry I’d have a elephantine infant, or that my pregnant belly was creating some optical illusion that somehow slimmed the rest of my body in comparison – and after labor I’d suddenly realize that, shit, I had totally porked out.
Now I realize that all that anxiety, all that weight-watching, was for naught. One midwife told me early on that, as long as I ate well and don’t become a total slug, my body would gain however much weight it needed to. Even though I didn’t really listen to her at the time, I now know she was right, and I’m a little embarrassed about how much worry I wasted over those weigh-ins. I gained 40+ pounds without trying and a week after giving birth I’d lost 30 of them – again, without trying, because my body is just gonna do its thang.
And that “thang” is actually astonishing. When I think about what I have endured physically over the last ten months, I am awed by what my body has been up to. It’s infuriating to me that women who’ve just given birth are exhorted to “get our bodies back” – as if our bodies have disappeared somewhere, as if they’re on the run and we have to track them down like Dog the Bounty Hunter and wrangle them into submission.
Our bodies haven’t absconded; they’ve been here all along, accomplishing miraculous feats of nature. The maternal body is capable of incredible metamorphosis, wondrous creation. Give me a little genetic material and, in under a year, I will grow you a human being, and my body will split itself open to bring that being into the world and then make milk for it, ex nihilo.
Yet our distorting culture wants to hide the wonder of metamorphosis, instead demanding that the female body be static and plastic and ornamental, demanding that we conceal our changeability, our capacity for creation, growth, transformation.
I had worried, prior to giving birth, about what my body would look like afterwards, and contemplated the maneuvers I could take to erase all physical traces of pregnancy and childbirth – but now that feels wrong, like a betrayal. My abdomen is doughy because it grew and housed my son, keeping him warm and cushioned in his water world. Scrambling to maintain the illusion that life does not etch itself into our cells and skin – this seems not only futile but disrespectful to me now.
In reality, I will never “get my body back.” Maybe I’ll get back into those beloved jeans, maybe I won’t, but either way, my body will remain permanently marked, physically and emotionally, by motherhood. And I want to love this incredible, life-giving flesh I inhabit – even the pillowy bits. I want to love it whole.
(And, every once in awhile, I do.)