I’ve never been shy about showing skin. I think I’ve always been a bit of an exhibitionist, but it did not stem so much from a place of confidence as it did a way of inviting conversation about my body. Pre-pregnancy, I would wear tight or skimpy clothing so that I could judge from others’ reactions how I must really look because I was never quite sure of what the mirror was showing me. Am I heavier than last week? Thinner? The same? I never could tell. But all of that changed when I became pregnant. For the first time ever, I felt a body confidence that I had only ever imagined.
During both of my pregnancies, I spent way more time wearing string bikinis than I ever would have anticipated. I didn’t worry about sucking in, or looking bloated, and I never felt ashamed about my appetite. Getting bigger was what my body was supposed to be doing. My round belly was a sign of a healthy pregnancy. People applauded me when I had a second helping of whatever (“Eat! You’re growing a life inside of you!”) and they encouraged my joyful belly exhibitionism (“You go girl! Flaunt it!”). It felt wonderful to have so much support of this new body. If my pregnant body had a tagline, it would have been, “I don’t think you’re ready for this jelly.”
When I was pregnant with my first son, I was living by the beach at my husband’s grandmother’s house. Life was all about bikinis and inhaling tuna sub sandwiches with a side of salt and vinegar chips. I took weekly bikini selfies with my digital camera (this was pre iPhone) pointed at the oval mirror in our basement bedroom to document my growing belly. I loved finally having breasts for which a bikini top wasn’t purely ornamental. My stomach got so big that one would have thought I was incubating a baby goat. And since my belly had acquired that strange torpedo shape that befalls some of us lucky ladies, it appeared as if said goat was sitting in my belly in an upright position with all four of its hoofs sticking straight out.
Even with my funny belly shape, I loved how I looked. Sure, whenever people talked about my body (and people LOVE talking about pregnant bodies), I said all the appropriate and socially acceptable things about being “huge” and feeling like an ogre. Sometimes yes, I did feel that way, but more often than not, I felt gorgeous.
It wasn’t always easy watching the rest of me get bigger and bigger, but it was pretty exciting. Every morning brought a new discovery – a new stretch mark, a different shape to my belly, a darkening line across my skin that seemed to cut my belly in two. I felt like a butterfly who had the good fortune to emerge from her cocoon morning after morning, her wings a different color each time. There was so much thrill in this constant changing-ness.
I felt so good in my new skin there were days when I didn’t even bother with a cover up over my bikinis. My husband’s grandmother and I made quite the odd couple that summer – she would be wearing slacks and knit shirts and I would be running around mostly naked, with the unselfconscious abandon of a 5-year-old on the beach. Grandma’s friends from the synagogue or book group would drop by for visits and tea, and occasionally I would make a grand gesture toward decency and throw on a pair of booty shorts that may or may not have said, “Jesse’s Ass” on the back of them (Jesse being my husband’s name).
And then something terrible happened after I had my son, and I’d shed the baby weight: everything went back to the way it had been before. Guilt was the side dish at nearly every meal. Judgment faced me in the mirror when I stood, frowning, in jeans and a bra. I imagined people snickering as I walked through a restaurant, commenting on whatever I was wearing. Every night I would assess myself in a critical way: why wasn’t my stomach flat yet? Why did it hang over the tops of my jeans? And when would my grotesque c-section scar finally heal?
My pregnancies gave me the gift of body acceptance, but it was a fleeting gift both times. Pregnancy was like peeking into a fantasy world where people applaud weight gain, where big means healthy, and where eating more is not only a necessity – it is strongly encouraged.
Even when I look back at pictures of myself pregnant, I cannot help but force upon them my regular disordered thinking about my body. It is hard for me to see a pregnant beauty on the beach – more often than not I see someone who should have been wearing a sensible mu mu.
It is part of my daily work to try to bring some of the body confidence I had when I was pregnant into my everyday postpartum life. I want to encourage those who are in the middle of their pregnancies to really enjoy the freedom of joyfully getting bigger and to relish this time of profound growth. And then afterward, when the people around you are no longer trying to feed you, and when the other moms around you are moaning about their pants not fitting, to try not to dwell in negative body thoughts.
It is far too easy to be critical of our bodies, but we didn’t become mothers because we were expecting easy. One of the more difficult things we could do for ourselves after pregnancy is also one of the most kind: to look at our bodies and all the parts of it that may have shifted or changed from a place of acceptance.