Body Image and Self Esteem After Baby
I’ve struggled with body image and self-esteem my whole life. Not from early childhood – I was a pretty healthy kid focused primarily and riding my bike until sundown and catching frogs. But adolescents came along and puberty hit like a wrecking ball to my self-confidence. I watched my friends get taller, leaner and take on that defining feminine hour glass shape. I also watched how the world responded to their transition from little girls to young women. It was a reaction I didn’t get but desperately wanted. Boys would say, “Oh Heidi, I just don’t feel that way about you. You’re like a little sister to me. But what about your friend, Heather? Is she seeing anyone?”
If I wasn’t ignored in high school then I was teased. A small group of the usual suspects went out of their way to remind me just how disgusting I was. I was lucky enough to find a great group of friends who connected over common interests and our desire to do great things after we graduated. They kept me pretty insulated from the disapproval of the one’s whose approval I didn’t actually need. But those cruel words still hummed around me like a fly you just can’t seem to swat away. And over time the meanness manifested deep inside and convinced me that I was unworthy. When I looked in the mirror I never liked what I saw. So I avoided mirrors and found a way to use my wit to distract people from my physical appearance.
I blossomed in college. I was 20, had a bad case of Mononucleosis and had never been thinner. I may have had extreme fatigue, anemia and a swollen spleen but at least I could fit into size 4 skinny jeans for the first time in my life, so… winning! I met my husband at a house party on the right side of the tracks. I had never felt better about myself. Instead of hiding in the corner in a baggy sweatshirt, I was sporting my best Brittany Spears school girl outfit and focused on being the life of the party. I found the love of my life when I cared more about connecting with the people around me than I did about how I looked. It’s interesting how losing 30 pounds in less than 3 months can give you a new perspective on life.
I had never felt better but it was a fleeting chapter in my life. My relationship with my future husband grew more serious and I eventually recovered from Mono and gained back the weight I lost while I was sick. Tj didn’t care. He had told me countless times before that he was in love with my quick wit and strong will – my pretty face was just a bonus. But unfortunately an important woman in my Husband’s life did care. My weight quickly became a recurrent issue with her. In one fell swoop, with the critical words from a women whose approval I did not need but desperately wanted, I had the rug pulled out from under me. It didn’t matter that the person I loved most in the world also loved me for me. The negativity from the noise outside our relationship was enough to hit the reset button. And just like that I was 13 again. Small, vulnerable and less than. I had been judged and found wanting. I felt ugly and unworthy. That was 8 years ago and I haven’t been able to get back on the horse after being pushed off.
Then I got pregnant and my relationship with myself completely disintegrated. I had already gained 80 lbs in two years. Tj and I had gone through a rapid fire of stressful life events and my body was left footing the bill. We had fallen from a six figure income household to not being able to afford groceries. And that was just the tip of the iceberg. I have struggled with anxiety and depression my whole life. This made me incredibly vulnerable to Perinatal Depression. The problem is that everyone, including the medical field, focuses their attention on Postpartum Depression. So while the former is very real and very serious it’s not really on their radar. I fell through the cracks. I had barely enough fortitude to make it through the work day. When I got home I went straight to bed and slept until I had to get up for work the next morning. Waking only to throw up from the unrelenting pregnancy nausea, this went on for nine months.
I had only gained 15 pounds during my pregnancy and I had lost it all by my six week check-up. But what remained weren’t just stretchmarks and a C-section scar but deep seated wounds that disfigured my self-image. When I looked in the mirror my eyes instantly swelled with tears and I felt nauseous. I had no idea who that girl was staring back at me. I hated every inch of what I saw. All I could hear was a voice telling me that my body was ruined. Nobody could love that mess in the mirror. My husband was going to leave me and my son was going to grow up ashamed of me.
These were all lies but I fell for them hook, line and sinker. The sad reality is that most women experience this disconnect from their bodies after childbirth. The soundtrack of every hurtful, negative thing that has ever been said to you is suddenly amplified and on a permanent loop. What’s sadder yet is that the negative is like a black hole that pulls you in and swallows you up. It doesn’t matter how many other good, wonderful, uplifting and supportive words are used to build you back up. Something hurtful and critical is a natural phenomenon so powerful it obliterates everything in its path. And depending on the source and how it affected you, it can also be a bungee cord that keeps pulling you back to that feeling over, and over, and over.
As women we are particularly defenseless against this assault. The cultural narrative has traditionally taught women that the cradle of our worth is entirely external to use, and also, entirely superficial. It doesn’t matter how smart you are, how strong you are, how kind you are or what you can you accomplish with your own two hands. It only matters how flat your tummy his and how big your breasts are. So when pregnancy and child birth completely rearrange your body like a Picasso painting it comes as no surprise that most of us subscribe to the false rhetoric that we are no longer worthy – of anything.
My husband snapped me out of my self-deprecating tailspin. And he continues to do it every single day. We all need that one person in our life to remind of us of just how profound our very existence is – how the impact we have on the ones we love does not go unnoticed. But what is truly disheartening to me is that as women it is almost impossible to be that person for ourselves. But it is so important to our very well-being.
My husband told me that my body is more beautiful to him now than ever before because it made him a father and made us a family. These are probably the most powerful words spoken into my life and they were the words that threw me a lifeline when I was drowning inside myself. So let me pass on my husband’s wisdom and explain why your postpartum body is more beautiful than the world will ever give you credit for…
Your body is beautiful because it brought forth a new life into this world. Your body made you a mother. But it also made someone a daddy, a nana, a papa, an auntie and an uncle. Your body is the reason someone has more joy and love in their life now than they have ever known before. You brought someone into this world who is going to be somebody’s best friend, confident and role model. Your body brought someone into this world who is going to be a sister, a brother, a husband, a wife, a father or a mother. The baby sleeping soundly in your arms is going to grow up to be someone who shows love, kindness and compassion in a world that desperately needs it.
When you became a mother you threw a pebble into a pond. The ripples will touch the lives of the people in its wake on a level you will never understand, or even see. You have set in motion a series of events that will, hopefully, one day lead to the creation of another family. What happened was a climactic event that had no choice but leave its mark on your body because the implications are so profound that one body could not possibly contain the beauty and complexity of what you have done. You created a life and you have permanently changed hundreds, maybe even thousands more. You are a different person now because of it. You have changed mentally, emotionally and physically to adapt to this higher calling. Your life is not without meaning or purpose.
So the next time you look in the mirror and the woman peering back at you doesn’t look the way you wished she did – remember – that woman just changed the world. She made it a better place. She made a work of art. She made a family. And she is a force to be reckoned with. The next time someone says something unkind and critical, pointing out all the things you are not (even when that person is you) remember what you are. You are the change you wish to see in this world because you brought forth change. And that change is sleeping soundly in your arms.