Eight months ago, we welcomed our second child. Last week, while he was napping, my 4-year old daughter came home from preschool and pulled a drawing she had done at school out of her home folder to show me.
I looked at it with curiosity – it appeared to be an image of me from the neck down (defined mostly by my breasts and belly button) and her father from the neck up. I asked if this was a composite portrait, pointing to her father’s defining feature in the drawing, his beard. She looked at me and laughed with delight, “No mama! Those are your chins!”
Say what you will about the many layers of charged cultural information, good and bad, about the post-birth experience, but when your kid draws you with six or more chins, it might give you a moment’s pause. It’s a tenuous place to be – strung, as many mothers are, between the awe of the life-giving experience and the sleep-deprived, roller coaster ride we are on in what can seem like unfamiliar skin.
When we lived in Boulder, Colo., just after the birth of our daughter, I struggled sometimes with the seemingly overwhelming number of super-athlete new mothers whose baby weight appeared to have melted magically away mere weeks after birth.
Even as a yoga-loving mom with a relatively healthy diet, my body held on to my post-baby weight until my daughter fully weaned herself at age 2. The sight of one of these supposed uber-moms effortlessly guiding her jogging stroller down the bike path was sometimes enough to drive me into the squishy embrace of a gourmet doughnut and an extra creamy latte. Comforting, yes, but I was as despondent as ever trying to fit into my jeans.
Naturally, the barrage of magazine covers screaming at me from the checkout aisle didn’t help either. Lose your baby weight in 6 weeks like J-Lo! (Forget that it’s her JOB to look amazing and that she is swimming in money and has a full staff to keep her fit and fabulous).
This refrain is so tired that when one celebrity opts out of the baby weight-loss nonsense and dares to speak about it, it’s major news. Last year, star Kristen Bell (of "Veronica Mars" and "Frozen" fame) told Redbook magazine that following the birth of her daughter, Lincoln, she had no intention of participating what she termed the “baby weight rat race.” In the context of the perfection machine that is Hollywood this attitude is admirable but it’s also sad that it’s posited as “heroic” and “amazing” that she courageously allowed her chubby (read: gorgeous) face and body to be featured on the cover of a magazine 11-weeks after giving birth.
Many women use this phrase: "when I get my body back." While pregnancy can feel like your body has been hijacked outright, this expectation is deeply misleading. It assumes that we can somehow reclaim something that has been lost. Here’s where I believe the crux of the problem lies for many moms: we are coaxed into an expectation that we’ve done this momentous thing and nothing ought to have changed.
Ms. Bell’s comment in her Redbook interview echoes this idea with her trademark humor. She says, “ 'I like my Lincoln Leftovers because they’re proof I did something extraordinary. I gave life to my new BFF & she gave me a comical amount of midsection skin.'”
Other people are dreaming of ways to help reverse this body image struggle that can become ingrained in us (post-baby body or not) through art and other creative avenues. In 2013, photographer Jade Beall released on her own web site a self-portrait of herself nursing naked, sans photoshopping, and unintentionally started a mini-revolution. Women who saw her image wrote to her, told her their stories and asked her to take their portraits, as well.
She captured these women in stunning black and white images that show real, unvarnished mothers just like herself. This collection of portraits is now available as a book titled “The Bodies of Mothers” released May 23, 2014.
“When a woman believes she is authentically beautiful, she frees herself from the overwhelming prison of self-doubt and feeling unworthy and instantly becomes a role model of self-love for our young girls and boys,” Ms. Beall writes in the book promo video on her web site. She goes on to say, “It’s time. It’s time to praise each other and empower one another.”
Mainstream brands like Dove are also trying to rework the way women see themselves (even if it is a faux-feel good campaign as some critics have claimed) and have tackled the topic through the Campaign for Real Beauty.
The newest iteration of the campaign, a short film series called “Legacy” which launched on YouTube at the end of September, is about the parent-child relationship – how a woman’s self-criticisms trickle down to the most vulnerable among us: our daughters.
And here’s where I have to implicate myself. My daughter didn’t get the idea of my multiple chins in her portrait out of nowhere. She’s heard me joke about it, complain about it, and express disgust about this one of many ways my body has responded to the end of my second pregnancy.
Sadly, my negative perception of my own appearance has become part of how she now sees me and how she knows I see myself. I have to put this kind of talk on lockdown – not just in front of her but in my own mind, as well.
One of my biggest jobs as a mother is setting the example for how my daughter comes to see herself. The last thing I want is for her to lose what we’ve worked hard to nurture in her: self-confidence, love, intelligence, and courage. Her appearance doesn’t influence her sense of her own value – it’s time I felt the same way.
It won't be the easiest process to see myself in a new way – this isn't a simple issue for any woman – but small steps towards appreciating my body the way my children do is the most important thing, so that is where I will start. I see how my children light up at my smile, take refuge in my soft arms and relax against the body that was once their home. My daughter loves each of those chins she drew for me. I am going to try to love them, too.