(Editor's Note: I met Bonnie years ago via the blogosphere and love her work. I hope you'll enjoy her post on body image and motherhood, and please check out her collaborative video project on The Shape of a Mother. - Rita)
When my daughter was born almost fourteen years ago, I was utterly unprepared for the extent of physical changes that would come along with the pregnancy. Afterwards, I felt torn between the awe and pride I should have been feeling for what my body did, and the shame I actually felt for looking nothing like the pictures I saw in magazines.
I assumed I was the only one dealing with this so I kept it to myself for a long time. And then one day, almost four years later, I happened to catch a glimpse of another mom’s belly and in that instant I knew this was actually a totally normal thing. It was such a relief to be able to let go of that self-hate I had spent so much time focused on and I wanted to make that knowledge available for women worldwide.
I wanted everyone – mothers, women who aren’t mothers, and men – to know mama bodies are normal. So I started The Shape of a Mother. It’s been just about a decade now and I’ve published the stories of about 2,500 moms in that time. Here are the top five things I’ve learned working with women and body image.
We’re harder on ourselves than on anyone else. Probably the most common comment people leave on the submissions that are posted is something like “Wow! You’re my body twin! But you look way better than I do!” Logically, if two people look that much alike, we can assume they probably both look equally lovely. And, certainly, if you saw two friends of yours who looked alike, you would think that neither was more beautiful than the other, right? But when it comes to ourselves, we are far more critical. How I have learned to handle this in my own head is to change my internal conversation. I pretend that I am talking to a friend, or that a wise friend is talking to me. Suddenly the words I think to myself are much kinder and over time it has made a huge difference in how I feel about myself.
What seems like a curse to some is a longed-for blessing to others. There are women who would do anything to be able to have their body blemished by pregnancy. Some women are struggling with infertility, others with miscarriage. There are mamas who have had stillborn babies and who wished there was some stretch mark or loose skin or something to mark the fact that they became a mother. This logic follows through to general health, too. Some people think their legs are ugly, others wish their legs worked at all. This isn’t a competition for who has it worse and I don’t intend to make it seem that way, but it can be helpful to remember to keep your own worries in perspective. It can remind you to find beauty and wonder in what you do have.
There is no one right answer. There is no one right body shape and size. There seems to always be competition between moms (or women in general, really). One mom’s body doesn’t change too much after pregnancy. A second mom’s does, but she works very hard at eating a certain way and exercising a certain amount and she finds that her body eventually looks the way it did before. A third mom might be dealing with health issues that prevent her from exercising the way the second mom does, or she might be dealing with financial issues that prevent her from eating the way the second mom does and the result is that her body remains changed. Yet another mom might find that she simply prefers not to exercise or to be careful about her diet and that the way her body changed doesn’t bother her. And, of course, there are the moms who do all the things and their bodies still remain changed, at least in some way. All too often, we forget that the world is diverse and we see it only through our circumstances. It is helpful to eliminate judgment entirely and simply listen and offer support. Instead of saying, “You just need to work harder at making time!” Try to say, “You don’t have time to exercise? I know how busy you are! And you look beautiful as is!” No need to argue about details, just lift each other up. Trust that what other people say about their experiences is true for them, even if it isn’t for you.
Language is important. You might notice I try to phrase things carefully. I say “bodies that don’t change after pregnancy” instead of “bounced back” or “got her body back”. And I say “and you look beautiful” instead of “but you look beautiful.” Because words carry more meaning than just their dictionary definitions. We hear what people say to us through the tone of their voices and their expressions, but also through our own histories. By choosing words carefully you can avoid alienating someone or creating animosity in your relationship. By choosing words carefully, you can show compassion and let someone know they can trust you; in turn, maybe you can trust them back.
When we are brave enough to share a secret fear, we open the door to empowerment. That’s the crux of SOAM. I kept my fears secret for so long because I was afraid of being judged, but when I finally got brave enough to mention it to my friends, they joined the conversation in relief. I opened SOAM officially on July 5, 2006, and I asked my friends to share the link. I was worried it would fall flat on its face, but the world was full of isolated women, thirsty to know they weren’t alone. The website exploded and less than a month later I was getting calls from media giants like the London Guardian. In that month, I saw the face of the world changed – just a little, but changed nevertheless. Because the women who submitted their pictures to me were brave enough to do so. Coming together to talk about the scary things is one of the most powerful things we can do as humans.
Working with SOAM has changed my life completely. It’s given me an unexpected career I never could have dreamed up on my own, and it’s taught me compassion, perspective, understanding, kindness, and how to be brave. I hope, in turn, I can share these gifts with the world.
December 18, 2015 - 5:56 pm - complete hour-long cross-training workout at the gym
December 18, 2015 - 11 pm - fall hard on ceramic tile in my kitchen
December 19, 2015 - diagnosed with broken fibula
January 6, 2016 - surgery to put plate and five screws
February 11, 2016 - surgeon clears me to start transitioning to weight-bearing on injured leg
February 12, 2016 - start physical therapy
March 7, 2016 - cleared to use nonimpact cardio machines other than stationary bike
March 11, 2016 - today
As I spent countless hours this winter lying in my recliner with my leg propped up on three pillows and wrapped in ice, I discovered A&E's Fit to Fat to Fit show. I have never watched The Biggest Loser, because I don't like the format very much. I never miss an episode of Fit to Fat to Fit, though, because I need to watch those personal trainers who gained hella weight return to the gym. I myself am returning to the gym, and it's hard.
I started working out when I was in high school and developing a pretty gnarly eating disorder. I've had to break the mental connection between calories in/calories out because if I do that I have a tendency to both overexercise and overeat. The brass ring that's so hard to catch is figuring out how to exercise the right amount without always tying it to weight loss.
For all of my adult life, I've been terrified of breaking a leg because it renders exercise almost impossible. I always assumed I would blow up like a blimp if I couldn't exercise. And that didn't happen. I did gain probably five to eight pounds, but it's hard to tell if that's because of the broken leg or because of winter. I do usually gain weight in winter and lose it in the spring, like a lot of people. Still, five to eight is a manageable amount and I know it will come off. I have gained and lost the same five to eight pounds over and over during my adulthood. What I haven't done is come back from immobility.
The least amount of exercise I've had since I was seventeen until I broke my leg: three times a week. Somehow, through all the business trips and vacations and illnesses and with the lone exception of the first six weeks after childbirth, I've worked out hard. And, I haven't not exercised this time -- I did floor barre and arm weights every weekday and crutched around as much as I could on the weekends. But that's not the same. I didn't break a sweat really until I started stationary biking when I could put weight on my injured leg.
According to my physical therapist, I'm still likely six weeks away from running.
And then once I can run, how far will I be able to make it? Not far.
I remember the first time I decided to run a half marathon. I could only run three miles. Every time I ran, I added a block.
I don't want to go through this again.
I don't want to fight back from nothing.
I've spent all winter making the tiniest incremental progress and it is so slow.
And so I love Fit to Fat to Fit, because the trainers who gain stupid weight in four months have that moment when they get back in the gym or out on the sandy beach and they're trying to run and it's so not happening. Then at the end of the show, there they are, looking more hard-bodied than I ever will (I have no intention of becoming a personal trainer, for one thing, and I'm at least ten years older than anyone who has been featured, for another). I don't want to be hard-bodied, but I want to get back to being able to run for an hour straight.
Right now, that seems impossible in my darkest hours and so far away in my lightest.
The one thing I can cling to is the memory of my husband saying, "Stop looking at them and comparing one to the other," when he caught me sniffing back tears as I studied my left calf and ankle and my right. My left calf looks like a runner's calf. My right calf, four weeks ago, looked like an uncooked piece of chicken. Zero definition, puffy, slack. Today, my right calf doesn't look like my left calf, but it no longer makes me reach for a crockpot.
I can do this, I know I can do this, but if watching twentysomething personal trainers grit their teeth and jiggle their new belly fat and try to hold a plank makes me feel better, then dammit, pass the remote. I won't apologize.
And I signed up for a 10k in September, six months from now.