I never had a pre-baby body. I mean, it existed of course – I didn’t spring into being from Zeus’ head, only with an infant at my side, eight years ago – but it wasn’t, in any way that matters or is visible, any different from my post-baby body.
That’s partly because I’ve never been thin. My stomach has had rolls for as long as I can remember (not in that hunched over on the beach way to show that you can squeeze a wrinkle out with effort, either); my thighs have never known a gap. I sometimes compare the textures of my body to food; at the moment I feel most like squidgy, pillowy dim sum. My body is what it is, and has been part of the battleground of hatred and fear since my age was in single figures. I’ve learned to live with it, because I have no choice but to live in it. I don’t always love it – I challenge anyone who deals with daily pain to really love their body, all the time – but I’m grateful for whatever it’s capable of at any given moment.
Pregnancy brought with it a complex buffet of feelings to feast on. On the one hand, I did anything but glow; I had the maternal elegance of a water buffalo, without the majesty. But having a sizable tummy and being tall for a woman, I coasted through the first five months of my pregnancy without anyone I didn’t explicitly tell being aware of it. Thereafter I learned to absolutely love clinging tops, finally having the freedom to ditch free-flowing smocks and careful tailoring because at last it was supposed to stick out! Contrary to certain sidebars of shame, most women do not ‘parade’ their bumps, since they have to option but to enter a room after them, but perhaps I did mine, a little.
And I didn’t get any stretch marks! That is, no new stretch marks. My tummy is tiger striped, certainly, as are my hips, arms and shoulders. But where it’s become common to show images of previously slimmer women displaying their newly discovered topography, my body was a map of the world long before I birthed a new member of the population. I need to be clear here, because I know emotions run high around motherhood: I don’t criticize those posts. At all. I think they’re necessary for many women, who find strength and support in seeing others who have processed a change like their own. I celebrate their self-care. I just can’t find myself in it.
I didn’t earn my stripes, literally, through the life-changing process of making a person. For various reasons (ones that are, frankly, no-one’s business), stages of my life were already written across my body. Am I allowed the same pride in what it’s done? While I was on maternity leave, I slowly, painfully, took up ‘running’ (bad jogging, but more of it each time), and when I hit the wall I’d whisper to myself you made a person, you made a person, you made a person. If I could perform this extraordinary trick, I could surely keep putting one heavy, lactic acid laden leg in front of the other for ten seconds, 30 seconds, 60 seconds more. But my body was really barely different to how it had been before I’d pulled the rabbit out of the hat; a little leakier, perhaps, but I didn’t look any more soft than I had. So am I to be permitted any sense of forgiving my body’s anti-social changes if they weren’t the price I had to pay for casting this divine magic?
Because that’s what I end up reading in those posts, that are not for me, not meant for me: forgive yourself your lack of perfection, because you traded it for something more precious. It’s a powerful statement, and I don’t begrudge it at all. I just had no perfection to trade away – so am I allowed to forgive myself?
I love clothes and makeup and jewellery and the entertainment world that has no interest in my ordinary appearance or my increasing age. I am rejected over and over again, overtly and covertly, by the industries I love and give my money to. Motherhood could give me a justification for my exclusion and it wouldn’t be untrue: mums are relentlessly underestimated, and all sorts of media still vomit out stories about ‘snapping back’ and post-baby bodies. But it wouldn’t be my whole story, either, and I won’t buy acceptance by pretending.
I have worked almost non-stop since I finished my formal studies; I grew, birthed and have raised a child to eight years old and counting who is smart and weird and funny and sometimes kind of a pain but brilliant; I have been kindly invited to watch the films and meet the heroes; I have shared the photos of my outfits, posing awkwardly; I am shortly launching a tiny side-business that speaks to my passions. And I have written thousands upon thousands upon thousands of words, paid and unpaid, that line the stomach of this hungering internet like great, stodgy gulps of comfort food. And that is why I’m writing this now.
Because I know I’m not alone. I know there will be other mums with no ‘before’ photo, no appreciable difference in their bodies postpartum – other than a lingering fear of trampolines, perhaps. I will continue to praise and celebrate the journey of others – I refuse to pit mum against mum – while speaking our truth directly to my more similar sisters.
We, too, are allowed to give ourselves permission to live exactly as we are. We, too, do not have to justify our bodies – and if we can’t credit their markings to a greater good or more noble purpose, it makes them no less worthy of respect. We, too, are allowed to look down at ourselves and marvel at our act of creation. And when we’re ready, we can reach out to those who have needed to come to terms with being different on the outside, to stand hand in hand in the glow of power from what happened to us all on the inside: the indelible brand stamped on our hearts.