I’m afraid to look at myself in the mirror lately.
First of all, I look very tired, because I am. Second, I still don’t have my body back.
There was a great piece of absurdist writing several years ago about finding “your beach body,” written as though “the beach body” is a literal physical body that can be retrieved, in a true crime sense of the word. I wish I could link and excerpt it, but several futile minutes revealed that I can no longer find it, because using Google to search for things in the age of the ad buy and SEO manipulation is like going to a flea market to buy groceries.
I miss my old body, the one my baby absolutely pulverized. I have a closet full of clothes that I haven’t worn in years but I can’t bring myself to donate just yet. I’m afraid to even try them on. The last time I had to wear a party dress was pre–pandemic, and who knows if my bones are even still in the same place two years later? Sometimes they move!
I’m afraid of being unable to button the top button of my favorite pair of high waisted culottes (are those even still cool?) and that unique fitting room rage many women know and hate.
I know this is an insane set of concerns to have, especially since I gave birth a mere five months ago and five months is no time. My doctor didn’t even want me to try running until I was three months postpartum (I still haven't, but I could if I wanted to). People are told to wait a year to conceive after giving birth because of the toll pregnancy and childbirth exact from the body. I get, logically, how silly the fear accompanying the bounce-back expectation is.
But I still feel, against logic and sense, like my inability to button some of the blouses I once buttoned is a reflection of my own failure or laziness. The truth is that I haven’t had time to exercise because I haven’t had time to do anything. The truth is I am not that much bigger than I was before. The truth is that the search to retrieve My Old Body hasn’t even begun. And yet.
“Getting one’s body back” or “bouncing back” after birth is a loaded subject, because there’s no way to talk about it that doesn’t minimize or erase somebody’s experience. Every single human being that exists is the result of somebody putting their body through the ordeal of birth. Birth is extremely common, and thus, varies about as widely as anything can vary– which is why most people who universalize any aspect of birth should be viewed as full of shit.
So I’m talking about a narrow band of experiences within a huge range of “normal” here. Some people have a hard time of it. Some people don’t. But the only experience I have is with my own body, and so I cannot hold it up against another person’s and say that I don’t feel bad because they’ve got it harder than I do. That’s not how having a body works. I can only see people having an easier time and feel like it’s not easier for me because I’m doing something wrong. That’s how being an anxious person raised with a lot of Catholic guilt works.
Before I got pregnant, I felt pretty good about what my body could do. I was a devoted long distance runner for many years. I planned vacations around hiking. I liked how my body looked, took fairly good care of it, and was grateful for it.
Now, I’m holding two sets of feelings about my body: first that I’m impressed that it was able to build a human and push that human out, but second that I miss the old body, as though my physical self was bifurcated by birth and the obsolete body was somehow “better.” Like an earlier version of the iPhone before they removed the headphone jack.
I know this is anti-feminist and anti-woman and unhelpful and perhaps even a shitty way to feel, but I can’t help it, because, like every woman who grows up in the West, I’ve spent my entire life around fucked up messaging around women’s bodies and birth.
Even if you try to have a healthy attitude, even if you didn’t have one of those toxic female relatives who said things like “an inch on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” or “nothing tastes as good as skinny feels,” diet culture and its extra mean cousin the postpartum bounce-back will find you. The pollution has been everywhere for so long that no girl escapes adolescence without being driven a little insane by it, like how leaded gasoline in the air gave 90% of Americans born between 1950 and 1981 low-grade lead poisoning.
I was a petite little kid who loved to run around outside, and I was five, somebody gave me a Get In Shape, Girl! aerobics set for Christmas, because that’s how little girls played in the late 1980’s. I cannot believe that this was a real toy.
My formative teen years were sandwiched right between heroin chic and pro-ana/fitspo Tumblr. I felt low key bullied by Y2K-era Abercrombie and Fitch ads– the ones that normalized hip bones that jutted out– and teen magazines that promised me between ads for Diet Coke and midriff-baring Jessica McClintock prom separates that if I did enough sit-ups every day for like a year, I could get abs like Britney Spears in her “Crazy” video. That was back when it was still legal for stores to sell racecar yellow diet pills that were basically over-the-counter speed, and size 00 was invented. A wild time!
Even though I went through much of adulthood unsure of whether or not I wanted to have a baby, “a baby will ruin your body” messaging made the decision more fraught.
After my brother and sister were born, I remember my mother working out a lot, even though she went back to college to become a teacher when my brother was still pretty small. Back then, postpartum moms used exercise tapes or, in our case since we didn’t own a VCR, Jane Fonda records. Even then, at age 3 and 5, I saw the scars of childbirth as something that women, naturally, should rush to erase.
I remember Fit Mom, aka Maria Kang, a former Miss Bikini California turned fitness entrepreneur who in 2013 was the main character of the internet for a couple of outrage cycles when a photo of herself in a sports bra and boy shorts, perfect abs resplendent, tight little arms akimbo, surrounded by her three children ages 3, 2, and 8 months went viral. “What’s your excuse?” read the text emblazoned across the top of the photo. In 2019, Kang had her breast implants removed and did an “I’m Sorry” tour, apologizing “for unconsciously normalizing an unnatural body standard, not expressing my challenges with body image and not being strong enough to unfix this years ago.” Of course, in the intervening years, she ran a fairly successful fitness company aimed at moms.
US Weekly and other pink aisle rags used to run truly insane stories about celebrity moms who “bounced back” weeks and months after giving birth, declaring them “AMAZING” rather than what they really were, which were genetically gifted millionaires whose job it was to look good, who had staffs in place to care for their children and cook them meals and schedule facials for them while they devoted every free moment after being cleared to exercise to working out as though their livelihoods depended on it. Which they did. It wasn’t until after I first caught a gander at myself naked from the waist up a few days after giving birth that I realized the extent to which these How! I! Got! My! Body! Back! cover lines screwed with my head.
As I got older and my friends started having kids, I learned ways that in many cases, it's near-impossible to get a pre-baby body "back" at all. I didn't know, for example, about diastasis recti, or pelvic floor prolapse, or stretch marks, or the fact that some births make it impossible for the mother to walk comfortably for weeks after having a baby, much less do squat thrusts. I didn't know about leaking breast milk or leaking blood or that loose guts feeling that happens when you expel a 7 lb person and several accompany pounds of blood and organs all at once. I didn't realize that the old canard that breastfeeding helps mom lose weight in a dramatic fashion actually doesn't hold up to scientific scrutiny.
I don’t want to downplay the work that some mothers put into feeling physically like themselves again after giving birth. A female relative lost so much blood while giving birth that it was a medical emergency, and I will forever be impressed by the fact that she ran a full-ass marathon less than a year later. Mothers have a right to feel proud of themselves for whatever their bodies will allow them to do after they’ve performed a death-defying miracle.
But maybe there’s nothing to get “back.” Maybe after having a child, as with all life-altering events, the only direction is forward. And in order to move forward, I’m going to have to suck it up and either buy my first pair of Spanx or part ways with some party dresses.
Also, I don’t even know where I’d find a Jane Fonda workout record. eBay?
Image via Shutterstock