The changes to my body during pregnancy bought an odd sense of relief: for the first time, perhaps ever, I felt I had the permission to grow larger. But following the birth, I find myself stranded in an unfamiliar body that seems resistant to change. Here’s how I’m recalibrating to life as a bigger woman.
I am vain. By this stage in life it’s important to know your weaknesses, and I don’t have any problem admitting mine. I have never been the carefree, windswept type — and if I ever gave you that impression, I apologise. I really did work quite hard at appearing that way. If Dolly Parton spent a lot of money working on looking cheap, I spent a lot of time working on looking carefree. Even in my darkest hours I have carried lipgloss. Especially then.
As a pregnant woman, I experienced for the first time ever what it is like to live without daily monitoring of appearance. From the minute my belly popped an enormous sense of relief set in, like unbuttoning your pants after a large meal. I relaxed my workout routine and soon dropped it altogether. It was a hazy movie montage as I softened into slow days in the garden, pottering about in a pair of overalls, cooking elaborate meals for myself and my partner and our growing baby. You can practically hear the birds chirping in the background, can’t you?
After early days battling chronic nausea, I blossomed into the second trimester with an insatiable appetite. I ate everything, gleefully, with gusto. And during all of this, I had many kind people telling me how wonderful and relaxed I looked, how healthy, how perfectly round my bump was, how lush my hair was. I rolled around in the compliments like a labrador in the mud. It was a delicious time, and I was so pleased with myself that I barely noticed the 30kg I had gained. When the first pair of overalls stopped fitting, I just bought a bigger pair. No big deal.
But of course, what goes up must come down. I had barely clocked an hour since the birth when those old demons came knocking. Standing in the fluorescent light of the hospital bathroom, preparing for my first shower, I was enraged by my appearance. Appalled. Without the baby, my stomach had semi-collapsed, a punctured basketball strapped to the front of what I could now see was a very large body. My breasts, swollen and criss-crossed with veins, hung haphazardly. Angry purple stretch marks clawed their way from my bellybutton right now into my pubic hair. I felt so very broken. I vowed to avoid mirrors until things had returned to normal. But that’s the thing about postpartum bodies, isn’t it? They don’t go back to normal. Whatever existed before has been burned to the ground, and what remains is the ghostly reminder of what once stood.
In the days following the birth, I moaned to my mother about the weight gain, demanding to know why she hadn’t informed me earlier about how huge I was getting. “Don’t be ridiculous, Maggie,” she would say with a tut. “You were pregnant.” My partner echoed my mother’s words, reminding me over again that I needed to gain the weight. It had supported our baby. It had carried her around for nine months. That weight was a lovely, wobbly testament to how much I loved our daughter. But this argument fell short when it came to my current state: sure, the weight was fine when I was pregnant, but I was no longer pregnant. So what now? Was it still lovely, or was it just…fat?
The recovery after childbirth is gruelling. You can almost hear the creaks and groans as organs shuffle back to their original homes, bones fusing back into place, wounds stitching themselves together. You are bruised, gnarled, gingerly making your way through the world with a new, post-war body. It is a bloody affair, with adult diapers filling hourly with the flotsam and jetsam of a disappearing womb. It is at least a week before you can stomach a short walk. Many weeks before you could consider a more vigorous one. And months before ‘real’ exercise is back on the table. In this time, you are left alone with your big, new body and your tiny, new child and everything feels pretty grim.
It’s important to caveat this story by pointing out my own personal experience of weight gain is not my universal experience of larger women. In that magical way that women have sadly mastered, my own rigid standards of size do not apply to anyone else. Voluptuous curves are delicious. Soft bellies and pocked thighs and wobbly arms are beautiful, truly beautiful, and I have longed for most of my life to welcome them on my own body in the same way I do my friends and family. Tragically, I don’t. I have struggled forever with the tidal push and pull of body image, memories stretching back to childhood of sucking in my stomach at swimming lessons in third grade, or wearing sports tracksuits to PE class in the middle of summer to cover my legs. They are devious little ferrets, those body image demons, and will worm their way into the most inappropriate of moments. I recall being on the delivery room table, completely nude and hooked up to an epidural, preparing to push out my child, when I asked my doula to please brush my hair. “Don’t worry about the back,” I said, flapping my hand around my head, “just try and neaten up the front a bit.”
Soon after I arrived home from hospital, my doula sent me a beautiful video she had created from the birth. I asked my partner to take the baby for a walk so I could watch it alone first — I needed to see what I looked like without an audience. I yelped when I saw myself. “My God,” my demons screamed in unison, “you were HUGE. Huge!” There is part of the video, when my midwife asks dubiously if there was any way I might be able to flip myself onto my front in a tabletop position, which was no mean feat, given I was completely numb from the waist down. Driven by sheer primal instinct, I flipped myself up and around, baby almost crowning, using only the strength of my arms. It had become one of the only moments of the birth I was proud of, and was a story we had told over and over as I tried to drag myself out of the black depths of postpartum depression. But seeing it on the video changed everything. Instead of witnessing that insane moment, that unbelievable strength, all I saw was a big soft woman on her hands and knees. Instead of witnessing the remarkable moment in time when I was crossing the precipice of motherhood, all I saw was a fatter version of myself. Groan.
Of course, it’s not all doom and gloom. My jolly new breasts are a true novelty, and I haven’t wasted any time in showing them off. My hair is still reaping the benefits of whatever holy trinity of growth hormones erupted during the pregnancy, and my skin is rivalling that of my 11-week-old daughter. With every day that passes, I feel stronger and more in my body. The soft, deflated folds of immediate postpartum are disappearing, and hints of old muscle tone are returning. I wore high heels the other day for the first time in almost a year. I had a martini.
And yet, I mostly still wear overalls. They have pockets, and I need them for the seventy-odd items I need on my person at any given time. (Dummies, drink bottles, phone chargers, snacks.) They are comfortable, and fit my new soft belly and bottom. I have denim overalls, and a green pair, and ones I wear painting. Speaking of painting, I’m just about finished the life size nude portrait of myself, pregnant and naked. I feel like it’s important to remember how I looked during that time. Or maybe it’s more important to remember the way I felt.