Wednesday, January 19, 2011
I was reflecting the other day on my relationship to my belly, especially in regards to my pregnancies and births ─ how I've celebrated it in some ways, and how I've struggled with it in other ways.
I thought about things that I expected to happen and how the reality did or didn't meet those expectations, things that surprised me, things that pleased me, and things that made me unhappy or which challenged my peace with my body.
Thought I'd share some of those thoughts here. Hope you will share your own experiences too.
Trigger Warning: Frank talk about body ambivalence and negativity. Some folks may find this post challenging or triggering and may want to opt out.
Worrying About Shamu
My first pregnancy was a surprise. I went from being told I would not be able to get pregnant without "help" to being pregnant a few months later without trying. So I was totally not prepared to think about pregnancy bellies!
I hate to say it now because it sounds so vain, but I was really worried about what I'd look like pregnant. I was already a large person; I figured when I was pregnant I'd look like Shamu.
Now, I don't mean that in a negative way; I was pretty at peace with my body pre-pregnancy, and I didn't really "fear" being huge in pregnancy. But I was having a hard time picturing the giant basketball belly you see on skinny women added to my already sizable frame, you know? And I wondered what I'd be wearing on that basketball belly (or if I could find anything to wear at all, considering that it wasn't easy to find clothes even when not pregnant).
I know a lot of other women of size wonder these things too, because the top post viewed on this blog (by a HUGE margin) is the one on plus-sized pregnancy photos. There are so few pictures of women of size out in the media, let alone pregnant women of size. (And fat pregnant women of color? Nearly impossible to find. Gah!)
The most common search words people use when they find my blog has to do with this search for images of fat pregnant women. Except the phrases are usually "overweight and pregnant photos" or "obese pregnant belly" or "obese pregnancy pictures" or "plus-size pregnancy belly pics" and things like that. There is a tremendous desire for pictures of pregnant women of size because I think so many fat women have that "Oh-My-God-What-Am-I-Going-To-LOOK-Like" anxiety.
The Shamu obsession, I call it.
The ironic gotcha to all that worry is that once I was well into pregnancy, I was disappointed to realize that I didn't look pregnant at all.
People kept looking at me and wondering where the pregnancy belly was, I could see it in their eyes. Well, it was there ─ it just wasn't visible to the casual onlooker. I have a big ole rack-o-doom and that tends to hide any belly popping out pretty well, plus my baby was facing my belly (occiput posterior) for much of the pregnancy, which means you "show" a lot less (cause the baby's behind is facing the other way!).
I was so NOT showing in pregnancy that most people couldn't even tell I was pregnant until the baby was nearly born. My classic story of this was when I had to move during my 8th month of pregnancy. I showed up to my new doctor's office, told them I was transferring care there from another state ─ and they eyed me and asked me if I needed a pregnancy test! I said, uh no, I'm 8 months pregnant already and if you need confirmation, you can come over here and feel her kicking! They still looked dubious but took my word for it. I was so upset that they couldn't tell I was pregnant even at that point.
The only time anyone knew I was pregnant was just before I gave birth at 40 weeks. I was in an elevator, going up to my last OB appointment, and a doctor on the elevator remarked on my pregnancy (he didn't know me; he was just being kind and making small talk). I could have kissed him!! Finally, FINALLY, someone saw I was pregnant.
So in the beginning, I was most worried about just how large I might get in pregnancy, only to have the ironic problem of no one even knowing I was pregnant most of the time. Some fat women do look obviously pregnant, but some don't. A lot depends on factors like the position of the baby, your shape ("pears" show more than "apples" or "hourglasses"), and your overall frame.
If you are bothered by folks not knowing you are pregnant, the secret is to wear obvious maternity clothing, stand with your hand massaging your belly a lot, and talk a lot about your pregnancy. That will make it clear to all but the most oblivious by-stander that it's not just fat but actual baby in there too. (Sad we have to be so OBVIOUS about it, but hey, if it brings you peace of mind, go for it.)
The biggest thing that surprised me about my actual pregnant belly was that it was hard.
I was used to my belly being a bit more on the soft and squishy side ─ not flabby but not rock-hard either. But in pregnancy, my "bump" was quite hard and that really surprised me.
The not-so-lovely part of this was that the squishy parts then drooped down to the underside of the baby bump and I developed an "overhang" that I'd never had before. Eywww.
Now, I'm generally a lot more self-accepting than most but even I had trouble being loving and accepting of the big belly droop that sent all my fat south for the winter. Permanently.
That was a not-so-pleasant surprise.
And it only got worse with each kid.
Four of 'em.
The Postpartum-Belly Reality
I have to be frank about this ─ this belly droop thing has been hard to deal with. Honestly, it's not a part of my body that I'm so at peace with anymore.
Hard as it may be for some people to believe, I really was okay with my belly before babies. It wasn't flat, it did have a bit of a roll, but nothing all that remarkable. I carried more of my weight in my boobs, hips, and legs. I was okay with my belly. I wasn't photographing it and sending it off to magazines, but I really didn't hate it and I really did enjoy the fact that my waist was so much smaller than my hips, giving me that va-va-va-voom hourglass vibe.
But post-children ─ oy. The va-va-va-voom factor? It va-va-va-vrooomed off to another universe. The belly droops down now in a way it never did before. If I move in just the "right" way, I can hear the "slap-slap-slap" sound of my flesh hitting against itself. It never did that before children! Oh my gosh, I cannot tell you how much I absolutely loathe that.
And that hourglass figure? Well, it's not a straight line but it's closer. I gained a lot of abdominal fat in my pregnancies, and I dislike that for a number of reasons, both aesthetic and more importantly, because abdominal visceral fat is much more of a health risk. I used to be very much a pear, or at least an hour-glassy pear with boobs. Now I gained an apple to add to the pear with boobs, leaving me just fat all over. That didn't make me very happy. I don't mind being fat, but I really liked actually having a shape. Now, I feel more like a blob.
The extra abdominal fat certainly wasn't from gaining "too much" weight. I gained a total of 5 lbs. net (lost 10 or so and then regained 15) on average with each child. I bounced around a bit between each but ended up at about the same weight I started my first pregnancy. However, you'd never know it from looking at me. I look quite a bit heavier now than I did before my pregnancies. And that sucks, I have to say.
It sucks not because I'm fat but because I look a lot fatter than I really am. I basically am the same weight as 16+ years ago....but I sure look a lot heavier. I'm not thrilled with that ─ but the real reason it sucks is because I know from the research that abdominal fat really is more risky. Even though I didn't gain "too much" and even though my eating habits actually improved from pre-pregnancy....I look more at risk, and probably am more at risk. Damn.
The Lipedema Effect
As a side note of interest, I should point out that the bellyfat gain is probably due to lipedema (warning: not a fat-acceptance link).
People with lipedema (not the same as lymphedema) have a tendency to gain abnormal fat deposits in the lower body, especially the legs, but sometimes also in the abdomen or upper arms. They often gain a lot of these fat reserves during times of major hormonal changes, like puberty, pregnancy, menopause, etc.
My legs look just like the picture here, my legs got bigger symmetrically, I have the classic "cankles" with the ring overlap at the bottom yet my feet are not affected, and it is extremely painful to have any pressure on my legs, especially my lower legs.
While the lipedema fat gain did happen a bit, it was not too bad with the first few pregnancies. However, in the fourth pregnancy (in my 40s), the combination of pregnancy plus perimenopause plus postpartum thyroiditis did seem to add an awful lot of fat, both around my ankles and in the abdominal area.
So while I'm technically at the same weight I started my pregnancies out with, my fat levels have definitely increased, and that's been difficult to be at peace with.
Now, the belly droop thing is pretty common among women of size after pregnancy. Fat women often experience this, regardless of how much weight they gained, how they gave birth, etc. (Some get it without pregnancy too, especially if they've had a lot of drastic weight loss/regain in their lives.)
But mine may be worse because of my 2 cesareans, because many women (fat or skinny) who have had cesareans find they have a post-cesarean "shelf" or "flap." I'm sure some would be there anyhow without cesareans, but most cesarean moms really do see a marked increase on the belly flap-o-meter, and I'm sure being fat and having lipedema and having had cesareans only magnified that lovely effect. [Another *#ing gift from my cesareans!]
So all in all, I've had some real challenges to my body acceptance after four children.
I take some comfort in knowing I'm not alone in my belly ambivalence, though. A lot of women have droopy bellies postpartum, a ton of stretch marks, and a different overall shape than before.
A change that drastic ─ well, it's just not that easy to come to terms with, no matter how much you love your body in general, or how much you adore your babies and wouldn't trade them for the world. So having a hard time coming to peace with your body afterwards is very normal, as you can see here:
Beware, though, this is not a body-acceptance or fat-acceptance site at all. These women have all the self-hate of their bodies (and especially their fat bodies) that is so typical of women in our society. Add in the wrinkly, saggy belly that is universal immediately postpartum, and the body hate talk there can be really strong at times. So while the pictures at Shape of a Mother are great to see, you should know that the self-hate talk may be triggering for some.
Personally, I still find the site useful, even though I find the self-loathing and pro-dieting talk frustrating. I try to remember that it does reflect the ambivalent feelings many women have about their bodies post-partum ─ magnifying whatever body image issues they already had pre-pregnancy ten-fold. Plus I just don't know any other sites out there that have such honest pictures of postpartum bodies. So I value the absolute honestly of the pictures themselves enough to try and overlook the self-hate talk.
Here is the link to the category of pictures of pregnancy and post-pregnancy bellies in women of size:
[Again, be warned that there's lots of diet talk and WLS (weight loss surgery) discussion there.]
No, it's not easy to stay at peace with your body (and especially your belly) during pregnancy and post-partum. There are many challenges to body image, and the natural changes that come with pregnancy can exacerbate the body image issues of even the most self-accepting woman.
Still, it's important to honor the vital work that our bodies did, to love every bump and curve for the job it did bringing a new soul to the earth, growing a healthy being and helping it into this world, and nurturing that new life afterwards.
I guess my main message on this is that it's normal and okay to be a bit ambivalent about your body shape and condition after birth (even long after birth). Don't hate on it, recognize the important work it did ─ but realize that it's totally normal to have some ambivalence about it too.
Acknowledge that, and then take some time to honor your belly anyway.
To honor my belly despite my ambivalence, here are some shots of me several years ago in my last pregnancy. I was "overdue" and impatient to have the baby, but I'd been down the Seduction to Induction Road before, knew how often it leads to a cesarean, and refused to get lured into that trap again. So I was waiting....and waiting....and waiting...and waiting. Baby didn't come until nearly 43 weeks by LMP (nearly 42 by adjusted dates). Augh!