Right after I had a baby, I remember thinking how weird it felt to go out for the first time for a quick errand without her. I pulled on my maternity maxi dress, the one I would wear often for another six months, and surveyed the scene, thinking, "If I don't have my baby with me in public, how will anyone I run into know that I don't actually look like this?"
I looked like that for another three years. Then yesterday, I tried on my old jeans — the ones I wore the day I discovered I was knocked up. They fit. What had I done to finally reach this victorious mountaintop? Nothing too crazy.
If I were to sell a diet plan for new mothers who are cool with waiting a few years to lose the weight, it would go something like this:
Drop half the weight in the hospital.
Spend three years slowly losing the rest by merely raising child, moving around, (mostly) eating well.
Work in exercise sometimes.
Fresh juice helps.
So I suppose that's why, instead of doing the elated victory dance of someone who has earned a momentary boast, I felt something more akin to a pensive, cautious optimism over the jeans. I'm happy to be nearly back to my old weight. But had I had actually pulled off the unthinkable, more impressive feat during these three years, and gotten used to my postpartum body exactly as it was, or even actually embraced it? I'm not so sure. That is, after all, much more difficult than any committed exercise and diet plan.
I certainly wasn't on the receiving end of any messages or instruction to like my body after giving birth. In the literature, the majority of the messages you'll see are that you're supposed to hop on what Drew Barrymore called the "hamster wheel of hell" and work that shit off until you resemble your old self. You know, someone fuckable. Someone who looks like they didn't actually give birth. In fact, the crème de la whopper of all compliments you can give a lady who has produced children is this: "You don't even look like you've had a baby!"
Make no mistake: I wanted to lose the weight. I never felt less comfortable in my life than hauling around my postpartum body, at least initially. But over the course of the last three years, when faced with a variety of ways I could spend my time, I chose, again and again, to not think about any concerted effort toward weight loss. Sometimes for noble reasons, i.e., I'm just going to experience motherhood and be in this moment. Sometimes for hunger reasons: I'm breastfeeding and I'm fucking starving! Sometimes for human reasons: I'm tired, and I don't feel like doing shit. And what I did instead was had a sense of humor about what I couldn't control, and tried to appreciate my battle scars. And eventually, I got so used to my new body that I stopped thinking about it. Sometimes I even liked it.
But that doesn't mean anyone else does. I can't think of any good examples of postpartum bodies being celebrated for anything other than no longer resembling the partum. This is a distinctly modern problem. In a post by art history lecturer Jill Burke on the postpartum body in Renaissance art, she discusses a drawing of a female nude likely celebrated in its time whose ambiguous shape has puzzled modern commenters.
There's nothing really known about this drawing in the Uffizi by Rosso Fiorentino. It's generally dated for stylistic reasons to the early 1520s. In red chalk, it portrays a woman — naked apart from a ring of pearls around her neck and the jewels in her unravelling hair — pointing with her right hand to something beyond the picture plain, whilst her left hand is placed on top of her head. Many commentators have found this woman's body shape puzzling. In the words of the New York Times art critic, Holland Cotter, "is she pregnant or just out of shape"?
Burke concludes that the woman is neither. And she wonders on an intellectual level what I wondered emotionally during the last three years in private conversations in my head about inhabiting this netherworld of the female form:
For me, it doesn't seem puzzling at all — the woman is neither pregnant, nor out of shape, but her body reveals its own history, a history of pregnancy. This woman's rounded stomach is a reminder of past pregnancies, a stomach that is familiar to many women today too, but tends to be hidden or perceived as an anomaly to be "remedied" by stomach crunches or plastic surgery. Rosso, rather than making an idealised nude form that has no relationship to time, shows a body that, I think, is hauntingly beautiful, but built into time, particularised but also universal in showing the rounded but softened belly that is familiar to most women who have given birth. It's telling that this shape is largely missing from our familiar visual vocabulary of femininity –- where slenderness and pregnancy are both acceptable, expected, but an interim state is somehow shocking.
It is a strange state, indeed: neither pregnant, nor out of shape, but showing a visible history of pregnancy. In spite of weighing more and looking different, I was never healthier than when I was pregnant and just after, in large part to the dynamic shift in lifestyle toward eating well and moving more. But we don't connect health to physical appeal per se, as any healthy person who isn't thin can tell you. And when a body shows signs of use beyond the sexual or athletic, we don't seem to know how to respond to it.
In fairness, it's worth noting that all this is just as shocking to the woman it's happening to. Pregnancy is an intense transformation, childbirth an even more intense act. The recovery time is complicated and multi-layered. And what we are left with is a body that has created a child and often nourished it for a period of time afterward too. It's easy to be proud of the act, but we follow that nod with an intense effort toward eradicating all signs of it.
Burke offers another clue with one of the most famous examples of a postpartum body in Renaissance art — Michaelangelo's "Night."
The language used by art historians to describe this older woman is often startlingly hostile and casually misogynistic -– with reference to her spent, flaccid abdomen, her "tired" breasts, or the distortion of her body (distorted from what perceived norm?). In the Renaissance, this sculpture was praised for its beauty. Why does modern western culture view the post-pregnancy female body with such distaste? Would the history of art history have been the same if it had been largely written by mothers?
What I find odd is not hostility and casual misogyny — we can get that in the latest slam on Kim Kardashian's pregnant body every eight seconds. No, what surprised me is that when I looked at the sculpture, it wasn't even obvious to me for several minutes that this was a woman who had ever given birth. I had to keep checking to make sure the sculpture was the right match to the text.
With her supposed "slack belly," "spent breasts" and "vast and flaccid abdomen," she looks absolutely beautiful to me, not to mention incredibly fit. It took several moments to even see any "flaws" in her body, things that were supposed evidence of her status as a mother of multiple children. And in a strange way, it set me free.
Besides, sometimes what you think you want isn't what you really want after all. When I tried on the old jeans, I was excited at first that they fit, but then I soon realized that they were actually really uncomfortable. They fit, and they snapped, but the were super low-rise. They had none of the mom-core comfort of the high-waisted maternity jeans and their civilian cousins I'd grown accustomed to (nothing says mom-friendly like a well-secured midsection).
So even if I can wear the old jeans, I no longer want to. In spite of the ambiguity I might feel, I have no desire to pretend that my body did not give birth, or to pull off amazing feats of time travel back to a form I once inhabited. Like Michaelangelo's "Night," I prefer to exist in this netherworld. Like two people inhabiting the same body and having to negotiate for dominance, the old me and the new me are resigned to each other, neither able to completely blot the other one out, perhaps at last granting a kind of stubborn respect.