Monday, July 18, 2016

Me and My Body (Part 2 - Body Love)

Pregnant, Body Love, Body Image, Love Your Body

Let's start with a story.

This is a few years ago. I'm at my doctor's office and, as per routine, the nurse asks me to step up on the scale to get my weight before proceeding to check my blood pressure . The nurse looks at the number on the scale, looks down at my charts, and exclaims:

"You've gained 10 pounds in one month! I would kill myself if I ever gained that much weight in a month!"

Now, setting aside just how inappropriate it is for any nurse to comment at all on any patient's weight (let alone such a shaming and negative comment), let me give this story some context. I happened to be 18 weeks pregnant at the time of this (routine pre-natal) doctor's visit. I'm also 5'4" tall (pertinent, just to let you know I'm a decently average height). And do you want to know the number on the scale?

110 pounds.

For any of my readers who may not be aware of these things, let me explain a little bit more. First, for my height I've read that the average recommended weight for a healthy, non-pregnant BMI is between 110 and 135 pounds (but of course, those types of numbers don't account for everything). Second, yes, I had gained ten pounds in four weeks, which means that at my 14 week pregnancy appointment (into the second trimester), I weighed a mere 100 pounds. And even that was up from an earlier point in that pregnancy when I weighed myself at home coming in at a measly 94 pounds. Basically, at 18 weeks pregnant and only 110 pounds, I was still underweight.

Honestly, I was extremely proud of those 10 pounds. They meant I had finally turned a corner, that the extreme nausea and fatigue that plagued my first half of pregnancy were finally abating, that I was keeping food down and able to eat a wider variety of calories every day. Basically for me, those ten pounds were a triumph, hard fought and hard won.

But all the nurse could see was ten pounds gained in one month, which to her was an unthinkable horror.

I was surprised at her words to me, but not shamed by them. Mostly, I just felt incredibly sorry for this woman, older than myself, who was so conditioned by a society that obsesses about female body size and regularly and ruthlessly shames women over their weight, that she couldn't even see the context of my situation. It didn't matter I was almost half-way through my second pregnancy. It didn't matter I was still underweight. All she could see was the weight gain.

But perhaps she felt she could make those comments to me precisely because of that context, precisely because she could look at my charts and know that my standard non-pregnant weight is around 102 pounds, and know that somehow my body type places me in a special category outside the normal experience of women, and therefore I had no reason to feel shame about my underweight pregnant body no matter what she said.

Which is true. My body type is very different from most women. Even within my own family, I seem to have won some strange genetic lottery that means I am naturally very thin, and no matter what I eat or how little I exercise, I never seem to gain weight. I always expected this to change as I got older. Everyone says your metabolism slows as you age, and maybe mine will at some point in the future, but not even three decades and two pregnancies have changed things much for me so far. Post-pregnancy I've always snapped right back down to that magic 102 number that I've been since high school.

So my experience growing up in our culture has been different than most women. My struggle with clothes shopping has always been about finding pieces small enough for me. Generally my body shape looks like the air-brushed bodies of models on the magazine covers (although I'm not as tall as most models, which is fine by me), and I've never, ever had to feel shame or worry over my body weight or what other people thought of it.

I have genuinely always loved my body, which feels like a radical, even boastful thing to say. I've never really admitted this out loud before, because I feel like the sneering response will be, Of course she loves her body! Who wouldn't love being that naturally thin, without even having to work for it! She's tiny and healthy and lucky! The rest of us don't have it that easy, so stop rubbing it in our faces! But I'm not writing about my weight in this very public place in order to boast or crow or whatever. I'm finally writing this post because, in a world where someone considers gaining ten pounds to be the worst thing that could happen to her, it's important for women to actually come out and say, "Hey, I actually really do love my body!" And because I've proved to myself that my body love isn't all about being thin.

The real test for me was my first pregnancy. I will admit that I worried what would happen to my self image as I started gaining weight for the first time in my life, as I lost my perfect shape and no longer looked like those air-brushed magazine models. Would I shatter? Would I start to hate my body? And what if my pregnancy changed me forever and I never got my old body size back?

While I will admit that I hate being pregnant with a passion, I'm happy to report that it has nothing to do with my body size. I surprised even myself with how calmly I took to the changing shape, with how much I still genuinely loved my body, even when I knew I looked like a bloated cow about to explode (guys, I had a nearly 10 pound baby boy stuffed inside my little body, I absolutely looked like I was going to explode). While I was able to quickly lose my pregnancy weight, I was still left with stretch marks and flabby stomach muscles and pregnancy scars that have changed me permanently. But I don't mind. I honestly love my pregnant and post-pregnancy body shape and size as much as any other.

Maybe it was easier for me to develop body-love because in general, my body meets the impossible standards our society has set for women. But I also want to credit myself for having enough sense and enough self-respect to love my body regardless of those standards. If I wanted to, I could list a dozen ways my body doesn't measure up to current beauty standards. Thinness is not a guarantee of positive body image (as anyone with an eating disorder can attest to). But I don't choose to focus on those other shortcomings. Honestly, I think my body-love has more to do with the in-tune relationship I talked about in my first body post. My relationship with my body generally centers on how I feel, not how I look or how much I weigh.

I love my body because it feels good (and I hate pregnancy because it makes me feel sick). I love my body because my body allows me to do all the wonderful things in my life I want to do. I make food and exercise choices based on what makes me feel good, not how I look (and, no surprise, eating healthfully and regular exercise make me feel good, which is my motivation for making those choices).

It honestly breaks my heart every time I hear the casual comments from women around me about getting ready for swimsuit season, or doing an extra workout at the gym so they can indulge a dessert. I definitely think women should make healthy eating choices and exercise, I just wish that the discussion and motivation around those choices could be about wanting to feel good and strong and healthy, not wanting to go down a dress size.

And I also sincerely wish that women could learn to love their bodies at the size that is healthy and right for them. My healthy weight is unusually low, but I don't for a second believe that my weight would be healthy for anyone else. Bodies are unique, and most healthy weights are heavier than our society dictates as normal. But bodies can be beautiful at any size. I clearly remember sitting in my doctor's waiting room at the end of my last pregnancy and looking at all the women around me. Most were in various stages of pregnancy or post-partum recovery. There were plenty of curves and a lot of soft roundness, not how we typically describe the ideal female body. But I remember thinking how beautiful they all looked, these mother bodies. We just need the right eyes to see them with.

If I'm ever blessed with a daughter, this is a legacy I hope to pass to her, though I know it will be a battle to fight the messages she receives from society. I hope she always loves her body because of the life and opportunity it allows, and I hope she learns to connect with how her body feels. I hope she learns to eat and exercise in ways that make her feel good and powerful and healthy. I hope she is always motivated by feeling good, not looking thin.

At nearly sixteen weeks into this third pregnancy, I'm just starting to turn the corner in how I feel. I'm starting to have more good days than bad. I've actually made dinner for five days in a row. I'm eating more food and consequently have more energy. I've gained three pounds, and I'm cheering for more weight gain every day. And my bump is starting to show, a little earlier this time around. I hate feeling sick, I hate the depths of misery this pregnancy has caused me, but I still love this little body of mine. I marvel that it is strong and healthy enough to grow another human life form. I'm grateful for that beautiful little bump. I'm grateful for every day that feels a little bit better, a little bit stronger, a little bit more like my healthy self.

I love my body.

1 comment:

  1. Wow, that nurse's comment was wildly unprofessional and inappropriate.

    I've been thinking about this topic a lot lately. I struggled hugely with body image during high school and my first years of college. Going on a mission really helped me forget about my body issues and become more comfortable with myself. Lately, though, as I get older and my metabolism seems like it's slowing (and I spend most of my waking hours seated in front of a computer), I feel that self-criticism seeping back in. Recently I listened to the This American Life episode "Tell Me I'm Fat," and it helped me re-evaluate some of my thoughts on body image. I've been thinking a lot about the male gaze and how women have adopted the male gaze. I don't even know what a true female gaze would be. Anyway, that strain of thinking has allowed me to give myself permission to not always be striving to have what I view as the perfect body. I've given myself permission to - within reason - eat the cookies and ice cream without guilt. Sure, those things aren't going to slim my thighs down any, but that's a trade-off I'm willing to take. I don't know that I'll ever 100% love my body every day; I 100% love and appreciate every day the fact that I'm healthy and can be active, but my acceptance of my shape will always hover between "I'm okay with it" and "I'll tolerate it."

    There was a recent devotional at BYU that touched on some of these issues: https://speeches.byu.edu/talks/sarah-m-coyne_fantasy-reality-royal-identity/