As a caution, the author advises the reader that this piece contains potentially distressing material about body dysmorphia symptoms.
“Well, you look great!”
Those were the words of a very kind sales associate who was fitting me for some new bras. Having two babies in three years had changed quite a few of my measurements, and a few months after I stopped breastfeeding my second child, I found myself lacking a single undergarment that fit me well. Which is why I found myself inside a Soma dressing room, standing in front of a stranger in my ill-fitting bra, getting measured for some new bras. We were making lighthearted conversation about the wonders of the female body, making a vulnerable and inherently awkward moment a little more palatable for me.
I know in my heart that she meant well with that statement and that I should have seen it for what it was: a compliment. But, instead of responding with, “thank you,” I word-vomited a diatribe about how I still had weight to lose, that I was determined to lose the weight, and that I had initiated a step-by-step plan to get rid of the pounds I had gained over the course of three years. This poor sales associate listened to me go on and on, for a good few minutes, about how I felt less-than, un-pretty, heavy, disfigured. Those are hard words to write, but they came out of my mouth quite easily. She held my hand, watched me cry, and somehow managed to bring me back from the mental cliff I was running toward at full speed. I don’t remember all of what I said, but I clearly remember what she said: “Your beauty is neither the number on the scale, nor the size of your body, and I wish you would see yourself the way I see you. You are a new mom who looks gorgeous. Now you just need to feel gorgeous.”
Easier said than done. Every day, I am inundated with social media posts from women who show off their postpartum body and look like they have NEVER been pregnant. Side-by-side pictures that are posted perhaps in part to inspire, in part to self-glorify, and/or in part to sell a product. I don’t believe in social media shaming, and I certainly would never put down a person who is doing what they can to better their health. BUT….
When did we, as a society, start demanding that women snap their bodies back to normal within weeks of delivery? When did this become normal? When did this become desirable? When did we start thinking this was possible? When did we make this a new benchmark for recently pregnant women to reach?!?!
Here’s the raw truth about me: I have spent a good chunk of my life being about the same size and weight. At 25, I could still fit into the same pair of jeans I wore in high school. I attribute my body type to the combination of genetics, diet (though my college days were not the healthiest), and doing some sort of physical activity during my teens and 20s. I say this not to shame anyone about their body type, but to provide context for the following statement:
I suddenly found myself at age 35 teetering on the cusp of having some serious body dysmorphia issues.
My therapist has helped me get to some of the sources of my body dysmorphia, which, for me, is characterized by obsessiveness about my weight (e.g. weighing myself upwards of 15 times in a day), strictly limiting my calorie intake, negative self-talk (e.g. using words like “disfigured,” “heavy,” and “ugly” when I think about myself), and pushing my body too hard during the postpartum period where I should have been focused on resting and recovering from my second C-section.
My body dysmorphia is likely rooted in a combination of postpartum depression, postpartum anxiety, having a type-A personality, having a more difficult birth with my second child, fatigue, and the simple reality that I look different at 35 than I did at 32. However, the words I’m using when I talk negatively are remnants from my adolescent years. I was bullied relentlessly in middle school about my looks, and that triggered a lifetime of me struggling to feel good about myself, much less feel pretty. I heard the words “ugly,” and “disfigured” when I was in middle school, and darn it if they weren’t the first words I used to describe how I felt after having my second child. Throw in a 30-pound weight gain over the course of 10 months, and I had the perfect recipe for body dysmorphia.
All the pieces were there, quietly assembling themselves without me knowing it until one day, I spent an entire therapy session crying about how I couldn’t wear non-maternity jeans, stop weighing myself, or stop staring at my “hideous” scar. I admitted to her that I was working out so much that I had intense abdominal pain afterward, and that I was eating so little that I was constantly hangry. That session has triggered some serious conversations with my therapist about body dysmorphia, my mental health, and how that directly impacts my physical health. How it’s okay to miss and mourn my pre-pregnancy body, and how it’s not a bad thing to exercise, as long as I’m not pushing myself to the point of physical injury in the process. We are focusing a lot of our sessions on how to re-train my mind to talk positively to myself. We are focusing on steps I can take to feel good about myself, regardless of the number on the scale.
I finally had a breakthrough moment when one day, quite unexpectedly, I felt pretty. Never mind that I didn’t have any makeup on, was wearing tights and an oversized shirt (stolen from my husband, whose wardrobe I routinely raided the last few months of my pregnancy), and had only slept a few hours the night before. I didn’t know why, at that moment, I felt good about myself, until my next session.
When my therapist asked me what I was doing when I felt pretty, I told her that I was staring at my son while he slept in my arms. She told me something profound: that in that moment, I was likely seeing motherhood, and all of the things it did to my body, as beautiful for the first time. I still have a long way to go on my journey to overcome my body dysmorphia, but having that moment was quite monumental for me. I’m now working to build on that moment, and looking for other definitions of beauty in my life. Definitions of beauty that are in no way tied to a number on a scale.