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Learning to Love Your Body

While I was pregnant with twins, I loved my body for what it contained. During the day I'd watch for hours as the silhouettes of my sons squirmed and shifted beneath my skin; at night I would sleep with my palm over my belly, feeling their tiny movements through my dreams. When I caught a glimpse of my shape in the mirror, I'd stare at my changing figure in awe, see my breasts grow, my skin tighten and stretch over my uterus, see the trails of blue veins appear, bringing blood and nutrients to my sons.

However, I did not have such an easy time postpartum. Almost immediately, the body I had been so proud of during pregnancy turned into a source of shame. I began to feel waves of anxiety and embarrassment about my size and shape, feelings I hadn't experienced for almost two decades.

Food Fights

Like some other women, I struggled with eating issues during my teen years. At 14, I was 5'4", 125 pounds, muscular, and athletic. I wanted to be tall and skinny. I wanted longer legs and a flatter stomach. I thought these attributes would bring me a boyfriend and faster swim times -- the two things that seemed most important in life at that time and in that order. When I asked my swim coach if I should lose any weight, he looked at me for a second and said, "Maybe five pounds." Within a few months I lost not 5, but 32. What started as a healthy diet quickly turned into an obsession.

At 90 pounds I'd stare in the health club mirror and see fat where others saw only protruding bones. I shed my initial reasons for losing weight along with the pounds -- missing swim workouts and spending Saturday nights running stairs until 2 a.m. All that mattered was losing one more pound. It was as if by controlling this one thing, I attempted to overcome all my other adolescent fears.

Three years later I had run the gamut of eating disorders, from anorexia to compulsive eating to bulimia. My weight seesawed, and by age 17, I weighed the most I ever had. I suffered from depression, overwhelming anxiety, and a preoccupation with suicide. Finally I was in a place where I wanted help. I just didn't know where to find it.

A friend put me in contact with a woman who had suffered from bulimia for seven years. She had been free of it for over a year, and she gave me hope that I could do the same. I followed her suggestions, like giving up dieting and eating three meals a day. I put my bathroom scale away and, hardest of all, stopped bingeing and purging. When the waves of anxiety and fear overwhelmed me, I sat through them. Sometimes I'd call my friend, go for a walk, or clean out a drawer -- anything to get me through a few minutes without resorting to compulsive behaviors. Slowly, the obsession began to dissipate.

But initially, the anxiety and depression got worse, not better, and I decided to seek professional help. I don't know whether my counselor Joan did things by the book, but I think she saved my life. Joan told me I was wonderful, smart, and funny. She entrusted me with responsibilities like speaking with other girls who struggled with addictions, or talking to groups of psychologists about my recovery. She believed I would accomplish great things even though I was afraid to get out of bed in the morning. Her faith in me helped bridge the gap to the time when I could start believing in myself.

My friend helped me break the addictive cycle, and Joan helped raise my self-esteem. Still, I struggled with my body image. Initially, I tried to ignore physical aspects of myself, and for a while this worked. I had spent years obsessing over body size; a shift away from that was healthy. But over time I realized that I'm a very physical person. I love to run and swim; I'm physically affectionate. It didn't make sense to deny these traits.

Eventually, rather than seeing my physical self as something separate from the rest of me -- to be a slave to, or to ignore -- I began to see it as an inextricable part of my spiritual self. I started to imagine I had a body worth finding. I knew this body would never meet cultural criteria for perfection. I'd never have long legs, and short of major surgery, I'd never have breasts that belonged on the pages of a Victoria's Secret catalog. But I began to believe I might have a body that was perfect for me -- in the sense that it was a facet of my soul. Before I ever allowed myself to look at it, I started to listen to it. I began to learn when my body was hungry and what it was hungry for. I began to exercise because I loved movement and how I felt during and after a workout. Over time, I learned to love my physical self, and I lost the extra weight I was carrying. In that order.

After The Babies

For fifteen years my weight remained comfortably stable, and I continued to feel at peace with my body. However, something happened to that self-acceptance after my sons were born. The weight gain during pregnancy seemed natural, purposeful. Afterwards, though, my body began to feel foreign and oddly empty -- far too big to be comfortable, far too big to be mine. One day a friend I hadn't seen in a while stopped me in the grocery store and asked when my babies were due. I saw his embarrassment when I told him I had delivered almost a month before. As soon as I made it back to my car, I broke into tears. I knew women, even some women who gave birth to multiples, who wore their prepregnancy jeans to their six-week checkup. Clearly, I would not be one of them.

For the first time in years I began feeling like I should try to control my body. I feared that by allowing it to regain its form in its own time, I was being lazy and "letting myself go." There is a certain bravado associated with quick weight loss after pregnancy. Sometimes it seems that women are given more credit for losing the extra pounds than they are for carrying a life to term and giving birth.

Having two beautiful sons to nurse and watch over gave me reason enough to resist self-destructive impulses like starving myself or exercising too much too soon. However, the new changes in my life also made me more susceptible to old patterns. If there was another time like adolescence -- where I felt out of control of my body, my emotions, my life -- it was after childbirth. It wasn't just the extra weight I carried, it was the extra responsibility and emotion, too. Once again, I was tempted to try to control the one thing I thought I could: my physical self.

In order to resist that temptation, I had to do what I learned back when I was 17. I did my best to accept my body as it was. I did not diet or fast or buy a bathroom scale. I ate when I was hungry (which was often since I nursed twins), and I incorporated exercise slowly. When the waves of anxiety came, I'd call a friend, sing to my babies, or nurse them. I'd walk on the foothill trails and try to notice something outside of my own head.

Slowly, the anxiety and fear lifted, and I shed the shame associated with the pounds. Once again, I learned the order of things. I could not force myself into a size that would make me feel better. Instead, I had to learn to love my body and let the right size and shape find me. In many ways it was easier this time. One look at my two healthy sons gave me good reason to honor my body. And though Joan wasn't around to tell me I was wonderful, I had years of self-acceptance and self-esteem to fall back on. Plus, many of Joan's predictions had come true: I was a teacher, a writer, and a mother -- as I'd always wanted to be. My sons are 8 now, and I am 38. I weigh what I did before I became pregnant, and I have run my fastest half-marathon in the time since. But when I think of my postpartum body, I don't recall the size or the shape or the shame. Instead, those early months of motherhood are marked by memories of my sons' bodies wrapped around mine as they nursed, of a time when my body accomplished its greatest feat, its greatest act of love.

Your Body, Yourself

Expectations play a critical role in how women adjust to their postpartum bodies, says Christina Baker, Ph.D., a researcher at Massachusetts General Hospital Weight Center, in Boston. Pregnant women see new moms (friends and acquaintances as well as celebrities) who, they think, shed the baby weight quickly and easily, and feel that they, too, must live up to that standard. If they don't, they can feel frustrated and angry with themselves. In fact, Baker's research shows that eating and weight concerns are strongly linked to symptoms of depression and anxiety during the postpartum period.

Baker warns against "accepting the message the media sends by showing celebrity mothers who return to prepregnancy weight in a matter of weeks or months with the help of personal trainers, cooks, and tons of childcare that the average woman could never afford." In general, she suggests that women give themselves at least nine months to a year to return to their prepregnancy weight and that they be aware that this rarely means returning to a pre-pregnancy shape. "Your stomach might never be the same because of muscle stretching, and your clothes may never fit in the same way," she notes. Each woman's postpartum experience depends on a variety of individual factors including weight and dieting history and amount of weight gained during pregnancy. Speak with your doctor about what he thinks is a realistic weight target for you to aim for after the baby is born and ask for his suggestions on a healthy weight-loss routine.

If you're having a hard time accepting your postpartum shape, Baker offers the following advice:

1. Talk to other new mothers for support. You may be worried that everyone else is having an easy time with their body, but you'll be surprised to find out that most new moms are struggling just as you are.

2. Stay physically active even if it isn't affecting your weight. Exercise will help you feel better about your body and have a positive impact on your mood as well. Check with your doctor for a recommendation on how long you should wait after delivery to start working out again, and then grab some of those new mom friends and start a walking group.

3. Check in with your partner. His expectations for weight loss may be more realistic than your own, and therefore reassuring. If his are unrealistic, be honest about your feelings and help him understand what you're going through.

4. Seek help if you're feeling really frustrated and overwhelmed. Ask your doctor for a referral to a counselor or therapist. Your baby will thank you for it.

Laura Stavoe Harm is a freelance writer based in Boise, Idaho.