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Week 10: Body Image During (and After) Pregnancy

Taylor Hengen Newman

The first time I was pregnant, it felt like forever before I saw any sign of a baby bump. Then, around four months along, my belly popped out and grew rapidly bigger until the morning Kaspar was born. Although I ate like a pig from pretty much day one -- which is pretty much normal for me, anyway -- I was one of those “all belly” pregnant mamas; I basically looked like I had a basketball – or, later, a watermelon – tucked tightly underneath my shirt. I only gained eighteen pounds from start to finish, but I definitely experienced bodily changes that, while subtler than my giant bump, certainly caught my attention. My thighs thickened a bit, my joints were extra bendy, and I got a varicose vein in my right leg. I felt energetic and agile through most of my pregnancy, but there did come a point where I just felt enormous. If you’ve been pregnant, you’ve been there, and you know what I mean. But I hadn’t been there before, and although I really, truly loved being pregnant (and loved that belly – who doesn’t?) I also remember feeling somewhat disoriented by the rapid, and massive, physical changes involved in the process.

I was twenty-five at the time, and although I wouldn't say I was vain exactly, I was a typical twenty-something woman in that I was used to having a certain body: my body. (I was bangin’ and I knew it.) Whether a product of our culture or just of that stage of life, I identified to a certain extent – though I hardly defined myself by it -- with my physical self. Experiencing pregnancy was transformative in lots of ways, but one of the ways that stands out most in my mind was the letting go of that physical identity. I simultaneously got more in touch with my body than I previously had – heeding cravings, slowing down, and, well, growing a person – but I also had to simply allow the dramatic physical processes that were taking place to do their thing. For the most part, I didn’t have many hesitations around those processes, but I occasionally wondered about the aftermath. Would my (kind of super-fun) big pregnancy boobs turn into saggy post-pregnancy boobs? What in the world was my belly bump going to look like after the baby was born? And assuming I would have a vaginal delivery (I did), what exactly was that going to do to my, you know, vagina? (Would sex ever be the same??) I wasn’t stressed out over these questions, but when they did occur to me, I realized I hadn’t come across any of the answers in the standard library of pregnancy and new-mama literature most of us accumulate when we’re expecting.

39 weeks, 2010

Here I am the day before Kaspar was born, in February 2010. 

As it turned out, my boobs are just fine, my belly has a few stretch marks on it (I really don’t mind that at all, and neither -- for what it's worth -- does my husband), the varicose vein never went away (I do mind that, but it was a small price to pay for a beautiful baby) and – who knew – lady parts recover remarkably well after delivering babies the size of watermelons! I actually hesitantly asked the nurse at my six-week postpartum appointment if everything would return to normal in that respect. She laughed and said she couldn’t believe it, but I was the first person who’d ever come out and asked… and that yes, vaginas do bounce back, so to speak. My hair fell out for a while, which was a bummer, but it grew back, too. And while sleep deprivation and new-baby life prevented me from, say, hitting the gym five days a week right after Kaspar was born, the gym also wasn't a big priority in the midst of new-motherhood. My life was suddenly about so much more. Taking care of myself is of course crucial to taking care of the people I love, and it took a little while to find the ever-shifting balance between me-time (suddenly minimal) and... everything else (suddenly a whole helluva lot). But by the time I became pregnant this time around -- just shy of three years later -- I was rocking sweaty yoga classes on the regular, right alongside the best of 'em, looking and feeling fit, healthy and happy. I'd long since returned to a state of physical 'normalcy.'

I’m twenty-eight now, and, at ten weeks pregnant, my belly’s pulled a fast one on me and is totally pooching out. (I’ve also been eating a ton of breakfast tacos… but I’m sure this isn’t just a food-baby bump anymore!) That’s been the only physical surprise so far, though. What’s surprised me more is that I’m not worried at all about bodily changes, or body image stuff, with regard to now or later. I know I’m going to feel huge at some point. I know my belly will be weird and floppy in the post-partum period. I know having a baby comes with temporary and permanent changes, and I’m okay with all of them. I think I identify less with my body as a big part of my identity now, and instead appreciate it so much more for all it can do. Having a baby the first time around made me let go – without, mind you, ‘letting myself go' -- of some of the body-related neuroses that so many women are afflicted with. And I think I was actually among the lesser-afflicted, as these things go. Post-baby, those neuroses just never set in again. Thoroughly enjoying this pregnancy so far, I know the answers to some of the mysteries I wondered about the first time around, and I don’t care in quite the same way about most of the questions in the first place.

I know we’re all surrounded by tabloid headlines applauding celebrity moms for “losing the baby weight” quickly (or condemning them for not doing so fast enough). Our culture is hard on women, and our bodies. Pregnancy is, too. I know some moms who’ve loved the freedom to eat whatever they want – finally! – during pregnancy, but I see lots of articles about others who’ve dieted all the way through, and hired personal trainers immediately after, for fear of the physical changes making babies brings about. But I wonder if others have found that having a baby has put their body image issues to rest, and helped them to accept themselves and grow in new ways.

This stuff is complicated, no doubt, and different for everyone. So what about you? Did you love the changes you experienced during pregnancy? Did you worry about what your body might be like later? Have you felt differently about your body post-baby, either for better or worse? Have subsequent pregnancies felt different to you in this respect? Are you any more or less plagued by body image issues now that you are, or have been, pregnant, or now that you’re a mom?

(On another note – I’m curious! – when did you start showing with baby #2?)