“Expectations are disappointments waiting to happen.”
That feels like an accurate statement to begin this blog post. Within the last year I have written two separate blog posts (1, 2) where I have had to rumble with personal expectations for my body and myself as I have progressed through pregnancy and early postpartum. This rumbling with expectations seems to be my learning curve this year, because here I am again rumbling with another failed expectation about my body.
This is a hard blog post to write as it’s a topic that feels vulnerable to share. At the same time though, it feels important to share. Writing about it brings up a lot of shame for me. The thought I have is, “I’m an eating disorders therapist, I should not have any personal body image concerns! I should have that shit figured out!”
Here’s the reality though. We are each on an individual journey and while I have had long stretches of feeling good in my body, that doesn’t mean I don’t have new unexpected challenges.
I feel that sentiment is true but it leads to a second shaming thought, “You work actively to protect your recovery; did you not realize that you have to work actively to have positive body image?!” Yes, I knew this and if I’m being totally honest, body image in recent years hasn’t been that hard.
Before getting pregnant with my most recent baby, I was in the best shape of my life. I trained for and ran a half marathon. I then maintained a pretty high level of regular, rigorous (but appropriate) fitness. I felt good in my body and I looked good. I honestly felt like I had reached this amazing nirvana with my body. I took care of it, fed it well and kept it active, and it rewarded me with a size, shape, and muscle tone that I quite appreciated.
So I didn’t have to work hard to maintain a positive body image because my body met cultural standards of beauty.
“Nine Months In, Nine Months Down”
Now my body looks and feels different. “Nine months up, nine months down” is a saying I heard about pregnancy weight gain and postpartum weight loss. Well, I’m almost nine months postpartum and my body isn’t close to what it was before I got pregnant. I didn’t really struggle with body image during pregnancy or in the early postpartum months because my body was doing amazing things (growing a human being! And then recovering from growing that human being). Now, over eight months later there’s a nagging negative voice in my head saying, “When are you going to stop using postpartum as an excuse for your frumpiness and laziness?”
Ironically, as a testimony of intuitive eating, in terms of my weight, I am pretty close to my pre-pregnancy weight. But my shape and size are uncomfortably different. I have cellulite on my arms, where I never saw cellulite before. I still can’t comfortably button my pre-pregnancy jeans and when I wear them, the words, “muffin top” come to mind. I have a few skirts that were loose on me pre-pregnancy, and that now I, literally, cannot zip up.
I still smile when my daughter asks me to gather my belly fat into a “donut” that she can poke and giggle, but I’m getting tired of having a donut she can poke.
I feel, and indeed am, out of shape. For awhile I manipulated myself into thinking my discomfort with my body was because I missed feeling strong. While that is true, it’s also true that I miss what my body looked like when it was strong.
There is nothing wrong with feeling attractive when you have worked hard to get in shape. But I needed to remind myself that I can feel attractive in my body at other shapes and sizes too!
Positive Body Image
I want to acknowledge here that even though my size is different, I also have body privilege. I have a petite frame and without any effort on my part, still fit in smaller sized clothes. While my personal journey is valid, I want to acknowledge that it comes from a place of privilege and as a result is easier in some ways than the journey of someone who doesn’t have body privilege.
Also, while attractiveness is not confined to a certain shape and size, positive body image is not defined by attractiveness. Yes, someone who feels they are beautiful has positive body image, but you can have positive body image without feeling beautiful.
We talked in our team meeting the other week about what it means to have positive body image and I like the simple way of describing it as, “peace with your body.” So even though the term positive body image overtly denotes a positive relationship, it can include a neutral one as well. For me I feel positive body image can be several different experiences.
- It can be an experience of feeling attractive and beautiful.
- It can be feeling good about my body as a body that does amazing things for me and allows me to live my life in meaningful and important ways.
- AND three: it can simply be an experience where my body doesn’t take up much emotional energy. That is, I spend little to no time focusing on or thinking about my body because I am focusing on living my values.
So here I am facing failed expectations about where I thought my body would be nine months postpartum, which is paradoxically providing me with an “opportunity” (experience you didn’t want to have but are having none-the-less) to work on my self-care and body image. I thought this self-care and body image work would simply require exercising, getting back in shape and looking good again. Instead, it needs to be active love, care, and acceptance for the body I have right now in the shape it is right now.
Positive body image isn’t always easy but it is a choice. Whatever the shape and size of our bodies, I know there are days none of us feel beautiful. So while I feel I can embrace the beauty of my body as it is right now, there are days where my jeans will feel too tight and uncomfortable for me to embrace that. Instead, I am choosing to focus on the second and third definition of positive body image. I choose to be grateful for my out-of-shape, “soft” body. If that feels like too much of a stretch on some days, I choose to simply focus on my values and what I want my life to really be about, thus decreasing the mental real-estate body image occupies in my brain.
In my opinion, the second two definitions of positive body image are more sustainable long-term and valuable as they are not based on appearance. We shouldn’t be held captive in our abilities to accept or love our bodies based on how we feel they look. So while this opportunity is unwanted, it allows me to move into a more stable and genuine relationship with my body. My body deserves that unconditional regard from me and I am willing to do the work necessary to gift my body that love and acceptance.