I love compliments, both giving and getting them. Nonetheless, I’ve recently decided not to praise new mothers about how they look, or even comment on their bodies at all. Here’s why:
The strings attached
I’m often told I don’t look like I’ve had a baby, and granted, that’s partly because my fashion sense hasn’t evolved since I took the SATs. But yes, I’m one of those moms who looks more or less unchanged. These remarks are well intended, and that’s how I take them. I can’t deny they feel good.
Thing is, the good feeling comes with an evil twin: pressure.
People comment on my figure much more than they ever did pre-baby, which is a constant reminder that my appearance is being appraised. I’m branded a certain kind of mom now, a “lucky” one, but what happens when the luck runs out? Will I somehow let people down if a subsequent pregnancy goes differently, or if, God forbid, age itself should have its way with me?
I don’t want my weight and my identity tangled up. I want the freedom to change and be changed by life, to let go of who I was and accept whatever I’ll become. That is a gift I have to give myself, I know, but it’s hard to take that leap when women are so rewarded for staying the same.
Being thin (or even curvy) is not really an accomplishment
When I’m asked how I lost the weight, I can only say this: it just happened. I have thin bones and a skinny-fat metabolism. While pregnant, I didn’t get heavy cravings, so my growth was gradual and mild. No need for bed rest and no birth trauma meant I could stay fairly active without having to exercise.
The baby took right to breastfeeding, and my schedule allowed us to keep with it, so by six months postpartum, the extra pounds had been nursed away. None of that, and I repeat none of that, is to my credit. It was simply a combination of conditions.
Some mothers do work hard to get their bodies where they want, and they should be supported. Just because we have children doesn’t mean self-care should cease. But when a mom gets fit, I see the accomplishment as her taking charge of her happiness, not that she escaped the fate of a certain dress size.
It affirms a hierarchy of bodies – with moms at the bottom
What’s so great about a body that’s never had a baby, anyway? On a primal level, it signals reproductive availability, making it the default preference of straight men. It’s also the clear favorite of our fashion industry, which cuts costs by catering to petite body types.
But are these the only opinions that matter? Do they reflect any inherent benefit to being flat-stomached and perky breasted? By putting this type of body on a pedestal, we treat the tastes of men and mass production as absolute.
Meanwhile, we ignore the gleeful indifference of children (or if anything, their preference for a soft tummy), and the desire of women to feel at home in whatever body they have, however life has shaped it. We discount the preference of nature itself to change with circumstances.
In a way, congratulating a woman because you can’t tell she’s had a baby is congratulating her ability to hide that experience. But we should be proud of it! Biologically speaking, giving birth is pretty freaking significant, pretty freaking generous, and pretty freaking impressive.
There is plenty else to talk about
I don’t buy the idea that a woman can “lose” her body to motherhood just as I don’t believe she can “lose” her virginity to sex. These are rites of passage, points of maturation through which we gain experience. Let’s talk about those experiences. Better yet, let’s shut up and listen to what mothers want to say for themselves.
Because having a baby really shakes things up. I want to be the friend who makes herself an audience to these richer meditations, not someone who steers the conversation toward what is outward, what is unchanged, what is comfortable.
And I don’t want to gloss over all the nuanced ingredients of a woman’s well-being by assuming that because she looks the same as before, she “got her body back.” Her body may feel like a total stranger to her. She may be dying to open up about any number of invisible changes: depression, incontinence, sexual dysfunction, mastitis, chronic joint pain.
Already, too many new mothers exacerbate these issues by rushing into exercise before their muscles and ligaments have re-stabilized, all in the name of getting into their old jeans. Some even feel pressure to diet while breastfeeding, which can lead to long-term nutritional issues.
Do they have way better things to be worried about? Absolutely. But that is the extent of the pressure they’re under, not just from “the media,” but from well intended chitchat with friends.
Women should outgrow our constant gaze
When my baby came, the combination of pride, relief, and hormones rendered me incapable of criticizing my body. I know this isn’t a universal experience, but I was so full of gratitude for what it had done, I spent zero time looking at myself in the mirror.
It was almost as though my daughter’s birth was the moment I pushed out everyone who’d infiltrated my relationship with myself along with my baby. I could stretch no more – everybody had to get out!
Finally, I saw out of my own eyes. I didn’t need to be told what I was or wasn’t. In fact, I felt quite done with humoring all that. But this newly confident perspective is a precious window that can too easily be slammed shut by those who persistently assess what women look like, even in flattering terms.
I realize my logic, if taken to the extreme, could justify never giving anyone any kind of compliment, ever. But my decision not to comment on mother’s bodies is less about protecting feelings and more about the great opportunity childbirth offers to revisit how we as women see ourselves.
There are so many ways to show support, admiration, affection, and respect to new mothers, but validating their body types is not within my purview. So let me just say it once for the record:
Mamas, I see your beauty. And, hot damn, it takes many shapes.