Body image is talked about as a finite thing, as if it’s something you learn or “fix” once, and move on with your life.
The truth is, it’s a project that requires ongoing upkeep; Definitely not finite. It’s not even linear. The way we see ourselves changes by the day. Sometimes, by the minute.
Even as a dietitian who is passionate about body positivity, I have my moments. When my favorite shorts feel snug, when my workout routine is off track, or after an indulgent meal, the familiar insecure feeling shows up.
Throughout my journey as a mom, I’ve become hyperaware of my body image.
The way it changes feels a little like a pendulum. It’s often dramatic, with big, sweeping swings from one end of the spectrum to the other.
This tracks with the dramatic changes our bodies go through as moms, right? But it doesn’t end when you have the baby. Whether your body returns to “normal” or forms a new normal, the body image pendulum continues to swing.
A glimpse into my pre-kids body image
Before pregnancy, my body never felt good enough. Why did genetics equip me with thighs that always touch, no matter what I weigh? Why did I stop growing at 5 feet tall, never seeing another inch after 12 years old?
In those pre-kids days, I dreamt of thighs that didn’t touch, hip bones that stuck out, and visible abs. Looking back, the distortion is so obvious.
But as the idea of becoming a mom grew into a reality, my body goals changed. As I prepared to get pregnant, I wanted to be in the best shape of my life. Full transparency – This wasn’t ONLY to be healthy for my pregnancy. Deep down I knew that being in great shape would help me “bounce back” afterwards.
It feels gross to type that…but we’re here to speak the truth.
Getting pregnant the first time was easy. And then, life served me a major wake-up call. Well, TWO wake-up calls.
First, sometimes your body fails you with no explanation.
Second, I didn’t expect losing a baby to affect my body image as heavily as it did. People don’t really talk in depth about miscarriage, much less mention how ugly they felt afterward. It feels too vain. Too selfish.
I was angry because my body failed me, and although I was only 10 weeks along, I had to cope with the early pregnancy changes that didn’t result in a baby.
My slightly squishier tummy and added 5 pounds constantly reminded me of the rug that was swept out from under us.
When I became pregnant again and made it far enough along to breathe a little, the pendulum wasn’t swinging often, but each swing was violent. I knew change was coming, yet still felt disconnected from myself.
The phase where I looked like I’d just eaten too much for dinner was the hardest. There’s no beautiful bump, yet nothing really fits.
Do you hide the tummy or embrace it at this point? Even my underwear felt too tight, and it drove me to the point of tears. In the morning, I’d look mostly normal. But by bedtime, my body looked like it was someone else’s.
Later in pregnancy, I felt beautiful and powerful…most of the time. It’s normal to gain weight in places other than your belly, and I knew that. But that didn’t make it any easier when I noticed more cellulite on my thighs. I anxiously checked for stretch marks daily.
I held onto every comment about how I looked, good or bad.
“Wow, you’re all belly!”
“You’re getting huge.”
“You’re so tiny.”
I heard it all, and every comment stuck with me.
There were times I dreaded getting dressed because finding something I felt good in seemed impossible. I’d compare myself to effortlessly stylish pregnant women (online and IRL) and wonder if I just didn’t have the body to be cute like them.
I know, it’s a silly thing to worry about while growing a human. We’ll blame some of those feels on the hormones.
Overall, these negative body image swings were few and far between. But I remember them clearly.
The Fourth Trimester
There’s no “official” timeframe for the fourth trimester, but for me, it was the period of time when my body did not feel like my own.
18 months postpartum. The amount of time I breastfed both of my sons.
Immediately postpartum, I was shocked by how weak my core was (why doesn’t anyone warn you about this?!). I felt sooo squishy and didn’t recognize my body. The thought of “starting over” with my workouts felt discouraging.
This, plus healing everywhere else and serving as the only source of nutrition for my babies…yeah. Makes sense that my body felt foreign for a while.
I lost weight really quickly with my oldest son, not only because I was breastfeeding (and overproducing at that), but because I was probably undereating due to stress. While you might think I was excited to be “lucky” in this way, the truth is, I felt SO weak. I lost so much muscle mass that I felt soft and shapeless.
Eventually, I got back into some semblance of a workout routine (this is an entirely different story), and gained some muscle back. And then, I stopped breastfeeding… and gained weight.
Now, this was only a few pounds, back to my “pre-baby weight.” Again, I expected this and thought I was prepared for it to happen. But that body image pendulum swung HARD.
The clothes I bought in smaller sizes for those 18 months suddenly felt too snug, and I was coming to grips with the fact that in some ways, my body was changed forever.
The journey continues
Now my kids are 2 and 5. I feel like my body is “mine” again, or at least a new version that I’ve accepted over time. The body image pendulum still swings, but for different reasons.
I notice it correlates with self-care. This isn’t groundbreaking information, but still took some time for me to learn.
When I’m in a season of high motivation, the kids are sleeping well (which means I am sleeping well too), and our routine grooves so I have time for daily movement and prepping veggies, I feel great.
But then there are seasons when for whatever reason, some or all of those things hit the fan. And during those times, when I’m tired (physically or mentally), stressed, not moving consistently, and/or scrambling with meals – in Mom World we call this survival mode – I notice a clear shift, and I’m not as kind to myself.
Same body, new goals
In my pre-kid life, I primarily exercised to “fix” the parts of my body that I hated. I still deal with many of the same insecurities from time to time, but I confront them in healthier ways.
Now my workouts are vital to my overall well-being, and especially my mental health. This is my (much-needed) time to think without interruption, breathe deeply, and remind myself of how strong I am.
I enjoy a long walk or stretch sesh just as much as a sweaty HIIT workout, whereas before, anything that didn’t make me want to puke felt pointless.
I’m much easier on myself now because I’ve witnessed firsthand what this body is capable of. But it’s still a work in progress.