As I prepared for my recent ELI Talk, The Eleventh Commandment: Thou Must Diet, ironically about body image, I felt apprehensive and uncomfortable about the idea of appearing on camera in my ninth-month-pregnant body. That was hard, but nothing could have prepared me for the discomfort I would feel in my own body just a few months later after giving birth to my new baby daughter. The post-partum period is a little slice of hell in so many ways. Usually, after a person undergoes surgery, they are prescribed strong medications, told to get plenty of rest, and concentrate on healing. When I had my C-section, however, I was handed a tiny, helpless little human that I needed to care for; my own body’s need to rest and heal would have to take a back seat.
Somewhere between recovering from having my abdomen cut open and stapled shut, feeding a baby, and changing diapers – all reinforced by a heavy dose of sleep deprivation – I started becoming aware of the new, funny shape of my post-pregnancy body. It wasn’t quite the same as it had been before baby, and I didn’t really like the changes. I began falling into the nasty habit of dissecting my body like some anatomical model in biology class. My thighs looked about a third larger than they had been before I got pregnant, and my stomach still protruded like I was carrying at twenty weeks. Mentally, I knew that my body had just been through quite an ordeal – growing and delivering a new life. But I didn’t care about all that. I appreciated my wonderful new baby girl in ways that words cannot express, but I just could not avoid noticing and obsessing over how much bigger my body had become.
Nothing could have prepared me for the discomfort I would feel in my own body just a few months later after giving birth to my new baby daughter.
Frustrated and demoralized, I turned to friends, Facebook, new mommy discussion groups, and baby forums in search of support and advice about how to feel better about my new body. Unfortunately, my search for answers left me feeling even worse. Perhaps predictably, I repeatedly found myself on the receiving end of unhelpful, guilt-inducing platitudes, all of which reinforced the idea the there was something wrong with my post-partum body. No matter how compassionate or seemingly understanding the new-mommy community appeared to be about the whole post-baby body issue, all the advice I received boiled down to pressuring me to work to “lose that baby weight” and encouraging me to “bounce back.” I cannot count the number of times I was told – as if to be helpful – “It took nine months to grow that baby; it will take at least that long to take it back off.” Such comments made me wonder: At five months post-partum, did that mean I had another four months to be forgiving of myself and my body for being fat? I was pretty sure that I would not magically be receiving a new pre-pregnancy body once the nine-month grace period ran out. What was I to make of myself and my body then?
As I had done to overcome my body-anxiety before giving my ELI Talk, and as I had done so many times before, I turned inward to find my own truth and the support and comfort I needed to make peace with my body. “Tzivie,” I told myself, “your body is not going to bounce back. It’s not going to bounce back because you nurtured and grew a baby, and with that baby you got a new body. You don’t really know or love this new body just yet, but give it time. Just as you are gradually getting to know your new baby, you will also grow to know, appreciate, and love your new body.”
I don’t expect it to fit into all the pre-pregnancy clothing still hanging in my closet, just as I don’t expect my five-month-old daughter to fit into her newborn outfits.
Now, when I wake up in the morning, I try to peer at myself in the mirror without judgment. I don’t expect it to fit into all the pre-pregnancy clothing still hanging in my closet, just as I don’t expect my five-month-old daughter to fit into her newborn outfits. It doesn’t matter how cute those clothes are, her body has grown and developed as she has moved from newborn to five-month-old, and those clothes will not – and should not – fit. My body is no different. It has grown and changed through my various life experiences, and it shouldn’t be expected to look like something it’s not.
I went shopping last week because I deserve to wear clothes that fit. I took my eight-year-old daughter with me, and I noticed as a look of confusion flashed across her face while she watched me mumble to myself about being unsure if the smaller size I was holding would fit on my new post-partum frame. “Mommy,” she said, “why would you wear a smaller size? You make no sense! Our bodies just grow; they don’t shrink!” How right she was. It’s a lesson we reinforce to our children all the time; we eat food so that our bodies will have the calories and nutrients they need to grow big and strong. To grow, because bodies aren’t designed to shrink. When did the message change? At what point did that bit of childhood wisdom mutate into the idea that good, healthy bodies are supposed to shrink and lose weight?
At what point did that bit of childhood wisdom mutate into the idea that good, healthy bodies are supposed to shrink and lose weight?
We live in a world where we are constantly bombarded with a simple message: Thinner is better. Dieting in order to satisfy some kind of artificial, societally-dictated and male-driven idea about beauty and attractiveness is the order of the day. In this world, even the body-wracking experience of pregnancy and childbirth is not enough to give a woman the right to be content and comfortable in her own skin. When we concede this premise, when we speak and act as if there is something wrong with our post-partum bodies – that our bodies need to be fought as we try to claw ourselves back to our “better,” thinner selves – we send a powerful message to each other and to our children. We perpetuate a perverted sense of what women’s bodies are supposed to be even as we birth and nurture the next generation of young women who will find themselves trapped in the same vicious cycle.
If we really want our girls to become confident women who know their own worth, we need to teach them to shrink less and grow more.
If we really want our girls to become confident women who know their own worth, we need to teach them to shrink less and grow more. I am going to let my daughter know that it is her right to take up some space in this world, and I am going to model that body-positive attitude by embracing my new, different, larger body. I will show her that it is a privilege to have a healthy body; that a healthy body can be a powerful tool for accomplishing her dreams and making an impact on the world. I will explain to her that it is deeply upsetting, wasteful, and hurtful to take a wonderfully, healthy body and restrict it through diet, punish it with guilt, and expend time and energy of weight-loss-focused exercise just to make that body into an accessory that better fits other people’s ideas of what she should look like.
And if – and when – the nasty world tries to tell her otherwise, I will remind my daughter of the time her mother decided that there is no bouncing back, only living forward.
Tzivie Pill is a certified Eating Psychology Coach pursuing her MSW at the Wurzweiler School of Social Work. Her work focuses on helping women in the Orthodox Jewish community address disordered eating and negative body image, and develop healthier relationships with food and body through intuitive eating and weight-neutral approaches to health and wellness. Tzivie was a Fall 2017 ELITalks fellow and delivered her talk on body image and dieting in the Jewish community. Tzivie’s articles have appeared on Kveller, Fatitude, and in The Jewish Home, you can also find her on instagram as nourish_keit. She lives in Atlanta with her husband, Shlomo, and daughters Arial and Minnie.
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