On the box are silhouettes of two cartoon women both wearing knee-length dresses and perky ponytails, but one has a baby bump and the other does not. The phrase that catches my eye, “The belly wrap that helps tighten and shrink your tummy post-pregnancy.” The deafening scratch caused by a large swath of velcro, pollutes the quiet din of my bedroom. My doughy belly sloshes under the compression of the waist cincture, spilling over the top as I strain to pull it tight. During pregnancy, I gave myself a pass on the extra weight gained. I know it is normal to put weight on in order to nourish another life, but that doesn’t change the reality that I am terrified about the natural change in my body shape.
What if I stay fat?
There is no excuse to be heavier now that she is born.
If I let myself go, who will I actually be?
What will people think? Will they look at me in disgust and assume I am a slothful degenerate?
Harsh. Like many women, I struggle with body image issues that propel me to only value myself if I like how I look. Messages from everywhere suggest true feminine beauty is achieved with a remarkably slim midsection. This strikes the very center of my inner conflict. Even days after giving birth I felt the need to strive for a slender waistline instead of cheering about what my body had accomplished in bringing forth a brand new life. No event on earth is more miraculous for a mere mortal than ushering a new soul into the world, and a large part of me forgets and I become hyper-focused on “looking good.” I feel a surge of anger that this message looms over me during a time that should be reserved for support, healing, and above all jubilation.
I want my body back, and I want my self-assurance too.
The baby arrived at the beginning of summer and I was exhausted. Twin three-year-olds and a newborn now under my care, I ached to appear in shape, but without all of the hard work required. A simple postpartum belly wrap seemed to be the easy fix I was searching for.
Without much research, the wrap I tried first was advertised to be comfortable, nearly magical in helping to shrink a waistline, and virtually invisible under clothing, but after wearing it I was disappointed. It rippled and bumped over the contours of my postpartum “waist.” I didn’t have enough strength to fasten it tight enough to lay flat against my abdomen. My expanded hips pushed it out of place and sent it crashing into the bottom of my rib cage whenever I sat down. All the time I kept thinking, “I will be sitting down to nurse this baby several times a day and I don’t have patience for this level of discomfort, nor the time to readjust this glorified velcro bandage all day long. Ain’t nobody got time for that.” I was desperate for something effective and comfortable to make me feel pulled together; not just my abdomen, but my self-worth, me. Frustrated and defeated, I stopped wearing it and to add insult to injury, I could hear fifty bucks flushing down the toilet.
Having given up on the magical wrap, I was left with an awful hollow feeling causing me to be oddly aware of my own internal organs just hanging there. Ungirded, my belly was like a deflated balloon; a nebulous mix of guts stashed here and there to accommodate a growing fetus. My abdominals offered no structural support, being stretched out like a pair of old socks and it was a struggle to stand up straight, bend and lift. I couldn’t bear the sensation, I needed to find another option to help.
In contrast to the celebrity-endorsed belly wrap, I next tried a crusty old girdle. Not sexy, and clearly, I would not be winning style awards with this tool but I didn’t care. After a few days, I realized that this old girl was working! I relished in the simple concept of support, how tightly the compression girdle hugged my middle and held everything fast.
It hit me: a postpartum midsection (just like a postpartum mama) needs support.
I realized that the idea that a mama should have a svelte midsection just after birth is positively absurd. It takes guts to have babies, and through pregnancy and delivery, I had become very aware that my guts—squishy as they became—were not the ultimate definition of me as a person. The girdle was something I originally viewed as a quick means to look good but actually, was an indispensable tool able to support a part of me that deserved physical restoration. In the end, it also illuminated that my body image was erroneously elevated to a place it should never have been.
Slowly, I have begun to process the relationship between my self-worth and my physical appearance. I’d love to say that now everything is perfect, I’m well adjusted and no longer struggle with body image, but that would be
a steaming load of crap…ahem…not accurate. I struggle with this everyday. There is no unpacking a lifetime of self-esteem issues with one girdle-induced epiphany, but, awareness is a large part of the battle. I’m still slogging along, sifting through lies as I discover them, about how women are supposed to look, about how I’m supposed to look. Those lies, by the way, are insidious little jerks who steal the beauty away from a mama who has given her all. We have to fight to shut them out. In the delicate time after birth, the last thing we should be caring about is being skinny and looking good. We must emphasize healing, bonding with baby, and enjoying our triumph. A new mama’s precious, limited energy should not be wasted trying to conform to a standard of beauty that is neither fair nor realistic.
You and I, we are more than our waistlines.
Jennifer Van Winkle lives in Seattle with her husband and three children (twin boys and a baby girl). She is a teacher, musician, and currently a stay-at-home mom. She loves fueling the imaginations of her children with creativity, songs, all things science, good food and lots of play indoors and out. She blogs at Pepper Sprout Home and you can also find her on Instagram.