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Mirror, Mirror: On Pregnancy And Body Image

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I am 19 weeks pregnant. In pregnancy, everything is measured in weeks, and I keep wanting to wish my fetus a happy beginning-of-the-next-week birthday. Because we made it this far and we should celebrate, damn it. But I guess that gets a little excessive. People keep telling me, “You barely look pregnant!” And it’s frustrating, because I am really, really pregnant. I know, because of all the barfing I endured for three months. (So much barfing! Dear God. I can hardly look at a saltine now without a rising sense of dread.) I know, because of the boxing match that seems to be going on endlessly between my very enthusiastic baby and any part of my body he or she can reach. Believe me, I am quite pregnant. So when people tell me, “I can’t even tell!” I have this weird reaction. I know that they are complimenting me. They’re suggesting that I look thin, and I’m supposed to appreciate that. But I also have to resist the urge to stick my belly out and say, “No, no, seriously, look closer! This is the real deal!”

And it’s interesting, because being pregnant is the first time for me that I’ve thought of my body this way. It’s the first time in my life I’ve wanted to gain weight. It’s the first time I’ve truly thought of my body as functional first and aesthetically as a distant second. So much of learning what it meant to even have a body as a woman felt like learning about how that body looked to other people—how I was presenting myself to the world. My body has felt on so many occasions like a fragile shell, barely holding up against judging eyes. My body has felt vulnerable and awkward, and even as I think about whatever it is I am doing at the moment, a tiny piece of my mind is worrying about how I look as I’m doing it. It’s so automatic, I barely notice, but it’s there, and it matters.

It’s kind of funny, because all this time, I’ve definitely been walking around, breathing, pooping, managing to type, hold a pen, cut my food and bring it to my mouth—you know, the other automatic things that healthy, whole people can do. My body is an incredible machine—it always has been. But I haven’t taken much time to notice.

I’ve heard women describe that shift in their thinking, when they begin to see themselves as physically capable instead of evaluating their physical attractiveness and acceptableness first. Often, this shift emerges out of intense exercise. Training for a marathon or getting really great at yoga or climbing a mountain. I don’t want to sell myself short, but I’m pretty sure mountain climbing isn’t in my future. I’m a huge wimp, physically. A short hike feels like a big accomplishment and I decide I deserve immediate dessert-related rewards. My very brief yoga career came to an especially humiliating end when the instructor called me up in front of the class and used me as an example of how not to do yoga—on the same day that I failed to notice when I got dressed that my skin-tight exercise pants had a giant hole in the crotch. I know, I know. I should get in shape. All of the smart people are doing it. The New York Times is constantly finding new formally-worded ways to express the point that you seriously suck if you’re not already exercising every day.

Anyway, guilty as charged, and I have to hand it to the women who look down at their powerful muscles, dripping sweat, and think, “Now THIS is what a body is for!”

I don’t happen to think that my purpose in life is to produce babies, and actually, up until four months or so ago, the idea of being a mom was one I held nervously in my mind, like a bomb that might go off at any moment. I sort of wanted to have a baby, but I was also terrified. My career! I thought. And then I thought that another million times. But, I thought unoriginally, I haven’t traveled enough…And what of freedom?! I did not feel like I was even approaching the sketchy bus stop on the edge of the neighborhood of the idea of accepting what it might mean to be responsible, FOR THE REST OF MY LIFE, for a person I’d created. And when I was being really petty and nitpicky and overanalyzing-y about the whole thing, I worried about my body. I am in my mid-20′s, after all, and I’ve finally begun to accept the way I look. I worried that I’d look old before my time—loose, worn-out, floppy. It didn’t help that the headlines I saw about pregnancy always involved something about preemptively combatting stretchmarks and continuing to work out and making sure for the love of all that is holy that you don’t get all lazy about it and keep that weight on and look like a goddamn mom or something.

And then I got pregnant, surprisingly ahead of schedule. And then I got brutally, cruelly destroyed by morning sickness that laughed scornfully at its own title and plowed right through to the next night without pausing. And then, finally, I emerged into the light with a baby kicking happily away in my belly, and everything seemed different. I started throwing on clashing clothes because my normal outfits didn’t fit quite right anymore. And I liked the way they looked, because they were bold and weird and didn’t give a shit in the most delightful way. But more than that, I found myself feeling proud of my body instead of critical of it. Not because it suddenly looked fabulous, but because it suddenly didn’t matter so much how it looked. Fascinating things were going on inside, and the outside seemed less interesting as a result. I read that my ribs are actually expanding. My bones are shifting, to make room. My heart is pumping huge quantities of new blood like a champ, and my lungs are taking in extra air. I am carrying around a whole other person with me, and my body is producing everything that person needs to develop from a cell into a human being with actual, tiny fingers and hair follicles and a working bladder that can make baby pee whenever it feels like it. It is absolutely, completely ordinary. It’s the most basic thing ever. And it is utterly badass, when I think about it for a second.

I know I won’t forever forget about my body as a public screen, as the first thing people notice about me. I may worry about how saggy my boobs have gotten, later on. I doubt that this pregnancy, and becoming a mother, will cure all of my ingrained, nagging body image concerns. But I can’t help but feel grateful anyway, right now, for the new perspective, and for my pride in my body. What a capable, cool body it is. Even if it is almost shockingly bad at yoga. Even when it looks schlumpy and bulky and slightly off-kilter at times. I want to show off my changes. And for the first time, I’m counting on this body to know what it’s doing.

Now it just has to get me through the birth.

Eep. Shit. I guess there’s no turning back now…
Fairest shmairest! Let’s get real about beauty and body image. Mirror, Mirror is a column running every other week on The Frisky. It is written by Brooklyn-based columnist, freelance writer, and bagel enthusiast, Kate Fridkis who also writes the blog Eat the Damn Cake. You can follow her on Twitter at @eatthedamncake.

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