Growing up in 1990s diet culture, I understood there was a formula for beauty: Flat stomach + thin legs + clear skin + big boobs.
But like many girls, I didn’t match up—thanks in part to the natural curve to my abdomen I’d developed at age 13. This was the beginning of what would be a decades-long unhealthy relationship with my body that bordered on dysmorphia. So when I got pregnant for the first time in 2014, I was well primed to develop an even more complex relationship with my body, wherein I was all at once in awe of it, grateful to it, and, after my first son was born and I was still carrying an extra 20 pounds, ashamed of it.
Six years ago, the concept of body positivity hadn’t quit taken a cultural foothold, so the prevalent idea was still to get back to your “pre-baby body” ASAP, just like the celebs on magazine covers who claimed to have lost 30 pounds in six weeks by snacking on handfuls of almonds. Craving the attention postpartum moms get when they lose the baby weight (“You look soooo skinny!” and “You’re amazing that you lost all of that weight and took care of a baby!”), I hunkered down at 12 months’ postpartum and went on Weight Watchers. I’d always been active and enjoyed walking and strength training at home, but it wasn’t having enough of an impact to get me where I wanted to be—where my jeans would fit again—and I was desperate to get there. When I lost the weight and started to receive my own share of positive comments, I finally felt validated. I also felt terrified to ever gain weight again.
The critical window for preventing obesity is earlier than you thinkFast forward to 2019, when I found myself pregnant for the third time amidst the full swing of the body positive movement. The change in how people talked about bodies felt astronomically different from years before. It was incredible. I felt so much less external pressure to look a certain way during the pregnancy. Even better, the feeling continued after the baby was born. This new attitude I’d absorbed through listening to and reading about other women’s body positive and postpartum journeys was more than just a temporary, hormonal bi-product of the newborn phase. Rather, finally, at the age of 36, I had undergone a real internal shift, and almost in spite of myself had come to love my body in all its shapes and forms.
At around five weeks’ postpartum, I felt ready to start working towards losing weight, setting myself a goal to fit into my jeans by New Year’s Eve. I decided on a plan (mindfully this time) that did not concentrate on a specific diet but instead to eat a balance of protein, fat, fibre and greens at each meal, a food philosophy from nutritionist Kelly LeVeque that resonated with me and avoided any potential for me to obsess over calories, something I had done in the past. Having become a fan of Kayla Itsines’ BBG program and the body-positive community that went along with it prior to becoming pregnant, I decided to start following her program again, walking daily and slowly building up my strength as I worked towards my pants-fitting goal. Before I began, I questioned my motivation for starting my weight loss plan. But this time, it really wasn’t about getting skinny. I’d truly developed a love of eating well and being fit, and all the benefits that came with it: Yes, the confidence of feeling like I looked good (I won’t pretend I’m not vain), but also the sense of emotional and mental peace I gained by releasing energy through exercise.
I’d replaced my toxic thoughts with excitement and enthusiasm. For the last five years I had given myself over to making babies, to carrying babies, to birthing babies, and it felt incredible to have my body back, just for me, to move and eat and exist in a way that was entirely new to me. New because I had a healthier mindset, and new because I had a plan to work towards a physical goal that wasn’t centered around being skinny or external validation. It was about me, being empowered, seeing just what I could do without fear, and it was about honouring and nourishing the body that I had been so harsh to, for so long, and yet had given me so much.
I was so jazzed about this new me that I talked to anyone and everyone about it. What I expected in response was shared enthusiasm—but what I got from some people was entirely different.
“My goal is to fit into my jeans by New Year’s Eve,” I’d say.
“You look great, you don’t need to lose weight!” they’d reply. Or, “Why are you thinking about that now? You should just be thinking about your baby!” Sometimes it was more blunt: “Oh, just eat the cookie!”
I figured these people were (mostly) just being polite, so I would clarify that I knew that I didn’t need to lose weight, but that it felt good to be working towards fitting into my clothes and being active again. I couldn’t help my enthusiasm, so weeks later when having those same catch-ups and neighbourhood run-ins, I would answer the “What have you been up to lately?” question with an update on how much closer I was to reaching my goal. I thought people wouldn’t feel the need to be polite or reactive anymore, since I was almost there, and they could finally just be excited with me. But I continued to be met by some with the same well-intended but fundamentally dismissive reaction, the common thread being: You don’t need to think about your body. Just think about your baby.
Feeling particularly uneasy after one such conversation, as I sat mulling it over with my husband ad nauseum (per my usual tendency), I realized that these comments were leaving me feeling ashamed of working towards my jeans-fitting goal. And although I was certain that the intention was to be kind and tell me that I didn’t need to worry about my body, it was having the opposite effect. The replies were making me feel shame for doing something focused on my physical appearance (and not my baby).
It hit me then how much things truly had changed. Whereas in 2014, I was praised only after I had lost my postpartum weight, I got the sense now that certain people felt straight up wrong talking about me losing weight or changing my body, even if I was the one bringing it up. It was clear—and rightly so—that the fact that we are not the sum of our physical appearance had finally settled into the collective consciousness.
Yet as so often happens with huge, cultural movements, it seems (at least from my tiny vantage point in the world) that the pendulum has swung from one side to the other, in terms of some people’s interpretation of the message of body positivity, especially as it pertains to postpartum weight loss. This is not a bad thing, because it means change is happening. It’s no longer acceptable to criticize a person for their body shape or size, or to expect a postpartum mother to care about losing weight in a certain time frame—or at all—if it doesn’t feel right to them, and this is a change for the better. However, just as we shouldn’t shame postpartum moms if they choose not to focus on exercise or weight loss and prefer to direct their energy in other meaningful ways, it’s equally important to not shame moms who do choose this path. Because here’s the thing: Body positivity, as I understand it, does not mean that we are not allowed to have fitness or weight-loss goals, or the desire to change our bodies. It just means that we are allowed and encouraged to love our bodies no matter our size or shape, no matter where we’re at in the journey, and no matter what people may say or think about us. Simply put, it’s about not hating the vessels we’re in.
So for those who find themselves in the lives of postpartum moms who are trying to navigate their relationship to their bodies in this body positive era, here is a gentle reminder: If she tells you that she hates her body or wishes she looked different, do tell her that she is worthy at any size, in any shape, and that her body is worthy of love, too. If she tells you she wants to start exercising, or eating differently, or has a goal for her body that’s important for her sense of self, don’t tell her she doesn’t need to do that. It’s a response intended to make her feel good just the way she is, but it’s invalidating to what she just told you is important to her. And, for eff sakes, please don’t tell her that she should take the time to focus on her baby instead. Believe me. She is focused on her baby. It is possible, if a woman so chooses, to do both.