Postpartum body: My beauty and worth aren't defined by how I look

Jessica Birak opens up about the changes in her post-baby body and how being a mother has helped her deal with her insecurities.

Photo: Jessica Birak, Surrey, BC, Mom of Noah + Declan 4th Trimester Bodies Project

Jessica Birak with Noah and Declan. Photo by Ashlee Wells Jackson, 4th Trimester Bodies Project, 4thtrimesterbodies.com

Just as Jessica Birak was gaining confidence in her body, she got pregnant with her first child—and her insecurities flooded back. After having a second child, she took a leap of faith and signed on to participate in the 4th Trimester Bodies Project, a photo documentary developed by Ashlee Wells Jackson that celebrates the post-baby body. We chatted with the mom from Surrey, BC, about how her body has changed after two pregnancies and how she feels about her body today.

CS: Why did you decide to participate in the 4th Trimester Bodies Project?

JB: To love my body was something that I never thought I’d be able to do. When I was six months postpartum with my youngest, somebody came up to me and they asked me if I was expecting. It sunk me. I thought that must mean I’m ugly because my stomach has a little paunch.

But I realized that it was ruining my day because my idea of beauty—as a mom and as a woman—was defined by something unrealistic, something superficial. I realized that there’s no real place for mothers to feel beautiful in the media. Participating in the project was really scary.

My mother-in-law saw the picture, and she said, “You’re brave. You’re really brave.” I want everything about motherhood—the changes that your body goes through and breastfeeding—I would love for that to be normal one day.

CS: How did your body change physically after your pregnancies?

JB: Before, I had no stretch marks. I had rock-hard abs and I had no cellulite, and I seriously thought I was going to go through pregnancy completely untouched. I was naïve, right? At 37-and-a-half weeks, I got these big, red stretch marks all over my belly—like a cat had clawed at me. I cried for like a week.

My boobs are quite a bit more saggy—they’re not as perky. I can’t not wear a bra anymore. Even things like my hairline changed or one foot got bigger than the other. I have wrinkles. I guess I don’t look as youthful.

CS: How did you feel about your body image before and after your pregnancy?

JB: I had an eating disorder when I was 15, but I didn’t truly recover until I was probably 19. I was gaining confidence in the way my body looked when I got pregnant at 22. After I had my oldest, I sometimes felt very insecure—I lost the confidence I’d gained.

Eventually, as I learned how to become a mother and formed my identity as a mother—and I really have my kids to thank for this—I started to learn that my beauty and my sense of worth is not defined by what I look like; it’s defined by how I love, it’s defined by my role as a mother, my identity as a mother.

CS: How do you feel about your body today?

JB: I do have days where I feel really insecure. I grew up in a really broken home, and there are some days where I feel like I’m not worthy. I’m working on that and going to counselling to work through the childhood trauma. But I feel confident and thankful for my body—that I could nurse and be pregnant. I can’t bring myself to shame my body when I look at my kids.

In order for beauty to be redefined, I think mothers need to claim it and redefine it for themselves. And that’s what’s so beautiful about this project—as women, we’re making this change for ourselves.

A version of this article appeared in the May 2015 print issue with the headline “Body beautiful,” p. 71-76.

Read more:
Body beautiful: Celebrating the postpartum body>
A love letter to my postpartum body>
#HeyBeautiful: Celebrating the beauty of the post-baby body>

1 Comment