Two weeks ago I returned to my pre-pregnancy weight. It actually didn’t feel like that big of a deal. The weight has been slowly but surely coming off over the past six months, and despite the impossibility I took it to be during the summer months I quickly enough realized the day would in fact come.
The real issues I face concerning my body these days have little to do with weight. Instead they center on muscles that still don’t work or have been strained. Or a back that creeks under the weight of my baby. Or the massive clumps of hair that covered the bathroom and bedroom a couple of months ago. Or the lines that are starting to line my face.
And the sleep. Always the sleep.
But goodness did that weight matter a few months ago. In fact, it was nearly all consuming. It made me want to burn all of my clothes and buy an entire new wardrobe. It made me feel uncomfortable, as if I wasn’t “me,” and incapable of identifying with the body that I lugged around. Nothing about my physical embodiment felt attractive. Even my larger boobs didn’t inspire since they oozed and became engorged. And really, it just felt plain weird for something to change that hadn’t changed since middle school. I didn’t look like myself and I didn’t feel like myself.
Despite my expectations for the opposite, I had ended up enjoying how I looked while pregnant. The round belly was lovely to my and many others' eyes, and even though I waddled, I felt comfortable with my new form. But not with my postpartum form. This one has felt doughy and deflated. A collapsed cocoon left over after its suppleness burst forth life. I had thought that I would struggle with the image of a pregnant body. I didn’t. Instead I struggle with the image of my maternal body.
The reality is that by the time I weighed in at my original number two weeks ago, I had already come to realize there would be little joy in it - because my weight is only one signifier of all of the thousands of other insecurities I feel about my body. I would reach my weight goal only to check it off the list and move on to the next issue I take with my physical existence. It’s a never ending chase down the rabbit hole of discontent, insecurity, and ultimately, fear. Even if I accomplished this one thing, there would only be another bodily problem to move onto.
So I wonder - what is this problem with bodies?
Within a month of her birth, my brand new daughter showed symptoms of a common and harmless birth defect - a strawberry hemangioma birthmark. It does not cause her pain, it will eventually disappear, and it most likely will not leave a scar. But it is a big, fat, bright red, raised lump smack in the middle of her forehead. And it is the first thing everyone notices about her.
She does not yet know it is there. She goes about life at six months old totally oblivious to the fact that every stranger’s eyes jump first to the spot on her forehead rather than to her eyes. From an incredibly early age, she displayed a perceptibly bright smile that competes with her birthmark; nonetheless, I know the day will eventually come when it finally sinks in to her little brain that the children pointing at her and asking “what’s wrong with her head” don’t do the same to others. She will realize one day that there is something about her body that the world tells her to be embarrassed about through the many pointing fingers, innocently curious questions, and eyes that awkwardly try to look elsewhere.
As her mother, I do not want her to feel shame, and my husband and I have thought and worked hard to commit to not making it a bigger deal ourselves than it really is or that we want her to learn it to be. If we are confident in her and in her body, we believe she will be too. And though we have not been opposed to medical options to remove or reduce the birthmark, they haven’t worked or been necessary, so in the end we are finding it more and more important to correctly speak about and think about her birthmark, rather than to make sure her skin is perfectly smooth at all costs.
But this is where honesty is important. Because if I am honest, the way I see people interact with my daughter's birthmark is the way I'm afraid people secretly interact with me. When I see young children point, laugh, and show concern over my daughter’s birthmark, I see innocently transparent actions that mirror what I fear the adults around me actually do in silence. I fear others judge or are made uncomfortable by the long list of physical complaints I carry with me in the same way they are made uncomfortable by my daughter’s birthmark. And so I have come to see that what I think and feel about my daughter’s face is a window to, and an indictment of, my own issues with my physical reality.
How in the world can I expect to empower my baby daughter with the confidence I want her to have about her embodiment when I myself am trapped in daily worry and fear about my own? What right or ability do I have to help her overcome what others think and say about her, when I myself can’t manage to get outside of my worry over my postpartum physical presence?
If I want my daughter to believe in and see her own beauty with its big red mark, then I have to believe in and see my own beauty, with or without the twenty pounds I never wore before, boobs that require unflattering shirts for easy access, and hair that insists on thinning out.
I wish more than anything that I could say this realization has sparked a revolution in my life and a spiritual awakening in my heart and that all of the sudden, I’ve left behind all of my bodily insecurities. But sanctification is most often a long and arduous battle that only starts, rather than concludes, when revelation arrives. The truth is that even as I put my old jeans back on, I often find myself looking in the mirror and wishing something was different or that I had more power over my beauty and physicality.
But I am learning to repent of this desire for control over my image and I am working on living into the beauty God created for me. Because more than anything, I want my daughter to be able to inherit from her mother a belief and faith in who God made her to be.
I also suspect, however, that I will not be the only teacher and she will not be the only learner. Perhaps God allowed the mark on her forehead so that I might also learn from her. As I write, she rolls around on our bed, loudly expressing the deep joy she feels. She is confident and unaware of the mark on her face, because the primary delight she experiences is my gaze into her eyes. As we gaze at each other, she is truly beautiful to me. Deeply, wonderfully beautiful. As we look at each other, her birthmark and my postpartum body don’t disappear, but they no longer are the center of our focus. They exist simply as who we are, neither inhibiting nor challenging our enjoyment of each other, but informing everything that we are in each other’s lives.
And as I reflect on this reality, I know that God asks the same of me - to look back at him, living within his fatherly gaze, understanding my physical existence according to his smile over me. He sees and he knows my embodied reality and it is his smile over me, and my smile in response, that makes all things beautiful.
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