I solved the mystery.
I was wondering why, when I search for postpartum bellies, none of them look like mine. All I see are “success stories”* of women who show a round, taut nine-month-pregnant belly, followed by a flat, taut, four-month-postpartum belly.
* I put success stories in quotes not to minimize the hard work that some women do to look like they’ve never given birth, but to underscore the sad fact that it’s only considered success if you look like you’ve never given birth. Anything else is deemed unacceptable by our society.
There are no overhanging flaps of skin covering up belly buttons. There are no puckered, wrinkled areas. There are no saggy, doughy upside-down hearts hanging near the bikini line.
There are no bellies that look like mine.
People look at me and cry, “You look great!” Sure, I sort of even agree with them, sometimes. I look great with clothes on. If you saw me in a bikini, it would be another story. And that’s what makes me angry – both with myself, and with our society’s beauty standards.
Why can’t I wear a bikini? There’s nothing stopping me, except me. I know if I wear a bikini to a public place, I will feel uncomfortable. I will feel the eyes of teenagers everywhere digging into my body and proclaiming, “She really shouldn’t be wearing that.” Besides the understandable discomfort, there’s no law preventing me from showing my belly (not yet, anyway…). And if I can just get to the place where I don’t care what an immature person thinks, then there’s really nothing stopping me.
It’s funny that as women, we’re expected to carry and birth the babies – literally carry on the human race – and then go back to looking like a lithe teenager. If you can’t get there, you’re labeled with a “mom bod” and cast to the side like a used condom.
After people started talking about mom bods, a new bod came to the forefront: the dad bod. Yet as much as the mom bod was talked about with disgust, the dad bod was celebrated as cute and cuddly.
That’s the sound of my stunned blinking.
Now that summer is here, it seems like every week there’s a photo on social media of yet another one of my friends who gave birth around the same time I did, standing confidently in a bikini, cradling her baby on her hip, with nary a stretch mark to tell the tale. There go my thoughts:
Well, you’re older than they are.
Of course you’re older than they are. You’re an old mom.
They probably didn’t gain as much weight as you.
They probably worked out during their pregnancy.
LOOK AT EVERYTHING YOU DID WRONG. You got pregnant when you were old, and you didn’t work out, and you ate everything in sight. You are a worthless human being.
As the thoughts spiral into the sky and explode like fireworks, a tiny thought comes creeping into the back of my mind – one that serves to calm me:
There are millions of women who look like you. They just don’t take pictures because they don’t feel good about the way they look – just like you. You are not a freak. You are not alone.
Here is the mystery that I solved: the women who have bellies like mine cover them up. They don’t wear bikinis. They go to the beach and the pool with their littles, but they wear tees and shorts, or one pieces, or even tankinis. They don’t proudly display their triumphant bellies – bellies that cradled and nourished and protected sweet babies – because they are ashamed of them.
Ashamed, like they’ve done something wrong. Ashamed, because getting pregnant when you’re in your thirties instead of your twenties is too old. Ashamed, because feeling exhausted and unable to exercise when you’re pregnant is unacceptable. Ashamed, because eating ice cream and cookies instead of broccoli that makes you feel sick is wrong, wrong, wrong.
Wrong and shameful, like crinkly, saggy belly skin.
You know what, sisters? You’re not alone. I look like I’ve had a baby. I probably always will, unless I elect to get surgery. I had a baby. I didn’t commit a crime. I shouldn’t feel embarrassed. And yet, I do. And I know you do too. It’s OK.
I love you anyway.
You are amazing.
And you are beautiful, wrinkled belly and all.