This is not a pregnancy announcement. When I put on a newish funky purple dress this morning, I didn’t think I would need to clarify that. I say newish because Robert gave me the dress for Christmas last year when I was 5.5 months pregnant and I only got to wear it once before my stomach expanded past the point that the decidedly non-stretchy fabric would bear. I wore it again a few months ago for a few hours before I realized that a non-stretchy dress with sleeves in decidedly not nursing friendly. I was excited to put it on this morning. I was excited to slip it over my head and find that it felt comfy and roomy. I liked the tie around the middle that emphasized my curvy waist. I liked knowing that Dylan can now go long enough without nursing that I’d be able to wear it to church without worrying that I’d have to strip down in the mother’s lounge when she got hungry.
Dylan was a little fussy at church, so the last twenty minutes of sacrament meeting found us standing in the back of the elementary school auditorium that serves as a chapel for our urban congregation. I held Dylan’s hands and helped her take wobbly steps and when her legs gave out, I hoisted her on my hip. I let her chew on a tithing envelope until I was afraid she’d choke on the wet pieces she’d torn off with her sharp little teeth and she screamed when I took it away. I stepped quickly out into the foyer where there’s no shortage of parents with kids who are also missing naptime and folks who waiting for the next meeting to start. A woman started chatting with me, asking all the right questions, how’s Dylan, how’s your husband, how are you? She told me about the trouble she had getting to church on time today because the northern red line stops are under construction. She asked me if I was expecting.
Wait, what? No, but thank you for asking.
She asked me if I lost all the weight from my pregnancy with Dylan. No, but really, thank you for asking.
This particular woman lacks some of the social graces that many people possess, so I knew I could get away with asking a follow-up question and maybe even get an honest answer.
Do I look pregnant?
A little, she said.
The service had ended, so I made movements to go back into the auditorium where I’d left my coat, tears welling up in my eyes. This wasn’t the first time that somebody thought I was pregnant since I gave birth, but the other times had been in the first few months after Dylan was born, and Dylan wasn’t with me. I felt like a fool. I felt like a fool for daring to think that my dress, which suddenly felt very much like a maternity dress, was flattering. I felt like a fool for daring to be so comfortable with my body that I was in no rush to start my old workout routine or cut out dessert. I felt like a fool for daring to think that I’d transcended post-pregnancy body image issues when all it took was a single thoughtless comment to undo all my confidence.
Last fall, during a phone call, my mother asked me if I thought my stomach would go back to how it was before. I didn’t know how to answer the question. It boggled me for a few reasons. One, my mom hadn’t seen my stomach, hadn’t even seen me in person for months, so I wasn’t sure why she thought there was something wrong with it. Two, I haven’t had a flat stomach since I was 15. This used to bother me, but it hasn’t for a long time. I didn’t understand why a few extra pounds in the region should bother me. Three, some of the changes were permanent. I knew as soon as the stretch marks appeared white and shiny to the left of my belly button, just above my right hip, that although they would fade, they were there to stay, just like the lines that appeared on my thighs when I hit puberty and shut up like a tree. Four, I felt good. No, I felt amazing. I wasn’t pregnant anymore. I could run without the weight of the world pressing down on my bladder. I could laugh and sneeze without searing pain, which is more than I could manage for weeks after my Cesarean. I still did a double take when I look at pictures other people took, with my face just a little too big, but I looked good. I liked my rounded stomach and my wide hips. I kept wearing t-shirts just a little too short for my long torso. I stopped sucking in.
I’m not saying I’m immune to body image issues. I still cringe when I see myself at a weird angle with all that extra skin underneath my chin. I wish my arms were more toned. I’m not saying that other women need to be like me. I know that I’m lucky, that it’s easy to take extra weight in stride, when you’re still technically thin, that stretch marks don’t seem like a such a big deal when they’re few and far between. I’m just saying that I want a little space to look the way I do and be okay with it. I want our fertility-obsessed culture to make room for a rounded stomach without it heralding inquiries, unspoken or not, about family planning. I want room for wide hips without the attendant remarks about childbirthing. I want our culture that is obsessed with thinness, and willowiness, athletic builds, and pixie waifs (pick your favorite descriptor, just as long as it’s a synonym for thin) culture to make room me to be not quite as thin as I used to be without being strongarmed into conversations about brownies and bread and working out. I want room for women who aren’t even close to thin and never will be.
I don’t want this post to be about how a woman was rude to me and gosh don’t people realize you can’t ask a woman if she’s pregnant. I know this woman and I care about her and I know she did not mean to offend me. I know that if she said it, then other people were thinking it. I know, because she confided in me just last week that people occasionally ask her of she is pregnant, that she was just reflecting a societal sickness onto me. I know that I’ve thought as much about other women, which means that I’m afflicted, too.
I spent the drive home from church trying to figure out what I would say to Dylan if she were old enough to understand. I don’t want to be the one who distorts her unadulterated view of what a body should be by inadvertently indicating that it is an insult to be mistaken for pregnant, that a little fat is something to cry about. I also don’t want to keep my mouth shut and let someone else pass along a more pernicious message. I settled on telling her, as often as I can, that I love my body. I do. I don’t love it because it gave birth or because it runs marathons, or because it recovers from injury again and again, although I am grateful it does those things. I love my body because it is mine. I loved my body when it was hard and skinny and I love it now that it is soft. I love it when I am wasted in bed with a TMJ flare-up and food poisoning and a mouthful of stress-induced ulcers wanting to chop my own head off, like I was last week. I love it when it lets me down by cutting its milk production almost in half mere days after I post a breastfeeding manifesto worthy of La Leche League. Motherhood is not the hallmark of womanhood and health is not the hallmark of humanity. Every body is a miracle.
When I got home from church I looked in the mirror and thought, yeah, I guess I do look a little pregnant. But also pretty hot. I scrapped the plans I’d made to go running, swapped the dress out for sweats, and got on with my life.