The postpartum period is difficult for any woman. There’s so much pressure to get back in those pre-baby jeans and so much talk about showing off that fabulous post-baby body. It’s easy to get caught up in the chaos and fall into unhealthy habits. Most of us want to reclaim some semblance of our former selves after we’ve had a baby. We want to tone up, slim down, feel like we could possibly (maybe?) attempt a bikini in public again. So, what do you do when you’re not allowed to focus on any of that? What do you do when you’ve had an eating disorder and post-baby rhetoric is a trigger?
That’s where I found myself a few months ago after giving birth to my second child. I’d developed an eating disorder after my first child was born. A lifetime of body dysmorphia and an obsessive relationship with food collided with the desire to lose baby weight and ended with me hunched over a toilet purging a few Big Macs. I spent the first year and a half of my baby’s life attending weekly meetings with an eating disorder specialist where I learned about self-acceptance and respect for my body, how to separate my worth from my weight, and how to eat mindfully. While I was doing this, I had to stop dieting and surrender my scale. I had to learn how to be comfortable as I was, in size 14 jeans when I was used to wearing a size 8. I had to stop obsessing about numbers and what they meant about my value as a human being. I had to leave the world of dieting and weight loss behind completely.
Healing was slow, but it happened. To my surprise, I didn’t gain a ton of weight when I stopped dieting. In fact, I didn’t gain any at all. My weight remained stable the entire time I was in treatment, and my ideas about health and fitness began to change. I realized my obsessive attempts to control my body were doing more harm than good and that my body was perfectly capable of regulating itself if only I’d back off. The urge to exert control over it was still there, though, and it was tested when I became unexpectedly pregnant with my second child.
Eating disorders are all about control. Allowing your body the space to create a healthy human being is the ultimate exercise in surrendering control. The first few months of my pregnancy I was a slave to my cravings, mostly because I couldn’t keep anything down. After that, I vacillated between wanting nothing to do with food and wanting to eat everything. My weight gain was minimal, and I tried not to focus too much on the numbers or on what would happen once the baby arrived. I tried to remain in the moment and do the best I could for my body without obsessing.
When my son arrived, he was healthy and beautiful. I was pleasantly surprised when I pulled my size 14 jeans back on two weeks later and was able to button them with just the slightest muffin top protruding over the waistband. I liked the feeling of shrinking back down from being pregnant, and I started wondering if maybe I was healthy enough that I could shrink down even more and lose about ten pounds. I downloaded a calorie-counting app and started tracking my meals. I was very meticulous and my husband was concerned, but I swore up and down I was just doing it to make sure I was getting enough nutrients and not overeating. After about a week I started running again and carefully calculating the number of calories I burned. If I went over my calorie limit, I felt defeated. If I stayed under it, I was a success -- even if it meant going to bed hungry. I was falling off the wagon, and I knew it.
The thing about having an eating disorder is that you’re never totally healed. You can improve, you can even go decades without relapses, but there will forever be a little voice in the back of your head that wants you to slip into old patterns, and when you’re dealing with stress - like, you know, having a new baby - that voice gets more persistent. It sweet talks you. It provides you with good excuses and pulls you along one step at a time. It’s a testament to the quality of my treatment that I recognized the destructive path I was starting down fairly quickly.
I deleted the calorie-counting app and stopped tracking the number of calories I burned in my workouts. I went shopping and bought a few flattering pieces for the frame I have right now, as opposed to the imaginary one my eating disorder wants me to kill myself for. I challenged myself to listen to my cravings and to eat for fuel. I basically staged a mini-intervention for myself, and once again stopped trying to lose weight.
I’m a size 14, and it’s likely I’ll remain a size 14 for the foreseeable future. I can’t force my body into a mold because I’m not mentally strong enough to know when enough is enough, and it’s possible the mold I’m trying to fit into wasn’t made for me anyway. All I can do is eat well, exercise when it feels right, sleep when I can, drink water, enjoy my beautiful children, and let the needle on the scale fall where it will. It seems almost revolutionary in the face of so many things that tell us to battle the bulge, shrink ourselves down, and get smaller and leaner. I can’t help but wonder if maybe it’s what I should have been doing all along.
Our society has succeeded in making normal pregnancy changes seem really abnormal. Stretch marks, leaky boobs, thinner hair, skin issues, a flabby tummy - they’re all things that we need to fix, hide, lose, and correct. The dominant narrative about pregnancy seems to be one in which carrying a baby is less a normal transition for the female body and more a speed bump in our quest to achieve and maintain physical perfection. We idealize women who come away from the experience of carrying a child looking more or less like it never happened. We find beauty not in becoming a mother, but in busting ass to make sure we don’t look like a mother.
We’re forgetting that our bodies were made to change. Though we may hover around the same size and shape for long periods of time, ultimately we’re all meant to grow and shrink, stretch and sag, wrinkle and curve. Maybe wearing bigger pants is not a personal failure. Maybe it’s just the natural evolution of the body I’ve been blessed with, and that’s nothing to be ashamed of.
(photo: SAJE/ Shutterstock)