The Push To “Lose The Baby Weight” Is Bunk

The social and psychological push to “lose the baby weight” is among the crappier things we do to new moms. There is, even during pregnancy, a fixation on “getting your body back” that leads to pregnancy fat-talk, or the push to share how much weight you have gained. I have written before about why I chose not to participate in that talk, as well as my story navigating pregnancy after an eating disorder, and on having a new sense of body image after having a baby.

By now, I’m fairly good at resisting negative body image-type things. In fact, I can often completely shut down internal and external messages that conflate my worth with taking up less space. If I hadn’t — painfully — learned how to do this through the course of various medical interventions, I do believe anorexia would have prevailed and I would be dead. This does not mean I don’t hear the pressure to lose the baby weight. I hear it loud and clear. And I find it irritating.

Yes, losing the baby weight is most definitely something other people do and do care about, and my eating disorder culture police siren isn’t chasing after them. It is not feminist to judge others in a different lane in life. I can appreciate the drive to want to fit into more of your old clothes, and to “feel like yourself again.” But I would, again, like to push back against a broader frame that asserts that a pregnant body and a body after giving birth belongs to anyone but the person in it.

There is strong overlap between eating disorder culture, voyeur culture, and an anti-modern fundamentalist culture that denies the existence of reproductive rights. I have written about this before in the context of why I chose not to post pregnancy photos to Facebook. To boil it down more essentially, modern pregnancy is a spectator sport, socially, and an increasingly church- and state-controlled sport, physically, and these two phenomena support each other. At the core is a belief that having a baby is an other-worldly condition, something that doesn’t belong to a woman herself, which is rather funny as the process of giving birth is, once initiated, an unavoidable, unstoppable total body experience for women.

In this context, body hatred and shame, within the frames of losing the baby weight and getting your body back, operate to support the idea that your body does not belong to you right now. Before birth, during birth, and even after birth. It is as if, with regards to pregnancy, a woman’s body is not allowed to change, and if it does, that woman’s true body is seen as a state in the past, captured in photographs or pant sizes gone by, while the state of present is simply a misshapen shell to be rejected.

Body hatred as a general state operates to keep women in a second-class status by making us prisoners of our appearance; by obliterating our self-worth; by robbing us of time, energy, and in many cases nutrients; by pitting us in competition with what appears to be other women but what is actually an unattainable state for all; by caging us from within. All of this continues with the fixation on the pregnant and post-pregnant body. But there is an additional punch: The social and psychological rejection of a pregnant body as “that woman’s body” from a hot-or-not standpoint operates to support the increasing violation of pregnant women’s civil and human rights. If that body isn’t yours now, then it’s easier to suggest that a statute written by a pen passed between politicians and clergy should trump you in moments of life, death, and great weight. This is one way that the psychological rejection of the pregnant and post-pregnant body is so serious.

But it’s most of all serious in the immediate experience of women who find themselves under pressure to not accept their bodies as they are now, before, and after giving birth. Having a new baby means you are usually tired all the time; if the pressure to lose weight is followed to its logical end of dieting and restriction, new moms may feel starving as well as tired. Giving birth is a moment of profound strength. It’s simply disgusting that a woman who has given birth should, as a matter of cultural expectation, then look at her body and reject it. This year I intentionally chose not to make a New Year’s resolution to lose my remaining “baby weight,” which I am reminded, when I look at my adorable daughter rolling on the floor, is actually “my weight.” She deserves better goals from me, and I, like any woman, deserve to accept myself as I am today.

P.S. – I feel it is nearly inevitable that this post will receive a comment about “health.” We are trained to equate less weight with “health,” and I not only reject that, but also identify it as a critical Jenga piece in eating disorder culture. Concern-trolling about health as a means to push weight loss upon post-pregnant people (or anyone else, for that matter), is not legitimate in a cultural context. Your doctor can credibly claim you need to lose weight for health reasons but the peanut gallery is not qualified to do so.

Feminism Goes Mainstream: The Obligatory Lean In Review

I saved Lean In: Women, Work and the Will to Lead until these final moments before my maternity leave because I like to match books with times in my life to the extent practical, I was reading other things first, and I’m not as mainstream as the feminists who received advance copies that allowed them to review the book in a more timely fashion.

Within 10 pages of reading, I started getting misty-eyed with happiness. Sheryl Sandberg is not another generation’s replacement for Gloria Steinem — nor, for a variety of reasons, is it particularly relevant or useful in this modern feminist era to try to anoint a new one — but what she and coauthor Nell Scovell have created is a game-changer: Feminism has gone mainstream. Specifically several feminist ideas have gone mainstream. They are being read and talked about by people outside the women’s movement and outside the progressive movement. Lean In is sparking much-needed conversations, some of them uncomfortable, within settings where everyone otherwise politely agrees that women are equal while men hold most of the power, as if no disconnect exists between professed ideals and glaring reality. This is huge.

In the form of a memoir peppered with statistics and practical advice, Sandberg gives other women permission to say to themselves, I’m going to step up and believe in my professional ability. Not every woman has a fear of sitting at the main table, or negotiating a salary, or taking on a leadership role when they know they might want to have kids someday. Not every woman, many of them due to multiple discriminations that cannot be mitigated by a change in attitude, can even dream of having these problems. But for those who do, and there are a lot of them, Sandberg’s message is inspirational. We must believe in ourselves.

Self-esteem is an irreplaceable ingredient in any march toward justice. When you are taught to believe that women have not achieved equality and parity — that you are getting paid shit, that you got raped and your military commander dismissed the charges, that the president has taken multiple breaks from running the country to force you to show a driver’s license before you can buy a birth control pill — not because of systematic discrimination against women but rather because there’s something wrong with you, personally (oddly, all of us), believing in yourself is a radical act.

A great deal of internecine debate exists within the feminist community, I think partially from a fear that Lean In will be seen as a canon on modern feminism, which it is not. Sandberg is a business leader who wants to help other women overcome self-doubt and fill executive leadership roles. This is not a book that was written to advance feminist theory, and, unsurprisingly, it doesn’t. So many feminists have criticized this book that I don’t need to feel the need to recap all of their criticisms. A few: Systemic change requires institutional-level solutions (not negated by Sandberg’s book). This book is more relevant to upper class, heterosexual white women (yes, this is true, but Sandberg wasn’t trying to speak for all women; if anything Lean In suggests that women who don’t fit Sandberg’s profile, especially women of color, need to be supported by the feminist community in publishing mainstream-level books, and sign me up as someone willing to help).

My primary criticism of the book is that in a few places, Sandberg asserts that women in power will help bring other women up. That’s simply not true. How many years has it been since Sarah Palin stepped into the cement shoes of that outdated liberal feminist assumption and threw it into the river? A feminist agenda must include law and policy, which may be acknowledged by Sandberg herself as outside the scope of the book, but that doesn’t mean she gets a free pass to claim something that’s untrue. Women who lead often don’t bring other women up with them, and it’s routinely suggested that’s because it’s easier to admit a token woman who displays patriarchal behaviors, or women want to make sure other women don’t crowd them out of their uniquely successful position (what I call the ‘there’s only room for one smart girl in the room’ theory). In the first place, we shouldn’t promote women for the purposes of resolving sexism for other women. It’s not fair to let men currently in power off the hook like that. We should have women represented equally in leadership because we as a society have a moral obligation to do so.

Lean In is an easy, quick read designed to bring feminist ideas that women should believe in their potential to a mainstream audience. On those grounds, it has succeeded wildly. I’m happy to celebrate that from my maternity leave, whenever it begins. Many of the issues she wrote about are becoming realer to me than I could have imagined just one year ago.

A Preliminary Observation On Lean In

Encouraging women to believe in themselves and their own power? Yes. In what universe should we not?

From my own experiences as a manager and mentor, as well as employee, I can tell you some of the best returns on human capital investment I’ve seen come from encouraging younger women to believe in their worth. That they deserve to be in the room. That they should air differing perspectives. That they must be treated (and compensated) fairly.

Needless to say, I’m really looking forward to reading Sheryl Sandberg’s new book, Lean In. I want women to be openly ambitious. No, I don’t think ambition alone is going to end sexism, along with racism, homophobia, class privilege, ableism and other discriminations that interact with  sexism to hold women down. But it is a necessary ingredient.

In the short term I would like to make the preliminary observation over how perplexing it is to see that the feminist blogosphere and feminist publications have been lit up with a “controversy” over whether or not Sandberg’s book is “good for women.” Meanwhile, the cover of Time magazine asks if we shouldn’t hate Sandberg because she is successful. And a few nights ago Bill Maher had four men and one woman discussing the book. It was its own joke. No one said the punchline.

As someone who has held a variety of big feminist titles, something I started doing from a pretty young age, I’ve had a number of young women ask me how I did it, because they want to “lead feminism.”

My primary piece of advice for anyone who wants to “lead feminism” is to take your ambition and “lean in” to the real world. Generational shifts, owing to the work of older feminists, have made a strong feminist leader’s options much larger than running a women’s organization, which is always going to be more insular in reach.

Go lead a business. Go become a creative director. Go run for public office. Go become a school principal. Go follow whatever your heart tells you to do, but go out into the real world, and do it where women feminists are not the only leaders. I wish we saw more feminists on Bill Maher, discussing women in the workplace with a broader group, than we are seeing discussing, in many cases, themselves within a smaller group.

Pregnancy After An Eating Disorder

Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth.

Maybe this is easy for you. Maybe you like it. Maybe you are fortunate enough to have no experience with an eating disorder, or its aspirational cousin, negative self-image.

Not me. A summary of my situation is as follows: Near-death experience with anorexia, full recovery changed my progressive activism into feminist activism, now I’m pregnant.

I want to situate my first story about the intersection of my pregnancy with my history of having an eating disorder in a broader context, because I was in Arizona in October, and nobody knew I was pregnant, and a woman shared her story with me and it was not just any old day. Here is what I had posted on Facebook:

The 10th anniversary of Senator Wellstone’s death is emotional for me, and more so because I have spent the past two days on a community college campus talking with thirteen classes and passers-by at outdoor events about body image, self-esteem, cultural representations of women and how truly radical it is to love and accept yourself as you are, whether you are a man or a woman. I have talked about how loving yourself is a key within the broader political struggle for women’s rights and human rights, to recognize the inherent dignity and worth of every individual. I have spoken with countless students who have come to me in tears, accepted an opportunity to get help for the first time in their lives, told me they were going to work for the basic right to respect and justice for all, smiled through sunglasses saying they had tried to commit suicide but backed out and were so glad they had. I have hugged so many strangers, beautiful and strong, sometimes hurting, men and women, in the past 48 hours and if that’s not professional – who cares. Paul Wellstone said he emphasized “self-esteem, self confidence, and dignity, not as an ideal, but as a test of organization.” He also told us to “Never separate the life you live from the words you speak.” Before I could vote, before I was a feminist, before my life taught me how important and political and essential it is to have compassion for yourself and not just for others, I was a progressive and I was an organizer. Paul Wellstone was responsible for that.

One of the women who walked up to me asked if I had done any work on body image after having kids. With pain on her face, this woman explained that she had given birth to four children and was so ashamed of the skin on her stomach that she had stopped wearing bikinis. Perhaps this sounds innocuous if you don’t know she had a pool at home. She wanted to wear a bikini but couldn’t bring herself to do it. Her body image was stopping her from enjoying herself when no one else was looking.

I thanked her for her honesty with me. I told her that sounded like a horrible feeling. I meant it.

People dismiss eating disorders and negative self-image as shallow, trivial, pathological all the time. They say it’s vanity or fluff. It’s as if people who feel bad and admit they feel bad are then supposed to feel bad about feeling bad.

This you-better-do-it-but-don’t-speak-up logic makes sense when it is gender roles too limiting to encourage all we have to offer that are being expressed and enforced.

Body image has everything to do with gender roles, and oppressive expectations and painful lived experiences with our bodies often vary widely based on not just gender, but race, disability, sexual orientation and size.

I accept that my experience with overcoming anorexia is not relatable to some women who have struggled more with their hair, or men who have struggled more with their muscles, or activists who are in a difficult and righteous struggle to end fat discrimination. But while experiences are different and should by no means be declared the same, I also believe we are fighting a common monster among many.

For more than a decade I have been free of pills, treatment, I am able to eat when I am hungry and stop when I am full, I don’t binge, I don’t diet. I have over the years felt a little rebel yell when my stomach gets a little bit more of a roll to it. It has come to feel sexy to me when that happens – it’s not just body business. It’s sexy and radical and transgressive to take up space you’re able to fill.

But at the same time, I won’t lie that being pregnant has forced me to confront what I have long thought was my full recovery in a new way. You see, my post-recovery weight has gone up and down over the years like any normal human being, but it has distributed evenly. I’ve never started growing a stomach that sticks out like a bumper on an old Saab. I’ve never anticipated, much less experienced, such a drastic change in my body.

Recently I had an epiphany in, of all places, a dressing room at Old Navy. I was there trying on maternity clothes for the first time in my life. As an eating disorder survivor there is no question I’ve had some Lifetime Shitty Moments in dressing rooms.  When I was recovering from anorexia, if a negative thought cropped up I talked back to it: “Shut up, you’re trying to kill me.” Ultimately after professional intervention (please, if you have an eating disorder and are reading this, contact a professional and don’t try to self-help your way out), it became those seven words to myself, over and over, that built my life back.

But those magic words were not helpful in Old Navy. This was totally new. I had to simply feel uncomfortable, and think some more about feeling uncomfortable. This is my body. I need to accept my body and myself for who I am. Not who I was. Not for what I might become. This is now. It is what I have.

The collision of my eating disordered past and my pregnancy today is a confrontation of the profane and the sacred.

While many of these confrontations happen in a year, much less a lifetime, this is not one I will be able to ignore. It is the expectation of a harsh lens upon a human being, whether viewed by self or others, versus the actuality that is a human experience with its own rhythms, rules and swerves. To smile considering the times you have acknowledged, as they are, the unworthy stereotypes in your life.

I can accept: Get pregnant, gain weight, give birth. In fact I thought I could accept it going in. It took me two laundry cycles after the Old Navy trip to accept buying low-slung yoga pants that almost (do they really?) make me look a little bit pregnant.

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