A Body (Image) Changed: On Pregnancy, Breastfeeding And Eating Disorders

From a self-image standpoint, taking my maternity clothes out of my chest of drawers and putting my old clothes back in has been the hardest part of my pregnancy, childbirth and new mothering journey. This might have been the same if I hadn’t had anorexia, but I don’t know.

My body has changed. My old clothes don’t fit the way they used to. I am larger, rounder and my softer spots gather in different places. Do I have a pouf above a flat spot because I had a cesarean section, or is that the way my body processes any manner of birth? I don’t know.

To put away the maternity clothes ends the imprimatur of “a wild time” when my body was doing something rather than simply being something (me). I was mostly okay before. In response to overwhelming pressures pregnant women and mothers get to engage in body image negativity, I could clutch an ancillary detail and say: Fuck you, I’m pregnant. Or: Fuck you, I’m having a girl. Or: Fuck you, I had a baby. Or: Fuck you, I’m feeding a baby. But now it’s simply time to survive as a mother, a woman, a human being. In this paradigm my best choice is to look at that belly fat, those lines around my eyes, this body I’ve never had, not in this way, and say: Fuck yeah.

It’s fun.

Putting away the maternity clothes forced me to face the facts. My body doesn’t look different today because I’m pregnant, or because I just had a baby. My body looks different today because it is different. Accepting this, the difference of a new day with a body, versus a comparison to an ideal of what a person thinks her body once was or someday should be, is both difficult and joyous. For me, having this baby forced this issue.

What I wouldn’t have predicted is this: Breastfeeding is the second-best thing that has happened to my body image, just behind recovering from my eating disorders years ago. Yes, breastfeeding. Not getting through pregnancy. Not getting through childbirth. Breastfeeding.

To watch my daughter cry when she’s hungry and eat only until she is full. To think about how I treat my body directly impacting how well she will be able to feed. To, unlike pregnancy, see the results every day.

She is growing. She is healthy. She is happy. She is thriving. She is strong.

And, fuck yeah, so am I.

Breastfeeding In Public

Get ready for a new Wheaties box: My one-month old is a champion eater. Breastfeeding is going really, really well. This little girl started gaining weight before we left the hospital, and during our stay we waved the lactation consultants away.

This is not without amazement on my part. I was scared of breastfeeding, and upon some reflection, I realize that every message I heard about breastfeeding prior to having my baby had at least a twinge of negativity: Breastfeeding is hard, but stick with it. Don’t be ashamed if breastfeeding doesn’t work and you need to use formula. Once I had the baby, people tended to cringe when asking how it was going. I believe other women when they say that breastfeeding caused problems for them, and honor their experiences, but I also have to wonder why we are so down on breastfeeding by default. The frame of protecting women from believing breastfeeding will work well is alienating to moms like me, who have babies who just go for it (I don’t think it’s anything special about me, I took one class prior to childbirth and, listening to the questions others had already prepared, felt like I should have left with a “Least Likely to Succeed” award). Is there something wrong with us because it works?

Now that Baby Wonder is nursing successfully, I am sorting through my feelings along with the mainstream messages about breastfeeding in public. When you have a little one eating every two hours, sometimes with just 40 or 50 minutes between the end of one session and the start of another, through a part of your body that some consider SEXUAL and DIRRRRTY, plans to go out in public become these weird little strategy games that almost always end with staying home. I am really struggling with this junction between privacy and isolation because I want to be someone who is shamelessly comfortable breastfeeding in public and the truth is that I’m not.

For too much of my life, my breasts have been a topic of other people’s conversations. Growing up, I was a late bloomer and therefore “flat” during the school years when kids are most cruel to one other. Somehow I wound up developing fairly sizable breasts for my frame, and have discovered many times they have, in my absence, served as a topic of conversation among masculine classmates and, later, colleagues. Add these personal experiences into a culture where women who breastfeed in public are often given dirty looks or, as a baby book I read suggested, sent to public bathrooms to nurse in toilet stalls, and you may understand why, even though I identify strongly as feminist, I am in this instance (as every other) a human being with my own experiences and emotions. While I’ve nursed in the car more than a few times by now, I’m a little nervous to throw open my shirt and feed my baby in the flea market, or in front of friends and family. What if people dare to sexualize or cast shame on me taking care of my baby?

My delightful baby girl has none of these hang ups, and it’s my goal to start following her lead. Last weekend a friend called and gave me this gift: “Well, Erin,” she said, “You’ve been on the forefront of a lot of things. Don’t stop now.” She told me that she was, years ago, asked by a waitress to breastfeed in the restroom instead of a restaurant dining room and responded: “Do you go into the bathroom to eat?”

I sure don’t, and neither does my little girl. For now we haven’t been straying too far from home.