This guest post makes me want to stand up and cheer. Which looks awkward when you’re alone in your apartment. But is worth it anyway. Thank you so much, Anna!
Hello, everyone! My name is Anna. I’m a post-liberal arts degree part-time pregnant nanny. Normally I blog over at www.icyviolets.com, where I usually restrict my writing to the beautiful processes of making and consuming food. But my interests run from food to fashion to body image to women’s issues…and of course when all of these things come together, as on Kate’s blog, I am hooked!
So I was delighted when she asked me to do a guest post on our society’s ideas of what constitutes a “normal” body. To put it into context, her invite was prompted by this comment I left on her post of a week or two ago, Bikinis Hate Food:
“The other day I was reading about women’s struggles with their post-partum figure, and read some statistic that said that 86% of women don’t return to a ‘normal’ figure within a year of birth. And all I could think was, shouldn’t that stat, that huge majority, make a NEW normal?? why do we consider adolescent bodies the norm for adult women?”
Women’s bodies. When you hear that phrase, what images pop into your head? Movie stars? Girls at the beach? Medical photos? Artistic nudes? Morgues?
Women’s bodies are defined (and designed) by change. At 8 months pregnant, I am currently experiencing one of the most extreme variations on this. But pregnant women are not the only women whose bodies change. Women with periods, regular or irregular, experience changes. Swelling and shrinking, high tides and low. Fat pants and skinny jeans.
Women age. Women get sick. Women’s bodies are defined (and designed) by change.
So, what IS a normal woman’s body? What does that mean? Is it the ideal, that something we see on all the magazines, that something we all want to be?
Or is normal the real? The lived existence of millions of women, living in their bodies, every day?
I think I mentioned that I’m pregnant. Let me tell you about it. It’s been awful. Some of it’s physical – I was horribly sick through my first trimester, and the achiness and sleeplessness of the subsequent two have not been much more fun. But you know what has been the hardest part?
Oh yeah, it’s exciting at first to see that little bulge, to see the proof that yes, you really are gestating something. Makes you look at hens and mother kitties a little differently. Makes you see little onesie outfits in the store and say, awwwww.
But it just keeps growing. Soon (sooner than you thought, maybe) it pushes you out of your pants. Even your fat pants. Then out of your baggiest, empire-waisted shirts. It changes your shopping habits. Cute bras and lacy undies? A thing of the past. The bras YOU buy now are hidden in the back of the store, near the panties that go up to your ribcage. Now it’s all about accidentally knocking things off the counter and struggling to see your feet.
Let me mention I have been within my normal weight gain too. I resist even mentioning this, because I resent the idea of a ‘normal’ or recommended pregnancy gain. Like, what? Women really need to hear that gaining extra weight is BAD for them? You don’t say! Stop the presses! But just so no one is all like, “But your health baaaahh!” According to the doctors, I am perfectly healthy.
But that’s of little comfort when my best fitting outfit is a large barrel with suspenders attached. It’s hard to even go out. Because people stare.* And because I’m terribly self-conscious about my absurd belly, my enormous breasts, my waddling gait.
I started fantasizing about the diets I would undertake post-pregnancy sometime around the fifth month. But extreme dieting is discouraged for new moms, especially if they are breastfeeding. It’s terribly frustrating. What am I supposed to do now? Stay huge? Stay in a big, flubbery heap of milky mess for months?
Here’s the thing. The answer, in health terms, is…YES.
It’s natural. It’s…normal.
So why does our society’s idea of what is ‘normal’ freeze somewhere around your average (well, even then not really AVERAGE) nineteen-year-old adolescent?
Anyone know? Shall we blame men? That’s always fun. And I think many of them are not innocent in supporting this culture of distorted norms. But really, men’s bodies change too. They get old, fat, sick, and bald. They even suffer anxiety and some social sanction for it (although not as much as women, I believe).
And the truth is, as far as women’s bodies go, many surveys suggest that most AVERAGE (normal?) men consistently prefer women who are larger and curvier than the media represents. My man repeatedly reassures me about my body. The fact that it doesn’t really make me feel better suggests another source for my anxiety, don’t you think?
But I think I have it figured out. Because every time I googled ‘pregnancy stretch marks’ I had to sift through twenty websites selling me a product to get rid of them. The first two pages of the image search were filled with absurdly lit before/after pictures, highlighting the respective ideas of repulsiveness vs beauty. And all selling some product.
There is no reason to be down on stretch marks. Nine out of ten women have them, and plenty of men too. Many women develop stretch marks during puberty, long before pregnancy. Stretch marks do not symbolize disease or incapacity, they are not rotting flesh or poison. They don’t even indicate age or infertility. In terms of reproduction, stretch marks should in fact be preferred since they indicate both sexual maturity and fertility. They are even sort of symmetrical – nothing inherently offensive about them at all.
Unless you are the manufacturer of stretch mark cream – then the idea of society accepting women’s bodies as they are becomes very offensive indeed.
Women’s bodies. Want to know what normal is? Look around you. Working women. Mothers. Students. Friends. Teenagers. Grandmothers. We are normal already.
Knowing all of this doesn’t quite fix the problem. I will still look in the mirror and wish I had a barrel handy to hide in from time to time. But still. I propose that when in the depths of body-image misery we should ask ourselves, who is benefiting from this? What am I watching, reading, BUYING, to make myself feel better?
Let’s make some new norms. And lets eat us some damn cake as we do.
* * *
*In my real life work as a nanny I sometimes take the kids to the park, and yes, I worry that, seeing me arrive with a five year old, a one year old in a stroller, and a swollen tummy, the people will gather around to poke me with a stick and chant “Breeder! Breeder! Breeder!”
Unroast: My protruding belly makes the curve of my back, neck, and shoulders, appear elegant.