Listen to this story
You were just trying to be polite. You approached me in the teacher’s lounge while I polished off the final quarter of a jelly donut left over from the Kids Kan Read! Breakfast, with the certainty that it would brighten my chaotic, pitiful new-mom morning to hear something like this. When you said it, you had the self-satisfied glow of someone telling a seven-year-old foster child they are being taken to Disneyland, or of Inspector Clouseau revealing to a room full of people that Old Man Millionaire was actually murdered by himself. You were so confident that, for a moment, I thought you were going to tenderly wipe the powdered-sugar off of my lips and kiss me.
You’re not the only one spewing these garbage/kind words. After I lost my “baby weight” (I hate this term so much I almost feel irresponsible printing it), I was bombarded by assurances, mostly from women (though the ones from men were extra creepy) that I definitely, absolutely, no question, did not look like I had ever, ever, had a baby. After a bad case of the Norovirus, they were out of control.
“How is that possible?” I always think. I have applesauce stains on not just my clothes, but most of my shoes. I have bags under my eyes. One of my arms has become grotesquely strong from carrying my enormous offspring while wielding various baby-cessories. My boobs look like the blue plastic bags that go around newspapers, filled with paper-mache that has not yet dried. But I am at peace with this. Until the compliments began, I didn’t realize that not looking like I had a baby was something I was supposed to aspire to.
Last year, you also told me, how I “didn’t look pregnant from behind,” which is like telling your upstairs neighbors how quiet they were last night. Your comment just reminded me that my body is being judged constantly, and this time it happened to be a “good” judgement and could be bestowed upon me lovingly. Being a woman, and being a mother, is laced with these well-intended-but-judgmental booby-traps. Once I spent no less than an hour trying to wrap my infant in one of those endless sling-thingies and took him for a walk (first and last time). A guy passed by us and remarked with delight, again, as if I were a high school senior and he was my acceptance letter from Harvard, “Yeah! Wearing your baby is the only way!” Gross.
Though your comment brings up so many more questions and concerns than it alleviates, I understand why you said it. You, like me, grew up in the broken-glass-ceiling America that forgot it was still trapping women under a heaping, steaming pile of body image shit. Like me, you read articles about how to help girls see themselves as mathematicians, tell friends at dinner “you know in Africa, women get surgery to have bigger thighs,” and LOVE those Dove commercials. But, if given the option to sell your soul for eternal skinniness, something deep and dark and culturally-constructed inside of you would shout “show me where to sign!”
What would looking like I had a baby be like exactly, to you? Would I have amniotic fluid dripping down my thighs? Would I still be wearing that paper hospital underwear (if you haven’t had a baby, don’t worry about it, it’s just a super-comfortable and empowering nightie you get as a thank you for continuing the human race). What if looking like I had a baby could actually be a good thing? Perhaps, for instance, I look like I take things for granted less? Or could I look like I get physical love and contact from a being that worships me every day? Could I look like I now care about my health and longevity, more than my weight or immediate pleasure? Maybe I want to look like I had a baby.
I do not want you, or any woman, to feel ashamed here. I catch myself making these inane comments all the time. I’m pretty sure when you told me it was your 40th birthday that I said something like, “You are lying to my face because there is NO EFFING WAY you are the repulsive age of 40, you look not an hour older than 37!”
I want us to feel excited to change the conversation, our conversations, to pause before we casually comment on each other’s bodies, to think about how nice it would feel to know other women were noticing our professional accomplishments, our sense of calm or presence, our sharp-witted humor. This is not just to protect those of us who really do look like we had a baby, but those of us who do not need the cult of weight-loss re-affirmed, especially in a time of massive body fluctuations.
What would I have thought, I wonder, if you’d walked up, joined my mid-morning nosh (without commenting on how we were being “naughty” in some way by eating delicious things) and said, “Wow, you really have a better eye for bullshit and a clearer sense of what matters in life since you had a baby!” Sounds pretty flattering to me.