I’ve been delighted to work with Susie Orbach, Holli Rubin, and the rest of the AnyBody team on a project around body image and the relationship with food and eating in pregnancy and post-natally. We ran a series of workshops with NCT teachers to try to change things for the next generation – to provide an antidote to the toxic culture that engenders body insecurity (for profit) in a great many women, and to help promote body security so that they can pass this on to their children. We hope that our work will be taken up more broadly to include midwives, health visitors, and other health professionals coming into contact with new mums.
Becoming a mother is a precious time that can be tainted by the pressure to lose weight gained in pregnancy, to “get back” something deemed to be lost. We aim to reach women, and the individuals working with them, before these demands take force, and to enable them to find peace in their skin.
I’m a big fan of love letters. As a midwife and a mother I wanted to write a love letter to a newly-pregnant woman. Here goes:
Dear Darling Woman,
So here you are, on the threshold of motherhood, and I’m wondering how that feels for you right now? You’re probably experiencing some fear, hopefully some excitement, and perhaps trepidation.
Your body, which has carried you until this point, is now nestling another being. Things will change. You may be feeling utterly sick and exhausted at the moment – repulsed by food and drink that you used to love. Your clever body is showing you what you need, let it do its job. Trust.
Your breasts have grown and are sensitive. The pregnancy hormones are affecting just about every system in your body; over the course of your pregnancy your heart will grow bigger (in more ways than one!), your digestion will slow down, your gums will probably bleed more, and your hair will be glossy.
Your body may not feel like your own any more as this little being grows inside you. And you may feel like your body becomes public property – that strangers and friends feel it necessary to comment on your appearance – the bigness or smallness of your belly, whether you are seen to be blooming, or your apparent tiredness. That is their opinion; it says nothing of you, or of the miracle that’s taking place under that expanding belly. They may touch your belly without permission. It’s okay to let people know if this feels too intrusive. Your body is still yours.
Read books, Google, etc., if you wish, but more importantly take time to wonder at what is unfolding. When you become aware of your baby’s movements, it will let you know how it’s feeling. Try to set aside time every so often to really tune into how you feel.
Allow your body to lead you. Try to relearn that trust you had in it before you started hearing about good/bad/clean/dirty foods, or the ‘right’ exercise to do, and when. Trust in it, and your body will guide you. It’s got you this far.
You and your baby are dancing together – nourish yourself… not just with food, but in a wider sense. As birth approaches, the more love you can feel, the better. Whatever birth you experience will be easier if you’re feeling the love. To do this, you need to know what makes you feel good – what makes you feel most alive, comfortable, cherished.
Your body will look different after the birth; you may have stretch marks, stitches, enormous leaking breasts. You may be knackered. Take time to eat, drink, bathe (with your baby too - you will feel the softest skin imaginable!). Glory in what your body has achieved. You are amazing!
With love, and honour, from Dinah
We recently invited people to submit their stories about how they felt in their bodies around pregnancy and post-natally. Below are a selection of responses:
There's A World Where Everyone's Beautiful
by Annie Ridout
This post was originally published on www.annieridout.com, reprinted with permission.
This morning I was sitting on my bed, naked, after having a shower. The Gypsy Kings were playing through the Spotify app on my phone and Joni was holding it up to her ear saying “ello” repeatedly, while running around the room – occasionally stopping to twerk.
The song came to an end and she looked me in the eyes. She came over and started to point to various parts of my face and body: “eyda” (eyes), “non” (nose), “air” (hair), “booboo” (boobies). She got to my stomach and stopped. She looked a bit confused. Then using both hands, she lifted a piece of flab and found the “tata” (tattoo) she was looking for on my hip bone.
I laughed. And then I thought: shit, we’re a year and a half post-birth – should that flab still be there? And then I thought: yes, it should, because it’s winter and I although I run every morning, I also like (in fact LOVE) drinking white hot chocolate every day, and eating flapjacks and thick slices of sourdough bread with chocolate and almond butter.
In a recent interview (coming soon to The Early Hour), a mum told me that she feels we are all in awe of a pregnant body but disgusted by it post-birth. And I agree with her – pregnancy is buoyant and blooming and rosy, while our postnatal bodies are flabby and sagging and feel as if they’ve been used and are now just getting in the way.
Funnily enough, in the photo above – taken three days after I gave birth – I remember looking down at my stomach with its stretch marks, linea nigra, flaps and indents and bobbles and loose skin and feeling amazed and so in love with my body. Rich caught me taking a photo and asked why I wanted to photograph “that”. He didn’t see the beauty in it, like I did.
But my amazement at what my body had achieved in growing and birthing and feeding Joni ceased after a few months, when I started to feel frustrated that I couldn’t run without getting mastitis, that my back ached and that those rolls of loose skin/fat weren’t shifting from my belly.
So this morning I was imagining a world where a female’s body is considered beautiful throughout childhood, teenagehood, adulthood – through pregnancy, birth, post-birth – into the menopause, out the other side and all the way into old age… Wouldn’t that be so lovely? If us women didn’t have to feel guilty about what we eat, how much we exercise (or don’t), and the state of our frame after growing and pushing out a baby…
And then, after my initial moment of horror/hilarity as Joni shifted my belly fat around while hunting for my tattoo, it dawned on me that there is a world where women’s bodies are revered whatever their size, shape, texture, age. It’s the world through children’s eyes. Joni is fascinated by my body – crevices, rolls of skin and fat, hair (wherever it may be. She excitedly referred to my pubic hair as ‘dogon’ – yes, DOG – in the bath recently).
And her love and fascination of bodies extends beyond just me, her mum. She loves her grandma’s “booboos”, her auntie’s “booboo” (as well as breasts, this means belly – her auntie has a lovely big round one, as she’s six months pregnant). And any other woman she is fond of will undoubtedly have a body Joni thinks is just wonderful.
So for anyone feeling down about their body today, try to shift your perspective. Take yourself back to childhood – when beauty was about kindness and warmth and smiles and playfulness; not skinniness, flawless skin, youth, cool clothes – and keep that outlook firmly in place as you look at your sisters. If we all start loving our own and other women’s bodies just as they are, as children do, the world will be a better place.
TW: anorexia, self-harm, sexual assault.
My journey to parenthood was less than straightforward. My mind and body had been in a state of stand-off for well over a decade by the time I was at the end of my twenties. I was badly bullied at school and my looks were a big part of that. Even though I was white, like everyone else there, I was called racist names because I had dark hair on my arms and top lip. I wanted to become less of a target, so I began to starve myself.
Through anorexia, taking drugs and self-harming, I lost all sense of what I looked like objectively, as is so often the case for young women. I experienced a huge amount of stigma as a result of self-harming particularly. At one job I was referred for a health assessment with an occupational health GP, who did an inappropriate physical exam after noticing I had scars. She questioned me aggressively about my mental health status; I left humiliated. She recommended I be kept on permanent probation despite having worked there for 6 months already. I didn’t find out until recently that she had no right to touch me at all - but we naturally trust those who are there to care for us.
The notion of others feeling they had the right to touch me is something I’ve always struggled with. Beginning with some mild abuse by an older child when I was 11, then being assaulted during my first kiss; people grabbing me in the street to grill me about my scars/tattoos, I was then raped and assaulted multiple times at university. My body was the focal point for so much pain and misery in my life - and I abused it in retaliation.
After a rough start, having children was a goal that lay in the distant future rather than something I felt compelled to do as soon as possible. By 29 I was in a new relationship and after a nagging doubt about my fertility I’d been to see my GP and been brushed off because of my age, so I took a blood test that could give you a rough idea about how many more fertile years you might have. Unfortunately for me, the test revealed that even with IVF I would have a <20% chance of a live birth. I was 31 and I’d been with my new partner for just a year.
Beginning IVF, I had to put on weight to have the best chance of success. The process is very invasive - I had to overcome my needle phobia to inject myself daily and have painful internal exams every week - my body became just a vessel. The first round was unsuccessful, so we changed the drugs and my one fertilised egg was implanted in front of a room full of people - I was pregnant.
I lost some weight in the first trimester, but then as my belly began to grow I had to let it take over - it wasn’t about just me anymore - which made it easier to reconcile the emotional tug-of-war going on in my head. For the most part people responded to my body positively and respected my personal space but I didn’t have a regular midwife, and when I went for check-ups I was just one of tens of women waiting to be seen. It was very transactional and impersonal, everyone seemed stressed and even if I’d wanted to ask for help I don’t think I would’ve felt able to.
The birth went smoothly, but after my little boy was born he wouldn’t latch to breastfeed, so midwives would come and just grab my breasts to push them into his mouth, without asking me. It made me feel completely inadequate and lost - here I was still bleeding and having just laboured but the way I was manhandled made it clear that my body was no longer mine. I had to abandon my dignity to be a mother. The midwives got irritated as if I was purposefully starving my baby and the more pressure they put on me, the worse it got. After 24 hours of failed attempts I left - despite not having successfully fed him. Health visitors came in the following weeks and again touched me without asking. One said it was because my nipples were too flat, another said I wasn’t trying hard enough. I’m very socially awkward (I’m currently awaiting an assessment for high-functioning autism) so I avoided breastfeeding groups.
I lost count of the number of times I was assured that if I breastfed all the weight would drop off but instead it piled on as I ate for comfort. My breasts had invited unwanted attention so often that I couldn’t face going out in public and trying to feed him, or even being around family.
I became severely depressed and I shut myself off. I even avoided looking at myself in the mirror. I stopped wearing makeup and showering - I felt I didn’t deserve to take care of my body because it had failed to fulfil the brief of motherhood.
The first time I went out after the birth was with a close friend to a show where a big comedy star was a surprise guest. After the show I wanted to get a picture with him, but he started commenting on my breasts and trying to get me to go backstage with him despite my protests, pushing me towards his security guard near the door. I was vulnerable and I have a tendency to be easily led when alone but thankfully the other people there were distracting him so I made my excuses and left. Yet again my body was a source of humiliation.
When my son turned one we had a small party and people took photos and posted them online. I was horrified at how big I looked and this triggered a serious relapse of my eating disorder. Six months later I had lost a lot of weight. My hair turned grey and was falling out, my skin was flaking off and getting infected and my muscles had wasted away. The skin around my belly was wrinkled and loose and my breasts were empty pouches of skin, but I was back in control. If my body took up less space in the world, I would be invisible. My body felt fragile and that reflected what was going on in my mind.
When you have a child you’re ‘supposed’ to put yourself last. This can feel strange to even the most body-confident of women, but for me it just gave me more reason to hate and abuse my body.
There’s precious little support out there for mothers with a history of eating disorders even though having a newborn is a time of huge change; lack of sleep and no time to attend to your own needs can be a huge trigger for unhealthy behaviours and body dysmorphia - the assumption is that you simply ‘choose’ to be well for your children, but my illness is definitely not a choice. Other women I know often talked about how none of it matters once you have your baby but I wonder how many of those women really accept themselves, deep down.
Reclaiming My Body
TW: mentions rape
Not many people know this about me, but I am a rape and sexual assault survivor. I don’t talk about it much, partly because I don’t really like to think about it, but also because it just isn’t the kind of thing that one talks about in ordinary conversation.
At certain points in my life, this fact becomes more relevant: when I was recovering from post-traumatic stress disorder, when I was getting into a relationship, and – most recently – when I was in the process of pregnancy and motherhood.
Reclaiming my body has been the work of a lifetime; making it mine again after my abusers branded me with their anger, desire and entitlement. Taking back my shape, my curves, my breasts, my secret places. Honouring my desires; allowing myself to live the revolutionary life of self-care.
Somehow, when I became pregnant, my body became public property again. I was unprepared for just how much I would struggle to say ‘no’ to people who would casually stroke my belly by way of a greeting. How I would feel when I found out that it was a boy, a man-in-embryo, growing deep inside of me. It took me time before I could bring myself to tell people that my baby was a ‘he’ and not a ‘she’.
Mostly, I found peace with the boy inside me. I remembered that I chose this, that it was not imposed on me. I grew my boy with a man that I love and deeply trust.
When he began to move, I found that I loved the feeling of him swimming inside me, turning and rolling, and later, kicking; it felt like our very first conversation. I had a long commute to work, and instead of reading, I sat, peaceful, and watched the hills roll by as I breathed into my belly-space where he lived.
I watched myself grow with gladness; the first time that I have ever been excited about my body getting bigger, despite years of work in therapy. I remember stroking my belly, looking at myself from side on, is it bigger? Dressing to accentuate my growing belly, I would often catch myself holding the curve of my bump absentmindedly during conversation.
I thought that this would be my struggle. I was prepared to hate myself as my body expanded, but I, a woman who has spent most of her life breathing in, tucking in the corners of my body so I didn’t take up too much space, I breathed out in one long, glorious exhale.
But, there were also the darker days. Days when I wanted to push him away inside me, to stop the fish-roll of him reminding me that I was not alone, that I was never alone. Feeling invaded, colonised, nauseous, although morning sickness had long passed.
As my due date approached, I began to fear the process of labour. I imagined that I might curl up like a wounded animal in the corner of my living room, snarling at the approach of well-meaning midwives. I was scared what that level of vulnerability would trigger in me around people that I didn’t know, how the touch of well-meaning strangers on my body would feel.
Searching for articles about labour after rape, I read that victims of sexual trauma often had longer, more difficult labours and more frequent interventions. I discovered that if you were scared during labour, your body would slow down and that this could lead to more medical intervention and physical trauma. Women experience flashbacks, panic attacks. There was a maternity unit that was opening up in London to support survivors, but it opened two days before my due date.
And so I worried. Would I dissociate? Have a panic attack? Would the pain of my boy being born trigger me, and would I be in a fit state to deal with that? Would I be able to let go, and allow my body to take over?
I talked a lot with my therapist, and I also began to think about how I could take care of myself; I learned that I did not need to let the midwife examine me internally if I didn’t want to. I could (and did) say no. Consent was on an examination by examination basis. I said yes three times throughout my entire labour, and each time I meant it.
I wrote my birth plan, knowing that it may all go very differently, but that it helped to be able to speak to the midwife in advance. I included my survivor status and described how I would like them to treat me.
I did a hypnobirthing course, focusing on trusting my body’s animal instincts (women have, after all, been doing this for millennia!) I watched videos on YouTube, and talked it through with my partner repeatedly.
In the end, labour was one of the most intense experiences of my life. Roaring, cursing, shitting, bleeding, I pushed my son into the world. It was incredible; I have never felt such raw, awesome power in my body. I know also that the pain was intense, but that has now faded into the shadowy netherworld of labour.
It was over in just over a day, from first contraction to being handed my sticky, crumpled little boy. I kept a hold on myself all the way through, even when I was roaring as I bore down and felt as though I was being split apart from the inside, I trusted my breath and I inhabited my body.
I do feel that I am changed, although not in a way that can be easily described. In the crucible of labour, I hung onto myself and a deep sense of trust in myself and my body. I said ‘no’ when I felt ‘no’, and was more assertive with medical professionals than I ever dreamed I could be.
I feel sexy, motherly, womanly. Having my husband beside me in such an emotionally naked, raw state has deepened my trust in him and in us. It makes me feel that I am beautiful in a way that is not about my appearance.
The early days of feeding around the clock are behind me and I have regained some much needed physical distance from my son. That too was hard, as my body was used for another’s needs, despite what I felt about it: whether I needed space or peace, whether I wanted to feed him or not, it didn’t matter because he needed to eat. This triggered me, too, in a different way.
I do feel, though, that through labour and the early days with a new-born, I dug into the very deepest reaches of myself and discovered a steel and a strength that still awes me. My body gives life to him, and while I am in no hurry to turn myself inside out again, I feel deeply empowered by the experience.
* * *
We would like to thank these three wonderful women for sharing such raw and honest experiences with us. If you have been affected by rape/sexual assault there is a fantastic organisation called the My Body Back Project, which offers maternity services to rape and sexual assault survivors, as well as specialist cervical screening, and more.