When I was pregnant with my first baby, a friend cautioned me, “listen, right after birth you’re going to look like a deflated balloon and you’ll think you’re doomed to look that way forever, but trust me: it isn’t permanent”. She was right (on both fronts: yes, I looked like a deflated balloon, and yes, it went away). As my due date with my second approached, I readied myself for the changes ahead, assuming they would also be short-lived. Maybe subsequent pregnancies have a cumulative effect on the body, or it is the fact that this was a “geriatric” pregnancy, but it seems this time around, things weren’t bouncing back so quickly.
And it really bummed me out.
At a time when body positivity messaging is omnipresent and self-acceptance inspiration is finally mainstream, I’m struggling to admit that I miss my pre-baby body.
Years ago, magazines and tabloid sites were full of horrible sanctimonious criticism of celebrities and who got their post-baby body back the quickest. It felt awful to watch the physical toll of motherhood be reduced to such pettiness. And sure, that commentary still exists, but there’s also a brilliant and powerful body-positive counterculture, stunning women who wear their stretch marks like beautiful badges of honor. If these responses to post-pregnancy body imagery are on opposite ends of a spectrum, I struggled with where to put myself. It prompted me to ask some uncomfortable questions: Was I a lesser feminist for missing how my clothes fit before I had children? Was I shallow for wanting to devote some of my very limited time trying to claw back a bit of my old self? How much of my motivations are rooted in health versus vanity? And, at my deepest, most insecure self, I wondered whether “good” mothers still care about their appearance or is that also sacrificed at the altar of motherhood?
Beauty, as they say, is skin deep. The changes that I readied myself for were swift. Soon after delivery, I went from pregnancy glow to oh no. In a matter of days, my forehead looked like a blotchy spray tan gone bad. After scrubbing it raw with a washcloth and then eventually turning to concealer, I sought out the help of a dermatologist who said the culprit is likely pregnancy mask, ie., melasma. For some, melasma can be caused by a myriad of factors and is chronic. For others, it will disappear on its own months after pregnancy, along with the line running down one’s stomach in pregnancy, linea nigra, another hallmark of pregnancy hyperpigmentation. Time is the deciding factor in whether or not it is chronic. Short of getting in a time machine and seeing what the future holds for my skin, I just try to ignore it. You read that right: I literally try to ignore the upper third of my face when looking in the mirror. Instead, I gaze upon the plump, perfect little faces of my children, so full of promise and collagen.
I thoroughly enjoyed two pregnancy’s worth of bombshell hair but know that it is a good time, not a long time. After giving birth, 40 weeks of good hair days went down the drain (literally), like a ginkgo tree dropping its leaves.
Hairstylist and salon owner Jason Lee explains that hair has a natural life cycle which includes both a growth stage (anogen phase) and a shedding phase (exogen phase). “Pregnant women experience a continual anogen phase where they describe their hair feeling thicker and fuller and growing longer than usual”, Lee says. While nothing can speed up how quickly hair grows, I can’t pull off the cool mom top knot, so I invested in a very, very good haircut that doesn’t make me feel like I’ve given up. It feels, I don’t know, almost French? With the hair situation under control, imagine my delight when my eyelashes and eyebrows started falling out, too. I don’t wear a lot of makeup and feel oddly naked without lashes and brows.
The cause of this is the exogen/anogen cycle back on its bullshit. Ashley Woodroffe founded Extra Goodie lash serum after her own experience of motherhood set her on a path for clean ingredients. “Eyebrows and lashes go through the same type of growth cycles and can also be impacted by the new balance of hormones that comes with having a baby,” she explains. Aging compounds this, as growth phases naturally decrease and the diameter of hair shafts shrinks. With a lens on clean, non-synthetic ingredients, Woodroffe created a serum to give hair follicles the nutrients they need to yield thicker, longer lashes. Would age eventually rob us all of our lashes and brows, with motherhood simply fast-tracking the process? Maybe, but this feels like a very low-stakes, potentially high-return situation. Gimme the serums, please and thank you.
In addition to once having fairly good if not low-maintenance skin and hair, I used to enjoy the metabolism of a hummingbird. Two children later, my once-athletic build now looks like Mr. Burns: rounded back and shoulders, in a permanent hunch. I saw a chiropractor and acupuncturist with a focus on perinatal care, Dr Aliya Visram, who assured me this is common, albeit uncomfortable. “Pregnancy strains joints and shifts one’s center of gravity, causing rounded shoulders, a tucked-in pelvis (or flat bum) and a hunched neck”, she explains. Then of course, after the baby arrives, the hunching continues as we feed, hold, change and wear them.
My posture is a hill that I’m willing to die on. I feel like my joints are made of concrete when I’m sedentary and exercise is the cornerstone of my postpartum mental health. I’ve resolved to move my body, in any way that I can, every day. It won’t exactly wind back the clock, but it goes a long way for boosting my mood. Plus, I want to role model an active lifestyle to my kids.
Ah, right. My kids. The family that I wanted so badly that I feel guilty for wanting to replace one lost hair on my head because I love them so fiercely. There is no hiding that motherhood has impacted every part of my life, including what I see in the mirror. Mirrors, however, don’t always tell the truth. I met Karmen LaMer, founder of The Tight Clinic. We both had cancer as young women and talked about the dichotomy of never being more grateful for your body and health, whilst also being accurately aware of bodies inevitably change (and not always in ways that we like). She points to Forma as a very effective treatment to rebuild collagen, which she credits with replenishing her own skin after cancer treatment. “I exhausted EVERY technology, the risk of complications from some are scary as fuck. For Forma, there’s no pain, no downtime and no risk – effective as rebuilding collagen anywhere in the body, particularly for firming the face and tightening tummy tissue after pregnancy,” says LeMer. FORMA EVERY INCH OF ME, I was thinking as she spoke. She delivers her dose of optimism with a chaser of realism. Sure, some treatments can help with some things here or there, but she’s often left asking women what’s really behind their motivations for certain treatments or procedures. She sadly sees many women who have developed dysphoric relationships with their appearance. She would rather turn away potential customers than perpetuate unhealthy self-imagery. “This industry is happy to take women’s money and promise them results they can’t deliver. I have integrity and am honest about what a treatment can and can’t do”, explains LaMer.
When it comes down to it, am I losing sleep over a thinner ponytail or curvier body? Heck no. I don’t have any of that to spare (no, literally, I need every minute of sleep I can get). I’ve decided to enter the next phase grateful for the miraculous work that my body’s done, and with a heaping dose of reality about what changes will unearth pieces of the old me. If I thought it was so horrible to see celebrities’ bodies picked apart for how they look on the beach after having a baby, why would I ever do that to myself? Now more than ever, I see that getting to know my postpartum body is a perfect metaphor for motherhood: being uncomfortable and never more confident at the same time.
Image: Brat Co / Stockys.com