The shape of reality

Like every other Western woman, I am more than aware of what the idealised female body looks like. I see the taut celebrity tummies in magazines and pert breasts on TV. Although these images are relentless, at least motherhood used to give women a bit of a breather from trying to live up to them.

Everyone knew you had to put on weight to make a baby, and everyone knew it took a while to get the weight off again. Mothers had six months, maybe a year, before they were supposed to be back ticking all the boxes in the wish list of how women should look (slim waist; pert, milk-free boobs; vein-free legs).

Recently, though, our celebrity-obsessed culture has taken its intolerance of imperfection to a new level. If Victoria Beckham, Geri Halliwell and Pamela Anderson can apparently bounce back within days of giving birth, then why can’t the rest of us? While I do not know how these celebrity mothers do it, I do know this. Most of us can’t bounce back that quickly; usually, not ever. When I look in the mirror, someone very different from the media’s darling stares back at me.

I am not 22. I am not a size eight. I have spent almost all of the past 14 years either pregnant or breastfeeding and now have four daughters. If my breasts were ever pert and poised, they certainly are not any more. If the skin on my tummy was ever taut, it is not any longer.

Until Beckham et al do the decent thing and go into post-pregnancy purdah (not likely) there is a new weapon in the armoury of real-life mothers like me, with our sagging boobs, our Caesarean scars, our stretch marks and our podgy tums. Bonnie Crowder, a United States mother of two, has set up a website called Shape of a Mother, which invites women to post candid pictures of themselves during and then just after delivery.

As Crowder says, the post-pregnant body is ”one of society’s greatest secrets. All we see of the female body is that that is airbrushed and perfect, and if we look any different we hide it from the light of day.”

Women are posting fervently, with photographs that show how it really is; photographs that emphasise that it is not us who are unusual, it is those ultra-thin celebrities. What you notice on the website — where women write about their experiences alongside their photographs — is how sharing these images seems to bolster women’s dented confidence. They write about how the site has helped them to realise that child-bearing does not physically diminish women: in fact, it makes us more interesting.

There are, of course, plenty of women bemoaning the fact that they still have too many extra rolls of post-baby fat, and testimonies from new mums who are pounding away in the gym. But the strongest voices, and the most excited by far, are those of the new mothers who have begun to question why they have allowed society to make them feel fat at all. ”I’ve been shocked at what a profound and almost instant change I’ve started to notice in how I’m thinking,” writes an anonymous contributor. ”I was reading a magazine this afternoon and saw that I was just thinking, and seeing, so differently.”

”I cried a bit as I was browsing the stories and photos,” writes another contributor, Mandy. But, she continues, ”I am slowly starting to be more accepting of my new body. Even if I do … drop [my] baby weight, my body will be for ever changed. The scar and stretchmarks will always be there. The skin is loose. When my son weans, the skin on my breasts will sag more. I know this is going to bother me from time to time. When the media bombards us with images of women with slim, gravity-defying bodies … it’s hard not to look in the mirror and wish we looked like them. But at least now I have a place I can come and visit as a reminder that those of us who have brought children into the world are changed inside and out … and there is nothing wrong with us.”

After looking at the site, I looked in the mirror at my own body and remembered some of the experiences that it has been through. I remembered the dramatic night when a tiny, 29-weeks-gestation little girl was born by emergency Caesarean section. For a day or two we weren’t sure whether she would live. The horizontal line above my pubic hair tells that story. The silvery stretchmarks remind me of that. The story of four little girls whose whole world was once this body, and who have since grown big, beautiful and strong.

The website celebrates the pregnant and the post-pregnant body: but, though pregnancy is a challenge to some women, for many it is a much-enjoyed time out from the pressures to stay slim. ”I embraced the chance to be curvy without feeling I should be on a diet,” says Mandy. But all that changes the moment the baby is out and in the world: we are all ready then to have our old bodies back, and for many of us there is the shocking realisation that it is never going to happen.

Looking at these pictures seems to help women not only to come to terms with that, but to challenge why we ever wanted to conform to that ideal in the first place. — Â

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