This week, the Cut explores women’s complicated relationship to beauty standards and the effort required to meet them.
Somewhere near the end of my pregnancy, I started to get smug. I was growing bigger and bigger, but I hadn’t gotten a single stretch mark: no lotions, no oils, no prayers. Before going to bed one night, I was scrolling through the BabyCenter forums for pregnant women on my phone — as I did almost constantly in my most anxious and obsessive moments — and found a thread called something like “Show off your tiger stripes!” I couldn’t look away. It was like nothing I’d ever seen. (Why had I never seen it?)
It’s not that I was completely unfamiliar with stretch marks. Somewhere in puberty, they cropped up on my hips, my inner thighs, a few inconspicuous squiggles on my sideboob. They’re invisible except in certain lights, fun to trace a finger over. The stretch marks on these very pregnant women were nothing like that. These had come on fast, the result of body parts struggling to do what was being asked of them. Pregnancy stretch marks are red or deep purple; they can be wide, numerous. They look like gashes. When people say, “You look like you’re going to pop!” they aren’t really thinking about the scenario playing out. But now I imagined a tsunami of amniotic fluid bursting forth onto the sidewalk, the baby popping through my skin like the Kool-Aid Man.
I knew the BabyCenter moms were expressing their pride, a sense of awe at what their bodies had done, but I couldn’t see anything redeeming in the pictures. I held my phone in the air and shouted “Noooooooooo!” and “OH GOD!” at it.
The next morning, as if the universe were cursing me for my insensitivity, I woke up with three tiger stripes of my own. Not that I could see them — my belly was huge and they were on the sides and underneath. I found them during my daily inspection with a makeup mirror, during which I would crane my neck and frown. Upon discovering them, I waddled into the kitchen to ask my fiancé to put it to me straight.
“Oh they’re small,” he lied. “You can barely see them.”
I thought maybe I’d grow to love my body in pregnancy, like maybe the hormones or new sense of utility would transform me into someone who didn’t worry that her arms looked fat in a sleeveless shirt. Maybe I’d become the kind of person who takes photos documenting her changing body every week and uploads them to a blog: “Baby is the size of a grape!”
And yes, once it really got going, I enjoyed not sucking in my gut. But overall I hated the same parts of me I’d always hated, and I was no more comfortable having friends and loved ones (much less strangers) look at my body and comment on it. In a way, this was comforting. I was still me! Maybe I’d recognize myself at the end of this after all — the woman who wanted to untag herself in all Facebook photos.
For that reason I didn’t spend much time worrying about what my body would look like after the Kool-Aid Man had packed his things and gone home. I’d never worn a bikini before, and I figured now I never would. This was a little sad but okay. My weight has generally fluctuated up and down the same 30 pounds, so I knew I’d probably have to fire up the Couch-to-5K and Weight Watchers apps on my phone and get to work as I had many times before. Or maybe I wouldn’t even have to! Maybe what all the breast-feeding champions were saying was true and the baby would just drink all the fat right out of me. I’d lie on the couch watching Gilmore Girls and emerge a few months later thinner than I’d ever been.
In the hospital, I didn’t have a chance to think about how my body looked, but once I got home a switch flipped and I suddenly cared, deeply. I had enough time and enough hormones and enough mobility to stand in front of the mirror after a shower and completely lose my shit. And then of course, I felt the attendant guilt over caring about something as selfish as my body, when its new purpose was to keep this tiny crying man alive.
I can remember, with no small amount of shame, being a kid and discussing with my friends the bodies of older women we knew. Some of them had a pooch in their lower stomach — okay, a FUPA, it’s a FUPA — and we wondered about the physics of it. Why all down there? Why does it seem to hang? Well, now I know. It fucking hangs because there was an eight-pound baby inside of it for the better part of a year. It hangs, possibly, because a doctor made a little cut into the muscles of the lower abdomen to reach inside and pull out a human being.
Yes, it makes sense. Yes, it’s a “small price to pay” for a healthy child. Yes, my partner is still in love with me and with my body and wants to have sex with me with the lights on and his eyes open. And yes, five months in, I have both made peace with it and feel like it looks less pronounced (whether that’s true or I’ve just grown accustomed to it is something I’m not really willing to think about).
But still, it’s terrible. Not everyone gets it. There are other people walking around town without this thing, which I am sorry to say is sometimes referred to as — are you ready? — a “mother’s apron.”
I will wait while you unbury your face from your hands.
I cried a lot those first few weeks, for many reasons, some of them probably hormonal, but the thing I remember upsetting me most acutely was that I didn’t recognize my body. Even at the time, I knew I wouldn’t always feel that way, but I feared I’d always look like this. I feared the work to not look like this anymore would be too much, that I wouldn’t be willing to do it. I feared I would never again look in the mirror and feel like myself.
The baby was outside of me now, finally. While I knew our lives would never be the same, things would get better. We’d get some sleep. I’d love him more and more. But how the fuck would I ever wear pants again?
I was walking one day, feeling my stretched-out body jiggle a bit (I was used to my ass jiggling, but my stomach?), when suddenly it occurred to me, as if handed down from above: Oh. This is what Spanx are for.
It was probably the hormones, but I wanted to raise my hands to the heavens and fall down to my knees, yelling, I FINALLY GET IT. THE SECRETS OF THE UNIVERSE HAVE BEEN REVEALED TO ME. I UNDERSTAND SPANX.
No, Spanx won’t make you magically skinny. They’re uncomfortable and restrictive, and while I do own a pair, I have never worn them, not even after having this revelation. But still, it’s nice to know they’re there if I need them. I imagine hordes of other postpartum women yanking them on in front of the mirror, doing a little shimmy and telling their partner to leave them alone.
A few days later, after sharing this new maternal wisdom with my best friend, we transitioned into wondering when someone else in our friend group would have a baby. Would I be the lone sucker forever? “Sarah says she wants to wait a while,” I said, shrugging.
“Yeah,” my friend said. “I bet she just doesn’t want to ruin her body.” I laughed a little, feeling more understood than offended. Then she realized what she’d just said.
“Well — I mean, you know, not that you did —”
“No,” I said, “It’s fine. I did. Or I feel like I did. I’ll show you my stretch marks when we get back.”
We were quiet for a second, pushing salad around our plates, staring off into different corners of the bar. On the walk home I hobbled a little behind her, too proud to ask her to slow down, to remind her I had had abdominal surgery only a week ago. I wanted so badly to be back to normal.
After we got home, in a gap in the conversation, I turned to her like a teenager. “Okay,” I said. “Wanna see?”
She nodded eagerly. I pulled down what I’m sure were black leggings and lifted up one of many layers of tank top and T-shirt to expose my midsection. It was somewhere between asking her to tell me that my ass didn’t look fat and showing off a battle scar. I wanted her to see my body and understand, but I also wanted to be assured that I wasn’t hideous.
“Whew!” she said when she looked down at my sagging belly, covered in deep red stretch marks. I looked war-torn. I felt it, too. “Well!” she said.
“I know,” I said.
“It’s not THAT bad,” she said. “The stretch marks will fade.”
“Yeah,” I said, knowing it was true but not yet believing it.