The Christmas after I gave birth to my son, I ate half a pumpkin pie in one sitting. I was breastfeeding at the time, burning a half-marathon's worth of calories every day just by lazing around lactating, but still.
After this feat of gluttony, I pushed myself back from the table and announced to my entire family, "I think I'm putting the baby weight back on."
To which my sister replied, "Sorry dude, that's not baby weight."
"Then what is it?"
And then we laughed our heads off, because if your skinny, childless younger sister can't make fun of your postpartum body, who can? But when I later relayed this anecdote in my new mother's group they did not see the hilarity. Instead they looked at me with grave concern. "I think you look amazing," one mother said, studiously ignoring the baby sick in my hair. "How disgusting," another responded – not about the pumpkin pie but my sister's joke.
At first I thought these women were just affecting humourlessness to show sisterly support, but I soon realized their response was part of a larger cultural wave of preciousness when it comes to the thorny (or should I say soft and squishy?) issue of new mothers and body image.
The past few months have seen the rise of photo and video projects extolling the beauty of "real" women's bodies before, during and after pregnancy (the assumption I suppose is that model's bodies are fake, when actually they're just young and thin). In addition to the many postpartum photo-sharing forums, some enterprising new moms are now making a profit. Embrace, a video by an Australian mom named Taryn Brumfitt who in the past six weeks has raised nearly $300,000 to make a documentary that promises to "unite women across the globe to love their bodies." And last month also saw the publication of a crowd-funded book, The Bodies of Mothers, based on A Beautiful Body Project, a series of semi-nude black-and-white photos of new mothers and their babies by American photographer Jade Beall that first went viral on Facebook and later became a popular website.
So what can we learn from this sudden cultural focus on the way women think, feel and obsess over our bodies before, during and after early motherhood?
Well for one thing, it seems we've completely lost all perspective on what's important about new motherhood. Fluctuating body size is one of the least interesting aspects of the seismic life change that is having a baby and yet we are fixated on it – and in a way that is precious and infantilizing to new mothers.
Indeed, many of us are unhealthily obsessed with our bodies, and pregnancy (a time when a woman's body is under more scrutiny than ever) can be a challenge – but I'm not sure how crowd-funded picture books of women who claim to "love their stretch marks" as emblems of maternal strength is a realistic solution. Any reasonable woman who has had a baby grasps the awesomeness of that physical feat and should feel pretty chuffed for doing so, but that doesn't mean she has to prove it by adoring her newly enlarged feet or "seeing the beauty" in a Caesarian scar. Surely we can find a way to maintain a healthy body image without professing absolute nonsense?
This sudden groundswell of interest in women and postpartum body image coincides with the recent publication of a U.K. government report by a team including the psychologist Susie Orbach (author of the feminist classic Fat is a Feminist Issue) entitled, Two For the Price of One: The impact of body image during pregnancy and after birth.
The report emphasizes the importance of pre- and post-natal nutrition counselling and promoting a healthy postpartum body image, since women who loathe their bodies often find it difficult to bond with their babies. More distressingly, the report contends, they may end up passing on their distorted body image to the next generation. "The way she eats, her attitudes toward health, food and hunger as well as the emotional reasons why she may eat or not eat are all passed on wordlessly to her baby: the positive and the negative."
While I agree that women need to go easier on ourselves, what about the power of just getting on with it? It's important to remember that most women do not have disordered eating, and for the healthy majority, a practical approach is probably best. Instead of focusing on "loving and reclaiming" our imperfect bodies, instead of spending hours dissecting our troubled relationship with carbs with our midwives, why not just strive to be level-headed grownups about it? Pregnant women need sensible advice, not saccharine bromides that start from the assumption that we all secretly hate our bodies.
Here's what I'd tell any woman contemplating the physical effects of biological reproduction: You get pregnant, you put on some weight, you hope for an uneventful delivery but no matter how it goes down, afterward your body probably won't be quite the same. This is obviously annoying, but the good news is, you have a baby! Also if you eat sensibly and exercise you can eventually lose most of the weight.
Why must our very sense of womanhood and self-worth get bound up in this very natural process? Why can't we recognize the physical effects of childbearing for what they are: a necessary part of age and experience.
Maybe we should spend less time agonizing and more time cultivating a sense of humour about the whole thing. Can you imagine if men gave birth? Pot-bellies and pelvic floors would be the subject of every Louis CK routine for the next decade. That's because men inherently understand that the best way to diffuse your insecurities is to poke fun at them.
Surely the challenge is not forcing ourselves to get sentimental about our stretch marks but to be intelligent adults who take these bodily changes in stride. If we could all resolve to spend less time – as opposed to more – staring at our bodies and comparing them to other women, then the neurosis might abate. But until that happens, I'm calling any weight I gain before my son is legally able to vote "baby weight." Because that way it's beautiful – sort of.