Why does it seem the most significant compliment a woman can get after giving birth is that she lost her baby weight? "Bouncing back," as they call it, seems to take precedence over the gruelling hours spent in the labour ward, the endurance required for nine months of pregnancy, and perhaps even the extended emotional and physical effort it took to get pregnant.
None of those feats seems to compare to the achievement of losing weight and looking like your old self again. Is it subconsciously deemed a more significant achievement because women with children have something already in common? Mothers all have a personal birth story that involves anticipation of some sort, pain or discomfort of some degree, and healing which may or may not be fast. Women can bond and relate to these stories; they are sacred to the motherhood journey. But the one thing mothers don't have in common is the same ability to lose pregnancy weight, or at least at the same rate. It's this weight gain that seems to set new mothers apart.
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While some women excel at dropping pounds without trying, others try (and fail) for years. Statistics reported by the National Academy of Sports Medicine have found that 24% of women still carry approximately 10 pounds of pregnancy weight after one year (and goodness knows how many carry 0-9 pounds). That's not insignificant, yet the pressure still exists for a woman to fit an ideal body image of a "mother." The message is straightforward. During your pregnancy, your belly is beautiful; after pregnancy, it's undesirable.
We see it everywhere, from eager postnatal exercise programs that promise to blast your “mum tum” to fitness trainers showing off their children in the same photo as a set of 6-pack abs. We even experience unhelpful and unwarranted comments from well-meaning wishers who come to see the baby (and size up the mom, apparently). In response, we are armed with flimsy rebuttals such as "it took you nine months to put the weight on; it will take you at least nine months to take it off." I understand the sentiment of that statement, but it can be wholly unhelpful when someone doesn't feel or look like themselves anymore.
Despite uncomfortable and sometimes downright painful physical changes in a mother, we are asked to transform ourselves into a woman who has never had the physical trauma and subsequent recovery of having a child, all while staying a focussed and nurturing parent.
Be a mother but don't look like you've had children.
The side effect of having undesirable body parts such as wiggly bits, pudgy spots, stretch marks, widened hips and saggy breasts seem to indicate that women are letting themselves go. However, no one talks about the fascinating change a woman's body goes through her brain. New and exciting research proves that a woman's brain changes from a neurological perspective during pregnancy and lasts for up to two years after birth. This is fascinating because, as reported in Scientific American in a piece titled (surprise, surprise) Pregnancy Causes Lasting Changes In a Woman's Brain, a woman's brain reorganizes itself neurologically to focus on creating an attachment to her child. In other words, a woman's priorities literally shift from being self-centric to caring for someone else. And when that someone else requires 24/7 attention, there leaves little time for a woman to place her entire attention on minimizing her waistline.
As a mother, this kind of research takes my breath away. It's significant. It's profound. It's biologically amazing, and it's truly humbling. Knowing that my very brain temporarily changed to make me a mother is so powerful to my motherhood journey that it far outweighs my ability to drop my pregnancy weight or the minor squiggly stretch marks I now have.
If only I remembered this on days I looked in the mirror and remembered what my old body used to look like.
When the scientific argument fails, I turn to the philosophy of "kintsugi" – the Japanese art of "golden repair," or embracing imperfection. In this philosophy and art expression, broken pieces of pottery are cherished and glued back together with gold. According to an article on the BBC titled Kintsugi: Japan's ancient art of embracing imperfection, this art form teaches that "accepting and celebrating scars and flaws is a powerful lesson in humanity." Learning about this art form made me view my new "mom-bod" with compassion and great reverence and awe. It has endured, created, healed, and made me a mother. The visible signs I see, such as a c-section scar, pudgy bit or a stretch mark, remind me of the golden lines holding together precious pottery. These lines are beautiful, precious, and a constant reminder that I am not made worse by being pregnant and having a child - I am made whole.
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If I need reminding of my worth in my line of work, I urge you to think of someone in your life who may need reminding as well. Focussing on a woman's physical appearance post-delivery is harmful. It can be lethal to a woman's self-esteem as she navigates the new territory of being both a woman and a mother. If you're fresh out of ideas on how to compliment a mother without focussing on her physical appearance, I've included a list of my favourites to help you.
1. You make a fabulous mother.
2. You are looking after your little one so well.
3. You're incredibly strong.
4. You're managing so well; however, can I make anything easier?
5. Your child seems so happy. It must be all the love you're giving them
6. Wow, how you handled that was amazing!
7. You know what's best; you're the mama!
8. You are so inspiring.
9. You're doing a great job!
And, if you must compliment something physical, why not try something like "You look radiant/beautiful," or "Don't you look fabulous today!"
If that fails, make her a coffee, she likely needs one.
Jen Thomas is a Chennai-based weight loss coach and a certified pre & postnatal exercise specialist.