Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Body Confidence & Baby Curves - Lessons Learned {Times 6}

Maybe this isn't the best time to be writing about the topic of body confidence since I'm 38 weeks pregnant and feeling just a tad squishy these days.  But, after reading Bonnie's 7 Quick Takes last week, and Jen's Weight Loss After Baby and the New Normal, in which both refer to the Girl With Curves post on body confidence, thoughts on the ways in which women struggle with body image have been nagging me. I'm hoping that flushing out some of those thoughts here will silence the inner nag.
Early last April, after giving a talk at a mom's retreat in Kansas City, I decided to pop into Destination Maternity to look for an Easter dress.  While at the checkout, I couldn't help but notice the big screen TV looming overhead, displaying clips of women modeling all of the lovely attire festooned about the store for all of us to shop through.

The young woman assisting me must have seen the distorted look on my face (assuming it wasn't gas or a slicing leg cramp), because, leaning in with a hushed voice she matter-of-fact, informed me that none of the models in the video are actually pregnant, they're all wearing a false bump.

Well, crap, I guess that blue maxi dress, the one I was too lazy to try on, the one I just paid for, isn't going to look like the one up there on the big screen after all.

I just couldn't spoil her warm "I'm comforting the lowly" joy with the cold hard facts: This is #6 and really, I wasn't dealing with the inner anguish of why 30 extra pounds on me doesn't look anything remotely close to the non-preggo model. I was actually wondering how the lady in the video managed to walk flawlessly in 6" heels, ginormous purse casually slung over the shoulder, all the while pushing her "son" on his tricycle. (I may have also been wondering if my swollen feet could handle anything more stylish than flip-flops at this point.) Cray-cray! That's what my wrinkled forehead and doubting eyes were actually "saying."

All of us expectant mothers, you know the ones with the widening hips and the blossoming bosoms, the ones who caught a glimpse of the perfect dress or cute pair of shorts up on that screen are getting a much different, a more realistic picture of ourselves in the mirror, one that might not be the way we want it to be, maybe even the way we think it should be.  I left the store wondering how many first time moms would walk through those doors, and after seeing baby-body perfection up on that screen, would question whether the sacrifice of the body for a baby is worth it. I just hoped, with fingers crossed, that the informer at the counter would tell every mom the same they're not really pregnant story that she told me.

Unfortunately, that's not the end of my experiences that strongly suggest that we are a culture obsessed with body image.  Just last week, in another check out line, the obvious topic of conversation - pregnancy - came up again.  While scanning and wrapping up my items, the girl behind the counter just had to know if its true: "So I heard you get bigger and bigger with every pregnancy, and that it's almost impossible to lose all of the weight afterwards. Is that true? I mean, I have one kid already and I'm not sure I really want to go through all that again, especially if it's going to be worse."

Oi. Oi. Oi. Oi.  Why me, Lord? Anyone else in line care to respond?? Anyone??

I guess I could have responded with some practical story about how just three months after the birth of our first son, I was back into my size four jeans, but with every successive pregnancy after that, most things in my closet become relics of fashion past or end up in the Goodwill pile. Or, perhaps a monologue filled with saint quotations on the spiritual benefits of the purification of the soul through detachment (namely from anything that fits or looks remotely stylish).  It's not that losing the baby weight is a physical impossibility, it's just that, for most of us moms, life's priorities change again and again with every child, as do the privileges of free time and opportunity for things we used to enjoy or consider important.

Honestly, I don't even remember what I said to her, but I do know that I left there thinking about the body image obsession and what it means to all women, including those of us who have much more than just ourselves to take care of.

Driving home in silence, I couldn't stop thinking about the conversation that just took place. All of the more poignant answers I could have given her, came rushing through my brain a little too late. I earnestly desired for more time to visit with that girl, to tell her that the extra pounds are such a small price to pay in light of the gift of a precious, beautiful little life.

I'd be lying if I told you that I never struggle with the thoughts and emotions regarding my shape and size over the years.  My personal mental dialog concerning body issues was actually kick-started back in the 7th grade, and while I have a pretty good handle on keeping a positive perspective when it comes to my physical well-being today, it's taken years to settle into a place of peace, a place of gentleness with myself.

I've been everywhere on the mental-emotional grid of weight gain and loss, from skipping meals and counting fat grams in high school to casting all calorie cares into the wind in college.  Seven different sizes and styles of black pants in my closet were proof that something inside of me really needed to change if I was going to be free of the mental and emotional burden of attaining a certain body image.  When I speak of freedom, I don't mean being thin, I mean making peace with the body God has given me, and doing my best to take care of it so that I can be of service to Him and to others.

That whole making peace with our bodies thing is all easier said that done, right? Who can deny the influence that the unavoidable images of airbrushed faces and sculpted figures in our daily line of sight each and every day has upon us? They're nearly impossible to avoid, especially if you're plugged into any form of social media or television of any sort, or if you buy groceries. Magazines at the check out lines are the worst!

The recent trend in which women display their before and after weight-loss scantily clad selfies or svelte post-workout figures on Facebook or Pinterest really isn't proof that diet and exercise really work as much as it is evidence that women are desperately hungry for approval, for affirmation and to feel worthy of love. Many of us are broken and broken hearted, struggling to love and appreciate ourselves even just a little bit, and it makes me sad. Our feelings are real, and they are valid, but I really do think there's something we can do about all of the negative emotion, self doubt, self-loathing, don't you??

Confidence is a hard thing to come by these days, especially when it comes to self-image, but who or what is dictating how we feel about ourselves or how we think about ourselves?? Whatever it is, maybe a shift in perspective, in the power we give to external influences on our mental and emotional state of being is well overdue.

If you've taken a moment to read Girl With Curves post on body confidence, more than likely she's given you more than a few things to think about.  I especially appreciated tips #2 and #4, but I would like to share with you a few tips of my own, ones that are specifically meant to reach moms, particularly those of us who are still bearing the burden of weight gained from past or present pregnancies.

See your beauty as a gift.
When I stopped looking at my external self as something that must meet an imaginary standard or the approval of the mass public, (because if they say I'm okay, then I'm okay, if they like me, then I can like me) and started seeing it as a gift from God that really, truly is a gift for my husband, my focus on diet, exercise and overall acceptance of post-pregnancy curves was a welcome and very pleasant shift for me interiorly.

Thankfully, my husband has always been very affectionate and complimentary of me no matter what size I've been.  He makes me feel special and loved in every way, and I am incredibly grateful for his adoration and unwavering devotion!  That being said, he's should never be made to feel shallow for being physically attracted to me, or for really lighting up when he sees me fashionably dressed, my hair curled (he loves the curls) and lipstick on. That's not a disordered part of his nature. (Yes, it can become disordered, but come on!! We don't exactly want our husbands to fault us for being emotional creatures, do we??)

Although most of us can confidently chant, "he loves me just the way I am" about our husbands, our own personal attitudes and behaviors with this mindset are passive.  It's easy to make the vice of vanity a falsely pious excuse for putting little or no effort into our external appearance, thinking perhaps that it's the strictly the matters of the heart and soul that should be of utmost worth in the eyes of our spouse.  But, that pseudo-Gnostic thinking contradicts God's design for humanity. He declared everything He created as good, including our bodies. Therefore, our bodies are a gift to us from God. Every shape, size and color is an expression of His love and goodness.
Our husbands weren't immediately attracted to our interior when they first met us, they were drawn to it through our physical presence. The way that we captured their attention wasn't a mistake, and it wasn't meant to be temporary.  Need the toilet fixed or the car washed? Try putting on some lipstick.

When I remember that placing a higher value on taking good care of myself out of love for my spouse rather than for personal self-interest or worldly approval or gain, I am truly more joyful and motivated in my every effort to eat better, to exercise or to shower more often than say once a week! These are not shallow forms of love! To leave behind the yoga pants for something a little less comfy, but much more cute, to let down the pony tail and plug in the curling iron is real sacrificial love! And, chances are, those little efforts that we make to beautify ourselves more than likely make us feel better about ourselves as well.
Remember that your children will survive (for a while) without you.
When it comes to women taking care of themselves, I often see two extreme opposite sides of the motherhood path with very little middle-ground being explored. One side says there is no time to take care of myself, because my children demand every second of the daily clock.  The other side will go to any and every measure to ensure that they do not have to sacrifice "me time" (I hate that phrase!) at the gym, the salon or lunch with friends for the sake of their children.

Trust me, there is a place in between. It's one that acknowledges that if my child doesn't do a 13 step craft from Pinterest under my hovering loving guidance or have the entire bag of library books read to him so that I can go for a walk or take a shower, they will not be intellectually stunted or emotionally scarred. That middle ground also has room for those who may need to abandon the weekly pedicure and daily spinning class for a trip to the library or quality cuddle time with the kids. Those individuals who struggle with this form of detachment simply have to trust that the exchange of their time and attention from self to others will be all the more rewarding in the end. Balance. It's all about balance. (More thoughts on that here.)

Figure Out What Beauty Really Feels Like.
It dawned on me, as I was reading the post from Girl With Curves, that somehow as a society we've been brainwashed into believing that skinny people are the happiest people.  How unfair to them.  To say that a thin person doesn't have any problems or that full-figured individuals are unhappy are gross misrepresentations of both of people.

If really pressed with the question, "What makes you feel beautiful?" I would venture to say that many of us would give an answer that has little to do with dress size or scale numbers.

What makes me feel beautiful??
I feel beautiful when my children are happy, when they hug me, when we're all laughing over something silly.  I feel beautiful (and healthy and strong) after a long run. And, I feel beautiful when my husband looks at me with tenderness in his eyes.

If you feel beautiful in your favorite pair of shoes or brightest shade of lipstick, then go for it! If volunteering, writing, painting, teaching, playing sports or singing makes you feel beautiful, then do just that! But, whatever it is, learn to value those things far and above particular images of what you think happy is, especially when it comes to numbers on scale or the size of the clothes in your closet.

This is by far the best lesson I've learned over the past 13 years. For days on end after having a baby, along the {long} road of trying to shed 9 months of the chocolate chip cookie and taco consumption, I really have to focus on being patient with myself and accept my limitations when it comes to losing weight. But, focusing on those very things things, the times, places, and opportunities (cute shoes and combed hair included) that make me feel beautiful eases the urgency to lose the weight and truly helps me feel good about myself along the journey to getting back into some sort of shape.

Be the Voice of the Velvet Hammer.
One of my friends often refers to a priest, whom we both know, as the velvet hammer - he is a master at speaking the truth with love.  Sometimes the truth is uncomfortable to hear. It may require us to change our lives, our attitudes or our beliefs in a way that isn't easy. However, when truth is offered with love as it's foundation, change then becomes easier to bear and more fruitful and lasting in the end.

If you've mastered making excuses for the late night disappearance of a pan of brownies (or in my case, beer and chips!), maybe it's time to swing the internal hammer of truth a bit.  If you wouldn't touch a brownie with a ten foot pole, perhaps a little velvet padding on that hammer would do your heart some good.  My point is, we can be our own best friend or worst enemy when it comes to the way to think about ourselves as well as the way we speak to ourselves.  If you don't take charge of that inner voice, someone or something else will.

Like most things in life, whether it be a career, a hobby or a sport, self image, too, can become a source of pride and vanity.  Both ends of the spectrum - not caring about anything to being overly obsessed with everything is unhealthy.  When virtue (love, generosity, prudence, courage) is at the heart of our inner dialog, more than likely we will find that place of peace, of freedom that seeks only to be, as Matthew Kelly says, the best version of yourself.

One last thought: I think we as women underestimate the value of the witness we can be to other young women, who are considering family life, when we present ourselves in an orderly and dignified fashion while out in public with our children. We should be proud of the life we have chosen to stay home and take care of our families!  When we're able to take a moment to look our best (I know it's hard!) before stepping out to run errands, attend a soccer match or meet for a play date, we have a great opportunity to show others just how beautiful, joyful and rewarding the life of a mother can be, even in a post-baby body with curves!

What makes you feel beautiful?
What are your tips for maintaining self-confidence in a post-baby body?
I'd love to hear your thoughts!


  1. I loved this, Susan. Such wise words we (I) needed to hear today!

  2. Susan this is beautiful. #'s 1 and 4 especially spoke to me.

  3. What a beautiful post. I've been pregnant 6 times and only in the last year, as I began to grieve the death of my youngest in-utero have I found the balance I needed to take care of my "temple" while continuing to care for my family and keep working my full-time job. I've never been able to pull it off before, but with the help of Weight Watchers at-work meetings, Crossfit, running, an extremely understanding and supportive husband and kids who are a little more independent and responsible than they've been collectively at any other point in time, I finally feel like I've got a handle on it.

    But...the body image is still a problem. I am within 5 pounds of my "goal" weight, I weigh less than I've weighed in 10 years, I am stronger and fitter than I have been since high school, but I still look in the mirror and my eyes zoom in on my belly that will never be flat, or the boobs that sag to my belly button and I don't see that I am beautiful. matter how much work I have already put in, I know that I have much more work to do to begin to look at myself the way God looks at me and love the body He gave me that has been so good, and strong and healthy.

    thanks for posting this and giving me more to think about in this regard.

  4. I totally agree with all of your tips (even though I'm guilty of living in yoga and fleece in the winter!!)!! I try every day to be the best form of myself that I can be and part of that includes accepting all of my flaws!!!

  5. Great post! I suffered from an eating disorder in my teens into my early twenties. Once I got married I started to finally recover, but it wasn't until I had my first born son that I felt I was completely released from the chains of the eating disorder. The birth of my son really put my life into perspective, and seeing the beautiful little baby my body had carried and then delivered completely altered my body image. Unfortunately I still have those voices in my head that tell me I need to be a certain weight, or that I need to lose X amount of pounds before I get pregnant again. But these thoughts don't crush my spirit anymore. I look at my kids and thank God for my body. It is still a day to day struggle sometimes to not feel a little envious of others who are "skinny" pregnant and have no problem getting baby weight off, but again, I do my best to keep my mind out of the gutter. Thanks for this post! God Bless!

    1. Mia, thank you for sharing your story with me. I have a good friend who struggle all through college with an eating disorder, and she still battles the number on the scale today, almost 15 years later. Finding peace with food and with our bodies is can be so difficult. I loved hearing about the conversion that took place within you after having kids - our bodies are definitely meant to serve and glorify God!

  6. AMEN and thank you for writing this Susan! So beautiful and so true.

  7. Recently I prayed the Mary, Undoer of Knots novena for a certain intention. However, as I prayed it, it became clear that the knot I really needed untied in my life was the one that bound me emotionally to food. It was pretty powerful and I really did feel the ropes falling, though I think I should shill pray it again.

    I know what I need to do and I feel ready to do it in a lot of ways. The struggle for me is I have a baby who won't sleep through the night and I don't have older kids who can watch the younger ones while I go out for a run, nor the money for a gym membership with babysitting. I feel a little stuck in this size because of the circumstances of my life. Any tips for that?

    1. Bonnie, thank you for sharing your heart with me! I truly can relate to your struggles when it comes to emotional eating and trying to find time to exercise. Why food can be of such a comfort to us has always been a mystery to me. I wish I would have known your novena back in college when I struggled so terribly hard to make peace with food. As for the exercise part, well, I have to admit that exercise for me is really the only consistent way that I'm able to manage the pain of having fibromyalgia, so I have to do it. When I had three little ones under feet, before having older kids who could help me, I had to get creative when it came to working out (we couldn't afford a gym membership either). I checked out A LOT of work out videos from the library, I bought a double jogger from Craigslist and walked/jogged while my oldest rode his bike, and during the summer months, I woke up at 5:30 a.m. to run before Steve headed out to work (sometimes a crying baby who needed to be nursed kept me from going, but most of the time I could sneak in a 30 minute run). There's a TON of at home, non-gym workouts on Pinterest that you can do in 20-30 minutes that require little or no equipment (maybe some hand weights?). I love kettle bell workouts and there are a lot of them on You Tube that you can watch for free as well.

      Getting started is always the hardest part, but once working out becomes a habit, you'll love the effect it has on your energy levels, your moods and your confidence. Soon, the focus is no longer on losing weight, but feeling great, and that's what makes the habit stick. Good luck, Bonnie! You can do it!!

    2. Just wanted to share this work out called the 7 minute work out .. I normally do it up to 3 times in a row and am drenched in sweat afterwards..

  8. Some of life's seasons, all I can do is walk, slowly to the park, with kids and back. And that's enough. Now, I have friends close enough to drive over and walk with me, and older kids to be in charge so I can walk after dinner, even in the dark, even below freezing, with my husband. I've asked him to encourage me in this and he does so, coaxing me out when I'd much rather veg. I also try to look my best at any size. Makeup and earrings every day. Letting go of what I think of as my best self and accepting what God has given me is a life long struggle, but it's getting better.

  9. This is a beautiful post Susan. I 100% agree with everything. I struggle with body image and self-esteem a lot..on the one hand, I desperately want to lose 20 pounds. On the other hand, I know that I"m not not unhealhty the way I am, I DO eat healthy, I DO workout every day....I just wish I was thinner, but it's hard to lose weight, when you already do everyting you are supposed to do to lose weight (eat healhty and exercise).

    I also agree with Jessica, I do try to look good no matter what size I am. I find that clothing really makes a difference. Finding clothes that fit and flatter is so important and helps a ton.

    Anyway, as fa as exercising with little ones go, I just do exercise videos at home. It's the only way I can fit it in. I've "trained" my kids to not bother me for those 30 minutes (I've used Netflix at times), it's hard, but it's easier for me than trying to work out around my husband's schedule (to watch the kids) or join a gym (too expensive).

    1. Amelia - exercising at home isn't always fun, but sometimes it's the only option. Good for you for teaching your kids to be patient during those 30 minutes. I used to promise the boys (when they were little) a little treat if they didn't interrupt me during a workout. Sometimes I would play a Veggie Tales for them or set them up with paints/play dough while I exercised.

  10. Great wisdom here Susan - food is such an emotional hot button for me - something I am constantly taking to prayer! Bonnie - thanks for mentioning the Mary, Undoer of Knots prayer - a friend told me about it yesterday and now I saw your comment here. I think the Blessed Mother is calling! I am sure that she can help her daughters with our body image!

  11. I love this post! I think we women are all much too hard on ourselves, always thinking "skinny" is best. I have been guilty of this plenty of times.

    My husband is like yours--he has loved and desired me at every weight I've been over the years, even when I've seen myself as "too fat." But I realized after I had baby #3 (which was 3 babies in 2 and 1/2 years, with no time to completely drop the baby weight in between pregnancies) that I had to do the best with what I had and try to look as good as I could--instead of letting myself go because I wasn't "perfect" enough. And even beyond doing it for your husband, I love what you said in #4--about showing other young women that there is joy in the vocation of stay-at-home motherhood, that you don't have to be a harried-looking frump all the time!

    Thanks for sharing all these thoughts--there's so much wisdom here.


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