Postpartum Women Taught Me Body Respect

I’ve never had kids. I’m 27 and since I was a little girl, everyone has known I’m not the maternal type. “Once you get older, things will change,” they’ve always said; but the maternal instinct hasn’t kicked in yet and so I’m doubting if it ever will. One thing I have had since I can remember is an issue with my body. I can remember the first time I thought something was wrong with me. I was in my kindergarten class. I had a huge crush on the tallest, most popular boy in school. I’ve always been short but never thin, and when Karl (tall boy) told me he liked my ultra-thin friend Alexis better than me…well, right then I started to wonder how I could change myself into being accepted.

It goes without saying that a problem so deeply rooted and so prominent in early childhood did not get better over time. My negative body image stayed with me through high school, and well into college. I have always thought if I could just have “The Body” then all my problems would magically disappear. The insecurities of life would melt away because skinny girls don’t cry.

When I turned 21, during my second year of nursing school, my long term high school boyfriend left me and the stress took its toll. I remember losing 15 pounds in one week and then I continued to drop pounds with dieting and exercise. I was ecstatic. I was comfortable in clothes I had never been able to wear before. I was able to look boys right in the eye when they talked to me instead of looking away. I was the most physically fit I had ever been in my entire life. And I was drowning.

Nursing school isn’t easy and breakups aren’t easy and while I was taking care of my body like I never had before, I was neglecting my heart. I had bought the lie culture fed me that all that matters in this life is what your outside looks like. Everyone who saw me in my small town of 3,000 people would tell me I looked great. They all said I looked happier than I had ever been. They were “proud” of all the strides I was making in my life. They judged all this by the size of my waist.

During this “most special time in my life,” I possessed a cute body but chose to put its heart through the ringer. I dated boys who gave me half-ass efforts at something that resembled love. I jumped through hoops to keep men who simply weren’t the type of men who would allow themselves to be kept. I waited in hopes I could change them. I spent too much time giving grown men tutorials on how love works. I waited around with hopes that my loving heart could get blood from a stone.

Throughout my misadventures and escapades in the dating world, I was just reaching out hoping someone would see the value I always knew was there. That maybe now that my body was socially accepted by society, someone would choose to also validate my mind and soul. That maybe someone would finally see the human being housed in this vessel. What happened in the longing for acceptance was the cheapening of both my body and heart. It was one of the most difficult times emotionally and mentally of my entire life. I can tell you from my own muddled experience: Skinny girls do cry.

I graduated with my bachelor’s degree in nursing in the summer of 2015. There was never any doubt during my schooling that I would choose a career in the specialty of obstetrics. At this time I was just starting to open my mind to the importance of supporting women and there are few times in this life more vulnerable for a woman than childbirth. I wanted to be at the bedside of women during the most amazing and difficult thing they would ever do. While I originally applied for a position on a labor and delivery unit, I ended up accepting a position on a postpartum unit.

Here’s the thought that kept rolling around in my brain during my first few months of training as a nurse: “Nobody told me everyone’s bodies are flawed. Nobody told me flawed bodies could do something so amazing. Nobody told me flaws could be beautiful.” I had the pleasure of caring for and supporting, both physically and emotionally, women who had birthed a child mere hours prior. For a lot of moms, there is a lot of anxiety that comes with the birth of their baby. For many, this anxiety is wrapped up in fears about the looks of this freshly empty womb and how they will transition back into who they were previously. In the case of all these patients and families, there were hearts full of love and amazement for the miracle of what their bodies had just brought into this world.

I spent the next several months really challenging myself about the lies I had believed about beauty and what validates a woman’s body. Is it that her waist is only 24 inches around? Is it that she can fit into a size 2 dress? Or is it that she can grow and birth a living human being and look however she wants in the process? I started examining my own body in a new light. Why had I been letting standards from companies who were run by men dictate how I acted/felt/dressed/thought?

Slowly, and I cannot emphasize this enough, very SLOWLY my hatred for the body I was given to house my spirit turned into a state of neutrality. I felt neutral toward this vessel. Some may say this is a step backwards, but for me it was nothing but progress. There were things I did not like about my body, but I was starting to view it for what it was: An instrument to do powerful and wonderful things. And I did not hate it any longer. I became curious about what it could do.

I started moving more. During my awful breakups and relationships, I would often exercise as a form of punishment for this body. Now, I was learning to move my body in ways that felt good. I danced more. I ran through beautiful neighborhoods while the flowers were in bloom and I hiked up mountains just to stand in awe of my own strength. Slowly this state of body neutrality turned into body respect. I knew what this body was capable of, and I knew the value of the woman who was contained inside. I respected the hell out of my big thighs and round face because the women I take care of in my practice look just like me. They do powerful, wonderful, beautiful things and they don’t look like their skin has been airbrushed and their breasts have been digitally retouched.

While I would not say I have arrived at my destination of Body Love and that now my life is roses and sunshine, I am a lot further on my journey. Body love is hard, but a woman’s body is so much more than measurements and thigh gaps and perfect eyebrows. Women are complex and poetic and ever-changing. That’s what makes us so beautiful. My advice to women young and old is this: Do not let societal beauty standards take the mystery out of beauty and everything we are. Lean in to your flaws and love them a little. You never know what beautiful thing you might accomplish in that flawed, miraculous, strong body someday.

Postpartum Women Taught Me Body Respect

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