After I recently gave birth to our third boy, my oldest son was observant enough to notice and talk about my changing body shape in ways he hadn’t before. When he saw my postpartum belly, with its leftover fat stores and sagging skin, he would excitedly say things like, “Mommy! Your belly is like a flat tire!” and “Your belly looks like a deflated balloon!”
As he snuggled with me on the couch, hugging and kissing my arm, he commented, “Momma, your arm is very squishy! Soooo squishy and soft. How squishy is my arm?” *squishes his own arm* “My arm isn’t as squishy as your arm.”
When he would hug me goodnight, he would say, “Mommy, your belly is so soft and comfortable. It’s like a snuggly pillow. I love how warm and soft it is.”
It occurred to me that my responses to his observations are of utmost importance. They have the potential to permanently shape his view of women’s bodies, and possibly even his own body image.
What message would it send if I were to react with hurt, fear, or even worse, anger when he made such observations about my body? If I were to say, “That’s so mean of you to say my tummy is like a flat tire. Don’t say things like that! It’s hurtful!”
It would convey that there is something wrong with the way my body looks and feels right now.
What message would it send if I were to react by shutting him down, saying something like, “You should never comment on a woman’s body. Keep your thoughts to yourself.”
While this may be good advice for an adult (seriously folks, let’s stop reducing a woman to what her body looks like, good or bad, especially during pregnancy and postpartum), it sends a message to my 5-year-old that there is something shameful about our bodies. It also would discourage any further questions he has about bodies. That safe dialogue between parent and child is so vital.
What message would it send if I were to answer with, “I know…but my tummy will get smaller soon. I’ll be dieting and exercising to lose the weight.”
Again, I believe this sends a message that it is undesirable for a woman’s body to be larger in size.
So what am I telling him instead?
I’m telling him about the amazing way my body used food to store up energy and grow the baby during pregnancy. And how it holds onto some of those nutrients afterwards so that my body can feed our growing baby. I talk to him about how the womb takes some time to return to its normal shape and size after being the home for our baby. I tell him about how a mother’s pelvis must expand to fit the baby. Through all of this, I control the expression on my face, so that my nonverbal communication doesn’t convey unintentional messages.
I tell him that I exercise so that my body can be healthy and strong.
I tell him that I eat foods that nourish me, give me energy, and make my body feel healthy and strong.
I tell him that I wear clothes that make me feel confident and lovely.
So maybe I’m not influencing the future of humanity by talking to my son about my postpartum body. But, just maybe, I am.