I get dressed just like everybody else, with one extra step: tucking my fold of loose skin into the front of my jeans. And I don’t mean a little bit of flab. Imagine taking a couple pounds of heavy, stretchy, body-temperature bread dough and somehow belting it to your midsection, and you’ve got a pretty good image of what my abdominal area looks like. (Note: the photo accompanying this post isn’t actually me — mine is far worse, but I couldn’t bring myself to share an actual picture. Admitting it in writing is cringe-worthy enough.)
I’ve learned to disguise it really well, so in most of my clothes, you can’t tell. I always make sure my shirts are long enough to graze my upper thighs, and I wear them untucked, always, with higher-waisted jeans (if super low rise ever becomes fashionable again, I’m just gonna have to be unfashionable).
I teach group fitness classes, but I have to be very picky about my gym wardrobe; I can’t just wear any old leggings or yoga pants, I have to buy the freaking expensive kind that flatten my skin like an elastic bandage so it doesn’t flop and flap all over the place – because not only is that unsightly, it’s uncomfortable.
Bathing suits are a huge dilemma. And if ever I have to wear a dress, you better believe I’m slathered in shapewear underneath.
It started happening after my first pregnancy, when I gained 90 (yes: NINE-TY) pounds. I had pre-eclampsia and swelled up like a balloon and got big everywhere – even my nose and my feet were huge and puffy. I lost some of it after my son was born, but then I had two more kids, and by the time my third son came along I weighed close to 300 pounds and was miserable.
I knew I had to do something, so little by little I did – and after two years, I had lost over 100 pounds. I got pregnant for a fourth time, and gained some of it back (50 pounds, despite teaching Zumba eight times a week for eight months; apparently my metabolism just goes on strike during pregnancy). That weight came off a little more quickly, though, and I was back down to my pre-pregnancy size again within a year.
You would think that would be a reason to celebrate, and it is. Now I can bend over to tie my shoes without huffing and puffing like I’ve just run a half-marathon. My body is strong and flexible, and overall I’m much better off without all that extra poundage. But putting it through the extreme fluctuations in weight, the epic gains and the subsequent losses, has left my skin a mess.
Skin is elastic, but not that elastic, and mine is marred with pearlescent stretch marks and hangs below my ribcage like a wrinkly curtain of flesh. There is so much extra skin that I can’t even gather it all up in both hands. And it’s like a governor that keeps my level of confidence from getting too high, a prison for my self-esteem. Sometimes I admire my (clothed) reflection and feel attractive, but at the end of every day I have to take my shirt off, and I’m confronted with the body I’m hiding.
I once saw an episode of Dr. Phil featuring a divorced woman who had lost a lot of weight. She’d found a new boyfriend, but he was completely disgusted by her body. When it showed a photo of her folds of extra skin, it was like seeing my own stomach on TV. “I just want to tell her to put her shirt back on,” groused the boyfriend, like she’d presented herself to him smeared in shit or something. It was like he was talking to me, and I sat in my living room and cried, because it confirmed the worst things I think about myself.
I’m thankful every day to be married to a man who constantly tells me how beautiful, how irresistible he finds me. Every part of me. He looks me in my eyes and tells me this with his whole heart, over and over, and I know it’s genuine … but I don’t understand why.
I don’t see how he can still find my naked body tolerable – let alone attractive – when I can barely stand to look at it myself. After all, we’ve been together 20 years. He’s seen my body at its pre-kid peak: the flat, smooth, un-marred stomach, the perky boobs. How can he possibly not compare the two, and prefer the former so much that he’s disgusted by the latter? How can he still scan the wrinkled, sagging landscape of my midsection with any sort of desire?
I literally can’t fathom looking at it and still finding any part of it worth admiring. He does, though, and I wish I could feel the same. But every time I try, the only “body positivity” I can muster is being positively sure that my body sucks.
I keep telling myself that this loose skin should serve as a proud reminder of how far I’ve come, how hard I worked to lose the weight, how I fought to be healthy and won. And it does, I guess, when I think about it. But mostly it’s just a reminder that I still don’t look the way I wish I did, even after reaching my goal; that even though my abs are nice and firm underneath, through a lot of hard work, I’ll never be able to see them. It’s a reminder that I can never truly accept or embrace what has happened to my body.
How can I learn to love it when it means I’m relegated to a life of stuffing an apron of flab into an arsenal of Spanx? I’d have surgery, but it’s not financially feasible – and sometimes surgeries go wrong, and I’m not 100% sure I’d want to risk not seeing my children grow up just to appease my vanity.
I’m not asking for a surgically-sculpted six-pack. I don’t even want to strut my stuff in a bikini. I just want to be able to pull on a pair of jeans, button them up, and just go. And what I really want is to able to look at myself in the mirror and love what I see, and be truly proud of how far I’ve come.