Mileage May Vary
We need a new yardstick for measuring body beauty
Photo by Ashlee Wells Jackson
First of all, the usual column photo of me…is not me. I wish it were! This photo is of Allison Prejna and was taken by Ashlee Wells Jackson as part of her Fourth Trimester Bodies Project (find it at 4thtrimesterbodies.com). The truth is, art director Kirsten Mortensen and I had a hard time choosing the photo for this page, because Jackson has photographed so many beautiful women and their babies—turning what many women feel is imperfect, strange, or, sadly, even a betrayal into something reminiscent of a Botticelli angel.
I emailed Wells Jackson after seeing her project because I thought it was so powerful and important that I was willing to have her photograph me and publish the photo. Timing and geography didn’t work out—she’s not a Minnesotan, but I’ve asked her to think about including Minneapolis/St. Paul in one of her stops next year. (Don’t worry—I’ll alert you when something is set up!) But I chose to show this photo and write about the project, because the problem remains that we don’t see enough visual representation or reflection of who we are and what our bodies actually look like—mothers or not. This black hole has created unrealistic expectations that set all women (and everyone who loves them) up for failure.
When I was pregnant, I surprised myself by feeling beautiful. I had expected to feel huge and unwieldy—a beached whale. While not all pregnancy moments are of the Hallmark variety, the fact that my body was doing all this stuff felt magical and purposeful in a way I hadn’t ever felt before. I suddenly found that my body had meaning.
It was a revelation for me. Each week as my husband took photos of my expanding silhouette, I would marvel at what it was doing and how cute the bump looked under my dresses. (Maternity wardrobes notwithstanding—now there’s an underserved audience.) And yet, I felt social pressure to be self-deprecating and to complain, as though being happy meant I was turning my back on the pregnant sisterhood.
I expected post-pregnancy to be a nightmare of conflicting emotions about my body and appearance: balance the superhuman feeling of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding with four-day-old sloppy loungewear and unwashed hair, for starters. But every time someone insisted I looked as “wonderful” or “skinny” as I did “before,” I felt a weird twinge. What did that mean, exactly? I know it’s meant as a compliment. But when you undergo one of life’s biggest changes, why is “before” the yardstick for success? What if “before” pales in comparison?
Don’t get me wrong. I want to fit into my pre-pregnancy clothes as much as the next mom. And it’s nice when people notice you, especially once your desires are subsumed for those of a small and wonderful tyrant. And yes, sometimes I look in my closet, and then at myself in the mirror, and wonder if the two will ever pair up again. I’ve heard that it takes two years for internal organs to find their rightful spots after pregnancy, so I can’t rush things.
But on the other hand, I’ve always had a goal to age gracefully. To appreciate the physical changes for what they are—a record of all the good, bad, and in between. Maybe the mile markers for you aren’t children. Maybe it was training for a marathon that changed your body. Maybe it’s surviving breast cancer. Maybe it’s turning 50. Maybe it’s losing weight. Whatever your markers, they are yours and yours alone.
I loved looking at her photos not because comparing my so-called flaws to theirs made me feel better or because it’s virtuous to care. I believe in Jackson’s project because in looking at those photos, I feel less alone. Social pressures be damned: the sisterhood is there. It is real, and it is gorgeous.