How motherhood healed, not hurt, my body image

It’s difficult to pinpoint the first time I looked at myself in the mirror and didn’t like what I saw, but I have a distinct memory of the first time I told someone that I felt fat: I was in fifth grade.

As a decidedly wiry eleven-year-old, I somehow got it into my head that my stomach “popped out” too much. At least, that’s what I told my therapist during one of our sessions. There were many reasons that I needed therapy as an eleven-year-old, which I won’t go into in this essay, but suffice it to say that my pre-teen psyche zeroed in on my weight and general appearance as the primary source of my unhappiness. At some point during my childhood, I had stopped listening to my body’s cues for hunger and fullness, and food became something more than nourishment: It was self-medication for emotional comfort.

As I entered junior high and then high school, my relationship with food and my body image continued to deteriorate. I was always (and I mean always) thinking about food. After I ate, usually past the point of being full, I would berate myself for eating too much. As time passed, I steadily gained weight, and by my junior year of college, I was the heaviest I had ever been. I went home for the summer in what I can now see was a state of clinical depression and anxiety. I was miserable.

But I didn’t understand that my disordered eating was a symptom of a deeper issue; I believed that food was the problem. Instead of going back to therapy, I went on a strict diet. I learned to restrict myself, to ignore pangs of hunger, to trick myself into feeling full without eating enough calories, and to exercise like my life depended on it. By the middle of my senior year, I was the skinniest I’d been since my freshman year of high school… and I loved it. And hated it. Because with my newfound size came more intense fears of gaining back the weight.

By the time I graduated, I was back in therapy and trying to sort out how I had gone from disordered eating to a legitimate eating disorder.

For the next decade or so, I oscillated between seasons of relative peace with my body and food, and seasons when my anxiety took over and food (or lack thereof) and exercise became self-medication again. And although I longed for marriage and family as a single twenty-something, I also feared that were I to become pregnant, I would spiral into a full-blown eating disorder once again.

Trial by pregnancy

By the time I finally did get married, thanks to therapy and my faith, I was at peace with my body. I could go hours without thinking about food. I didn’t get panic attacks if I had a bit more than usual to eat during a meal out with friends. It felt like a miracle, because in many ways it was.

But when I got pregnant, many of my old fears returned. I knew I needed to gain weight to support my baby’s life. I knew that weight gain during pregnancy varies as much as anything else does woman to woman, but I didn’t want to give up the body I had grown to love. Yet, I knew that I had to let go of my desire for control in order to give life to the little person growing within me. It was a sobering reality, and one that took me until the second trimester to fully embrace.

The most difficult part of pregnancy weight gain for me to accept was that my body wasn’t just my body anymore. I was my son’s home for almost ten months, and he had his own important development to do and necessary weight to gain. This sacrifice—the gift of my pre-pregnancy body—was more difficult for me than the nausea, back aches, insomnia, and constant need to pee that were part and parcel of growing a tiny human. Practically speaking, I was able to move from fear to acceptance thanks to my therapist, my doting husband, and a midwife who didn’t make me get on a scale once. I also did my best to eat intuitively, exercised throughout my pregnancy, and did my best to avoid comparing myself to other pregnant women I encountered.

It wasn’t until after the birth of my son, staring at my playdough-like belly that still looked about 7 months pregnant, that I realized—to my surprise—how much I had let go of in order to bring Joseph into the world. And while I had some frustrating moments when I tried prematurely to squeeze into my pre-pregnancy clothes, I was too focused on learning how to be a mother and heal my postpartum body to worry (too much) about losing weight.

As I prepare to celebrate my son’s first birthday (!), I marvel at the fact that I was able to be patient as I slowly lost weight, healed my body, and regained my strength. I look in the mirror, and I smile—because my little boy is usually making faces at himself as he looks with me—and I realize that one of the greatest graces of motherhood has been freedom from so many of the things that haunted me in my twenties.

What helped me along the way

My point in sharing all of this is not to marvel at my miraculous recovery from disordered eating and unhealthy body image, but to also share with other women some practical tips that were to me on my journey:

01. Therapy

It’s a cliché because it’s true: Eating disorders are not about food. Disordered eating and unhealthy body image are symptoms of deeper problems, and the root causes need to be addressed before anything else. Finding a therapist who specializes in eating disorders is particularly important, and being consistent with sessions—especially in the beginning—was key for me.

02. Staying off the scale

After my foray into the dieting world, I became hooked on knowing how much I weighed. I would agonize over the slightest change in what I saw on the scale, and had no idea that it is normal for a woman’s weight to fluctuate throughout the month. Once I began to see a therapist for my eating disorder, I realized that weighing myself was only adding fuel to the fire, so I got rid of my scale and haven’t looked back. When I go to the doctor, I ask to be weighed while not looking at the scale, and I ask the nurse not to tell me how much I weigh. All told, I haven’t known how much I weigh for over a decade, and I highly recommend it.

03. Curating my social media

I went through a fashion blogger phase in my mid-twenties and obsessively followed a dozen or so of my favorites. When Instagram became a thing, I shifted my focus to following the accounts of these impeccably dressed (and thin) women. After a while, I realized that following them wasn’t really good for me: Not only did I always feel like I needed more (and more expensive) clothes, I was also constantly comparing myself to the women. I decided to put a stop to this by ruthlessly curating my social media: I unfollowed any account that was a source of temptation to comparison. Instagram is now a happier place for me and no longer a source of anxiety. 

If you have ever dealt with an eating disorder and are currently pregnant or hoping to be someday, I hope that my story has been a source of encouragement for you. Know that you are not alone, and that healing and freedom are possible. May you look in the mirror one day while holding your baby, postpartum belly and all, and smile.