Birthing My Body
Birthing My Body
An Essay by Rachel Howe
I must have stopped kissing for a moment, because he said very gently, “We can just lay here in each other’s arms. We don’t have to do anything. It’s up to you.”
I said, “Look, I love my body, and everything, y’know, works…” I had to pause. I had rehearsed it in my head for the two weeks since we’d planned this date, but it was getting stuck in my suddenly dry throat. He waited patiently. “But I have had three children, and you know, things are what they are down there.” It may have been the bottle of wine we had shared. I’ve never been able to be so direct in my life. It was my first time having sex since my husband and I had separated nine months before and it felt amazing. It wasn’t perfect or like a movie, but I felt every cell of my body respond like teenager’s to a 70’s rock anthem – alive and powerful and raw.
Over the 15 years of our relationship, including 10 years of marriage, my husband and I had learned the maps of each others’ bodies intimately. A new person couldn’t compete with that, but being with someone new was exciting. Like many married people with young children, we had slowed down to having sex once or twice a month, sometimes not even that. I always felt physically attracted to him, but if he had remained physically attracted to me, he had long ago stopped expressing it, and desire had ossified. Part of it was the constant to do list of parenthood, part of it was the sameness of that body I had known for so long, and part of it was that our marriage just wasn’t working for many other reasons. One of the largest pieces, though, was that I did not feel wanted, at times was not wanted. My girlfriends shared stories of their husbands begging them for sex when they were tired after nursing and changing diapers all day. I was too ashamed to admit I was the one often seeking sex from a husband who rebuffed me, at times disrespectfully.
By contrast, this man had held me close at the concert we’d just come from, sneaking little squeezes and kissing my neck. “Your body is amazing,” he rasped in my ear, his hands on my hips as we swayed to the beat, “I want you so bad.” His wanting my body was a huge turn on. It made me feel desired, and then desiring, but it wasn’t one sided. He was able to view me that way because in my two months of dating so far, I had begun to feel extremely sexy from a new, deep down place. I was shocked how easy it was to be naked with this relative stranger, how comfortable I felt in my body and how much pleasure I was able to take from it. Maybe the wine helped a little, too, but I think I owe most of it to the deep love for my body I’ve gained since becoming a mother 9 years before.
I grew up a chubby kid, and worse, a chubby teen with big frizzy hair. As a teenager, my body was just the outside face of the unlovability I felt inside. In Fat Is a Feminist Issue, Susie Orbach write that fat is a way for women to rebel, to refuse to conform to the standards of our objectifying and over-sexualized vision for women, that it prioritizes tenderness and intelligence (what’s on the inside) over fuckability (what’s on the outside). I know these are stereotypes that we have about fat people, and I also know that many overweight people would like to lose their extra pounds, not hold onto them as a form of rebellion. But when I think about myself at age 16, I do wonder how much of that outside cushion was indeed a defense against a world in which I had been bullied as a kid and to which I felt in constant opposition.
Like many fat girls, I was convinced I would never be skinny or beautiful, and so no boy would ever ask me to a school dance (so I always shunned them, pretending I was too punk rock to go), and that no man would ever want to marry me. I thought I was unlovable because I was fat, but I now I think I was fat because I thought I was so unlovable, so unfuckable. I was embarrassed of my big butt, my big Jew-fro, my big breasts, which I did not find sexy but grotesque. I was angry with world because I was angry with my body, and so I punished it, tried to “whip it into shape.” I never ate dessert. I joined the track team even though I hated running. I was also angry with my father for being a bully, with my mother for not standing up to him, with the boys in my class for their sexism, for the girls for being mean, with the teachers for condoning it all. I railed against all of it, but screaming at bullies only makes them laugh and turn their bullying on you. I pushed harder and harder against my body, against the world, and I was miserable.
II. The body as achievement
I had just lost 20 pounds when I met the man who would become my husband, and although I had 20 pounds to go before I was in the healthy range, I had learned to feel good about myself and I knew this feeling was making me a more attractive person – I could feel it spilling out of me like light. Still, there were more years of fighting my body, punishing it by doling out calories and carbs, racking up exercise points like a second job. I shed the final pounds through Weight Watchers in time for my wedding, and I felt beautiful. But I still saw my body as just the visual – how I looked in the mirror. The number on the scale seemed the ultimate judge of my value as a woman. As long as it stayed at 130, I was doing okay. When it went up a pound or two, I freaked out. It wasn’t until I had kids that something much deeper changed.
III.Befriending the body
We had three beautiful children who could not wait to enter the world. My first labor lasted only 4 hours. We barely made it to the hospital, because we kept waiting for my contractions to reach some official timetable that never arrived. On the phone, the midwife told me to get in the bath, which I did not want to do, but I was used to following directions. As a kid, I had learned to clean my plate even after I was full, and as an adult, I always listened to doctors, even when my body told me differently. So I got in the bathtub, even though I knew it was a terrible idea. Luckily, our tiny row home bathroom was so small that I was able to sit in the bathtub and puke directly into the toilet.
Although I was bleeding in the hallway, we kept being told to wait until the contractions grew more regular. Finally, I’d had enough. I was feeling the need to push and I told my husband take me to the hospital. We got in the car and I sat in the front seat on my knees looking backwards, clinging to the headrest for dear life. He wanted me to sit down and put on my seatbelt, but finally willing to listen to my own body, I barked at him, I do NOT have to put on my seatbelt! He told me later that he drove the mile and a half to the hospital without stopping for a single red light.
When we got there, I pushed for two hours, grinding down, my body convulsing, showing me the way. I got into a squat on the bed completely naked, completely shameless. I couldn’t believe I was squatting naked, pooping in front of strangers, liquids oozing from me. A day before, I would have been horrified, but suddenly, the only thing I cared about was getting the nurses to help me take off my socks.
My son arrived and I could not believe, despite the months of my growing belly, the round ligament pain, the swollen feet, and the ring of fire I had just endured, that my body had created something so amazing. My husband and I held him skin to skin. Then the lactation consultant came in and showed me how to feed this tiny little human and I was again amazed by the human body, my body. My love for my body and my awe at its power grew with my love for my son.
I had gained 40 pounds in the pregnancy, and I was eager to return to my pre-maternity clothes, to non-maternity yoga, to the easy way my body had moved through the world without a giant belly and pendulous breasts. I remember being so disappointed to look in the mirror and find a lumpy version of my former self staring back at me, and also feeling shame that something so shallow still seemed to matter to me. Hadn’t I grown as a person? Wasn’t I fulfilled by our little family?
Yet, I had more forgiveness for myself this time. As my son grew chubby on milk from my breasts, I grew into a new comfort with fat. Now, fat provided this amazing fuel for my child’s life. It helped his brain grow and gave him immunity. It helped us bond, as I played with his little hands and feet while he nursed and he looked into my eyes and eventually smiled. I relaxed about my weight and I even relaxed about my shame; I knew it was partly a struggle between giving my body to this baby and reclaiming it for myself. That tension felt right, even if it was hard. Returning to yoga from pregnancy also gave me the excuse I needed to finally give myself a break. I gave myself permission to skip a vinyasa now and again. I ate ice cream every night. Soon all that breastfeeding took the weight off. I was pleased to be able to wear my old clothes again, but I found I didn’t care the way I thought I would. It no longer meant so much to me.
Two and a half years later, my daughter came rocketing into the world in a 2 hour labor that tore me to bits. I had been stitched a little with my son, but there was much more needed this time, and it never completely healed. I also developed a skin tag on my labia. I had never spent a lot of time contemplating my vagina, nor considered it ugly, but suddenly I saw that it looked worse for wear. I asked the midwife about it, but she shrugged it off as “merely cosmetic.” Again, I felt that shame of sensing that some kind of deeper, more evolved person would be okay with this, that a “real mother” wouldn’t need more than the gaze of her newborn daughter’s beautiful brown eyes. I had once laughed when I heard some women had vaginal plastic surgery after giving birth. What had once seemed shallow and bourgeois now seemed reasonable and I felt my judgement changing to empathy.
Since I had a home birth with my third child, I explained the dangers of my record-breaking deliveries to my new midwife, and she assured me there were techniques to help me slow down when pushing to allow me to stretch open. True to her word, she helped me avoid tearing the third time around, even though it was only a 45 minute labor from the first contraction to the first cry for breath. Squatting by the side of my bed, the midwife speaking calmly to me, I reached down and caught my youngest son as he squeezed his way into the world. My mother sat looking on from the corner chair, my dad was standing in the doorway, my husband woke my older two children from their sound sleep in the next room, and we welcomed this new body into our family. The room smelled wet and bloody and animal. That too, had come from my body. I looked at my mother, whose body had created mine, to my three children, who had been born of my body, and I felt so much gratitude to be a physical person in this world.
Each time I got pregnant and gave birth my body yo-yo-ed 40 pounds up and down. Each time, my breasts filled to bursting, and then emptied like spent water balloons. Each time, I tried to eat fruits and vegetables and whole grains so that my children would take in the best foods and so that my body, losing so many calories a day to breastmilk, would be remade healthy and strong. I went to yoga to build muscle and get a much needed mental break. I tried to walk and bike wherever I could. I felt so grateful to my body for what it had done, giving me three beautiful, healthy children. It kept my hips high in the air during side-plank, biked me across the city to work, carried me and a 50-pound pack on a 25 mile-backpacking trip.
I began to see my body as a friend, an ally, to love it because it was mine and to treat it right because I was grateful for its work, to rest it when needed and also to answer its demand for chocolate. I wanted to reward my body now, not punish it. And my body rewarded me back. It grew strong and lean. It also has a round belly and cellulite and saggy breasts and a labial skin tag, but now I look in the mirror and I see all of those “imperfections” and I think damn, my body is beautiful, and I mean it, not in spite of those “flaws” but with them. Writer Lindy West has described how she once went on a mission to find beautiful, artistic images of fat people and how viewing all of those rolls of fat shown as beauty actually changed the way she sees fatness, beauty, and her own body. To see fat as beautiful is nearly transgressive in our society. The opportunity to befriend your body is a luxury.
IV. Fuckability revisited
And don’t forget the sex. As soon as I was able to express my vulnerability to this new man, this first post-marriage lover, I was able to dive in, to lose myself completely in the moment, and also be completely within myself, labial tags and all. I have always loved sex, but while there was the pleasure of the body – of touch, there was also the liability of the body - of how it was viewed. John Berger has said, “Men act and women appear. Men look at women. Women watch themselves being looked at.” And as I felt that male gaze upon all the things I found so unfuckable, I held back. I focused only on trying to please my partner, because I didn’t feel I could ask for more. And so, often, no more was given. But as I began to love my body, I was able to ask for more, I was able to take my pleasure, to turn myself on, to focus on my own gaze, to not give a shit about being fuckable. I began to enjoy fucking as much as being fucked, and that gaze turned from a liability into its own pleasure, the pleasure of being fully seen. And so that night, tipsy on wine and music and teasing touch of his hands on my ass all night, it was up to me, and I said yes.