Postpartum Body Perception
“My body doesn’t even look human anymore! People aren’t shaped like this!” I go through this each time I get out of the bath or shower and catch a glimpse of my postpartum body naked in our bathroom mirror. My c-section shelf, the lumpy skin on my thighs, and my half loose skin/half fat arm wings. Most women have a hard time with their bodies after pregnancy, but for me it’s almost like a double blow. Just before I got pregnant I lost over 150 lb that I’d previously gained due to a bad reaction to medication. I was just approaching my target weight when I found out I was pregnant. At first I didn’t really worry too much about it. I figured I’d gain the proper amount and then lose it not long after having the baby. Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case.
Despite all of my time perfecting my diet, going on this health journey, and losing so much weight prior to pregnancy, I ended up gaining too much weight while I was pregnant. By the time I was in the hospital, preparing for my c-section, I had gained a total of 100 lb while pregnant. I couldn’t really tell you why. I did everything you’re “supposed” to do; I kept exercising until I absolutely couldn’t anymore, I didn’t overeat, I ate all healthy foods, and I never had any problems with gestational diabetes or any other pregnancy complication that arises when weight or health is an issue. But, despite all that, I gained a huge chunk of the weight I’d previously lost back during those nine months. My OB even had me count calories for a few weeks, just to be sure I wasn’t unknowingly consuming too many calories somewhere, but we found that my caloric intake was right on for where I was in pregnancy.
Some of the weight gain may have been from how my body reacted to pregnancy. It seemed to want to store EVERYTHING. In fact, by six months pregnant, I was retaining so much water in my legs that the swelling actually made bending my legs difficult. By the time I was approaching my due date, bending my legs more than I needed to sit down was basically impossible. My OB speculated that part of the weight I’d gained could be attributed to the massive amount of water my body was holding onto, and the rest of the excess could just be my body thinking it needed to hold onto a lot more calories than it really needed to. My pregnancy swelling eventually stopped me from doing too much physical activity, though I made sure I walked, stretched, and did some kind of exercise every single day, my previous regimen of hardcore prenatal yoga stopped being possible at around 6 months pregnant. Either way, we aren’t really sure what caused the weight gain. All I know is that, once I gave birth I was still up 80 lb from my pre-pregnancy weight. And, all the swelling didn’t make any of it easier.
At first I was really great at just saying, “Well, I grew another human with my body, so my weight is okay-I’m okay with it.” I was good at silencing that little voice inside my head that told me, “You’re fat again. You failed.” In the beginning I didn’t even buy larger clothes; I kept wearing my maternity clothes, and believed that I would be back to my normal size by the time I was ready to transition back to regular clothes. But, as the months went on and the weight didn’t come off, it became harder and harder to ignore that voice. It became so much more difficult to justify my weight to myself, despite everyone around me telling me that it wasn’t a big deal, it happened to lots of women and I could bounce back! I couldn’t help feeling like I was a failure, and even worse: I felt like a fraud. I would think about my blog and social media accounts and wonder, “How can I give other women health advice now? How can I ask them to follow my lead while I’m sitting here looking like this? I want people to come to me for help with weight loss and fertility diets when I couldn’t even keep myself from gaining too much weight while pregnant?” To top it all off, the swelling I previously mentioned got significantly worse after giving birth.
I’m a c-section mom, and that means that my recovery and postpartum body is a little different than those who have had a vaginal birth. One of those major differences is that, most women who have a c-section, experience a lot of swelling and water retention after the surgery. The outrageous swelling from before giving birth still wasn’t anywhere near going down, so after giving birth I only swelled up more. Matt actually took this picture of me leaving the hospital where I’m sitting in the wheelchair with Aaron in my lap right before he puts me in the car. Cute, right? Well, yeah, except for the fact that I was wearing one of my soft, cotton dresses to protect my c-section incision and I looked...bad. I mean, there I was with my legs exposed up to the thighs, my empty-balloon belly lurking just below the flowy fabric of my dress and I just looked huge, honestly. I was nearly three times the width that I would have been without the swelling. That added to the actual weight I gained made for a disastrous picture that I ended up having Matt delete.
Recovering After Pregnancy and a C-Section
I had hoped to get right back to work on my health and fitness by six or so weeks postpartum. My c-section incision was healing beautifully, and by two weeks postpartum I was up and walking around pretty normally. Then, out of nowhere, another obstacle popped up. My knees, which hadn’t been very usable for a long time due to the swelling, were completely screwed up. As my incision healed and some of the water retention swelling went down, I found that my knees didn’t work how they were supposed to. My muscles had lost their tone from not being used, and on top of that, the tendons surrounding my knees had shortened and tightened due to immobility and walking hunched over during my c-section recovery. Suddenly every step I took was painful. The tightened tendons were pulling on my kneecaps, and sometimes would even pull my entire kneecap to the side, causing my knee to give out.
Needless to say, this put my plan to jump back into my health and wellness journey on hold, at least in terms of fitness and exercise. It took me over two months to get my knees to the point that they could bear my weight without giving out. I did knee exercises ten to fifteen times every single day that were meant to help strengthen my knee muscles, tone my tendons, and loosen everything up. It was painful and frustrating. All the while I really wasn’t losing any more of my pregnancy weight. Yeah, the swelling was going down and I looked better, but I wasn’t truly losing any of the excess body fat I’d put on and the numbers on the scale were only going down by one or two pounds every month or so. I hated everything about my body and my weight at this point. I was so mad at myself for the weight I’d gained during pregnancy and I was so mad at my body for betraying me with the swelling and screwed up knee muscles.
PPD and my Body
My growing self-hate was only made worse by a severe case of postpartum depression. I was having trouble doing, well, anything. I was spending 90% of my time absolutely terrified or completely weighed down by despair. Even as a recovering addict and someone with a long history of problems with depression and anxiety, I’ve never felt as terrible in my life as I did during the worst of my PPD. I couldn’t get dressed, I couldn’t shower, I couldn’t make any decisions, and the only reason I even got out of bed was because I had to take care of my son while Matt was at work. I kept thinking that I would start to feel better eventually, and most of the people around me echoed that sentiment. They’d tell me, “Don’t worry, everyone is hormonal and emotional after pregnancy! It will pass.” I didn’t have the knowledge or the words to explain to them that this was beyond being overly emotional and hormonal, this was crippling despair and not only was it affecting my day-to-day life, but it was also ruining the joy of having a new baby. I finally talked seriously with Matt about how I was feeling and together we decided that it was time for me to ask my OB for help. So, at my next postpartum checkup I told the nurse how I was feeling. I filled out a depression questionnaire that helped them to assess how bad my PPD was, and I left the office that day with a prescription for a low-dose antidepressant.
Despite going on the antidepressant and starting to make real progress with my PPD, I still had a long journey ahead of me. In fact, my son was only 5 months old when I was put on my medication. Today, he is 10 months old and I’m still not feeling 100%, but I’m getting there. As far as my post-pregnancy body goes, I haven’t made as much progress. It took a long time for me to get back into the swing of normal life, and even longer for me to get back into exercising, going to yoga, and dedicating time to my home practice. Have I seem some results? Absolutely, but they haven’t come easily nor have they been that plentiful. I know in my heart that so many women go through this, and so many of us struggle with our bodies post-pregnancy and have to go through long journeys in order to get back to where we were before, but it doesn’t make it any less discouraging.
Looking at Myself Through Instagram
I know I’m doing everything I can and everything I need to, but after having such amazing success prior to becoming pregnant, the struggle to lose this weight now is twice as frustrating. On top of that, it’s embarrassing. For those of you who follow me on social media, you know that I used to post a ton of OOTD pics and throughout the first ¾ of my pregnancy I posted a lot of maternity outfit and belly progress pics. You probably also noticed that after 6-7 months pregnant those pictures stopped, because that’s the point when I realized I was getting too big and I was too ashamed of that to keep posting. Right after I gave birth I imagined myself posting progress images as I got smaller and lost my pregnancy weight. I saw so many before and after pregnancy posts on Instagram. The first image, a classic belly pic with the woman smiling with one hand on her round, pregnant belly. The second image showed her holding her baby at just a few months old, looking fit and amazing, smiling. I was disappointed that I couldn’t make the same kinds of posts. At just a few months postpartum, I looked...well, I looked like I was pregnant still. Swollen, bloated, with a still-large belly that also looked oddly like a deflated balloon.
After getting back into fitness and yoga, I started to gain more confidence. My body was strengthening and I felt better than I had in a very, very long time. So, I figured maybe I was ready to share my journey and my body with everyone a little more. At the beginning of March I decided to do something I’d never done before: I signed up for a yoga challenge on Instagram. These types of challenges consist of a different pose chosen for each day by the hosts of the challenge, and everyone participating takes a picture of themselves doing that pose and posts it on their Instagram account with all of the proper tags. I was excited about participating in something like that. I felt like it was a great challenge for me both for my progress getting back into yoga and my journey to accept and love my body again. The first day was easy, it called for a picture taken of me in a simple meditation pose. I had Matt take multiple pictures of me and picked the one I liked best, I posted it confidently and even talked a little bit about my struggles with my postpartum body in the description. The response I got was great, positive, and caring.
I was happy and feeling confident in my ability to continue with the challenge. That was, until the second day. The second day called for a picture of me in cat pose. I set up the image in a beautiful part of our new house, rolled out my new yoga mat, put on my best yoga clothes, and had Matt take a ton of pictures of me. Then, I looked through the images to find one I wanted to post, and I couldn’t find one. We thought maybe he just needed to try some different angles and lighting to help the images look better, but the second round of images felt the same as the first. I hated what I saw. These pictures revealed the parts of me I had been hiding from everyone: my c-section shelf, my loose skin, the excess fat and skin on my arms, and all the parts of me that now jiggled, folded, and rolled. I just couldn’t bring myself to post any of the images. I was ashamed of how my postpartum body looked and I was embarrassed at the thought of others seeing it in such a compromising light.
Leaving the #MarchYoga4Friendship Challenge
For a few days we went on this way. I kept having Matt take pictures of me in the daily poses, but I never posted any of them. Eventually I told him that I hadn’t been posting the pictures and that, at least for the time being, I was giving up on the challenge. I wasn’t ready to share that much of me online. I wasn’t ready to reveal just how much weight I’d gained during pregnancy and how much of that weight I was still holding onto after all this time. I was so ashamed and embarrassed, especially because I’d made multiple posts about this challenge and had even posted for the first day of the challenge before simply stopping. I didn’t know what to do. Should I address it on my account? Should I make a post explaining why I just stopped the challenge out of the blue? I didn’t know, so for awhile I didn’t post at all. I just went completely silent on social media for over a week.
Finally, I got back to posting, but I chose to completely ignore the whole yoga challenge issue. I didn’t post an explanation or an announcement that I was dropping out of the challenge, I just simply ignored it. But, the whole thing kept nagging at me. The feelings of just absolutely hating my body, the fact that I felt so embarrassed over making a big deal out of this yoga challenge and then completely stopped participating, and the feelings of being a fraud and a failure. How can I say, “So, I really hate my body right now and that’s why I stopped posting for this yoga challenge. I gained way too much weight during pregnancy and I’m basically an unhealthy, overweight blob right now and I really don’t want to show any part of my body online.” How could I continue my blog, my brand, and everything associated with it while looking and feeling this way?
What I eventually decided was this: Everything I’ve experienced and am experiencing is part of the journey. Yes, I made major health and lifestyle changes and I lost a bunch of weight. I became way healthier and that led me to reverse my PCOS and finally be able to get pregnant. Everything that came after, as a result of my pregnancy, is all part of that. Even gaining too much weight during pregnancy and struggling to get that weight off, and even though it doesn’t feel like it, I really have already made a lot of progress in my postpartum journey.
I healed from a c-section, one of the most serious and invasive surgeries still regularly performed. I worked really hard to heal and strengthen my knee muscles so that I could start being active again. I dealt with a massive amount of pain, swelling, muscle weakness, and so many other physical issues during this process. I dealt with severe PPD, had the courage to get help when I needed it, and overcame the most debilitating depression I’ve ever experienced. I dove into being a full-time mom, while also working full-time from home just four weeks after giving birth. I pushed myself to get back into yoga, and went from barely being able to get into downward dog to doing full-on hour long practices in the studio, in front of a ton of other people. I’ve come a long way from the girl who came out of the hospital in pain and swollen, embarrassed to have a picture of her even exist on her husband’s phone.
I still have a long way to go before my body is back to where I want it to be, but I know I will get there. In the meantime, all I can really do is keep working and do my best to be okay with the body I have today. I grew a beautiful, healthy baby boy who is the joy of my life and a bright light in a life that has had a lot of darkness in it. My body made, nourished, and birthed a whole new person. So, if the price I have to pay for that is some excess weight and a longer time before I feel okay posting OOTD or yoga pics again, then so be it.