By Jennie Rabinowitz
No photographs exist of me blissfully cradling my belly during any of my three pregnancies. I didn’t want any reminders of how disembodied I felt during those long months. How the body I’d learned to rely on, if not love, suddenly transformed into something alien in a very public way.
There was something about the contrast between my small frame and its supersized parts that made people crack up at the sight of me. When, at seven months pregnant, I walked down the aisle as a bridesmaid in a friend’s wedding, there was a collective gasp from the guests, one of whom shrieked, “Oh my God, she’s going to pop!” I found it mortifying to have become a spectacle for something I had no control over, something that should have been regarded as a run-of-the-mill time of excitement but that in my case seemed hilarious, at least to people who weren’t me.
As a woman, I’d always felt that my body was inextricably linked to my self-identity—and how I was perceived by others. So much of my life has been spent figuring out how to control how my body was viewed—when to flaunt certain parts of it, and when to hide those same parts.
During pregnancy, those parts ballooned beyond my ability to contain them, and it was disorienting. With my breasts and belly exaggerated to the extreme, the rest of me felt diminished. Being pregnant was a huge privilege, but that doesn’t change how physically and mentally out of whack I felt. People assumed that I was ecstatic, but my feelings weren’t so simple. I resented the assumption that there was only a single appropriate response that a person could or should have about their own pregnancy.
At home, my husband would enthusiastically try to persuade me that my pregnant body was incredibly sexy, but it just felt unwieldy and uncomfortable. His increased lust felt burdensome, another thing I had to manage on top of aches, exhaustion and queasiness. I wish I could have reveled in his body worship, but the weight of my mind was even heavier than that of my body and I was frequently lost in its churning.
It was my kids who finally got me to reevaluate my perspective during my third and final pregnancy. My 10-year-old son smiled every time his eyes landed on my belly. Contemplating its sturdy construction, he’d applaud how well built of a home it was for his brother-to-be. When I shared some of the good and some of the bad of what I was feeling, my honesty brought out his compassion. Suddenly he was bringing in grocery bags without being asked and delivering glasses of water to my bedside. He gives great foot massages—something I doubt I would have discovered had I not ended up pregnant right at that precise moment when he was no longer a young child but not yet a self-conscious teen.
My daughter would head straight to my belly after school, showering it with kisses before contentedly resting her chin atop my abdomen. She was fascinated by my bigger breasts, finding them not just hilarious, like everyone else seemed to, but awesome, given the important work they were about to do. With reverence, she would trace the outline of my form and marvel at its evolution. Both kids found the transformed package of me beautiful, and it was their adoration and awe that finally allowed me to delight in the temporary shape I’d taken on.
I wish I could say that the perspective they gave me remained dominant after I gave birth, but I lost it for a while. After each of my children was born, I was left with a body that was disconcertingly unfamiliar. It became something I didn’t inhabit so much as I dragged it along, heavy baggage on my journey through life. My husband tried to get me to honor it, to see it as an avenue for pleasure, a shrine to all that I am, inside and out, but I couldn’t see it as anything other than something that weighed me down.
Parenting eventually gave me the push I needed to try to shift my unhealthy self-image. As the mother of a tween girl, I didn’t want to pass on my warped perspective. With so much external input about what girls’ bodies should look like coming from media sources and the culture at large, I wanted to provide a healthier perspective for my daughter. At a minimum, I needed to learn to accept her compliments instead of modeling my own body-shaming by rejecting them. And so I thought back to my final pregnancy, to how my children had changed my perspective back then. Without a babe in my belly, my older kids were no longer as focused on my physical form, but they remained positive and accepting.
I also took some time to dissect my impulse to self-loath, to feel revulsion when I look in the mirror. Searching back in time, I realized that my self-criticism ramped up when I was a teenager, after an obnoxious boy made some insulting comments about me. I remember being confused, because at the same time he was insulting me he was trying to make out with me, so which was I—sexy or repulsive? After that I emphasized the sexy at all costs, while internalizing the repulsive. I was scared that others were repulsed by me, too. Like most teenagers, fear of humiliation was paramount in my mind.
I’m still girding myself for humiliation, but the threat isn’t really there anymore. I have a husband who knows every inch of me and delights in them all. I have children who would think I’m beautiful no matter what I look like. So when that fear pops up, I try to remind myself that no threat is looming, that I’m safe.
What I’ve come to realize is that there are many lenses through which I can gaze upon myself. There isn’t one that is absolutely “right” or “true,” even though that’s what I’ve believed for many years. Sneaking a peek through the eyes of those for whom my body is a wonderland has given me confidence, but ultimately I need to repair the lens I wear most often: my own. Trying on other perspectives has taught me that I have the power to refine my focus when I turn my gaze towards myself. It’s a goal I work on every day.
Believing, as Socrates said, that “the unexamined life is not worth living,” Jennie Rabinowitz writes as a way to grow as a human and connect with others. The parent of a toddler, a tween and a teen, she is a legal advocate for survivors of domestic violence in Washington, D.C.
Like what you are reading at Motherwell? Please consider supporting us here.