When I was pregnant, I had this vision of myself holding my twin boys standing at the finish line of the Block Island Triathalon. In my mind’s eye, I was wearing my race number, six pack abs from training and a big grin that said, “Look at me and how skinny I am seven months after twins!” Fast-forward to today a week away from the Block Tri, and the reality is that I struggle to make it to Pilates once a week let alone train for a mini triathlon. It may be different than what I anticipated pre-pregnancy, but I am deeply confident that I have done exactly what I needed to nourish and care for my body in my recovery from my super-sized pregnancy and traumatic birth. Not only has my recovery been very different than what I anticipated, my body image has transformed in an unexpected way and for the first time in my life I truly love, accept and appreciate my Self on a physical level.
I was in a constant battle with “the last five pounds” since around the age of sixteen. To be clear, these are five pounds that I did not need to lose – I was always athletic and thin. I systematically avoided mirrors. When I did gaze at my own reflection, I was plagued by critical thoughts about my body and appearance. I compared my face and frame to Victoria’s Secret models, fitness magazines and women I saw on social media – the pervasive concept of the perfect woman that plagues our society. I followed in the footsteps of women around me who criticized their bodies, stressed about the food they ate, how much they exercised, and rejected any compliments they received. It was everywhere – in society, in my family, in my various groups of friends throughout high school and college. I will never forget being in high school and asking a friend to lunch to be told, “we don’t eat lunch.” Throwing up or starving yourself was seen as normal, and although I never considered myself to have had a full-blown eating disorder, I did those things as part of my chronic low self-esteem throughout high school and college.
In my early twenties, I began to learn about nutrition, healthy eating, and I started doing yoga. I ate a diet rich in fruits and vegetables, I drank less and less alcohol, I exercised three to five times a week, if not more, doing everything from yoga to spinning to barre class. I practiced the healthiest of habits, and I was not orthorexic – a form of eating disorder characterized by an obsession with eating healthy. Yet, the intention behind my wellness routine, juice cleanses, and intense exercise was based on a desire to be thin – not to be healthy or feel good. I was focused on altering my appearance to one that was more beautiful, toned, tiny – to look like someone that I am not. I always ended up back in front of the mirror, sucking my stomach in, turning to the side, pinching my thighs, and I never thought I looked good enough. At the same time, I loved myself to not go too far – even in prepping for my wedding, I didn’t go insane about dieting and I was pretty moderate. But there was still this “not enough” feeling and a pattern of negative self-talk about my body that has become so ingrained in my brain I could barely hear it.
During my pregnancy, I began to practice intuitive eating. Everything I read encouraged me to count calories and force myself to eat massive amounts of protein. Yet, I could barely stomach a green juice or salmon. I resisted playing the self-blame game and I ate according to what my body needed in each moment. It is another way that having twins saved me – it helped me put less pressure on myself to have a #fitpregnancy or “be all bump.” I still didn’t feel “enough” though, and avoided mirrors and photos of myself throughout my pregnancy even though I knew I would live to regret not documenting this magical time. It was not until after the boys were born that my relationship with my body transformed.
Post-partum, my body was the most broken it had ever been. The 70+ pounds I gained stretched and strained my body, the massive uterus displaced and depleted my organs and the Cesarean sliced my abdomen open. I will never forget showering for the first time after the birth. Between the high blood pressure from the pre-clampsia and falling and tearing my groin two days before the birth, I had been labeled “FALL RISK” with a big orange wristband and not allowed to shower for days. Finally, I found myself under the warm water and under the loving, watchful gaze of my husband who had to hold me to keep me standing, as I looked down at my body. My face was swollen and marred with Bells Palsy, my breasts were massive, and my still-large belly was marked by an angry, red, stapled, stitched-up incision. Even in that moment, I had more love and appreciation for my body than ever before in my life. My body had carried me through the pregnancy and birth to deliver me two perfect souls, one lying in the plastic bassinet outside the bathroom door and another one in the NICU downstairs.
I am fifteen or so pounds heavier than pre-pregnancy, I still have my ligna negra (dark line down your belly), and my belly and breasts are larger and differently shaped than before. Yet, now when I see myself in the mirror, positive and loving thoughts fill my mind. I see my own strength, I feel gratitude for everything my body has been through, and I genuinely love the image I see. There is more to this level of self-love – I have done a great deal of self-work and grown spiritually over the past few years that has been instrumental in raising my self-worth. But it was giving birth and having my body completely broken, and the gratitude that came from having my babies, that transformed my self-esteem and brought me to a place of deep love.
These are some practices that I have used to help heal my body image. For the record, body image and love is not a fixed thing – it is something that I am constantly and will always be working on throughout life. Here are a few methods that have helped me along my journey that I suggest to anyone looking to shift their body image to a place of love:
- Intentionality: I encourage you to dig deep and face the true intention behind why you eat or exercise the way you do. Is it from a loving place? Or is it from a self-critical and perfectionistic place? For years I thought the intention behind the way I ate and exercised was for my highest health and wellness. It wasn’t. I got honest with myself and realized that I was chasing down five pounds and a perfect set of abs, not more health and love for my body.
- Positive affirmations: Our brains are full of neural pathways – I like to think of them as wheel ruts in a road. When you think negative thoughts, it creates a deep rut that is worn into the brain, and you become trained to continue negative thinking. To break these, you need to create new, positive neural pathways. Examples could be “I look beautiful today,” “I love my body,” “I love x part of my body,” etc. The more you think this thought, the more it will be ingrained in your brain and become your truth.
- Mirror work: Take your positive affirmations a step further by doing them in front of a mirror. In Kundalini yoga, there is a mantra “I am beautiful, I am bountiful, I am blissful.” Try saying this for three minutes over and over again in front of the mirror completely naked. It is challenging! Another mirror practice is to sit in front of the mirror and stare deeply into your own eyes for ten minutes. Do not blink – tears will run down your face, that’s normal. It is kind of trippy, but it’s a very powerful way to connect with your Self.
- Avoid triggers: I don’t weigh myself because the number can trigger me into a spiral of negative self-talk. Other triggers could be a certain food, group of people or person, or type of exercise. Another example is that I know that I can’t do a juice cleanse or any other restrictive diet for a while as it would still be a form of disordered eating for me. I also un-followed every social media account that made me feel bad about my body.
- Stop negative-self talk with friends: We all, especially women, engage in group discussions about our diets and bodies that are not constructive. Telling your thin friend she doesn’t need to lose five pounds because she is already “soooo skinny” also is not helpful. Instead, shift the discussion to what you love about your body or your friend’s bodies. Encourage positive eating habits, but if you suspect your friend is practicing disordered eating, think of a gentle, loving way to talk it through with them.
- Stop commenting on women’s bodies: Especially pregnant women’s bodies. This is for another blog post, but it is not acceptable to say anything about a woman’s body even if she is pregnant. Even if you think it is nice. I was told over and over again I was small, which made me incredibly anxious that my babies weren’t growing well. I also gained much more than the “recommended” weight so I wasn’t actually small, and I carried the babies well due to my long torso. And because I’m awesome – another practice, give yourself love and credit!