Student/Parent: Body Image

CW: dieting, weight loss

The end of January brings the end of my social media pages being filled with messages of reinvention, and I’m glad to be rid of the ‘inspirational’ ads and posts promoting dieting, getting fit, and losing weight. The combination of general post-festive-period blues, lockdown-induced anxiety, and university stress is enough to get to anyone, let alone adding a constant stream of pressure to lose weight into the mix.

It’s easy to buy into it; my email inbox has been full of ads for online fitness classes and trendy athleisure, as well as healthy meal ideas and inspiration. Companies prey on the collective low mood that January brings us along with the guilt that comes with the inevitable indulgence that happens in the festive period. There’s pressure to make resolutions and goals and to restrict yourself in the interest of ‘self-improvement’.

The same thing happens after you have a baby. When I was pregnant I was given a gift of a ‘Bounce Back Body Butter’ which, presumably, is meant to restore your body to what it was before you grew and birthed a baby. Similar to the pressure to get in shape after Christmas is the pressure to lose ‘baby weight’ and ‘bounce back’ after having a baby. Something that I have to remind myself is impossible given that my bones permanently moved to make space for growing my baby.

The ‘mum’ side of social media is split into two halves. One half is perfectly made-up women expertly multitasking childcare and empowering careers while also keeping fit, having a beautiful and clean home, and serving Instagram-worthy nutritious meals. On the other side, it’s common to see posts showing the average post-pregnancy body as powerful and strong, stating that we’ve ‘earned’ our stripes. It attempts to normalise stretch marks, soft bellies, having constantly stained clothes, messy homes, and a messy mom bun.

I haven’t counted them, but I probably have over thirty stretch marks covering my stomach which appeared towards the end of my pregnancy. They used to be dark purple and some were almost an inch wide. They have since softened and faded but they will never fully disappear. I have a scar where my son was delivered by caesarean section. The skin is numb where the scar is and underneath I can feel thick scar tissue. A few months after he was born, my hair started to fall out at an alarming rate. None of these things are what I imagined my post-baby body looking like and they definitely aren’t the ‘ideal’ body I see in the media. And these aren’t things I can ‘bounce back’ from.

I’ve sustained another person for over a year through pregnancy and breastfeeding. My body has changed more than I ever imagined – losing weight, gaining weight, growing, stretching, shrinking, getting weaker and getting stronger again. And my relationship with my body has changed along with those physical changes. But I don’t need to use the fact that my body has been through a lot to justify treating it with kindness. I didn’t ‘earn’ these stretch marks. I, like many people, had stretch marks before I had a baby. They’re just part of my body.

If I say I love the stretch marks on my belly and justify it by thinking: ‘that’s where I grew my baby!’ then what do I say about the ones I had before? What do I say to people who have stretch marks but haven’t been pregnant? The same applies to people who take to social media with claims that they love their bodies because they’re strong, or fast, or allow them to do the things they love. Are bodies who are not strong or fast worth any less? For women, for young people, loving our bodies is often conditional based on how much space they take up. Is your body worth any less when it’s bigger?

I’m not saying I never have bad body image days, or that you’re wrong if you do. What I hope is that we shift from promoting dieting and weight loss to normalising all kinds of bodies and accepting them. All of us receive the messages to conform and the pressure to look a certain way – these messages particularly permeate social media and are impacting young people more and more. Just as new parents are a target for this pressure, young people are too. It can be overwhelming and difficult to shake off. But your worth doesn’t revolve around how strong your body is, how much space you take up, or the number on the scales.

[Jasmine Yancey – she/her]

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