Blessed Are the Stretch-Marked and Muffin-Topped
After I gave birth to my third child, pictures flooded social media, including a few of me holding my newborn. Beneath each, the comments. "You look great, Rach!"
Their remarks certainly assuaged my frustration with my postpartum appearance. My still-puffy body, stretch-marked and filled with fluid, did not look great, but I could post pictures that hid some of these flaws.
Then, after reading (and truly, everlastingly appreciating) some of these compliments, I started to feel like a fraud. The variation that most got to me-- "You don't even look like you had a baby!"—had me questioning people's sanity. Of course I looked like I just had a baby. So why did this compliment make me feel better about myself and at the same time so much worse?
I did not look like Maria Kang, whose Facebook posts of her postpartum rock-hard abs have taunted women across the Internet in recent months. I had read just days before giving birth about how women should not be expected to erase the marks of childbearing from their bodies. Blogger Matt Walsh wrote:
There's nothing wrong with being a mom who looks like a mom. We would never tell someone to hide their cultural or ethnic identity, so why do we pressure moms to hide their maternal identity? It's insane. It's wrong.
I've had issues with my pregnant and postpartum body for a while, but I don't want to ignore the physical changes of these stages of life. Through the God-given gift of childbearing, I gained a new, invaluable understanding of myself and my womanhood.
My first pregnancy made me feel gendered as a woman, trapped by my female body, in a way that I had never before experienced. Until then, I always felt my body belonged to me. As an athlete, my body empowered me, even paid for my college tuition. It never restricted me to any so-called woman's role. When it came to gender issues, I looked around me, and I saw my education, my right to vote, my career opportunities, and my husband folding laundry, and I said, "It is good."
It was also good, then, that when I got pregnant, I felt betrayed by my body. The all-day "morning" sickness made it impossible for me to do my job competently. My back went out. People stared at me (because pregnant) and asked intrusive questions or tried to touch my burgeoning belly. My shape was the subject of open discussion. "You hardly look like you've gained any weight," said all the liars. "You look ready to pop! I can't believe you have two more months left," said all the jerks. My GI system rebelled with a vengeance.
And then I gave birth. Sparing some details, after that, sitting hurt for three months, and I never could find a large or supportive enough bra.
As a new mom, I found myself in a class on gender and literature, as I began graduate studies in English. Having just experienced the oppressiveness of my biology, I could relate to those who historically and culturally felt the oppressiveness of their gender. A little bit of history, a little bit of cross-cultural study, a little bit of exposure to the headlines slamming Kim Kardashian's pregnant body and exclaiming over Kate Middleton's postpartum baby (uterus?) bump, and you might call me a feminist. (My husband, who is still doing our laundry, certainly does).
I realize now that I'm free to be me, a graduate student, wife, mother, volleyball coach, adjunct instructor—a woman—only because I've been born in this time in this place. And this freedom I've been afforded doesn't negate my responsibility to find God's intentions for me as a woman.
In an age when women reject calls for modesty as fueling rape culture, when popular Christian leaders publicly debate traditional gender roles, and when churches host workout programs justified by the "body is a temple" verse, I must find out. How does God want me to think of my body? Because my body is gendered woman, undeniably, as the scars left by my pregnancies and babies have taught me. I can no longer ignore this fact and pretend that my body is not a source of vanity, frustration, sin, pleasure, life, and possibility. And while I theoretically believe in gender equality, that doesn't mean I've worked out the complete implications of that in my life.
For example, when people comment on my pictures that I don't look like I've had a baby in a kindly-meant gesture of solidarity or support, I wonder why my appearance merits mentioning at all, even while I hunger to hear more compliments like that. And though I'll be the first to tell you how hard it's been finding clothes that fit my puffy postpartum body in all its big-bossomed, muffin-topped glory, something new hit me with this last baby, who was born just before we celebrated the Christmas holidays.
Holding my newborn in my arms, I marveled at Jesus' birth in a new way. Having taken on flesh, he proved that our bodies matter as the vehicle of life and death in this world, and I'm trying not to let the scars and extra weight on this one bother me as much as they once did.
Rachel V. Willis is a graduate student studying English at Lynchburg College. In addition to her studies, she is mother to three young children and an adjunct instructor for Liberty University, where she also coaches the new club sports' beach volleyball teams.
Rachel is the winner of the Her.meneutics Student Writing Contest.