When I was growing up, my mom often told me that after I was born, she swiftly returned to her pre-baby silhouette. So quickly did she look like her old self—petite, gamine—that a neighbour, seeing my mom wearing a sundress and pushing a pram with a baby in it, joked that I must have been adopted. Surely, this was meant as a high compliment. When we’re pregnant, we’re celebrated for our roundness, for our bloom-of-life sensuality, but as soon as we’ve given birth, we’re expected to immediately look as if we’d never been pregnant in the first place. The adoption incident with the neighbour was in the late ’70s, but the cultural pressure to return to pre-baby form, to wear the hell out of a bikini a few months postpartum, has only intensified. (New mothers weren’t busy posting selfies of their abs to social media 40 or even 20 years ago.) “Did you even have a baby?” is the classic question posed to the new mother who is back in her pre-pregnancy skinny jeans, offered less as actual inquiry than praise.
Today, we’re seeing a rebuke to this cultural narrative. The body positivity movement—which preaches acceptance and health, slams fat-shaming, calls out “thin privilege,” and celebrates diversity and “realness” over diet-and-Photoshop-assisted notions of “perfection”—is enjoying a moment. It’s also exhorting much-needed post-postpartum body acceptance (as opposed to immediate post-postpartum bounce-back). And, as it turns out, it’s also great for business. Former model Chrissy Teigen has parlayed honesty into a new career, posting pictures of her stretch marks on Twitter with the caption: “Mom bod alert.” Beyoncé, too, has joined the revolution: After the birth of her twins in 2017, Queen Bey spoke lovingly about her so-called FUPA (fat upper pubic area) to Vogue last year: “To this day, my arms, shoulders, breasts and thighs are fuller. I have a little mommy pouch, and I’m in no rush to get rid of it. I think it’s real… Right now, my little FUPA and I feel like we are meant to be.”
Companies like the U.K.’s Mothercare (a mega-retailer of baby products) and Canada’s Knix (a line of comfortable intimates) are also advancing the trend, featuring photos in their advertising of postpartum women, along with their scars, stretch marks, cellulite, excess skin, and so on—a sort of “take-that!” against the prevailing cult of conventional beauty.
Meanwhile, more and more women are posting unedited photos of their postpartum bodies, casting themselves (if unintentionally) as foremothers of the movement. Instagram—where the only thing standing between us and perfection is a hard-working Gingham filter—has historically been no place for reality, so posting images of a stretch-marked midsection serves almost as an act of feminine resistance. “Anything that shows women’s bodies in all their variety is to be welcomed,” says Susie Orbach, a British psychoanalyst, writer, social critic and author of the 1978 classic Fat Is a Feminist Issue.
But not everyone involved embraces this idea of a ‘movement.’ Sarah Nicole Landry has earned 274,000 Instagram followers by posting unvarnished (or, at least, less-varnished) photos of her body, including her abdomen, which is mapped with a tangle of stretch marks. Landry rejects the protest argument: “I didn’t do this to make a feminist statement. I did it to protect my mental health.” Her impulse to share “real” images of her body wasn’t about sexual or identity politics and didn’t bloom from a place of confidence, so much as from an effort to publicly explore, and challenge, her own self-loathing. Landry accompanied a recent post—a mirror selfie in a negligible black bikini—with this caption: “The best way to find self-love is to explore your self-hate.” In the photo, she is baring her stretch-marked belly in a display of both courage and pride. It might be worth mentioning that Landry is thin, albeit not ’90s-Kate Moss thin; for heavier women, the argument that Landry’s swimsuit selfies are an act of bravery may be a rich one. Over the phone from her home in Guelph, Ont., Landry tells me about her decision to start revealing these photos of herself: “I was in a season of challenging myself to love my body.” She’d had three children by the time she was 25 and then proceeded to lose 100 pounds. After the weight loss, she was still mired in self-loathing. “I had approached weight loss with a perfectionist mindset—it was as if I could just hate my body happy,” she says, explaining that much of her weight loss came from a place of self-punishment and self-deprivation. “But seven years after having children, I’m still struggling with my post-postpartum body,” says Landry, now 34. “And I thought, Maybe there are other people like me. Maybe it’s worth having this discussion out loud. It was about giving some of these thoughts some air.”
For Landry, publicly sharing pictures of herself was tangled up in the hope of changing the conversation she was endlessly having in her head: “There are those studies: Talk to a plant with kindness or talk to a plant with hate—how differently the plant grows,” she says. “I reached a point where I felt my body did a good job. I’m done being mad at it. I’m going to start congratulating it and praising it for a job well done. It did what it was meant to do.”
Talking about the post-postpartum body, and the shame that so often goes along with it, Orbach puts it plainly: “It is a scandal that we are ever made to feel shame about it.”
Part of the shame comes from the messages we’ve been fed for so long. If we’ve been nursed on images (fantasies?) of the post-postpartum supermom—the nurturing, sexy multi-tasker, who can still rock a pair of skinny jeans while emanating an estrogenic aura of maternal serenity—Landry posts pictures that fly in the face of this fiction. These images are arguably normalizing, helping other women to feel less alone and less stigmatized, inciting them to no longer frame changes in their own bodies around a storyline of loss. That is, a loss of identity or a loss of our pre-baby bodies. “Photos of realness motivate us and build solidarity,” says Vania Sukola, a Toronto-based psychotherapist. “This movement can be a chance to build back a community of support.” She adds: “We aren’t meant to bounce back! Society’s focus on losing the baby weight so quickly puts pressure on us, keeps our bodies sexualized and serves the industries of male privilege and consumerism.” Critical to our mental health, Sukola believes, is recognizing and validating the enormity and complexity of the transition into motherhood. “I love the word ‘matrescence,’” she says.
Anthropologists originally coined the term matrescence to describe the developmental transition into motherhood, a change (psychological, physical and neurobiological) that can leave us as destabilized and as vulnerable as the passage into adolescence. “Instead of mourning the bodies we have lost, it may be more productive and empowering to love what we have and what our new bodies are capable of,” says Sukola.
In a recent TED Talk about this very transition, New York-based psychiatrist Alexandra Sacks (who is now escorting the idea of matrescence into the medical community and the mainstream) says: “When a baby is born, so is a mother—each unsteady in its own way.” This transition is often accompanied by feelings of shame, ambivalence, crises of identity and, in as much as 15 percent of women, postpartum depression.
These experiences are deeply familiar to Anupa King, who, like Landry, has gained more than 51,000 Instagram followers for posting less-conventional photos of her postpartum body. Last year, King posted an image of herself in plank pose, her belly wrinkles and loose skin in clear view, with the caption: “A love letter to my postpartum self: Stop hating you for thinking you have an ugly stomach, and start loving you for how absolutely stunning and beautiful you were and still are for carrying and caring for your two gorgeous humans.”
Just before King’s first kid, Mikey, was born, she lost her brother, and had sunk into profound depression. By the time Mikey was four months old, it was out of control. “I hated everything about myself,” King says. “I would wake up in the morning and cry through my days, and I almost took my own life: There was a day when Mikey wasn’t with me, and I wanted to drive my car off a bridge. But that day, the second my husband walked through the door, I said, ‘I gotta get help.’” She sought therapy and went on antidepressants. “After I had Mikey, I was living in a world where I thought I would be the old me; I would be the me before the baby. But when you have a baby—you’re reborn, too. You need to find that new you or invent it.” For King, posting photos of herself became a public form of therapy, a means for her to temper her feelings of loneliness and inadequacy. “I started my Instagram account as a way to share and heal,” she says.
The real turning point in King’s self-image came five days after her second son, Levi, was born. She had been rushed to the ER with a golf-ball-size blood clot, and as she lay in the operating room in a state of semi-consciousness, she remembers bargaining in her head: “I was bleeding to death, and I thought, Just let me go home! Let me be one voice of loving what I look like and who I am—and I don’t care if anybody listens to me,” King says. “I thought, I’m alive, I’m here.”
Both King and Landry (much like Beyoncé and Chrissy Teigen—and the campaigns from Knix and Mothercare) do more than document their scars and stretch marks. They wear them like badges, signs of resilience and power, exalting the mother as warrior and hero. “Are these companies being opportunistic? Yes, of course, they are,” says Orbach. “But we want them to move the needle.” However, she warns that these social media posts and trendy marketing campaigns still keep the focus on image. “My difficulty with the trend is that it’s still all about display, as though that is what postpartum is,” says Orbach. “Somehow showing one’s body—albeit in this way—still seems as though what it means to be a woman is to look to a camera.” A recent article on Jezebel suggested that images of the lacerated, birth-battered postpartum body are not about feminine power but rather serve to feed retrograde notions of maternal sacrifice. These images are not progressive, so goes the thesis, insofar as they underline backward binary ideals of femininity: woman as either desirable, sexy, goddess or woman as selfless maternal sacrificial goddess. It seems to me that maybe we’re both. Or neither.
When my son was born, I felt distinctly ungoddess-like. And I feel a certain discomfort with viewing my C-section scar as a heroic, I-am-a-procreative-goddess battle-wound. I think, in part, my reluctance comes from my unease with our cultural compulsion to spin pain into inspiration. Keeping the focus on image may be far from ideal, but, in these image-obsessed times, pictures that prize reality over “perfection” are progressive. And, in handing the truth (in all its diversity) a mic, in celebrating change over the fantasy of changelessness and in altering the delusion that changelessness is a goal, these images also seem like progress. A badge of honour is clearly preferable to a mark of shame. It’s high time imperfection gets a following.