In her book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth, midwife Ina May Gaskin memorably says “Your body is not a lemon…Even if it has not been your habit throughout your life so far, I recommend that you learn to think positively about your body.”
Great advice, right? Unfortunately, for many people, especially during pregnancy, learning to think positively about our bodies is easier said than done.
At Luna Doulas prenatal meetings, we frequently remind our clients to trust, connect with, and listen to their bodies. If you are into meditation or affirmations, we might suggest focusing on the words “my body knows how to give birth.” But I’m also aware that the advice to feel confident about your body and its awesome abilities goes against a lifetime of cultural conditioning that tells us that our bodies are only important because of how they look, that they ought to look a certain way, and that they are never good enough.
On top of that, much of the terminology related to pregnancy, labor, and birth seems designed to make us feel bad about ourselves. Dilating early in your pregnancy? You’ve got an incompetent cervix. Experiencing a long active labor? You’re failing to progress. Those contractions might feel pretty strong, but according to the monitors, they’re insufficient. If there are concerns about the size of the baby in proportion to your body, you might be told that you have an inadequate pelvis, and if you are expecting a baby after age 35, that’s a geriatric pregnancy.
And, of course, all of this is compounded for those who are plus size, disabled, POC, trans or non-binary.
I’ve never been pregnant or given birth, but I’ve had my own journey with body image that is ongoing, and full of steps forward and steps back.
Recently, I joined a group of friends to participate in a marathon relay. It had been over a decade since I entered a race with the intention to run the entire time and my body has changed in the intervening years. I found myself feeling self-conscious about my shape to the point where I felt awkward even telling people I was training for a race because I imagined that they were judging my non-runner’s body.
On the big day, I began my portion of the relay heading down West Colfax towards Mile High Stadium in a thick crowd of people. As I settled into the groove of my run, I began to look at the other runners around me and noticed that I wasn’t the only one who didn’t appear to be straight off the cover of a fitness magazine. In fact, there were people larger than me and smaller than me, taller and shorter, younger and older, leaner and bulkier, and everything in between. I realized that there’s no such thing as a typical “runner’s body” because every body belonging to a runner is a runner’s body, and there’s no wrong way to have one. And, best of all, our bodies aren’t just here to be looked at; they’re here to help us sense and feel and move and do fun things like relay races!
This idea that there’s no wrong way to have a body keeps popping into my head as I work with pregnant clients, as I hear them tell me that they are gaining too much or too little weight, that they hate the way they look, that they’re worried about how long it’s going to take to get back to their pre-pregnancy size, that they don’t believe that their body will be able to give birth.
It can be hard to turn off the voices you’ve internalized and change the way you think about yourself. I’m not an expert, but I invite anyone who is experiencing these kinds of doubts during pregnancy to do things to build a positive relationship with your body, just like Ina May suggested. Practice self-care. Exercise and move your body in a way that feels good. Check out resources like PlusSizeBirth.com. Think critically about the messages that society sends us about our bodies. Throw away the gossip magazines about celebrities “getting their body back.” Surround yourself with people who love you, and extend compassion towards yourself.
I’ve been thinking a lot about bodies again this week because of the spectacular physiques on display at the Olympics. Whether I’m marveling at Simone Biles’s power to seemingly defy gravity, or Sarah Robles’s ability to lift more weight than I would have thought humanly possible, I love seeing the diversity and variance in the athletes’ bodies. Shot put champion Michelle Carter perfectly sums up my feelings: “You have to understand everyone’s body was built to do something.”
So no matter what other messages you are getting, remember: your body was built to give birth.