My Body, The Warrior

I’d spent most of my life, pre-babies, body obsessed. Didn’t everyone? I came of age in an era when Kate Moss was God. Waify, willowy – the thinner, the better.

 

I chain-smoked and dieted obsessively. Crash diets, the cabbage soup diet, the Zone diet (wherein, for every fluffy waffle consumed, I choked down a large scoop of tuna fish).

 

I moved to New York in my early twenties and landed a job in magazine publishing. There I survived on iced coffee, laxatives, Gummy Bears, cigarettes and red wine.

 

I was casual with my body in the way I ate, partied and hooked up with guys. I spent many a hungover morning staring at myself naked in the mirror, picking apart every inch of my size-six figure. I had no idea what I was blessed with; all I could see were my flaws.

 

Then, in my late twenties, a few things changed. My best friend died, which was a wake-up call.

I started making a daily gratitude list of things that gave me joy: from the perfect cup of coffee to my older sister who lived down the block. I took up yoga, quit smoking and cut back on the booze. Then I met my husband.

 

By this time, I’d made a fair amount of peace with the dysmorphic body demons who’d plagued me. I exercised when I felt like it and, regardless of whether I ate kale or cheeseburgers, my weight hovered at the same number. 

 

A few months after getting married, I got pregnant. I’d always imagined I would be an earth mother in a flowing caftan, rubbing coconut oil into my bump and meditating over a cup of raspberry leaf tea, but it was the total opposite. If I wasn’t vomiting, I was eating, and my body changed shape almost immediately. My butt ballooned, my breasts swelled then sagged. By the time I was four months along, I felt like a heinous, puffy pig. For the first time in my life, I had acne.

 

I’ll admit, those first few months, I spent more time mourning the body I’d lost than thinking about the baby I was going to have. I knew no amount of  dieting or exercise was going to change anything – but I refused to fully surrender.

 

Until the moment I first heard my baby’s heartbeat. BABOOM. It sounded like birds’ wings. Like life. It was the most beautiful sound I’d ever heard. 

 

I stopped thinking about myself and started thinking about my baby. A girl. She was the size of a poppy seed, an apple, an ear of corn, a pumpkin. She received all her nutrients from me, it was my responsibility to nourish us both. I started to wear my weight gain like a badge of honour.

 

When I boxed up the last of my skinny clothes, it didn’t send me into a panic.

 

For the first time in my life, I became fascinated by my body’s warrior strength – and much less interested in what it looked like from the outside. 

Sunny arrived a week late; I was 12st 8lb. The labour was swift, and by the time we got to the hospital it was too late for an epidural. Pushing her out was agony.

 

A few hours later, after a nurse stitched up my perineum with black thread and 16 stitches, I waddled to the bathroom (aloe and witch hazel-soaked maxi pad bulging from my postnatal polyester granny panties) and spotted my first ever grey hair. I was euphoric. Giving birth was the hardest I’d worked in my life, and I had another battle scar to prove it. 

 

But that wasn’t the end. Anything but. The next night, my breasts began throbbing. My milk was coming in strong; it felt like bowling balls had been set on fire inside my chest. I tried everything to soothe the pain.

 

I inserted ice-cold cabbage leaves into my nursing bra, massaged olive oil, Epsom salts and calendula cream into my nipples. And when I looked in the mirror, I couldn’t believe what stared back. Part porn star, part Shrek,

 

I was an obese monster with Pam Anderson boobs. But instead of falling down the rabbit hole of self-loathing, I triumphed over my transformation. My body – former vessel for Diet Coke, diet yoghurt and lots of self- flagellation – was a giver of life, capable of nourishing a tiny creature with nutrient-rich milk. It had a purpose.

 

Three years on, once I’d lost my baby weight and gained it back all over again, my second daughter Caroline arrived. Her birth was a scheduled C-section, because she was lying feet-first inside my uterus. There’s a certain taboo against Caesarean sections – almost as if having one is a cop-out. I don’t buy that dogma. There’s no right way to have a baby. I entered the surgery grateful and calm, and, while Bob Dylan blared from my husband’s phone, burst into joyful tears the second the doctor pulled her out of my stomach. 

 

Thank you, thank you, I said again and again, smothering my screeching, bloody baby girl in kisses.

 

But the surgery made walking to the bathroom feel like a hike up the Himalaya Trail. I’d wake up in the middle of the night drenched in milk and perspiration.When Caroline was six days old, the costume director of Girls called me, looking to borrow a wedding dress for Marnie from the bridal company I own. Days later, the actress who plays her, Allison Williams, pretty and petite as fuck, appeared at my front door in Brooklyn, stripped to her tiny undies, telling me, “I can’t wait to have a baby!” while trying on a bias-cut slip.

 

I perched uncomfortably on the couch, passing silent, uncontrollable gas (an unfortunate by-product of abdominal surgery), while the baby dribbled into my hair. 

 

That night, after I got kids to sleep, I hooked up my portable breast pump and waddled to the fridge. Stomach growling, I surveyed the contents: cold spaghetti, chocolate-chip cookies. Delicious, carb-heavy food sent by well-meaning friends and neighbours. I reached for the pasta, then remembered Allison’s doll-like figure in that slip dress, and hesitated – until the baby let out a long scream. Then I snapped to my senses and prepared a huge plate of food.

 

I went back to work eight weeks after giving birth, dragging my breast pump on the Subway and still wearing my maternity jeans.

 

For the next year, I ate three square meals a day, plus snacks to nourish my baby. I went to sleep every night at 9.30pm, took vitamins and exercised when I could. One day, I realized it was time to get my skinny jeans out again. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my almost 40 years, it’s that the body image stuff is a lifelong struggle. In some ways, I’ll always be that teenage girl wanting to look like Kate Moss. The difference is that now I know when to stop and get on with my day.

 

Now my breasts look like old change purses and I have permanent bags under my eyes, I’ve realized true beauty is an inside job.

 

I’m doing my damnedest to pass on the message to my girls, too. I tell them they’re capable, competent and confident, I serve them both kale and cake, I let them dress up as princesses, then send them to the park in trainers and jeans and tell them to run like hell.

 

True beauty is anything but two dimensional – it’s lumpy and bumpy, it’s mottled with sun spots and scars – and if those are the marks of living a meaningful life, I’m all in.

 

Originally published on Red Online UK