Entertaining a 2-year-old is exhausting. Especially when you're already exhausted. Which is why I sometimes just flop myself down onto the floor and let my daughter climb all over me. It counts as quality time, but I only have to expend a minimal bit of energy. And she has no idea that I'm being lazy. She thinks using me as a jungle gym is the bee's knees.
But she's developed this troubling habit where she lifts up my shirt and laughs hysterically at my belly, touching it tentatively with her tiny fingers, as if she is marveling at the great, blubbery expanse of it. And mocking me. And then, as if she couldn't possibly leave such a monstrous swell of skin out in the open, she pulls my shirt back down, covering my belly, and pats me reassuringly. Am I projecting? Perhaps. But I can't help it. Ever since that first, significant rush of weight gain 12 years ago—during a courtship with my now-husband that involved many trips to McDonald’s, followed by many sedentary hours watching B-horror movies in bed—my feelings toward my body have been ever-shifting. First came the hate, fueled by the horror I felt at my ever-expanding body. Layered on top of this was the shame I felt by what I saw as my sexual deficiency, an aftershock of a sexually abusive relationship several years before. And then, eventually, came the feelings of betrayal I felt toward my body over the three and a half years during which my husband and I struggled to conceive a child. But in the midst of this, I found yoga and, suddenly, my relationship with my body shifted yet again. My legs grew leaner and my calves grew more muscular. My biceps and the muscles beneath the pooch of my stomach grew harder. My hamstrings loosened. The things my body was capable of astounded me. I felt proud of it. For the first time, I felt at peace with its curves.
Two years later, I was pregnant. And though my yoga practice didn't slow down until the beginning of my third trimester, I began to more deeply explore the mind-body connection that could be cultivated through simply sitting still and being with my breath. I sat for 5 to 20 minutes every afternoon and every evening with a guided meditation. I learned how I might be able to let go of all the labels I had been using to define myself. I learned how I might develop the ability to respond to life's ups and downs—and my body's ups and downs—with more equanimity. Then Emily was born. She took to breastfeeding immediately. It was a miracle to me, how she immediately found my nipple with her mouth, sucking for something that could sustain her. And it didn't hurt that nursing carried with it the added benefit of quicker post-pregnancy weight loss. When she eventually weaned herself, however, the pounds slowly crept back on. My thighs pillowed out again and my stomach grew soft. I looked in the mirror and I wondered if I would ever stop loving then hating then loving then hating my body. I wondered if I would ever be able to just be.
A recent study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry found that poor body image starts sooner than we thought, with 8-year-olds expressing body hate and 14-year-olds already dieting. As I look into the mirror, zeroing in on the swell of my stomach as it pops up above my waistband, the broadness of my torso, I worry what I am even now teaching my own daughter. Some days I feel beautiful. Some days I feel ugly. On my best days, I can look at myself and feel nothing. Just holding the knowledge that my body is what it is. But still, the lingering traces of my body hatred sometimes slip out from between my lips involuntarily. Still, I am trying. I let my daughter use my belly as a drum. I let her walk in on me in the bathroom. I sit her on my lap sometimes so we can lean into each other and just breathe. I want her to feel that relaxed ease that I feel when I sit still, my mind resting with my breath. I also teach her about all of the different parts of her body. I teach her about her head and her toes and her thighs and her vulva, and I tell her that every part of her is stunning. I cross my fingers that she can hold onto that knowledge for as long as possible. But maybe full acceptance isn't always attainable. Maybe it's too hard. Maybe that's okay. Maybe this is the best one can hope for. Not full acceptance. Not the full blaze of enlightenment. But a tentative peace.
I want her to feel that relaxed ease that I feel when I sit still, my mind resting with my breath.