My body, a wonder

She used to race, Nikes flashing across worn asphalt, Lakefront wind slicing against her, heart pounding, flying free.

She swam, limbs threading Lake Michigan’s rough, cool waters, gulping air, rocketing herself forward, weightless. Back then, she measured her worth with numbers: pounds, pace, calories. Afraid of everything and nothing.

She once saved two men from drowning.

Nearly drowned herself in tears when she labored for hours, failing to deliver, landing in the OR, waiting with bated breath for her baby’s first whimper. For 20 months, she nourished his small body with her breasts.

Sometimes, I am astonished by her power.

Other times I’ve felt trapped by her, my body: too flat-too heavy-too blotchy-too lumpy. Wished I could shed her like a second skin, my body. The times she’s attracted honks, heckles, stares, touch without permission? Wished she wasn’t so dangerous, my body.

But there was also this: her standing in the dusty infield, mit held high, mit finding the ball again and again and whipping it through the air to the tune of cheers. “You’re out!”

She traded her cleats for tap shoes, dancing across the stage, singing and smiling. Oh how she danced — once at a swanky, smoky club in Madrid with seven levels, dressed in blue jeans, black top, very American, eyes laughing. She was thirsty for pleasure, and drank of it joyfully.

Shape-shifter, she’s spun and curved and stretched her limbs on the mat into a dog, a crow, a cobra.

She’s softer than she was last spring. New creases and curves grace her form, stubborn weight sits at her once taut middle.

Yesterday morning I took her for a walk in the neighborhood. The sun was out, and whirligigs sprinkled down from the Maple trees, twirling lazily in the sunshine, scattering across the pavement like confetti. She can twirl too, this soft, strong, aging body of mine. She still runs on occasion — mostly after her son. She is still afraid of everything and nothing.

She isn’t done changing. Not even close.

I wonder, what will she do next?

Beautiful

She looks in the mirror

violet crescents shadow

the delicate space below

her tired eyes

ring fingers tap cold cream

trace new wrinkles

etched in the corners

and here’s

an annoying pimple

in her reflection,

//

her eyes move to

her softened belly, 

once ballooned to carry a baby

small breasts,

once swelled to feed that baby

two arms —

she flexes twice —

her arms have never been stronger

nearly three years later

her baby still begs to be carried.

//

Once upon a time

she picked at her flesh

and prodded 

and planned

stepped on a scale

let a number dictate her 

joy

her diet 

she aimed to reign in

what she now knows is wild and free 

and maybe aging

isn’t something to 

fear like they taught us.

//

This time 

she drinks in her reflection

and calls it

evidence of

pain

evidence of

bliss

evidence of

a woman evolving.

she calls it

Gets better with age

In my early twenties, I worked for a large, progressive Presbyterian church on Chicago’s Gold Coast. I’d graduated in 2008 with dreams of working for a magazine or newspaper, but this was the year of the financial crisis and although unpaid internships beckoned, I could not afford to take them. I needed a paying job. That’s how I ended up at the church.

Unsurprisingly, working for the Lord wasn’t lucrative (still isn’t) but what my church communications job lacked in $$$ it made up for in other benefits—a chic location, colleagues and congregants with plenty of character and a relaxed workplace in which I could cut my teeth. Somewhere around my third week on the job, I stared out the antique window of the old parsonage-turned-office, at the bustling city street below and wondered: Is this it? Is this my life now?

I was privileged to have a secure, stable job but I couldn’t shake the feeling as though I’d abandoned a dream. Should I have moved to New York and maxed out my credit card on a fancy, insanely expensive publishing boot camp for recent grads? Should I have gone after that unpaid cub reporter internship in Louisiana? Or that unpaid magazine internship in Indianapolis?

Instead I was in a church, copyediting bulletins. And while I was grateful for the work, honestly, the thought of it didn’t exhilarate me. On the other hand, I had a two-bedroom apartment with my college girlfriend, health insurance and funds in my bank account. I was lucky. Though I pined for the freedom and flexibility of college life, I slowly assimilated to my 9 to 5 — meeting deadlines, taking lunch breaks to explore the city or chat with new friends, and navigating workplace politics and conflicts.

My first real job out of college exposed my inner demons, in particular, my penchant for perfectionism and people-pleasing. I struggled with confidence in my body, my work, my voice. I struggled with contentment in my relationship (long distance with no end in sight, everyone else seemed to be engaged) and my career path (describing my job often resulted in the response: So, you’re a church secretary?). In a way, I lived small. I read others’ blogs with delight and envy. I didn’t think I had the talent to write my own. I half-heartedly applied to grad school because it seemed like a good idea at the time (???). (It was not a good idea; I am grateful I did not get in.)

For five years I worked for this church, watching colleagues and friends come and go on to more exciting adventures. I replaced my old dream with a new one—advancing my career. I took on new projects, eventually landing a promotion. With new responsibilities and pressure, I agonized over my work, sometimes overextending myself. I secretly agonized over my slowing metabolism and weight gain, overanalyzing everything I ate and feeling irrationally guilty when I missed workouts. My third boss there, an amazing mentor and wise sage, once told me in no uncertain terms that I needed to see a therapist. (She was right.) She also gave me some advice about aging I’ll never forget.

“Your twenties are hard,” she told me. “But your thirties? That’s when it starts getting better. You’ll feel so much more confident in your own skin. And wait until you get to your forties–you’ll love yourself in your forties.”

Today I turn 33.

So much has changed for me since I was naive, young lass in the city. I’m married to my college sweetheart, we have a car, a dog, a mortgage and toddler (#adulting). I managed to land a job at a magazine I love and still pinch myself everyday because jobs like this are rare. And while I’m proud of my beautiful family and the trajectory of my career, what brings me the most happiness can’t be layered in a resume or posted on Instagram.

Here it is: I’m much more comfortable in my own skin now than I was at 23.

Aging well isn’t about looks–it’s about what’s on going on inside us. The inner work I finally did with a therapist acquainted me with my flaws, bad habits, negative self-talk and uncomfortable emotions. Because of her, I’ve recovered from crippling perfectionism and people-pleasing. I make mistakes all the time. I disappoint people regularly. I still feel bad about both. But it doesn’t derail me the way it once did.

After leaving my first job, I discovered yoga. Nearly two years ago, after my son was born, I ditched dieting for good and began practicing yoga regularly, which transformed my mind and body.

Today I’m so much more self-aware, confident, wise, grateful and compassionate because I’m older. I’m living bigger than before. When I get it wrong, I’m grounded by grace.

My boss was right. Like a fine wine, we get better with age.

Making peace with my post-baby body

It happened on a Tuesday morning. I stepped on the scale and it there it was, the number I’d been longing for—my pre-baby weight. Seven months had passed and finally all 50 (yes, 50…) pounds I’d gained via pregnancy were gone.

This moment I’d built up in my head, this goal achieved felt strangely anticlimactic.

Despite all my work to “bounce back,” deep down I knew the truth, and the truth is this: my body will never be the same again. Since giving birth the skin on my stomach is a little stretchier, my butt’s a little saggier, my laugh lines are a little deeper. My hair is perpetually shedding. My hands are starting to look like the way I remember my mother’s hands looked when I was a child, etched with extra lines and wrinkles.

My body will never be the same again.

As a new mama I’ve made peace with this fact, though it’s taken me some time. When I first got pregnant, I didn’t fully comprehend the physical and mental transformation I was about to undergo. There’s a lot that has been said about how becoming a mother changes your sense of identity, but I think that the natural, slow progression of women’s bodies postpartum is not talked about enough.

What the media tells us about mothers’ bodies

In the U.S., the media and our culture celebrate the beauty of the glowing, expectant mother. There is nothing inherently wrong about this.

Here’s the rub: The messages a mother hears change quickly after she has given birth. She is exhausted, hormonal and experiencing a seismic life transition and what does the media say a new mother should focus on?

Well, for starters, her baby, but also her “post-baby body.”

Really?

Yes, really. Women—especially celebrities—are expected to drop all the healthy weight they gained as part of pregnancy ever-so-quickly, practically the moment their baby’s out of the womb.

Almost as soon as Beyoncé had her twins, entertainment sites were covering her weight and shape. (See: this, this and this.)

All women face this obstacle

We ordinary women feel the pressure, too. After I had my son, I felt unnecessarily anxious about dropping the extra padding I still carried, even though I knew holding onto this weight was completely natural. This certainly wasn’t in the forefront of my mind what with so much else to worry about, namely, figuring out how to care for my infant son, but it was still there, lurking in the background. As I recovered from my C-section and struggled to make sense of the trauma of Jack’s birth, I was troubled by the worry that my body would stay “big.”

I know I’m not alone in this.

Mamas, I wish we could give ourselves some grace about our postpartum bodies, but popular culture is working against us. Whether we believe them or not, we internalize messages we receive from the media we consume that promote the archaic lie that a woman’s worth is measured by how small she is. (Being pregnant is the one time this “rule” is suspended but even pregnant women have body image issues and wish their pregnant bodies looked a certain way. I’m working on a future post on this too–stay tuned.)

As media companies embrace more body-positive messaging, I see the tide turning, but overall we in the U.S. continue to be obsessed with judging women for their bodies. The thinner, the smaller, the better.

Health and fitness companies prey on postpartum women’s insecurities, encouraging new moms to buy their [protein shake/workout program/coaching service] NOW to get their pre-baby body back.

What the media and health/fitness industry fail to mention is that this set of expectations is not healthy or normal. This pressure to get back to normal (whatever that is) is harmful and quite frankly, offensive.

The early days and weeks post-birth are an incredibly tender and trying time physically and emotionally. Your body is healing and yet it’s also being tested with the demands of caring for an infant. That’s enough in and of itself. If you haven’t lived it, it might be hard to understand but trust me: that’s enough. Just live and let your body heal.

Yes, I know this is easier said than done. A wise friend once told me that it takes a woman’s body 40 weeks (give or take a few) to transform and bring life into the world, so she should allow herself that time or more to recover. This advice was a great comfort to me as I struggled with my postpartum body.

My journey

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I titled this article “Making peace with my post-baby body” — how did I do that?

First, I managed my expectations from the start of my pregnancy. I knew from the mamas in my tribe and from books and articles that pregnancy and birth would change my body–for good. I also knew that breastfeeding would help me lose some weight naturally, over time.

It’s one thing to know this, but it’s another to live it.

Early on after I gave birth to my son I hit a weight loss plateau for a few weeks. The number on the scale wasn’t dropping the way I thought it should. During this time I worried I had some sort of thyroid issue, that my body would stay this way forever. I realized in my worrying I was being ridiculous and I had other, more important things to worry about (i.e., taking care of our son), but I still worried.

I kept breastfeeding, drinking water and eating healthy meals when I could.

At six weeks postpartum, I was cleared by my doctor to start working out again. I joined my local yoga studio and started going to classes here and there while my son was napping.

I remember the first time I got on my mat after having Jack. I barely recognized my body in the mirror. My body was lumpy and weak. I felt a bit like I didn’t belong.

But by the end of class, I felt transformed.

I felt calm, powerful and refreshed.  My body remembered yoga and it craved more of it.

Going forward, whenever I could find a free hour away from baby, usually 2 to 3 times a week, I’d go to my studio. Practicing yoga made me feel more confident and grounded.

Early on one of my instructors began class by talking about intention on and off the mat. “What is your intention for this class, this season of life?” she asked. 

In that moment I realized that my intention would need to be patience. I would need to trust that my body would heal the way it was meant to, slowly and over time. I needed to stop stressing that my body even defined me–what defined me was my character, my roles as a mother, wife, daughter, sister and child of God.

Buoyed by my intention of patience and the truth that our bodies do not determine our self-worth, I began my journey toward body peace and acceptance.

And wouldn’t you know, slowly the weight began to come off. However there are ways my body has changed that are permanent, and I know once I stop breastfeeding I’ll go through another whole set of changes. I have simply acknowledged these changes, then acknowledged that they have nothing to do with WHO I am as a person.

Maybe that’s why the number I recently reached on the scale isn’t so important anymore.

I’m making healthy choices, but I also have a healthier mindset towards my body. It was my journey over the last 6-7 months toward self-acceptance during which I cultivated a deep peace and comfort with change. 

Now that’s something worth celebrating.

Have you ever felt insecure in your own skin? What helped you cope?

Speaking out for women’s rights

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credit: Ted Eytan

I wasn’t going to blog this week. What I wrote was more personal, more political than I intend for this space. When I woke up this morning, nine days out from baby’s due date and on day five of fighting a never-ending cough, my first thought was of my dear friends, fellow church members, coworkers and women/men/others participating in the Women’s March on Washington, in my city, across the U.S. and around the world. I was with them, in spirit.

At home, I scrolled through my smartphone and listened intently as Gloria Steinem, America Ferrera, Bob Bland and others spoke in the capital via Facebook live; saw pictures of marchers flood my social feeds; and followed news coverage of this historic day. The outpouring of support for women’s–human–rights brought tears to my eyes.

To everyone marching, thank you. Thank you for standing up, speaking up and exercising your constitutional right to peaceful protest. Thank you for your courage, for your civic engagement, for fighting for what you believe in. This country–our world–is stronger when we recognize the rights of women, of everyone.

There’s been a lot of criticism and confusion about what this march means and what will come after it. There were initial concerns about the organizers, which I’m glad were addressed. Others have criticized marchers as sore losers, but I don’t see it that way. In this time of change and uncertainty, I see citizens banding together to voice their concerns about and to their newly elected representatives. This is about raising strong women, fighting against hateful rhetoric and fighting for reproductive rights, civil rights, immigration and so much more. Others aren’t marching today because they disagree with platforms in this march, particularly abortion. I respect that. Everyone has a different story, a different reason to march (or not), to speak out (or not).

This is mine.

The first time I thought about my body was in second grade on the school bus, sitting next to my friend Emily. Our thighs stuck to the hot plastic seats as we rode to school and I noticed my thighs were bigger than hers. They seemed “too big.” I began to worry.

Growing up I kept a journal. Once I was home and stumbled across an old one from middle school. I remember reading something like this: I am fat. My body is so disgusting. I need to do something about this. I need to start running every morning. I need to eat less. I cannot be fat.

At the time I wrote that, I was the skinniest I’d ever been. I tossed that journal out.

In high school my best friend and I read women’s magazines, Cosmo and Glamour.  I noticed most of the articles were about fashion and beauty and relationships and sex. We poured over these magazines, laughing at the outlandish outfits and sex advice. I always felt a little worse about myself after reading them.

The first and only time I was sexually assaulted was in my late twenties. It was early morning, and I was on my way to the gym.

Recently, I read an article in the New York Times that highlighted the results of a nonpartisan post-election survey of ~1,300 individuals. Of those surveyed, more than half of the Republican men said it was a better time to be a woman than a man; the survey also found that all men, regardless of political affiliation, underestimated the amount of sexism women faced. “It’s easier being a woman today than it is a man. … Everybody else is above the white man,” said one man to the article’s author. I know the feelings and stories of these men should not be dismissed or ignored, but these findings, this idea, that it’s better to be a woman than a man today filled me with rage. 

Sexual assault is a wide-ranging issue that disproportionately affects women. According to RAINN, 1 out of every 6 American women has been the victim of an attempted or completed rape in her lifetime.

What happened to me that Tuesday morning shook me to my core. I was lucky my screams had startled my attacker, lucky that he ran. In the minutes, hours, days, months, years that followed this incident I felt guilty. Dirty. Scared. Angry. Ashamed.

This happened to me because I’m a woman, because a strange man thought my body was his to touch. Because I’m a woman, I grew up receiving messages that my body mattered more than my mind. Because I’m a woman, I’m still afraid this could happen again. So, no, I do not think it is an easier time to be a woman than a man.

To be a woman, even in the U.S., is to live in fear that your body is under scrutiny, is not fully your own. The idea that the government should dictate a woman’s reproductive rights angers me. That a man who bragged about sexual assault is now president angers me. That those words were dismissed by some as “locker room talk” angers me.

For women to achieve true equality, let alone a better quality of life than men, women must grow up learning that we aren’t judged by our bodies, but by our character, and that our bodies belong to us, no one else. We must earn the same amount as men, be represented at all levels equally in the government, military and the board room, we must not walk the streets in fear.

It took me a long time to feel comfortable in my neighborhood, in my body again. It took me a long time to heal. 

I know that I’ve been fortunate. I know there are thousands upon thousands of stories of injustices far worse that women and others have suffered because of their gender, race, religion, sexual orientation, level of ability and more. We have to do better. We must not stay silent about what matters. Especially now.

This is why today, since I can’t march, I write.

To the thousands of sisters, brothers and neighbors that marched today, thank you for showing up. Women’s rights–human rights–matter. And equality IS worth fighting for. And I hope that’s something we can all agree on.

Update: I’m following this action plan from the national march organizers. Join me?