For almost 40 years now, my body has been a work in progress. What started as the translucent body of a longed-after-baby has transformed through the years from the skin-and-bones body of a daredevil toddler, to the supple body of a teenager, to the shapely body of a young, active adult, to finally settling on a grown woman’s figure. Through the thick and thin of it all (pun intended), I have used and occasionally abused my body, taken it for granted and worshiped it, put it through four surgeries and two pregnancies, dressed it up and let it down. I have always been aware of having a body – a physical presence which serves as my most immediate, although surely not the only, way of making an impression on the world while I go through the business of living: navigating friendships, dating and marriage, growing a baby from an embryo into an autonomous being (twice), pursuing of my creative dreams, and reconciling expectations and reality. My body, which has gone through dramatic changes, is neither the source of my strength nor a source of shame. Bottom heavy just like all women on my paternal side, high breasted with nary a stretch mark in sight (thanks, Mom) my body just is. Yet, both in subtle and not so subtle ways, I am reminded to look at my physical attributes through the lens of my motherhood as if motherhood needs to rely on “mom hair” and “mom bod” in order to assert itself.
Plenty of prominent voices are urging women to portray the conflicted glory of motherhood truthfully. Nevertheless, the message mothers are mostly exposed to is focused exclusively on the dueling narrative between “I hate my mom bod” and “My stretch marks are everything,” a dichotomy which is but a fraction of the nuanced feelings mothers’ face when it comes to their changing bodies. In reality, very few of us are either genetically lucky or disciplined enough to look the same way we did before we had children. That’s not a good or bad thing. That is biological reality. As a matter of fact, it shouldn’t take much effort to acknowledge that a mom’s body is simply another human body – a body that goes through changes and has complicated desires and strong cravings like all bodies do. Somehow, this is not the case. On one hand, we are bestowed with articles such as I Am Embracing My Mom Bod and Inspiring Mom Photos of Her Stretch Marks, which turn the “mom bod” into a badge of honor in recognition of selfless service bestowed upon those mothers who pay no mind to the extra pounds or the loose skin or the messy hair (not the cool kind). All they seem to be after is a strong, healthy body able to get them through another day of working, cooking, cleaning and Uber-ing their kids from one after school activity to the next. On the other hand, mothers who wear mom jeans unironically are essentially code for “frumpy”: slightly overweight, asexual women who have let themselves go and have given up the obligatory fight against love handles and the beleaguered muffin top.
As a mom (in possession of a bod), I take umbrage at the notion of a mother’s body reduced to this level of superficial yet vicious in-fights between those who show off their tight stomachs as a sign of hard work and superior self-discipline, and those who proudly exhibit their out- of-shape body as a sign of self-acceptance and personal growth. Bodies are not meant to be viewed as some sort of moral compass. Bodies are bodies – amazingly functional machines that allow all of us to experience life. I don’t see why I must submit to step daily on the scale, or to be photographed for posterity in before and after pictures, or become the mute subject of the world’s superfluous approval and harsh disapproval.
Sure, there are days when I take a long look in the mirror and feel conflicted about my less than ideal weight, my soft belly, my loose skin, my chubby arms, my short legs. The thought crosses my mind that maybe it is time to do something about bringing the old body back, not because I don’t recognize the newly changed version of myself as authentic, but because it dawns on me that there is a whole other dimension of myself I am neglecting in my eagerness to be fully immersed in my role as a nurturing, ever-present mother.
I’d like to think this is an unprompted insight, but it is equally likely that it sprung on me after a fellow subway rider casually mentioned I didn’t look like a mom after he noticed the colorful A-shaped dress I was wearing which, apparently, hid my mom bod well. Then again, maybe it started with my son who apropos of nothing asked me matter of factly: “Why don’t you dress like a mom?” when I picked him up from school wearing a T-shirt and boyfriend jeans (slightly, but significantly different from mom jeans). And here I am thinking my under-eye bags, my sleep-deprived sallow skin, and my abdominal pooch are a dead giveaway for who I am supposed to be: a woman who has popped out a few kids and is smart enough not to confuse selfhood with physical appearance – a woman who doesn’t need to feel skinny in order to feel whole.
I am a woman who proudly takes as much space as she needs in the world in order to feel nurtured, embraced and free through the thick and thin of it all.
Odeta Xheka is an artist and debuting picture book creator foraying into creative nonfiction. Her book, Here Comes Ingo, is IndieReader Approved and winner of Creative Child Magazine 2019 Book of the Year. You can learn more about her work at Odeta Xheka Visuals nd follow her on Twitter Instagram Facebook.