I was delighted to write an article for the Irish magazine Woman’s Way. They asked for a strong opinion for their new piece ‘There, I said it,’ and I jumped at the chance to write about how pregnancy changed my attitude to my body – for the better.
Body image is a big problem.
Our bodies are where we live. Why do we want them to be small?
I’ve never felt more comfortable in my body than when I was pregnant: my shoes were too tight, my hats were, strangely, too small, and my thighs chaffed when I walked. But I didn’t care. I wore clothes that showed off the bump. I was fine with strangers commenting on how big I was. I didn’t care about people seeing me naked in the changing room at the gym. When I came to give birth they offered me a birthing pool. I stripped off all my clothes and hopped in, completely unselfconscious.
It didn’t last. Pretty soon afterwards I looked at my body critically again. Did I still look pregnant? Was I losing the baby weight slower than my friends? Why couldn’t I even fit my foot in my pre-pregnancy jeans?
In my twenties I was constantly on a diet. I wasn’t fat but I always wanted to shed another half a stone. I did the maple syrup diet, as made famous by Beyoncé Knowles. I bad temperedly snapped at everyone around me and gained two pounds. I did a juice fast and fainted on a train. I concocted a diet of my own invention that consisted of nothing but Cava (apparently the lowest calorie wine), dark chocolate (the healthiest way to satisfy a sweet tooth) and oranges (for the vitamin C). I got constipated, felt sick and gained three pounds.
At one point, I tried a diet tea and discovered that it tasted delicious when consumed with chocolate biscuits. I was pretty sure I’d scuppered my chances of it working, until the tea gave me horrendous diarrhoea. I lost weight dramatically, but it certainly was not worth it. I told a colleague: she immediately went out and bought some. Then she had to flee the office just as the worst happened. I told my mother. She sympathised, then couldn’t resist trying a cup. It was the same story, of course.
Why are we as women so obsessed about our weight? Why should our self-worth be determined by the number on a scale? Why do we want to take up as little space as we can in this world?
And all too often this desire to shrink tips over into illness. I had a friend at school who went from a healthy fifteen year old size 12 to a sinewy shadow of a girl in a matter of months. She’d only eat dried fruit, then she’d only eat vitamin pills. Eventually, close to death, she was hospitalised. As she recovered she lived in a halfway house for anorexics, bulimics and self harmers. The girls all grew close – but that had its pitfalls. If one patient broke down and cut themselves, it would start a bloody cascade of self-mutilation and starvation amongst the others.
That’s extreme, but I believe it’s a spectrum. Most of us are on it – if you’re waiting to start dating again until after you’ve lost a few pounds. If you feel the need to record everything you eat on an app. If you’re wondering where you can buy that diet tea.
And it’s a spectrum that’s caused by our obsession that our bodies should match an ideal. But it’s the wrong ideal for most of us. I didn’t have a model’s body when I was a teenager and I certainly don’t now. On holiday recently, I saw an ancient African statue of a woman who had clearly breastfed several children. It was its own ideal: a symbol of wisdom, experience and nurture.
I miss my pregnant body. It was liberating not feeling body conscious. My body was serving a purpose that had nothing to do with how I looked in a bikini. I can tie my own shoelaces again, but find myself sucking in my stomach when I walk past mirrors.
I wish I could always keep that body confidence. In fact, I wish all women could. Our bodies are more important than how flat we make our stomachs. Our bodies are where we live. Why do we want them to be small? Of course, being unhealthily overweight has it downfalls. But we’ve all got enough to worry about without longing to be half a stone lighter. It just doesn’t matter.
So when I came to write my novel, I decided my female heroine would not be body conscious. She’d be strong, determined and assertive. She’d have her flaws, or course, but her confidence would not be inversely proportional to her body weight.