According to Facebook, summer should have officially started a couple of days ago. But of course, we’re in Britain, so it didn’t! I personally don’t mind that British Summertime is as elusive as ever, because it means I can wear my wardrobe of “all-black everything” for longer. If I’m lucky, I might just manage to wear it right the way through the year.
Since becoming a mother, I can count on one hand the amount of times I’ve worn something that did not fall on the monochromatic spectrum, and even though it’s easier to hide milk stains on white and grey clothing, black is still my preferred hue. It’s partly down to the convenience of coordinating black with black, partly because I think black makes me look kind of bad-ass, and then there’s the fact that black is flattering. Read “flattering” as “slimming”.
After giving birth I got a lot of comments about how quickly I had slimmed down. They were all meant to be complimentary and given in good faith, but they made me feel uncomfortable. “Well, I suppose that’s one perk of soul-crushing post-natal depression!” I always wanted to respond, but that’s not a topic for polite conversation, and to be honest it felt kind of ungrateful. Most women agonise over their post-baby weight and how to return to their pre-baby prime, but here was I, the weight seemingly falling away effortlessly and instead of graciously accepting the compliments I wanted to let everyone know that depression meant I had stopped eating. How rude!
In a rare opportunity of intimate honesty, a friend asked me if my body felt the same after giving birth. I sipped my tea and thought for a moment, mentally taking inventory of my physical features: “No, it’s really not.” It was the first time that I had acknowledged this fact for myself. Against my better judgement I pored over images of celebrity mums who had “bounced back”. Yes, they had the advantage of private chefs, private trainers, and a glamourous team of makeup artists, hair and wardrobe stylists, but the question of how they hide their stretch marks still haunts me. Body makeup? Skin grafting? Some sort of super secret procedure that is only available to the Illuminati?
I detest the term “bounce back”. I hate the term “snap back” even more. As if ten months of your body physically changing beyond belief can be reversed with a simple snap of the fingers. It’s the magical expectation of a woman’s body to go through trauma and rapid change and come through the other side without a single inch of pocked skin or scarred tissue to show for it. But even beyond pregnancy, doesn’t that speak to a greater expectation of women in general? It’s almost a physical metaphor for the fact that we are meant to be so malleable, so accommodating that we can absorb anything – trauma, pain, heartbreak, workload, injustice – and still remain bright-eyed, dewy-skinned, and unblemished, ready once again to be consumed or used as necessary.
I think of the image of the woman who works eight hours a day, but should be home before her husband, freshly pressed, dinner on the table and at his disposal for a shoulder-to-cry-on or a quick rough-and-tumble in the hallway – whichever takes his fancy. It’s why we’re obsessed with “body counts” and the relation between the elasticity of a woman’s vagina and her sexual history, and why illusions of youth are premium products that women of all ages are buying into. Somehow we’re meant to exist in this world, without time, gravity, or life itself leaving its fingerprints on us. Anything less than that and we’re damaged goods.
So here’s the thing: I’m actually proud of my body, even though I know I shouldn’t be. I’m in awe of the achievement of nurturing another human for 10 months, of managing to transfer this precious load from one world to another, and then somehow being someone else’s sole sustenance for a further six months. I shouldn’t be proud because the skin around my abdomen is so loose it trembles, and a dense network of stretchmarks reaches across my body, making my skin dimple and sag even further. If I sit the wrong way, I can even feel the scar that runs from somewhere deep within to the very top of my inside thigh, a scar that still feels so violent and so foreign that I can’t bear to look at it in the mirror. I know I shouldn’t be proud because my inbox is full of advice on how to restore myself back to my former glory, how to “bounce back”, invitations to mother-friendly exercise classes, meal plans, and makeover miracles. They are showing me that I don’t have to settle for this body that betrays me with its obvious signs of wear and tear, but I’m ignoring it all.
Despite initial rapid weight loss, as my mental health has stabilised, my weight has crept back up. On one hand that’s a good thing – not starving yourself is an achievement that should be celebrated – but as my concerns about my mental state have dissipated, other pre-occupations replace them. This is why I only wear black. For now, this is a temporary measure, a remedy that I can deal with until I’ve finished unlearning the psychology that tells me that I should be ashamed to own a body that wears its history so brazenly.
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Jendella Benson is a photographer, writer and filmmaker based in London. She writes about issues of faith, race, identity, feminism and the arts for various publications online and offline, and is also an occasional public speaker and workshop facilitator. She tweets regularly from @JENDELLA and more of her work can be found at www.jendella.co.uk.
You’re Doing It Wrong is a bi-monthly column by Jendella Benson on parenting, relationships, and the kaleidoscope of small victories, anxiety and unsolicited advice that is modern family life.