As I sit with the other moms at the community pool, we chat as mothers do, keeping one eye on the conversation and the other on the pool. I notice a group of middle school girls who, only last summer, were awkwardly diving for rings like mermaids in the shallow end. Now, they carefully strut together around the perimeter in bikinis containing newly rounded breasts. They laugh and push their hair out of their eyes in such choreographed form that it is clearly with an audience in mind.
I recall being like them as I awkwardly navigated my developing body. Like many girls inundated with images reminding women to push their breasts into water bras, remove body hair, and agonize about the size of their pores, I internalized the confusing message that the main purpose of women’s bodies is decorative. So, I walked the runway of the pool deck understanding on some level that this new body was expected to be displayed whether that made me comfortable or not.
It's not surprising then that by the time girls are teens, 53% think that they should be on a diet. As Lorber and Martin explained in “The Socially Constructed Body,” girls quickly realize that women whose looks meet a certain standard are “held up to others as ideals to be emulated.” Without direct instruction, girls observe that some types of bodies are praised, while others are ridiculed or rejected. Unwittingly, I spent much of my life limiting the value of my body to a very narrow job description—an outer shell to be beautifully maintained.
Then, I became pregnant.
Naturally a time of changes both physically and emotionally for women, I felt altered in a way that I had not expected. Although women have varied experiences with pregnancy, I found it incredibly liberating. It was as if my body had received a fantastic promotion. She now had a much more interesting job than simply looking pretty.
Maybe I felt free because for the first (and only) time, I was given a pass on my expanding waistline. Perhaps my new focus on motherhood helped me put things into perspective. Regardless, I felt the value that I had once placed on my body's form over function suddenly invert. According to a 2014 study on pregnancy and postpartum body image published in BMC Pregnancy and Childbirth, many women also reported seeing this as a time when they were able to "transgress" society's expectations of beauty. Mainly, women felt that they were now able to focus instead on the "new functionality of their bodies."
When my first daughter was born, I watched in amazement as she searched to breastfeed instinctively, awakening me to the original purpose of my breasts that I'd so awkwardly pushed into those early bikinis. I relished the irony that breastfeeding finally gave me the full, buoyant breasts that magazines had been telling me for years that I was supposed to have, except these were now more teats than tits.
For the first time since those days of budding womanhood, I saw my body for what it is rather than what the world had led me to believe. This body is more than a showpiece; she is a workhorse, meant to do incredible things—within childbearing and without.
Although pregnancy was the catalyst that I needed to come to this realization, it's not the only way. Victoria Garrick, a college volleyball player, explained in her article "How I Learned to Love My Body As a Female Athlete," that for years she struggled with accepting her body for what it could do rather than how it fit into society's expectations of beauty. Finally, by prioritizing her focus on her body's accomplishments she realized, "I had a firm stomach. My legs were rock solid. And my arms were defined. I could sprint 100 meters in 14.60 seconds. I could single-leg squat 130 pounds, and I could hold a plank for 4 minutes. All of this didn’t make me any less feminine."
If our body image is socially constructed, perhaps it can also be reconstructed. Maybe I can help my daughters find value in their health and strength rather than only their beauty and sexuality, so there won't be a need for any kind of epiphany.
My daughters, now nine and eleven, dive and flip playfully beside me at the pool. I watch them move confidently from one section to another, their gangly muscles pressing them forward without insecurities. They seem to move like people doing, not performing, and I worry that soon they will transition to the parade of pubescent girls relegating themselves to the pretty perimeter.
So, I talk to them often not about how their body looks, but about what it can do. How their strong shoulder made an amazing throw to first base in their last softball game. How their solid thighs helped them run fast. I also talk openly about how proud I am of what my body has accomplished, so that when they notice their mother's "squishy" belly, I remind them that although it may not be the kind of stomach that makes it onto the covers of magazines, it was their home for nearly a year—and that's pretty incredible.
Bio: Dana C. Getz is a Pittsburgh based writer whose work has appeared in Go World Travel, Mamalode, and Silver Birch Press.
Photo credit: Kate Parker, photographer