It’s not the popular thing to say, but it is the truth: I hated what motherhood did to my body.
Everything had become soft, shapeless and lumpy. Whenever I sat down a bulb of fat perched on top of my belly, and friends and strangers constantly beamed with anticipation, waiting for me to break the news of when the next one is due. My hormones had turned my hair coarse and unruly, and I was so exhausted that I would slather on concealer at night, just in case someone were to see me first thing in the morning.
In America - the land of political correctness and a booming obesity epidemic – my weight and general frazzled appearance wasn’t an issue, but I dreaded bringing the baby back to China, the place where my husband and I had met and fallen in love. There, the women were naturally petite, and had grandparents lined up at their doors just waiting to take care of the babies. Maternity leave was up to four months, and most of my friends had maids to help out.
When I first moved to China as a sporty 20-year old I was immediately peppered with phrases like “big butt” and “tall nose”, but quickly learned that they were as much surprised statements of facts and innocent observation of physiological differences as they were compliments. One woman I met immediately insisted on introducing me to her grandson, excitedly telling her friends that my wide hips would guarantee plentiful offspring!
Weeks before our trip I started worrying about how this frank discussion about body parts might play out now that I was actually overweight. At our first dinner, a friend’s mom who remarked without hesitation: “You used to be so pretty before you had kids!” and another friend told me to stop carrying my toddler because my arms were getting too “thick.” My heart might have fallen into my stomach, but instead it bounced off the fat and rolled onto the table for everyone to see. I could not wipe the shame and annoyance off my face.
Back in my husband’s village the women were less concerned about my weight (though confused that there was no baby in my bulging belly), but there was another challenge: taking my new mom bod to the local bathhouse, the only place nearby where we could get a hot shower.
Before I had my baby, being the only foreigner ever to enter the bathhouse was enough to get people talking… but they thought my tiny breasts were cute and admired my broad hips, while questioning the wisdom of having a tan body. Now, my breasts were deflated and appeared even smaller against my plump frame, and I braced myself for the running commentary that might only be redeemed by the whiteness of my fleshy hips.
After a hot shower my first step was cuozao, a hardcore exfoliation where every flake of dead skin is scrubbed off your body by force. While the scrubbers are often naked as well, Number 10, my personal scrubber, was wearing a tiny blue and white uniform. She had the body of a teenager, despite having two kids and being a mere three days younger than me.
As she rolled me on my side and began scrubbing my inner thigh, she happily suggested I take her back to America so she could earn lots of money. “I don’t think we have this kind of service there.” I remarked, rolling up my arm so she could scrub away at my armpit. “Why not?” she asked. “I don’t think Americans like being naked. Or at least not being naked in front of other people.”
“Well that’s stupid. We’re all naked underneath our clothes…” she drifted off while rinsing off the rolls of gray, dead skin she’d scrubbed off my body.
Afterwards I headed to the sauna. As I sat there contemplating my super smooth yet still lumpy form, a Chinese woman walked in, took off her towel and sat kitty corner to me. “After looking my naked body up and she smiled and said: “You are so pretty. Your skin is so white! Just liked a steamed bun.”
I patted my face and mourned: “White skin ages quickly.” She looked at my face and smiled. “Everyone ages. That’s why we have to take good care of ourselves.” After a few more glances she pointed at my belly and asked: “You had a baby… your tummy is still soft. How old is your baby?” “A year and a half.” I said, ashamed that I hadn’t lost any of the weight yet.
She leaned in more closely and asked: “Did you give birth naturally?” I nodded. She smiled, and without a moment’s hesitation, lifted up her own little pouch of belly fat and showed me her C-section scar. “That's so wonderful! I wanted to have a natural birth, but he wouldn’t come out. He’s eight this year!”
As I looked at her scar and everything attached to it my shame suddenly vanished, and realized that the problem wasn’t my body, but the fact that we have no reference points as to what the human body actually looks like.
In the media, we see those perfectly toned bodies and yes, my Chinese friends were petite, but I had never seen any of them naked since having kids. I didn’t know if they had lumps and bumps underneath their clothes. I was holding myself to a standard maintained only by those whose job it is to maintain an idealized standard of beauty.
Occasionally, a photographer catches a glimpse of a body radically changed by birth or cancer, but for many of us, our changes aren’t radical, they are subtle. And because we have never seen what all the unexceptional bodies in between look like, it’s easy to lose ourselves without any sort of reference point.
As I walked out of the sauna I suddenly felt two inches taller. My chest opened up, and as I walked past the mirror I thought to myself: “Well, you are nice and soft and pale, just liked a steamed bun!” In all of my annoyance over my changed body, I had never stopped to appreciate all that my body had done for me. It had given me a healthy child, and fed him until he was nearly two years old. It had sustained me through the hardest months of my life, and even in its newest incarnation, it had a sweet, womanly charm that I had never once noticed.
I headed out into the main hall, where my husband was enjoying a foot massage while waiting for me. He smiled, kissed my hand, and said: “I knew the bath house would do you well. You look radiant.” And for the first time in nearly two years, I truly felt it.