It was a hot, sticky summer day in 1985, and my friend, Elizabeth, and I were running through the sprinkler. As she ran first, squealing when she felt the water, I watched her 8-year-old body jump over the sprinkler head. I remember thinking how beautiful her muscular legs were; she was so strong and agile. She stopped on the other side and looked over her shoulder for me, but I was not with her—I stood where she left me admiring her athleticism. I smiled and jogged over to her.
Her eyebrows were cross by the time I joined her side. “I hate my thighs,” she proclaimed.
“What are thighs?” I asked.
“This part of your leg,” and she patted the big part of her legs that gave her the power to leap so high over the frenetic water spray. They jiggled a bit and I giggled a bit.
“Why do you hate your thighs?” I asked as I picked my swimming suit out of my booty crack.
“Because they’re fat. They get really fat when I sit down.”
Hmmmm. I recalled seeing mine do that, too.
“Oh. Well, I hate my thighs, too.” And I did. Now that I knew what made thighs detestable, I hated mine. Despised them. Was ashamed of them. And began a campaign to hide them and change them.
In the almost 30 years since that pivotal moment in my development of my body image, I’ve weighed a lot, I’ve weighed a little. I’ve been a couch potato and I’ve run half marathons. I have worn short skirts and I have gone to great lengths to cover up. And I have given birth twice.
I remember reading about all the ways a woman’s body changes after having a baby and hearing stories from my girlfriends, like the one who, after breastfeeding all of her children, can roll her boobs up like pancakes. After my first baby, I didn’t notice a lot of changes. I didn’t even have stretchmarks from the pregnancy. But the second baby, a little porker, wreaked havoc on my body. I carried her low and she weighed down, heavy. Gravity kicked in in ways I had never imagined, dragging my body parts with it.
My daughter’s birth was perfect and beautiful, just like in the movies. She was placed on my belly, red and bruised and squishy. As my husband and I cried and exchanged meaningful looks across our baby, she nuzzled up my body to find my breast, latching hard and hungrily.
Unlike my son, who was a NICU baby, my little girl stayed with me in my hospital room. We had an extended stay, and I would watch the clock ticking away the moments until I was permitted to take her out of the hospital bassinet, unbutton my pajamas, and draw her to me, our skin touching and mingling and trading hormones. Her front would be warm from the lamps, but her back would be chilly. I would wrap us in blankets to keep her warm, cuddling her against my bareness and delighting in her perfection.
During that time, I did not see how my thighs spread fat as I lay back in the hospital bed or how my abdomen still looked pregnant; instead, I felt how strong my legs and back were from carrying this child for 9 months, and I marveled at what a perfect cradle my swollen stomach was for holding her as she nursed. My big arms were like wings around her spindly baby body, mimicking the womb and protecting her from this strange, harsh world.
When my 18-month-old came to visit, he crawled into bed with me, tentatively curious about the baby but really seeking the comfort of his mama’s body. My wide torso fit both babies snuggled in my embrace, my heart beat the familiar rhythm meant to calm them as their bobble heads lay on my soft pillow of a chest. The anxiety that met my son when he saw the new baby melted away when he found his cradle spot in the crease between my cushy upper arm and the side of my breast. His head rested easy and secure, his heart rested safe.
Six months later I examine my body. Stretchmarks, hippier hips, fuller face, juicy thighs, fat fingers, leaky breasts, marshmallow arms. Some changes will reverse in time and some won’t. And for the first time since that summer of 1985, I am not dismayed at my spreading thighs or my other physical imperfections. When my husband celebrates my body, when my son nestles his head against my shoulder with his arms tight around my neck, when my daughter nurses at my large breast, I look at myself and think, This is the way my body should look. It has experienced and adventured through years of life. It has made life and given birth to life and sustained life and protected life. It should not come out of that unscathed or unchanged or unmarked.
I do not know what happened to Elizabeth or what she thinks of her thighs now. But I know what I think of mine—I love them. I love how fat they get when I sit down. I love how they jiggle when I run after my son at the park. I love how they spread twice to make room for life entering this world. I look at this scarred, changed, strong, lopsided, plump body, and instead of feeling shame for what it hasn’t done, I joyfully and proudly celebrate what it has done.