My Body is Freaking Awesome

Flying labia
Image origin unknown – If you know who I should credit this image to please let me know!

It’s been four years or so since I wrote “Why I’m learning to love my body, and why you should learn to love yours too“, in which I discussed why we should cut ourselves some slack when it comes to liking, even (gasp!) loving our bodies. This post will be a little more ranty (and I may invoke my right to be sweary too).

Right now, in this very moment, I freaking LOVE my body. Not in spite of my so-called imperfections but BECAUSE of them.  And who gets to decide what “imperfections” I may have anyway? Who gets to lay down the law about what “attractive” means and whether I meet those standards? There’s nothing new about women’s bodies being a battleground. Since time immemorial women have been subjugated, enslaved, seen as inferior, demonised, abused, commoditised, over-sexualised – I could go on and on. Yes indeed we have come a long way, but anyone who thinks we are “there”, that feminism isn’t needed, or that there aren’t still, despite this being 2016, women around the world being treated as per the above sentence is very much deluded.

A woman’s appearance is still judged by a certain set of socially accepted parameters. Heck, even our actions and intentions are judged by our appearance. If a woman is attacked it is seen as perfectly reasonable to question whether her clothing was partly or wholly to blame. How and why is that OK? We currently have a “code”, largely driven by the media based on what is deemed attractive (to men) in a woman. Hairless pre-pubescent like bodies, pert breasts, tiny waists, flat stomachs, thigh-gaps, flawless skin, even the size and length of our labia is apparently up for judgement and criticism. And god forbid we should ever look like we recently gave birth to a human! This view is largely unattainable by most women and so we are judged and derided based on our failings to live up to this socially accepted standard. Worst of all, we hate and deride ourselves for our lack of so-called perfection. It’s socially unacceptable to go against this self-hating obsession. Women who like their appearance are “vain” and “sluts”. On the flip-side, women who don’t conform to beauty standards are “lazy”, “ugly” and worse. Multi-million pound industries are built around women’s lack of self-confidence in their bodies. And this is where my biggest gripe lies today, so here I am genuinely bucking this trend: Fuck this social policing of women’s bodies, and fuck this idea that my body exists for anyone other than me. I am the one who gets to decide what is acceptable for me because this is my body. I own it, it does not exist for anyone other than me and I am the one who has to live in it, so I choose how it looks, and more importantly, how I feel about how it looks. And I freaking LOVE my damn awesome body. Now if only we could spread this apparently revolutionary idea like a glorious virus that infects humankind!

Go on, be kind to yourself, I dare you!

Why I Chose *Not* To Photograph Or Film My 5th Baby’s Birth

no-camera-allowed-md

Birth photography has grown in popularity in recent years, which in my opinion is a really good thing. I love birth photos and videos. I love that there are so many amazing women out there who are happy to share these special and deeply personal moments with the world. I have seen so many birth videos and so many incredible birth pictures and I am grateful to the people who have shared them. Why? Because we need birth to be normalised again. We need normal birth to be seen. Birth has become such a taboo and medicalised event that most of us don’t know what real, un-dramatised labour and birth look like. Shows like OBEM do nothing to help this, by the way!

But why do we need to know what birth looks like?

Back when we were cave women, and right up until pretty recently actually, we women would have known what it was to be pregnant, to labour, to birth, to feed and raise babies before we did it ourselves. We would have known all about it because we would have been exposed to it all as a normal part of daily life. Knowledge would be passed on through the generations and through seeing, watching, and supporting one another. There were no TV shows to frighten women, no litigation-wary doctors, and nothing stopping them from hearing and listening to their instincts. Birth just happened. And for the most part, when unhindered birth does just happen. This is what we are missing in our modern society and women, babies and their families are suffering for it. We don’t live in caves or tribes any more so we are finding other ways to get what we instinctively crave – exposure to what we need to see to learn how to do it ourselves. Birth photography fulfils this natural need to see something that we can only learn through seeing.

So if it’s so great, why did I choose not to do it?

It’s a very personal decision as to whether you want to have film or photographs of your baby’s birth. It is an amazing, incredible, once in a life time event, and to capture it on film is to immortalise these moments forever. I did video the births of my third and fourth babies and these videos are very, very special to me. I can’t watch them without crying, or without feeling the huge rush of emotions they bring back. I chose to film their births as I wanted that external experience of seeing what the other people in the room saw. I wanted to see what giving birth looked like. I wanted to have it immortalised in that way. But with my fifth baby I wanted something different, something far more primal and instinctive. I very nearly chose to freebirth as I felt so strongly that I needed a great deal of privacy and solitude for the birth. I went on a huge personal journey throughout my pregnancy that led me to that point and it felt right to me that there be no intrusion, even from cameras. It’s worth bearing in mind that the camera can alter what it captures simply by its presence.

My beautiful baby girl was born in my bathroom at almost 42 weeks of pregnancy with her daddy and our midwife present (but only because I let them in at the last minute!). Her birth was amazing, another story in itself! What I take away most from the experience of not filming her birth is that my memories of it are crystal clear. Nothing about my perception of it has been altered by seeing pictures or video. I have the raw footage in my head, as clear and as perfect as if it happened yesterday. I have photos of us afterwards and I love them. Realising that not filming the birth was indeed a positive thing for me despite being such a fan of birth photography has been intriguing  – I was worried that I was missing an opportunity that I would never get back, but this is what worked for me this time and I’m glad that I followed my instincts on such a small yet also big thing.

Did you film or photograph your baby’s birth? What was the experience like for you?

“Just get an epidural”

I’ve just read something that has made me rather frustrated, and as it is not the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing I thought it worth sharing my thoughts here. It was along the lines of:

“Suffering the pain of childbirth is pointless, so just get an epidural”.

Let me take a moment here to point out that I have zero problem with women choosing to labour and birth however they wish, so long as that choice is a fully informed one. (And by fully informed I do not mean just what the Drs will tell you, what your friends have told you, or what you’ve read in a magazine – or blog! – Do your own research, and don’t just read things that say what you want to hear, that is *not* the definition of informed). It’s all very well harping on about it being someone’s choice to do something, but again, unless that choice is a truly informed one, it is not truly a choice at all.  And that’s what it comes down to really. It’s just not as simple as choosing between “the agony of childbirth” and popping a baby out without feeling a thing. There are many more factors involved, and interventions are not without risk.

Needle
This kind of comment assumes that all women experience labour and birth in the same way, which they clearly do not. One person will have a different pain tolerance level to the next. We are all different. We cannot equate our own experiences of birth to someone else’s. Neither can we look at someone else in labour and say how they feel about it. This is something only the woman herself can judge. It also perpetuates the incredibly irritating idea that birth is always something horrific, to be feared and dreaded, that you *will* experience unbearable agony and should be very, very afraid. Saying that birth is excruciatingly painful is not helpful, yet it is often the overriding message we circulate about birth in our society. Just because one woman experienced it as such, does not mean the next woman will. Even one individual woman can experience two very different labours. How you experience labour is down to a lot of things – your own expectations (It is well known that fear greatly heightens perception of pain and if all you’ve been told is that it is awful, really what can you expect?), your previous experiences, how you have mentally and practically prepared for labour, your perceived level of control of the situation, your surroundings, who you have with you, how you are being treated. All of these things have a massive impact on how you feel and how things go. Birth is not just a mechanical process that will progress from A to B in X number of hours. It is as much a mental process as it is a physical one. All the right ingredients have to be in place for it to work smoothly and as it should. Imagine trying to make a baby with all the fear and scaremongering and interference that is involved in modern day birthing. It just wouldn’t happen would it? You need to be “in the mood”. All the same hormones and mental components needed to make a baby are needed to birth one. (Read more about hormones in labour here).

Epidurals significantly interfere with the hormones of labour and birth, turning it into a medically managed procedure rather than a physiological process. Perhaps if you don’t care, understand or believe that our bodies have evolved complex mechanisms and structures to grow and birth our babies perfectly well by themselves, then you won’t think twice about interfering with these processes, even with something so seemingly simple as an epidural (if inserting several inches of needle into your spine can ever be seen as simple). But there are consequences to messing with this process, some of which include slowing the progress of labour (yes, actually making it longer – for example with my first baby, as the epidural needle was going in I started to feel pushing urges, yet the epidural took effect, the pushing urge vanished and my baby wasn’t born for several more hours, during which he became distressed), interfering with hormones vital to the birthing process, increasing the likelihood of instrumental or surgical delivery, double the risk of hemorrhaging, reduced chances of successful breastfeeding, and a whole host of others which I won’t list for fear of being accused of a bias! Dr Sarah J Buckley has written a very informative article on epidural use, which is fully referenced and well worth reading if you wish to educate yourself further on the subject.

A woman who chooses not to have an epidural is not “choosing pain”. This is just as wrong and disempowering as saying a woman who chose to have an epidural took the easy way out. The suggestion that going through labour without drugs is “pointless” is dismissive of the incredible process of birth and the sometimes bloody hard work we go through to achieve it. It suggests that researched choices are invalid compared to medically directed ones. We all have our own individual circumstances and reasons for our choices, as long as these choices are fully informed, that is what matters.

It really annoys me that there is this idea that women who don’t have drugs in labour are somehow martyring themselves, or trying to be “better” than other women. It annoys me when women who have had epidurals act smugly towards the woman next to her who had a natural birth and made a lot of noise. For goodness sake people, since when was birth a competition? Similarly, someone like myself who believes that a natural physiological birth as nature intended is healthiest for most women and babies is not “judging” someone who has had a medically managed birth, nor am I trying to change anyone’s mind. All I am interested in is accurate information, knowing that everyone who needs to has access to it and the freedom to make their choices from an informed position. MidwifeThinking put it very well in her article “Judging Birth” which she summarised with the following:

“There is no correct way to birth, or to behave during birth. As women and mothers we are subjected to more than enough judgement from others and ourselves. Perhaps it is time to start nurturing and supporting ourselves and others instead.”

To conclude; I am not saying that birth is a breeze or that there is a right way to do it, as in the quote above. Just that there is more to it than projecting our own entirely valid experiences onto others, and suggesting how they should or shouldn’t do it based on these. We cannot truly advocate for women or for ourselves if our view is immovable or we willingly ignore facts that do not fit in with our ideas. Our experiences are what they are, but we need to remember that a huge number of things will affect our experiences of labour and birth. Epidurals, like all interventions should be weighed up benefits Vs risks, not handed out as standard without any consideration of these factors.

Why I’m learning to love my body, and why you should learn to love yours too

I’ve spent most of my adult life hating or disliking my body in some way. As a teen I was slim and curvy but still lacked confidence and constantly saw myself as fat and ugly. Having my first baby did nothing for how I saw myself, if anything I disliked my new body even more. Instead of just thinking I was fat, I could really see it now as well! It has taken several more babies and eleven years for me to first make some kind of truce with myself, and more recently to actually start to not only accept my body for what it is but to appreciate it and maybe even love it as well.

As western women we are constantly bombarded with images and ideals of how the ‘perfect’ female form should look. The reality is that this is bloody nonsense! There is a reason that only a select few women become supermodels – they are examples of the extreme end of fashion. The majority of women, real everyday women do not fit this ‘ideal’, and so we berate punish and abuse ourselves. Whole industries revolve around this aspiration to so-called perfection, undermining our femininity – in the true sense of the word – and playing on our insecurities, both creating the image to aspire to and the handy solution we can buy to get closer to it. The truth is that every woman is different, and so having one idealised view of how a woman should look is a fallacy and deeply counter-productive in our every day, non-catwalk based lives.

The female body is an amazing thing (and I’m sure it’ll only be women out there disagreeing with me!). Mine for example, has grown four new human beings inside it. It has gone through the incredible process of birthing these babies and then continued to nourish them for months and years after. It has done all this despite my worries, concerns and sometimes lack of faith in it, and has shown me that it can do exactly what it is meant to do in spite of what I might think of it or do to it.

Yes I have stretch marks galore, I could do with losing some weight and I have a host of other minor complaints I could list, but I also have some pretty fabulous features and reasons to love my body too:

  • My breasts are great – yes they point more to the floor these days (as my husband lovingly reminded me when helping me fix our newborn’s latch recently!) but they are as awesome as they were a decade or so ago. A little different yes, but in the best kind of way. I appreciate their awesomeness even more knowing that they have been and continue to be such an invaluable source of nutrition and comfort to my babies as they grow. I feel an immense amount of pride when I look at my 17lb twelve week old baby, knowing that me, my breasts and I are solely responsible for those gorgeous chubby rolls of fat.
  • My stretch marks are part of the package now – signs of motherhood, reminders of the cherished pregnancies that brought me my beautiful children. I’m no longer ashamed of them or embarrassed by them. I wear them with pride!
  • My belly isn’t flat and firm as it once was, but at twelve weeks after birthing baby number four I have a new appreciation and admiration for the strength and stamina it took my belly to contain that almost ten-pound baby for over 42 weeks and then to push him out, OP presentation and all. I’m amazed at how quickly those muscles shrank my post-partum belly back down, despite having held four big babies inside me.

If we don’t have confidence in our bodies, we don’t trust them to do what they were built to do. If we don’t trust our bodies we are far less likely to let them do what they are capable of doing. My confidence in my body was shaken towards the end of my last pregnancy. I had passed 40, 41, and then 42 weeks. I had never had a pregnancy that long and I was suddenly in unknown territory. I worried that my body had failed me, that I wasn’t going to go into labour naturally, that some unknown thing had gone wrong. However I was healthy and the baby was healthy so I declined induction, but knew that it may be on the horizon if problems arose. Unsurprisingly (from the other side of the fence anyway!) I did eventually go into labour naturally and I gave birth to a big gorgeous baby at home in water, with no interventions or problems. Had I taken the standard route, I would have been induced in hospital at 41 weeks. Letting it happen naturally allowed my body and baby to be truly ready for the enormous task of labour, birth and recovery. Trusting my body played a big part in this.

Experiencing the amazing, raw power of growing and giving birth to my babies has helped me realise that yes, my body is great! The female body can do some amazing things and I wish more women would realise just how amazing their bodies are, just as they are. As the saying goes; charity starts at home – love, cherish and respect your body and demand the same respect from others. You are fabulous! Have confidence in your body and trust it. Give your body the love and respect that it deserves!