Because most philosophies that frown on reproduction don't survive.

Tuesday, July 30, 2013

Don't Tell Me I'm Beautiful

Here's a quote I saw on Facebook that seems rather unobjectionable to me, 4 1/2 months into my seventh pregnancy:

"It is a fact that you will lose your looks having children. But you will lose your looks anyway, so you might as well do it having children! At least then you will have all these beautiful creatures in your house that remind you of how attractive you were at one time." -- Dr. Janet Smith

And yet, some fellow had to claim that this was simply "relative thinking", and when I objected that childbearing did cause objective physical changes, some of which were less than aesthetically attractive, I was told that it was really just a matter of "self-perception" and perhaps I had been brainwashed by the fashion industry. Ah. The fashion industry is responsible for my stretch marks. My tortured veins, the most grotesque of which are fortunately not visible to the public, are simply "self-perception".  My muddled female head can't understand what beauty is because I myself actually find my daughters' smooth and beautiful young legs to be more aesthetically pleasing than the purple web of spider veins that crawl up my own.

To be sure, not every aesthetic change wrought by childbearing (which is specifically what Dr. Smith is covering) is negative. Some women who've always wanted curves may find themselves blossoming out in the right places; flat-chestedness is certainly ameliorated; for some the glow of pregnancy brings fabulous skin (for others, rosacea). Some positive aesthetic changes are wrought by maturity; I certainly have better posture now than in my slimmer college days, except in the evenings these days when I'm bent almost double by the agonizing ache in my groin caused by the fashion industry putting excess pressure on everything south of my navel. And that's fine, because this is how a child comes into the world. Our bodies are meant for more than physical perfection; they're meant to be given in service of others.

Here, an image of pregnancy:

Ah, lovely. Look at that smooth, hairless, glowing, perfect stomach, those pretty arms, those manicured hands. This lady sure hasn't lost her looks by having a child. Yeah, and this bears no more relation to my pregnant body than a model in a bikini does to most women in a swimsuit. This is how the "fashion industry" depicts pregnancy, and it's no more universally applicable than anything else the "fashion industry" does. My differences from this image are not just a matter of "self-perception". My body simply doesn't look that beautiful when I'm pregnant. That doesn't make me worthless or unattractive. It makes me a woman with different genetics, whose body has already endured multiple previous pregnancies, who may have increased in age, grace, and wisdom, at the small but bittersweet sacrifice of some forms of physical beauty.

Childbearing permanently alters the body for better and for worse, and it's okay to mourn those changes because they can be traumatic.  Women don't have to view our stretch marks as "tiger stripes" or battle scars or precious badges of honor; they can simply be stretch marks. Being pushed to acknowledge the marks and scars of childbearing as beautiful when our aesthetic sense rebels against such a designation is simply a form of cultural conditioning.

Simcha Fisher wrote an excellent article on this need to call everything beautiful:

And yet.  What are we really aiming for here?  Do we want society to acknowledge that there are many forms of beauty?  Or do we want society to start pretending that there is no such thing as beauty?  Because that's where we're heading at the moment, and that way leads to disaster.  We're telling people, "Everything is beautiful.  Everyone is acceptable.  Beauty is subjective, and therefore there's no possible way to say that any one particular thing we see before our eyes is not beautiful.  Thin is beautiful, fat is beautiful, dressy is beautiful, messy is beautiful, everything is beautiful, and don't you dare say otherwise." 
What's dangerous about this?  Surely it's a good thing when we are pushed to stop judging each other, right?  Surely it's a step forward when we are discouraged from labeling each other. 
But the problem is, we don't stop.  We just start being afraid to say it out loud.  We learn to guard what we say in public, but on the inside, we all still have pretty steadfast ideas of what we find beautiful.  There is no power on earth that can make me think that Rosie O'Donnell is just as beautiful as Lauren Bacall.  I also think that Kim Kardashian is more beautiful than the Flannery O'Connor. Thinking so doesn't make me a sexist or an ageist or a sizeist, or shallow or arrogant or prejudiced.  It just means I have eyes.
Another implication to the "everything is beautiful" trope is that something less than beautiful is so worthless that it only gains value by declaring it beautiful, by fiat. But beauty is no measure of worth. It is simply a measure of certain aesthetic values which in no way denote the fullness of a person, nor even the measure to which one person may be attracted to another. Being attracted to another person is not the same thing as finding everything about them as physically appealing as it could be, because beauty, despite its literary, artistic, and societal connotations, doesn't have anything to do with affability, intelligence, virtue, charisma, dignity, clubmanship, charm, or any other of the myriad things that make a person dear to others. Nor does physical perfection correlate with physical attraction, as just about every one of us who has loved another real person can attest.

This one of the reasons that I value the safeguards of marriage. It's okay that physical beauty fades away, because not only does Darwin remember what I used to look like, and can still see me that way, but he knows me so well that he sees past my appearance and indeed, can almost name each mark and when I acquired it. And that's only the slightest part of our relationship, which transcends physical beauty without belittling it.


bearing said...


I was musing this morning about whether the various sequelae of pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing ought to be thought of more as

(a) part of the changes that accompany aging that are undoubtedly normal -- like greying hair, wrinkles, joints going stiff, etc. -- but nonetheless herald the approach of the Reaper,


(b) more like scars, residue from illnesses, and incompletely healed injuries -- the evidence of trauma, something abnormal that happened to you. I mean, scars etc. are normal in the sense that most people have at least one or two, but a particular scar is a unique record of a trauma that is added on to the completely inevitable decay of the body that accompanies aging.

I can see an argument for both attitudes, because after all childbirth is part of the expected human experience, but on the other hand I feel we should get a little credit -- some maternal Purple Hearts --for going into battle for the human race. ;-) Perhaps we can distinguish between the more ordinary and common of annoying childbirth sequelae (i.e., what it does to your figure and pelvic musculature) and the more traumatic stuff that can interfere with healthy body function.

The general devaluing of parenthood from the sort of thing that the entire society should support and honor, as it's necessary to produce the next generation, to the sort of thing that is only a lifestyle choice (why should my co-worker get to leave early to pick up her kid from daycare? it was her own damn choice to have a kid, not mine) is, I think, related to our opinions about physical change due to childbirth. I agree that it's patronizing and pompous to order women to feel that the ravages of childbearing are objectively beautifying and that we mustn't feel the loss. But we might consider that they are marks worthy of some respect and honor, either (a) the honor due to all of the aged, or (b) the honor due to those wounded in line of duty. We might prefer to look young, smooth, and strong, and we reasonably try to minimize the apparent damage, but at least we should strive not to encourage people to feel shame about them.

Jenny said...

Here's a handy rule of thumb for determining the objective beauty of pregnancy induced bodily changes. If some small child points with concern and says, "Mommy, what's that?" it is not objectively beautiful. On this list is included stretch marks, veins, and the dark brown line running vertically down my belly. I remember in previous pregnancies that brown line was relatively straight. It is now decidedly not straight.

I tend to view these changes as battle scars. A reminder of what my body is capable of doing and what it has produced. My oldest endearingly claims her stretch marks and then assigns the other, newer ones to the other children. It is a reminder to her that we were once connected and there is physical evidence to prove it.

mrsdarwin said...

I'm not ashamed of my stretch marks or any other mark of aging or childbearing. I just don't see them as particularly beautiful, nor do I think I'm required to. I'm okay with the fact that I have now, and will always have, no matter how much (non-surgical) work I put into it, a maternal body. My only body image issue is the universal female suspicion that how I look at any given moment is not the best possible way I could be looking.

I wouldn't be 18 or 22 again no matter how much better my body looked then -- beauty ain't everything.

Jenny said...


"The general devaluing of parenthood from the sort of thing that the entire society should support and honor, as it's necessary to produce the next generation, to the sort of thing that is only a lifestyle choice..."

This tidbit reminded me of a conversation I had with a coworker after my son was born three years ago. My coworker is old enough to be my mother, never had children, but once did an efficiency study with Labor and Delivery--I work at a hospital--so considers herself an expert in childbirth. Which she is not.

Anyway I was discussing the maternity policy at my "progressive" hospital with her. There isn't one. I am allowed to use up all my sick days and then my vacation days to piece together recovery time after childbirth. I usually return to work with zero balances and pray that no one gets sick for awhile. I live with the fear of a pregnancy requiring bedrest because then my leave time would be used before the baby was even born. I don't ever go on vacation.

I was suggesting that it would be nice if the hospital had a small maternity leave policy of a couple of weeks to alleviate the stress of having a baby, still trying to eat, and leaving open the possibility of an actual vacation. My coworker was adamantly opposed. That would not be fair! It wouldn't be available to all employees so it would be discriminatory. And besides some women would deliberately get pregnant in order to get their extra two week vacation.


Yes, she thinks women would endure pregnancy, childbirth, recovery, and a minimum of 18 years of raising a child for the benefit of getting an extra two weeks of 'vacation.' I would agree that parenthood is not well respected these days.

bearing said...

Sheesh, can't you even take FMLA leave? It is unpaid but at least it is job protected.

Your coworker's idea is exactly the kind of thing I am talking about, however -- any sense of civic responsibility towards the next generation of humans has gone entirely out the window in some places. The idea isn't so much to discriminate in favor of parents and against nonparents, as it is to ease the first few weeks to months of life of the small children. (I take it your hospital isn't certified "baby friendly."

But if you can't do it for that reason, you could at least do it to try to retain loyal employees. For a while my husband worked at a place that offered new fathers 4 weeks paid leave (and according to him most men didn't take it all! He sure did though.)

Anonymous said...

I think that one possible right response, and one I encourage for my patients, is not to try to reframe the changes as "beauty" but instead refreame as a source of pride. Pregnancy scars us, and we should wear those scars with honor, as a veteran does. So, a patient asks me if her linea will ever fade, and, after telling her 'probably not', I tell her - wear it with pride, it is your badge of motherhood. Some of them can get there right away - and the others, well, I hope they can hear the encouragement later on.

Jenny said...

Oh I am FMLA protected, but going unpaid is problematic. First, my job is our only income so not getting paid is not a good idea. Second, I am not allowed to go unpaid until all of my leave balances are exhausted which still leaves me with the same problem. So theoretically I could take 16 weeks off (TN law), but in reality that isn't going to happen.

As for baby friendliness, it has more to do with the local culture. Nobody around here gets a paid maternity leave. I can't think of a single large employer with it, not even the unionized government jobs. We are very business friendly. It's just galling for a hospital to have the same ole policies.

lissla lissar said...

In Ontario, where I am, both parents are entitled to take up to 35 weeks off, unpaid, but the province covers you for 55% of your salary. I think it's changed a bit- I remember that Geoff and I had to split 50 weeks off. He took a month, each time, and for my first leave (after that I was permanently a SAHM)I think I took 46 weeks. Or something. Anyway, it was a huge blessing not to have to worry about work pressure. A lot of companies compensate past the 55% but not all.