Recently, I wrote about having more sex, even as a busy mom. And what many of you privately shared is that you're too repulsed by your own bodies to bare them, even to your spouse.
You admitted that you don't like undressing in front of a mirror, let alone in front of your partner; you expressed disgust at the parts of your bodies that have changed via motherhood or age; you were frankly baffled that anyone would want to touch or look at you.
I get it.
I gained what felt like a shocking amount of weight with my first, unexpected pregnancy. I'd come into it tiny, found myself ravenous, and with a teenager's appetite and enthusiasm for shakes and fries, I packed on flesh like crazy.
The effects of adding nearly 60 pounds to a 117-pound frame in just a few months were far-reaching and long-lasting. It took me many years to become comfortable with my post-motherhood body, and even today, it can be a struggle.
In fact, I recently stumbled across an essay I wrote eight or nine years ago, and this passage grabbed my eye:
My husband seems blissfully unaware that my body has gone through so much change. To him, my breasts are just as fun as they ever were. My round, soft belly he declares "cute." I'm relieved that it doesn't bother him, but I also privately think he's nuts. How can he not find it hideous to look at me? I do. Of course, this inner dialogue makes it hard to enjoy sex. "Oh God, there he goes for the boobs again. Quick! Cover up!"
I bet 90 percent of you know exactly how I was feeling when I wrote that.
People love to give lip service to the idea that mothers' bodies are beautiful, life-giving, wondrous, magical. Our partners tell us we're desirable and hot. And we want to believe they mean it.
That doesn't make it any easier to believe it ourselves, though, when we're looking in the mirror.
So I promise, I'm not going to feed you any platitudes about focusing on the wonder of your life-giving body. We all know we should be doing that. And we all know that when it comes right down to it, while we love our children dearly and wouldn't trade them for anything, all the magic and milk and gestational wonder in the world doesn't make us feel hot when we take off our clothes.
Weight is just one common issue, of course: throw in a saggy tummy or stretch marks or uneven breasts or a C-section scar and we moms are bombarded with not-so-pretty realities of our own no-longer-smooth, no-longer-perfect bodies.
To be honest, I haven't completely gotten over my own knee-jerk impulse to cover up in the bedroom. But I have made a ton of progress, and am usually able to override those negative thoughts and feel pretty good about the way I look.
So first, I want to lend you some real-life empathy and commiseration, because I am so there with you on those illogical-yet-so-deeply-felt-you-can't-shake-it "mom body issues."
And I also want to offer a few ideas for real, concrete things I've done that have helped me grow to accept -- and most days, even love -- the body I have, rather than wishing for the one I've long since left behind.
So here they are: A mother of five's top six tips for feeling better about the way you look naked... starting today.
1. Pay attention to real-life couples.
Have you ever looked -- really looked -- at the couples around you? Do it sometime. You'll see women with voluptuous tummies matched up with hunky, built dudes. Thin, waifish girls with large, beefy fellas. All kinds of imperfect people with all kinds of other imperfect people (because when you really look at people, they're all imperfect in some, often charming way.) Rarely are both members of a couple equally conventionally good-looking, but you can tell when they're obviously attracted to one another.
It just goes to show you that 1) people are attracted to all kinds of people, therefore 2) all kinds of people are attractive.
Do some people-watching and let that idea sink in for a bit.
2. Have someone take good pictures of you.
My husband snapped this photo on a whim during a recent getaway weekend; when I saw it, I gasped. It's not that I think of myself as unattractive; it's just that I'm not often caught in such a flattering pose, at a flattering angle, with flattering lighting. Most amazing is that the picture really seems to capture the way he feels about the way I look. When I look at that picture, it hits home that that is how he sees me all the time.
While this experiment can easily go awry in the hands of an unskilled photographer, black-and-white pictures are very forgiving and tend flatter everyone. If you just can't see this working with your spouse, consider hiring a professional to get some good shots. These days, it's becoming easier and easier to find photographers who specialize in tasteful, flattering boudoir photos.
If you don't feel comfortable asking your partner to take a pic and hiring a photographer isn't in the budget, check out these tips for taking sexier selfies by photographer Casey Mullins. (The accompanying shots of a naked Barbie are hysterical.)
Here is where I admit that it took a lot to get me to post this picture of myself! It's sort of in-your-face intimate, and not the kind of thing I generally would share. But it's lovely, I'm proud of it, and wanted to show it off. I want you to have a picture you're so proud of you can't help but show it off, too.
3. Look at flattering pictures of moms and other imperfect (read: normal) women.
It's pretty obvious to me that being bombarded with images of women who look a certain way (read: airbrushed and Photoshopped) 365 days a year is going to instill in your subconscious that that's what you should look like, too. And the only real way to combat that influence is to make a point of countering it with other images -- pictures of women who look like you... and sexy at the same time.
The 4th Trimester Bodies Project is one great place to start; you might also love blogger Jes Baker and photographer Liora K's project featuring nude and underwear-clad women (like the ones at the top of this post) of all sorts and sizes looking confident, fun, and no doubt about it, hot.
4. Find something you like.
I promise you, there is a part of your body that you could like if you just found a way to appreciate it. Maybe it's not even one that you catch a glimpse of in the mirror all that often. I never thought much about my rear end one way or the other until my husband made it very. clear. that it's his favorite part of my body. I paid a little more attention and after a while I could see the appeal... and then even got a little vain about it, to tell the truth.
If you are so deep in body insecurity right now that you can't pick out your best features, ask a friend or your partner to point them out for you.
And when they tell you that you've got great legs or cleavage or hips, believe them.
5. Spend some time with yourself in your skivvies.
OK, this is going to sound totally corny, like one of those Stuart Smalley-esque "I'm good enough, I'm smart enough..." mirror-talk exercises. But hear me out.
Undressing as quickly as you possibly can so that you can jump in the shower without catching a glimpse of yourself in the mirror is not an effective way to become enamored with the real body you have now. Particularly if your figure went through large and rapid changes, you need to give yourself a chance to get used to it again.
Put on a pair of flattering, well-fitting (read: not too tight, not saggy) undies and a bra and spend some time in front of a mirror, just looking at yourself without judgment.
The more comfortable you get with the way you look right now, the more you'll be able to recognize the best parts of yourself, and the better you'll feel about getting out of those clothes in front of someone else.
6. Look at your whole self.
Remember that scene in Mean Girls where the girls are standing in front of the mirror criticizing themselves, and Cady says something to the effect of, "I used to think there was just skinny and fat. I didn't realize there were so many ways to feel bad about yourself"?
We do it to ourselves all the time, right? We pick apart features one by one, seeing ourselves not as a whole but as a collection of disjointed, messed-up parts. No wonder it's so hard to recognize our bodies as things that are lovable just as they are -- we're zeroed right in on the few square inches we wish we could change.
So when you're trying exercise #5 or looking at the photo from tip #2, keep your eyes moving. Don't let your eyes rest on your tummy roll or your bra bulge too long. You are not your stretch marks or your uneven nipples or whatever keeps you hiding yourself away. You're a whole person -- legs, torso, face, voice, personality -- and believe me, your whole is so much better than the sum of your parts.
Above all? Be patient and keep trying.
The biggest thing that's allowed me to accept my mom body is the passage of time. Partly that's because some of the initial changes lessen over time -- skin does tighten back up to some extent; stretch marks do fade.
But partly, I think, it's because I've just had some years now to settle into this new version of myself.
It took me some time to realize that conventional, magazine-cover attractiveness is sort of beside the point. And here's where some more of those "yeah I know it's logically true but I just can't really believe it" platitudes start to make a lot of sense: Confidence is sexy. Feeling sexy is sexy. Having sex is sexy.
In other words, sexy is something you do and someone you are, much more than it is the way you look.
Keep on reminding yourself of that. Try to believe it.
And until you can, I'll be here believing it for you.
Meagan Francis is a mom of 5, author, and creator of TheHappiestHome.com.