As someone who has always had a tendency toward a petite frame, I remember standing in horror at my reflection in the mirror. Nine months pregnant, I had gone from being lithe and fine-framed to looking like a pufferfish on steroids with pimples. I looked at my pre-pregnancy size two jeans and began crying. I said to myself that I would never, ever, ever be able to wear them again.
At my final doctor’s appointment, the day before my daughter was born, I expressed my discontent. I was glad that I had gained as much weight as my baby needed to be healthy, but I was terrified that my figure would be permanently altered beyond repair. My obstetrician laughed. “You’ve been eating healthily, though, right?” I nodded my head.
“And you plan on breastfeeding, right?” I nodded my head aggressively. Absolutely.
The doctor smiled and told me that she wouldn’t be surprised if I lost the weight much more quickly than I anticipated. I had gained exactly thirty pounds. If I lost five pounds a month, I reminded myself, I might be able to get back to my normal weight within half a year.
After the hustle and bustle of a natural childbirth, the pure ecstasy of holding my baby for the first time, and the delight of leaving the hospital and bringing my daughter out into the big, wide world, I managed to completely forget my body-image issues. I forgot to even look in a mirror until she was about five days old.
As I undressed to get into the shower, I looked down at my stomach. Flat as a fritter. I looked in the mirror. I looked thin and sculpted. Was I hallucinating? I stepped on the scale and saw that I had lost all but a single pound of baby weight, all in less than five days. To re-check my vision one more time, I ran to my room and put on my old size-twos. They fit perfectly.
Reassurance gave way to panic. I called my obstetrician and asked her if it was okay that I had lost so much weight so quickly. She laughed and told me that a natural childbirth (which I had) can burn an astonishingly high number of calories. “Labor requires more work than running a marathon,” she said. Breastfeeding also played a role in the very sudden weight loss.
Left with no extra postpartum pounds to cushion the loss of calories through breastfeeding, I faced a very unusual situation: I had to exert all the effort I could to avoid losing more weight. My days of worrying about baby weight were over almost before they started, and, despite my best efforts, I ended up unintentionally losing more weight than was healthy.
At one point, my body mass index actually dropped to 16.9– an extremely low weight that is usually associated with anorexia or other eating disorders. Although I had previously suffered from eating disorders, the problem in this case was the result of a fast metabolism and a hungry breastfed baby– not a deliberate attempt to lose weight.
I had to chow down more than four thousand calories per day to reach and maintain my pre-baby weight– a difficult task when juggling a high-need baby, but I accomplished it thanks to tons of help in the kitchen from my husband. Had he not been at home helping me through every inch of gaining back my unintentionally lost weight, I would have become dangerously underweight.
I can’t help but laugh to myself when I read so often of women struggling to lose their baby weight after months or even years– not because I see myself as superior, but because I find it amazing that women are built so completely differently, and because I view it as such a symbol of the miracle of childbirth. Whether we struggle with feeling too fat or too thin, all mothers are beautiful and we all deserve to cut ourselves some slack.
To read more about my experiences with unwanted weight loss, see Thin Women Face Social Stigma and Breastfeeding While Underweight.