Monday, July 27, 2009

On (not) using my body

A recent article in the New Yorker combined with trying to get used to my post-partum body, has gotten me thinking. The article opens with research showing that Americans started gaining weight in the early 80s, after remaining relatively stable through the 60s and 70s, and that we've kept on gaining, and then launches into reviews of several books that purport to explain the increase. One of the main arguments is that we are evolutionarily primed to seek out calories from sugar and fat, since putting on concentrated calories when they were available helped us survive lean times. Now that calories (especially from fat and sugar) are so cheap, we pack on the pounds.

But the article also points out that the economic part of this argument may be a bit flawed. After all, if calories are cheap, fewer calories are even cheaper. That got me wondering what else has changed in the 80s and 90s. What I came up with is the rise in personal computing. Cheap computers have dramatically changed the way that we make a living and the way we spend our recreation time. Even jobs that used to involve a fair amount of physical activity, like nursing, have been changed by technology. With the introduction of electronic medical records, any nurse will tell you that they tend to gain weight if they aren't careful (My mom's a nurse, so I have that on authority). The structure of our down time has changed, too. Here I sit blogging in my "free time." We spend time on facebook, twitter and message boards, perhaps instead of (not in addition to) more active pursuits. Now, don't get me wrong, I don't think computers are bad. I (mostly) like them, and rely on them for my livelihood. But many of us sit around all day working on a computer, and then come home to sit around playing on the computer.

I've been blessedly spared much angst over my body, but not because I've always been in great shape. Even when I wasn't in good shape, I was frequently using my body for transportation, by walking and biking. My body served me well, got me efficiently from point A to point B, and other than that I didn't worry much about it. I think using my body to do something useful helped me skip some of the worry about appearance.

But here I am, done with pregnancy, and my body is different. It is a little bigger and a different shape, and even though I'm nursing, I'm not finding that those extra pounds are coming off. After stepping on the scale the other night, I had to admit that I might have to work at getting back into shape, which caused me to exclaim in an exasperated tone "But I don't diet! I should get to eat as much sour cream as I want!"

The birth left me with a lot of recovery to do and my body still isn't ready for biking. So, in contrast to my pre-pregnancy life, I now find that I am fairly sedentary, with a few extra pounds I'd rather not have, and not exercising enough to justify my love of sour cream. I'd certainly buy the evolutionary argument that we love our fat and sugar (I sure do), but for me at least, the bigger problem may be that I'm not using up those calories in satisfying or useful pursuits. Even if I still had these pounds, if I were biking, I don't think I would be bothered as much. If my body felt strong and functional, I think I could recapture that blithe disregard for my body image.

Back when we were hunters, gatherers, or farmers, we didn't have time to obsess over our bodies. We just used them. I'm guessing neither anorexia nor excessive weight were big problems. Other than having recently grown a pretty fabulous baby, my body isn't doing anything for me right now. I'm not using it for work; I'm not using it for recreation; and I'm not using it much for transportation (though I do still walk some), and those cheap calories are not helping. I think the way for me to feel more satisfied with my post-pregnancy body isn't to diet or to "exercise," but to start using my body in ways that feel productive.


Bus Chick said...

Excellent post. I do think that one of the keys to teaching girls to love their bodies is to show them that their bodies are useful—not just objects for show. My mother spent her life obsessing about her body size (and always managed to keep it thin), but when she was diagnosed with breast cancer (which she eventually died of), I think she began to realize how little she had appreciated her strong, healthy, functional body beyond its appearance.

That said, I think you’re jumping the gun on the concern about your post-partum body. You *just* had a baby, after all. I started my first pregnancy thin and was told to gain 35 pounds, but I gained 47. I was still 25 pounds up post baby, and nursing didn’t seem to do a thing. I decided long ago I wasn’t going to diet, so I just lived with it and continued to get exercise through my daily life. I stopped thinking about it, and then, about 10 months after I had my daughter, I realized that I was back at my pre-pregnancy weight. (You know what they say: “Nine months on, nine months off.”) My guess is that you'll have a similar experience.

Now, I’m pregnant again (yep—15 weeks!), and I’m hoping to keep my weight gain a little more reasonable this time. We’ll see if my body goes back to normal after this one is born.

SpeedyIma said...

Ditto BusChick -- I appreciate the nuanced thought about bodies, but slow your roll, woman. :-)

You know I'm pretty much of the same mind with the whole "I don't diet", active lifestyle thing -- AKA "I eat to run, I don't run to eat." (Sadly, no more active job for me -- does there exist a profession other than pro athlete where as you climb up the food chain, you get to keep doing physical labor?) So I had similar feelings of annoyance w/ post-partum body, triggering mujerista annoyance at self for judging body.

But remember that you just pushed out a baby. I ran until 2 weeks before I gave birth, but it took me 7 1/2 weeks to get back on the road afterward. And when I did, I felt like my uterus was going to fall out of my damaged bits, and my breasts were going to explode!

What your body is doing for you right now is some important healing and food production, and that means it is *not* going to let you go into fat deficit any time soon. And ghost of mama-future says when you're done nursing, you'll drop weight & appetite without thinking about it, and then you'll probably mourn your once-full & perky boobs. (I wasn't looking... I'm just saying from experience!)

Lex said...

I have to dispute your "my body isn't doing anything for me right now" claim . . . making milk to continue growing that amazing babe actually takes more energy each day than gestating him did. The issue is that, for some breastfeeding women, their metabolism slows down in order to make sure that they don't lose weight too quickly and then have trouble with making enough milk. Your body is still trying to protect your baby, totally unaware of all the cheap calories available to you!

I bet you'll find that once you ARE able to be more physically active in your daily life, your metabolism will speed up and the pounds will drop off.

I'm sorry that the recovery is taking longer than you hoped; I can only imagine how difficult that must feel to not be able to use your body the way you want to be.

Dorea said...

Thanks all for the gentle reminders and wisdom.

dupuy said...

As a man, I didn't gain as much as my partner when she was pregnant, but I definitely did add some "empathy pounds" to my waistline during and in the first few months after the pregnancy.

However, I did lose them all - and then some, about a year after my daughter was born, when I started riding her up to her daycare on a bike seat. It probably helped that I use the word "up" advisedly, there was a climb of several hundred vertical feet involved, even though the total travel time was only about 15 minutes (less coming back, of course).

Obviously this commute is not always practical (especially in winter) but I replaced a lot of the calorie burn from riding by just leaving the temperature in my home office space on the cooler but not totally uncomfortable range - you'd be surprised how many calories your body will burn up sitting in front of a computer when it's cold enough that you need to wear a sweater vest or cardigan indoors. (There were some recent studies that keeping your environment cold for a long enough period could actually "reset" your metabolism to a higher level - sorry, I don't recall the references).

Anyhow, as a car-free parent, you are already ahead of the game, but you can make your transportation needs work for you even more by going the next step and becoming not merely a car-free bus chick/mom, but a bike-centric one. If your area is flat enough, you can even take some of the money you save by not owning a car and get one of those great bakfiets or other kinds of cargo bikes (their extra weight will make up for a lack of vertical distance, and you can even go grocery shopping for the week with them - kids and all).

You'll probably want to wait until your children are about a year old before using a child bike seat, but with a cargo bike, there are possibilities for younger children that are worth exploring and won't get you reported to child protective services.

Dorea said...

dupuy -- Thanks for the comment and we're 100% in agreement.

We are actually a combo bike/transit dependent family and that photo in our header is the back of our fabulous custom xtracycle.

I've been transit dependent for this pregnancy, and am rather impatient to recover enough that I can get back on the bike (hence, much of the frustration expressed in this post!)

I do think, though, that it's always good to remember that car free does not have to mean bike only. The work BusChick does is fabulous since plenty of folks who could be much less car-dependent using transit, aren't quite willing to make the jump to primarily biking, and we'll need to be at least fairly transit dependent until our new little one is closer to a year (the totcycle madsen is amazing, but I don't think I can do the infant biking thing...)

Anonymous said...

I have to disagree slightly with you: Your body IS doing something right now--sustaining the life of your child. I have heard from many pregnant friends that your body does not want to shed 'baby weight' right away. It usually takes 6-9 months after the baby is born for all the baby weight to come off. This has several purposes, the most vital being that your body must ensure that the baby receives adequate nutrition. If you lost too much weight, or lost weight too quickly, your milk supply would dry up and the baby's chance at survival would be greatly reduced. I have only begun to realize how important baby weight is and also how different it is from weight gain in a non-pregnant woman. While I don't use this reason to justify excessive weight gain during pregnancy (40+ pounds for a 7-10 pound baby) which can cause other problems for the mother and child, 20 pounds of baby weight is really important to the health of the baby and the body is not going to get rid of that weight until the baby's survival is more assured.

I love your blog-- you bring up many really wonderfully honest and interesting discussions!